Cranbury’s special characteristics were recognized when most of the village was entered on the New Jersey Register of Historic Places on August 9, 1979, and on the National Register of Historic Places on September 18, 1980. In recognition of Cranbury’s historical and architectural significance the nomination stated that
“Cranbury is the best preserved 19th century village in Middlesex County…While there are many small mill towns in New Jersey, few are in such an undisturbed environment as that of Cranbury.”
The preservation of Cranbury’s historic character can be attributed to the concerns and efforts of its residents, past and present.
The Cranbury Historical and Preservation Society was organized in 1967 and incorporated on November 17, 1970. The Society is committed to furthering the interest and knowledge of the history of Cranbury; the promotion, support and encouragement of the beautification of the land and buildings located in Cranbury; and the restoration and preservation of Cranbury’s old and historic building sites. The CHPS also operates the Cranbury Museum and the Cranbury History Center.
Based on the Local Historians Enabling Act (P.L. 1979, c.50), enacted by the New Jersey State Legislature in 1979, Cranbury Township has established the position of Township Historian to assist the township in cooperative efforts to gather and disseminate information about Cranbury’s history.
In 1989 the Township of Cranbury passed an ordinance confirming the importance and significance of Historic Cranbury by establishing an Historic Preservation Advisory Committee (HPAC) to protect its irreplaceable resources.
Farmland and Open Space Preservation
The significance of Cranbury’s historic district is inextricably tied to its agricultural setting. The village was built to serve the surrounding farm community and its importance is directly related to that farmland. The sharp edges that remain between farmland and village are very important to the appreciation of both resources. Cranbury is a participant in the New Jersey Farmland Preservation Program and to date has been placed over 2,000 acres in permanently preserved farmland.
Cranbury is also a participant in the State Green Acres program and the Middlesex County open space programs and to date has preserved hundreds of acres of open space for recreation and the preservation of natural resources.
Cranberry – Cranbury
There have been many questions regarding the town’s name, and the origin of both the name and its spelling is unclear. The marshy land near the mill site might have grown cranberries, hence the name. On 18th Century maps, the name appears as Cranberry and Cranberry Town. In 1857, Reverend Joseph G. Symmes felt the name was incorrectly spelled and suggested it be changed to Cranbury. In Old English “bury” (connoting “burgh”) could be spelled bury, bery, or berry. In 1869, the town and the brook were renamed Cranbury.
On March 7, 1872, Cranbury Township was officially created and organized as a separate political subdivision of Middlesex County, consisting of the village of Cranbury and outlying areas, which were then parts of South Brunswick and Monroe Townships.
In 1664, King Charles II of England granted to his brother James, the Duke of York, a vast domain in North American stretching from New York to Delaware, including the land which is now New Jersey. In its earliest days Cranbury was part of the colony of East New Jersey, which was granted to Sir George Carteret by the Duke of York and controlled by a board of twenty-four proprietors, who sold the land in parcels.
Cranbury is one of the oldest towns in New Jersey. The first recorded evidence of buildings in Cranbury is March 1, 1698, on a deed of sale between Josiah Prickette of Burlington and John Harrison for land “with all improvements”. Around that same date, John Harrison also received a license to buy more land from the local Lenape Indians, a Delaware tribe.
Early Inns and Roads
Cranbury’s first roads followed the trails of the Lenape. In the 18th century, it took three days to travel between New York City and Philadelphia. At the midway point between the two major colonial cities, Cranbury proved to be a convenient stop for stagecoaches, a place where horses could be changed, and food and lodging could be found.
In 1686 George Rescarrick secured a “warrant to survey 300 acres to conduct a house of entertainment for strangers and travellers” on the Great Post Road at Cranberry Brook and Millstone River. When Rescarrick died at Cranberry in 1713, he owned among other things, a silver tankard, one dozen spoons and a cup, also seven slaves”. His tavern had “three rooms on a floor, also a barn, stable and other outhouses, a large orchard and about sixty to seventy acres of woodland.”
In 1789, Christopher Colles, by order of President George Washington, mapped the road through Cranbury Town, showing on that map 25 buildings (seven north and eighteen south of the brook); the 1745 Baptist Church, which moved to Hightstown in 1785; and the mill site.
One famous visitor who changed horses in Cranbury in 1804 was Aaron Burr when he fled south after his fatal duel with Alexander Hamilton. On this occasion Aaron Burr had been driven by Commodore Thomas Truxton.
George Washington in Cranbury
Cranberry Town during the American Revolution saw armies rest and pass on, and in the colonial village vital decisions were made. The focus was the home of Dr. Hezekiah Stites on South Main Street. Here the Marquis de Lafayette and Colonel Alexander Hamilton quartered on June 25, 1778, and here General George Washington and his staff established headquarters on June 26th. In a dispatch send on June 25th, Lafayette reported “the detachment is in a wood covered by Cranberry Creek and I believe extremely safe.”
General Washington and his main army arrived at Cranberry Town at 9 a.m. on Friday, June 26th, having marched the night before from Kingston. During that day Washington issued many orders that shaped the Battle of Monmouth. After sundown Washington marched his army, sending his last dispatch from the Stites House at 9:30 p.m.