200 Plus

Growing Support to Save the Tavern

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Jul 31, 2019

An article in the March 18, 1871, Trenton State Gazette told the story of a group of Pennsylvania hunters who had traveled to New Jersey in search of game birds.

“The next stage was across the Grouse Plains (Pine Barrens), ten miles, over a perfectly straight road to Cedar Bridge, noted for a stream of excellent water issuing out of a cedar swamp. At this place there are two taverns, both doing some business. There is also quite a large farm of cleared land, which appears to be productive in a degree. Cedar Bridge has long been noted among the shore goers as the end of the first day’s journey.”

By the beginning of the 21st century all that was left of the settlement was the lone building known as the Cedar Bridge Tavern. It had survived near brushes with wildfires and attempts to build a nearby jetport. The tavern was in the possession of Rudy Koening, a World War II veteran who had saved it from destruction in the 1960s, and worked to restore and preserve its place in history. With this in mind he offered to sell the tavern to Ocean County.

On July 10, 2003, the Asbury Park Press reported, “The building still stands, and Southern Ocean County officials and historians appealed to the county Freeholder Board yesterday to buy the site and protect it from future development.

“‘The Tavern is now inside a house and the owner, who’s in his 70’s, is interested in selling,’ said Tim Hart, president of the Stafford Historical Society. ‘We’d like to see the county acquire it. … ‘We are going to look at this very carefully and see what the options are,’ said Freeholder Director John C. Bartlett Jr. ‘The Cedar Bridge Tavern is a part of the history of the county, the state and the nation, and it should be preserved.’

“Hart estimated that the site could be obtained for about $100,000.”

It quickly became apparent Hart wasn’t the only person interested in saving the tavern. The Press ran an editorial four days later saying, “Ocean County has a chance to buy a building in Barnegat where one of the last skirmishes of the Revolutionary War took place. Although the National Park Service has been slow to recognize it, the County played a key role in the American Revolution. Buying and preserving the Cedar Bridge Tavern in Warren Grove, if feasible, would add to the county’s historical treasure trove. … If the Tavern remains structurally sound, the money spent would be a worthwhile contribution to preserving the nation’s history. … Preserving the Tavern would provide another reminder to the Park Service that Ocean County belongs in its New Jersey (section) of the Crossroads of the Revolution.”

Hart addressed an open letter to the paper in August saying, “The Press is to be commended for its July 14 editorial urging the Ocean County Board of Freeholders to purchase and preserve the Cedar Bridge Tavern. … Over the past few years, the Gannett family of newspapers … has helped to spread the word about this historic treasure ‘hidden in plain sight’ for nearly 225 years. … Linda Reddington of the Times/Beacon newspapers has been among the first and most passionate supporters of the Cedar Bridge Tavern. She has written numerous articles, editorials and even a play about the Cedar Bridge Tavern and the last skirmish of the American War of Independence. … The county should be known for its role in the American Revolution in addition to its perfect beaches, stunning natural features and high quality of life.”

The wheels of government began to turn slowly. Studies were made and discussions held. Finally on Sept. 12, 2007, the Press reported, “A deal is near to have Ocean County buy and preserve the Cedar Bridge Tavern, a 1700’s stage coach stop and site of the last documented skirmish of the American Revolution, for $120,000. … The Ocean County Board of Freeholders will formally vote next week to make the purchase from owner Rudolph Koenig.”

Like the history of Cedar Bridge Tavern itself, things would be complicated.

“The arrangement will allow Koenig, who is in his 80’s, to maintain lifetime tenancy in his home, while the county takes over the building and its surrounding five acres, said Freeholder John C. Bartlett Jr., who briefed colleagues on the proposal Tuesday. …  ‘We can’t let this slip away. What exactly will we do with it? I don’t know,’ Bartlett told them.”

The discussion of the tavern continued.

“‘The amazing thing is this building is right in the middle of the Pinelands and has survived all the forest fires and vandalism over the years,’ said Cynthia Smith, administrator of the Ocean County Cultural and Heritage Commission. ‘What’s kept the thing viable is he (Koenig) was the presence. … One preservation expert who inspected the original tavern barroom found distinctive nails in the counter, dating it to around 1812. That could make it the oldest surviving tavern bar’ in New Jersey, and maybe on the entire East Coast, Smith said.

“Bartlett and Freeholder Director John P. Kelly looked at each other, and in unison they laughed: ‘We will own the oldest bar in the state!’”

Victoria Ford later wrote for the Ocean County publication Out and About, “Happily, the Tavern’s future is as safe as its past was lucky, thanks to the cooperation of several likeminded people at the county level, including the Ocean County Board of Chosen Freeholders, now finalizing the purchase of the building and surrounding acreage of $120,000, with the goal of restoring the Cedar Bridge Tavern and securing its rightful place on the National Register of Historic Places.”

Ford was able to put it in perspective, saying, “There, in a room off the kitchen, stands the heart and  soul of the Cedar Bridge Tavern: the original solid pine bar. … (T)o wonder what conversations took place within those walls, in front of that fireplace; to imagine some of the earliest New Jerseyans, sitting at the bar and drinking, laughing and scheming together; to see the effects of time on the painted wood, cut from the very trees that surround and protect the building is to feel, somehow, the very weighty presence of the past.”

Finally, in December 2007, a crowd gathered on a dirt road in Barnegat, New Jersey and according to the Asbury Park Press, “They came not only to commemorate the 225th anniversary of that engagement, but to mark the transfer of Cedar Bridge Tavern, near where the battle took place, from private to public ownership. The county purchased the property from 82-year-old Rudolph Koenig for just less than $120,000 but conveyed to him the estate for his lifetime.

“This ensures it remains a part of the history of Ocean County,’ said Cynthia H. Smith, county Cultural and Heritage Commission administrator. ‘It is a significant part of our history.’

“‘In the future, ‘I would like to see it serve an educational purpose. ... Young people would have an opportunity to see a building that’s at least 225 years old, find out its history, and see how it relates not only to local but to national history. Maybe it can serve as a conference center on history.’”

The story of Cedar Bridge Tavern – which today is fully restored and open to the public, but still on a dirt road – would require national recognition, archaeological digs and a TV show. But there would be no turning back now.

Next Week: Digging into the past.


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