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A BRIEF History OF BERNARDS TOWNSHIP

Bernards Township

We are proud to reside in a community that offers the best of all worlds. Bernards Township is a charming municipality rich with history, breathtakingly beautiful scenery and a warm, welcoming atmosphere. Our town is the location of many high-tech corporate headquarters and provides easy access to New York City.

The residents of Bernards Township enjoy an excellent school system, numerous parks, recreational programs and activities, family-oriented community events and a myriad of municipal services.

The Bernards Township Committee is committed to environmental responsibility were early adopters of a number of "green" initiatives. We are dedicated to maintaining our exceptional quality of life for generations to come.

Bernards Township Historian Brooks Betz brooks@mrlocalhistory.org 

A Brief History of Bernards Township

Bernards Township is where the following events occurred: 

•John Harrison purchased what became known as "Harrison's Neck" and Bernards Township from the Lene-Lanape native American tribe on June 24, 1717.

•The Rev. George Whitefield, English evangelist, preached to 3,000 people under the white oak tree of the Presbyterian Church, during the Great Awakening of 1740. 

•Governor Sir Francis Bernard was granted the Charter of Bernardston on May 24, 1760.

•General William Alexander (Lord Stirling) built one of the grandest estates in the Colonies, Stirling Manor in Basking Ridge. Local people called it 'The Buildings', on what was Building Lane.

•General George Washington and France's General Marquis de Lafayette met under the great oak while colonial troops rested in the Churchyard.

•Four years after the Civil war, the Union Army's Chief Surgeon Horatio G. Whitnall built a home on S. Finley Avenue.

•Liberty Corner was once a popular summer resort, with vacationers staying at local homesteads and dairy farms. A carriage would meet guests at the Lyons depot.

•Governor Woodrow Wilson made a speech during World War I on the village green in Basking Ridge.

•Colonel John Jacob Astor IV donated stones to build the Methodist Church, 14 years before he perished in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.

•Samuel Owen of Newark, a pharmaceutical magnate, built his English Tudor estate in 1912 that now serves as Township Hall.

•President Calvin Coolidge approved the areas largest VA hospital in the Lyons section dedicated July 25, 1931 rocketing Bernards Township's population growth.

•The Bernards Township flag honors the great oak, Basking Ridge, Liberty Corner, Lyons, and West Millington, unveiled at the towns bicentennial in 1960.

•AT&T chose Bernards for its global headquarters in 1992.

•The village of Basking Ridge honored North America's oldest white oak that lasted approximately 600 years from roughly 1417 to April 24, 2017.

The Lenni-Lenape Indians, a branch of the Delawares (part of the Algonquin Nation) were the first known inhabitants of the Bernards Township area. Scattered throughout are traces of these people: arrowheads, tomahawks, hearthstones, hammerheads and camp rubble, which indicate long occupation. One of the most widely used Indian areas was near Madisonville Road--a major camp site was the present Verizon Wireless headquarters on North Maple Avenue. A burial ground is known to have existed on the east side of Childs Road on the hillside across from the Indian Graves Brook. The area was purchased by John Harrison, agent of King James II of England, from Chief Nowenoik of the Lenapes in 1717, a real estate package of 3,000 acres for the equivalent of $50. The remainder of the Township’s land was bought later that year by William Penn. Early settlers were Scotch, Irish and English. Harrison’s Purchase or Harrison’s Neck was the property’s designation. In 1733 the name Basking Ridge first appeared in ecclesiastic records of the Presbyterian Church and is recorded as being derived from the fact that “the wild animals of the adjacent lowlands were accustomed to bask in the warm sun of this beautiful ridge.” Baskeridge and Baskenridge were commonly used. 

By 1740 the list of founding settlers included: Alexander, Alward, Annin, Ayers, Conkling, Cross, Dayton, Kirkpatrick, Lewis, and Pitney. At the time of the American Revolution, as many as 100 men from Bernards answered the call to arms. Revolutionary troops came from Bound Brook through Annin’s Corner and Basking Ridge en route to Morristown. During this time, a liberty pole was placed on the village green, with Annin’s Corner renamed Liberty Corner. Basking Ridge was thought to be a secure place from the British Army as it was only seven miles away from the center of Washington’s army at Jockey Hollow. General Charles Lee, second in the Continental Army command, was captured by British forces at the Widow White’s Tavern on December 13, 1776. (This is at the corner of Colonial Drive and South Finley Avenue.) A local street, Old Army Road, was so named because it was the path through the country from Jockey Hollow for the continental troops to John Parker's Vealtown Tavern in Bernardsville. 

In 1750 a classical school, designed to prepare young men for college, was established by Dr. Samuel Kennedy, fourth pastor of the Presbyterian Church, and later run by Dr. Robert Finley. The school, known as the Basking Ridge Classical School known as the Brick Academy was built in 1809. Pupils came from many other states as residents provided lodgings. The Academy was know as having contributed more men “to the bench, the bar and the pulpit”. Students entered their junior year at the College of New Jersey (Princeton University). Among the Academy students were; Samuel Southard, governor of New Jersey, U.S. Senate president and acting vice-president under President Tyler; William Lewis Dayton, vice-presidential candidate with John C. Fremont in 1856, and President Lincoln’s Minister to France during the Civil War; Robert Field Stockton, hero of the Mexican War; Theodore Frelinghuysen, Rutgers College president and vice-presidential candidate with Henry Clay in 1844. 

The Township has two historic districts: Franklin Corners and Liberty Corner. There are eight listings on the State and National Historic Registers: Brick Academy, Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church, Boudinout-Southard-Ross Farm, Coffee House (Turner Homestead), Alward Homestead, Kennedy Martin Steel Farmstead, Lord Stirling Estate out-buildings, Van Dorn Mill, and the two historic districts. There are fourteen Houses of Worship of eleven denominations. 

Two transportation-related events changed Bernards Township. In 1872 the railroad came to Basking Ridge, opening the area to those who wished to live in the country and work in New York City. Almost 100 years later, the highways construction of Route 287 and later Route 78, two Interstate Highways, were dedicated July 29, 1966 making commuting much easier.

Liberty Corner, settled since 1722, still maintains its gentle rural atmosphere. In the later part of the 19th Century it was famous for its summer resorts. 

For further information on Bernards Township contact Town Historian Brooks Betz at brooks@mrlocalhistory.org

Updated: August 2021