By Peggy Carroll
These three things you should know about the Morristown Green.
One. The Green, also known as “The Square,” or simply “The Park,” is a Common, land that is used in “common” by the public. Like Commons throughout colonial America, it began as a meadow, a place where livestock grazed and people dipped water from a town well.
Morristown’s Green is a very special landmark: One of the few commons in New Jersey to survive to the 21st century.
Two. It is hallowed land where some of the great figures of American history have walked.
Twice, George Washington chose Morristown as his winter headquarters, making the small town the Military Capital of the American Revolution.
He was here from January until May 1777, and again from December 1779 to July 1780. In his first winter, he set up headquarters in Arnold’s Tavern, which faced the Green.
The General and his officers – men like Alexander Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette, Lord Stirling and Lighthorse Harry Lee, Henry Knox and Casimir Pulaski, Friedrich von Steuben, Nathanael Greene and Thaddeus Kosciuzko –marched here. And so did the soldiers of the Continental Army.
Three. It is not owned by the town of Morristown .
Visitors and even some town folk are surprised to learn that the Green is in private hands. It has been since April 1,1816, when it was purchased by a band of 13, men known as the Trustees of the Morristown Green.
Their mission: To preserve these 2.62 acres as a Common for the use and enjoyment of the public. Forever.
This year, the Trustees will celebrate their 200th anniversary as stewards of the Green, calling attention to its place in history and its place in the hearts of the people.
The Green is not only in the center of town, says Mayor Tim Dougherty, it is the “heartbeat of the town.” A place of beauty, the oasis that helps make Morristown what he considers to be the “prettiest town in America.”
For Trustee Douglas Greenberger, the Green is “a fundamental thread in the business and social fabric of the town.”
For Trustee Alice Cutler, the current secretary, it is a continuing lesson in history.
“The more I learn about the Green,” she said, “the more I realize how much I love it. The more I hear of of its history, the more I realize how much it means to the community.”
For Glenn K. Coutts. Sr., a Trustee since 1977 and President for more than 25 years, it is the “jewel of the town,” the place that makes Morristown unique.
“There is no question that we have a love affair with the Green,” he said, “whether we go there to get a hot dog or feed the squirrels or simply sit on a bench here.”
This fall, the Trustees and the Morris County Tourism Bureau will throw a bicentennial birthday bash and bring back Washington, Lafayette and Hamilton – whose statues now grace the Green – to walk there once again.
“People have been drawn to the Green for hundreds of years and will continue to be so — thanks to the stewardship of the Trustees,” said Leslie Bensley, the county tourism director and organizer of the celebration.
All the pubic is invited to come and see history re-enacted. Mark your calendar for Sunday, Oct. 16, 2016, at 2 p.m.
Back Through Time
A little history here.
As far back as the Angles and the Saxons, people were designing their towns with a Common at or near the center. The first mention of the word “Green,” the grassy part of a Common, appears in 1477.
In his history of the Morristown Green, former Trustee Richard C. Simon says English settlers carried the concept across the Atlantic and used it in building their new towns. Think, for example, of the Boston Common.
Traditionally, a Common was fenced in to keep cattle safe from wild animals and human predators. And when the need to pasture and protect livestock vanished, the Common became a center for the community needs – everything from a training ground for the militia to a town well where everyone could fetch water.
No one knows for sure how old the Morristown Green is, but it’s believed to have been part of town as long as there has been a town. Richard Simon says the first settlers arrived in 1715, and the Green appears on a map from that year.
Originally, the land was owned by the Presbyterian Church in Morristown, one of the oldest churches in town. In 1755, the church deeded a portion to Morris County for its first courthouse.
By that deed, the land was to be used solely for courts, a “gaol,” a scaffold and a pillory. The last was in frequent use until it was outlawed in 1796.
The little court complex on the Green kept busy. The courts heard cases of counterfeiting, adultery, fornication and occasionally theft. The jail took in captured Hessians, unrepentant Tories and insolvent debtors.
And there were hangings, a spy or two and some Tories. Two executions became sensational. The first was of a counterfeiter named David Reynolds, whose accomplice was Samuel Ford, the black sheep of the family that owned the Ford Mansion.
Samuel escaped with the help of an undersheriff. But David, apparently, did not have that kind of influence.
The second was Antoine LeBlanc, a notorious murderer who killed Samuel and Sally Sayre, the couple he worked for, and their servant, Phoebe.
The hangings were wildly popular. When Reynolds was marched to the scaffold, contemporary accounts (if you can believe them) say 15,000 people were watching. That is very impressive: Morristown’s population then was less than 250 people.
And an estimated 12,000 traveled to Morristown to witness the LeBlanc hanging. Most spectators, reportedly, were women.
The courthouse moved to Washington Street in 1827. LeBlanc’s execution in 1833 was the last on the Green.
Selling the Green
In 1810, the church trustees took up a thorny issue: Should they sell off portions of the Green as building lots, as some members urged? This unleashed considerable controversy. Among those who were upset were the landowners who had paid a premium for being on the Green.
In 1815, church officials decided that if a sum of $1,500 were raised, the church would relinquish the Green, with the stipulation it must “remain as a Common forever.”
It was a way to secure the Common and resolve the continuing issues. Thirteen men came forward and agreed to purchase the Green for $1,600.
The original subscribers, who contributed between $25 to $100, later were joined by 13 others, called “parties of the third part,” who also pledged money to make up the sales price.
The actual payments – one gave as little as $5 — added up to only $1,305 –- a fact that has made modern Trustees wonder musingly if they still owe the church money.
The church’s deed to the new Green Trustees set restrictions:
- No part of the land known as the Morristown Green could be sold.
- No buildings, except a meeting house, courthouse, jail or market house could be constructed.
- No stores, dwelling houses, shops or barns were permitted.
The original 13 were:
David Phoenix Ebenezer H. Pierson, Lewis Mills, David Mills, James Wood, Theodore F. Talbot, Israel Canfield, Jonathan Ogden, Samuel Halliday, Sylvester D. Russell, Peter Johnson, Andrew Hunt and Henry King.
The first Trustees, wrote former Trustee and local historian Cam Cavanaugh, were mostly Presbyterians. There also were three Episcopalians and one Methodist.
All were deeply rooted in the community. They were lawyers, ran businesses and were involved in real estate. Six were in banking and five served in the state Legislature.
The Trustees were and remain a self-perpetuating group. For 170 years, a new deed had to be executed when new members were appointed.
In 1986, this ended when the Trustees incorporated and had the deed transferred to the new corporation.
No Thank You
The Trustees were pledged to preserve the Green – and this they have done. Through the centuries, they learned to “just say no.”
Simon’s history of the Green mentions numerous occasions when the Trustees turned down requests for projects ranging from monuments and memorials to a comfort station, a request from Town Hall.
They proved you can refuse the mayor, and the state government.
In 1994, Trustees fought the state’s Department of Transportation when it intruded on the Green, without notification, by placing sizeable traffic light control boxes along the sidewalks in four places. These boxes, the Trustees held, conflicted with the Green’s old-time charm.
Then they proved the land belonged to the Green. The state backed down – and moved the boxes.
Early on, the Trustees adopted a policy of or refusing private or individual memorials, even one for Thomas Nast, the famous cartoonist who lived in town. The Green, they said, should be preserved as a Green and not a place for monuments.
They did permit the Civil War monument, erected in 1871, and the statue and fountain, The Patriot’s Farewell, with its Revolutionary War theme, in 2001.
In recent springs, the Trustees have fenced off portions of the Green to re-seed the heavily used lawns. Greenberger says he hopes the fences will come down in late June.
A Place for Everything
Through the years, the Green has seen just about everything that interests the town. It has been the setting for political rallies, for military training, for entertainment and recreation, and for the arts.
The politics began early. Committees of Correspondence met there in 1774 to protest the “Intolerable Acts” of the British and to begin communication with like groups around the state. Their meetings were fueled, it is said, by the favorite beverage of the time: Apple brandy.
In 1969, there was a different kind of political protest. Almost 2000 people — more than half of them students–gathered on the Green to demonstrate against the war in Vietnam and call for a moratorium.
There was dancing on and near the Green. Washington and his officers danced at assemblies at the military storehouse across the way. And when the French General Rochambeau’s troops came through town, they would strike up the band and dance with the townsfolk.
There was music and there were concerts – a band stand once stood in the center of the Green. And in the middle of the 19th century, the circus would come to town and use the Green for performances. And there were walking matches, also popular in the 1840s and ’50s.
There also were solemn ceremonies of remembrance. Coutts, now 86, recalls attending the planting of the Gold Star Mother’s Tree – honoring the women whose sons had been killed during World War II.
Coutts was then 16. The tree was 22 feet when the Gold Star was placed on top. It has grown a foot a year; it was 87 feet high when he went to the re-dedication on Memorial Day 2011.
And there were many celebrations – for the victory at Vicksburg during the Civil War, for example, and the capture of Richmond, when the “bells of the town rang out a merry peal.” There were picnics and parades on the Fourth of July.
There were no Christmas observances, not even a mention of the holiday, in the early years. Puritan traditions still prevailed in the town.
The first Christmas event was the lighting of a tree by a group of volunteers in 1913. Despite the fact that Thomas Nast, who drew the modern version of Santa, lived in Morristown, Santa did not arrive on the Green until 1940.
That’s when he appeared on the roof of the Park Square building and descended to the Green from an aerial ladder.
Today, Santa takes up residence in the Santa House at Thanksgiving time and stays for four weeks. Obeying the rules in the Green deed, banning permanent buildings, the house comes down after the holiday.
The Christmas Festival on the Green now is under the auspices of the Morristown Partnership. So is the Fall Festival on the Green, an event that mixes fun and information (and lots and lots of food), and draws thousands of people from Morris County and beyond.
The Green also is where revelers go to see the fireworks on Morristown’s First Night festivities.
And there are countless smaller occasions that bring people out–whether it’s to debate a local issue, listen to music, watch a movie or attend the rare Green wedding.
In 2001, the Green counted 212 events in the previous 10 years. These included events for churches and charities, political rallies and concerts, memorials and community celebrations. And three weddings.
Making It Beautiful
In their first century, the Trustees were not always popular. The town folk complained about conditions on the Green and some clamored for the town to take over and improve its maintenance. And there was a fight over the use of the town pump on the Green, and whether it was clean.
It was only with the Trustees’ efforts to clean up and improve the park that their satisfaction ratings went up. And they plummeted when the Green returned to what was called “a rough condition.”
Glenn Coutts recalls that when he was growing up in town in the 1930s, he thought “The Park” was somewhat unkempt.
The problem usually was money. For if the Trustees were charged with maintaining the Green, nobody had provided them the cash to do it.
The late Stephen Wiley, who chaired the last fund-raising committee, said he learned at his first meeting that the Trustees themselves were a source of revenue.
The treasurer presented a bill, he recalled, and then divided the amount by 13. That was what each trustee was expected to pay.
At times, the Green has had aid from the town government. In 1879, it was so strapped for cash that it sold its iron fencing to the town.
And on three occasions in the last 200 years, the Trustees have reached out for the public’s help in “rehabbing” the Green.
In 1900, the Trustees published a pamphlet asserting “without question, the Green is the most valuable and precious possession of Morristown.”
It put forth a plan to upgrade and improve the square. The real work, Richard Simon wrote, did not start until 1908. The illustrated plan shows the Green as it was to remain for more than a century.
In 1981, the Morristown Rotary launched a project called Morristown Beautiful, with the upgrading of the Green as its focus. It raised some $200,000, matched by a grant from New Jersey’s Green Acres program.
As a condition of the grant, the town of Morristown agreed to maintain the Green for 25 years.
Then in the early years of this century, with that provision about to “sunset,” the Trustees launched a campaign called “Green Vision,” to raise $4.6 million. It was earmarked for three purposes:
- Stimulate interest in the Green’s history
- Restore the natural beauty of the Green and add amenities
- Establish an endowment fund of $3.6 million to maintain and preserve the Green
The plan called for a visual history lesson.
This included six “wayside plaques,” each pointing to sites of significance around the Green: Arnold’s Tavern, the Baptist Church (then located where Century 21 is today) and the Presbyterian Church, both used as hospitals for small pox victims during the War.
And there was the Alexander Carmichael House, occupied by the Nathaniel Green, the quartermaster general; the Continental Storehouse (where the 40 Park condos are now), and a replica of the survey of the Green by Major Robert Erskine, ordered by Washington in 1779.
But it was new statuary that garnered the most interest.
For the first time, some of the men who made the Green famous were to return to their old haunts. A group of three statues, created by Studio EIS, the Brooklyn-based sculptors who created the statues for Philadelphia’s Constitution Center, presented portraits of Washington, Lafayette and Hamilton.
The work, called The Alliance, tells the story of May 10, 1780, when the young Lafayette (he and Hamilton were both just 23) returned from France bearing a message from King Louis XVI promising troops, weapons and ships to aid the Revolutionary forces. It was an alliance that turned the tide of the war.
The renovated park was rededicated on Oct. 10, 2007. In recognition of France’s part in the story it tells, Francois Delattre, French Consul General in New York, was a guest speaker.
The history lessons work.
Trustee Doug Greenberger, who is a fifth-generation businessman in Morristown (his family began selling “corsets and hats” 121 years ago and operated a department store, and then a furniture store, right off the Green) has watched people approach the statue group.
“There is a non-stop stream of locals and visitors,” he said. “They are people of different races, different ethnicities. They aim for the statues, walk up and have their photographs taken with them.
“It is emblematic of the birth of the American dream. It brings to fruition all of the efforts of those who came before us. The French throwing in with Washington – what an event this was. It sealed the birth of our country. And people somehow know it, it’s almost intuitive.
“They really get it.”
The Trustees today are the direct descendants of the original 13.
In some ways, they differ. The late Barbara Hoskins, historian and archivist, joined in 1979 – the first woman Trustee. Now there are three.
No one applies to be a Trustee. It is by invitation. The group tries, said Greenberger, to choose people with differing skills. They have lawyers, businessmen, finance, community volunteers.
The two newest members, just taking their seats, are Rusty Schommer, president and founder of Schommer Engineering and past president of the US Bicycling Hall of Fame. Charles Bensley is business development officer at Valley National Bank.
Membership is for life. And many members do indeed serve for most of their lifetimes.
Like the originals, today’s Trustees are heavily invested in the community. Like the originals, they still give the permission that event planners must obtain to use the Green.
Unlike the Trustees who had to sell the iron fence to raise money, their modern counterparts get revenue from the endowment fund. And the town of Morristown, says Mayor Dougherty, kicks in $40,000 annually to pay for maintenance.
For Coutts, the Green has been a passion. He has been a familiar sight on its benches. Often, he has walked from his insurance offices on Washington Street to check out, and enjoy, the park.
He was a leader in the last two upgrades of the Green and he learned, to his surprise, how important it was not only to the people who live or work near it, but to all the surrounding towns.
When they were constructing the 56-foot puddingstone bench, the landscape architect and designer, Anna Cheng Young, said she was not sure they had enough of the rather rare stone, which is purple with flecks of white and is indigenous to the area. Coutts issued a public appeal for help.
“More than 45 people called with offers of stone, from small pieces to large slabs,” he recalled. “We heard from people throughout the county – from about half of the county’s 39 towns.”
Coutts drove to pick up the stone himself. Nobody asked to be paid.
The newer Trustees also are deeply rooted in the community. Cutler’s children are ninth-generation Morristowners.
The Trustees, she believes, fill a valuable role, preserving open space in an era when it is rapidly disappearing, and preserving a valuable piece of history. For many, it is a lifetime commitment.
It is for her.
“My predecessor as secretary was Harry Hoyt, who served for 43 years,” she said. Smiling, she added: “My goal is to break his record.”
She has 12 years in. Thirty-some to go.
Glenn K. Coutts Sr. (President)
Alice D. Cutler (Secretary)
William M. Weiss (Treasurer)
Carl W. Badenhausen
George R. Bellias
Robert R. Deskovick
Douglas W. Greenberger
Jean L. Rich
Sources : The Green: A History of the Morristown Green by Richard C. Green. Published by the Trustees of the Morristown Green. (Contains photos, lists of trustees, the original deed, the 1900 fund-raising pamphlet.) Go to www.themorristowngreen.org for details on purchase, and for other sources of information on the Green. Additional sources: Pamphlets and information sheets from the “Green Vision” campaign.