History

How the Frazee House has changed through the years

Circa 1880
Circa 1880
Circa 1970
Circa 1970
Circa 1900
Circa 1900
2009
2009
Circa 1940
Circa 1940
October, 2014
October, 2014

Summary

The Frazee House, a nationally designated historic site, is significant for one woman’s rumored role in the American Revolution, and as an excellent example of 18th-century vernacular residential architecture. The house is reported to have been constructed circa 1720-1740 by the husband of Elizabeth (Betty) Frazee. As the legend holds, after the Battle of Short Hills, General Cornwallis and his troops passed by the house while marching toward the Watchung mountains, located a few miles to the north. Known to the locals as a prolific baker, Aunt Betty was baking bread at the time. Hungry and tired, the troops smelled the bread and Cornwallis approached her stating, "I want the first loaf of bread that next comes from that oven." Betty is said to have replied, “Sir, I give you this bread through fear, not in love.” Evidently impressed by her courage, Cornwallis is said to have stated, “Not a man in my command shall touch a single loaf.” While history offers evidence that Betty lived in the house and did, indeed, bake bread, the story of the actual conversation is not authenticated by primary source documents.  The words allegedly spoken by the principals are found in the earliest authoritative source on the subject, F.W. Ricord's History of Union County, page 513, which is one of the sources cited in the National Register of Historic Places filing that led to the Frazee House being placed on the Register.

 

The most modern use of the house was as the home of the operators of a small zoo that operated on the six-acre property from the 1970s through 1996, since which time the house has been vacant. Except for an unfortunate, but reversible, enclosed porch constructed in the late 1980s shortly before the creation of the local historic preservation commission, the building retains a high level of integrity. But it is unheated, and water is leaking into the basement.

October, 2014
October, 2014

The house was acquired by the Township of Scotch Plains in 1998 via eminent domain for the creation of a park, including possible restoration of the house as a community meeting facility. The Rotary acquired control of the house itself and one acre surrounding it in 2004.

 

In 2014 the Scotch Plains Township Council appropriated money to continue remediation of the former zoo property, though the decision to float a bond for capitalization of that and other projects in the Township became bogged down in the Council.

 

Today, it stands as a reminder of the need to protect historic resources on publicly-owned open space.

Detailed History

Gershom and Elizabeth Frazee (circa 1760-1817)

 

The Frazee House in Scotch Plains at Two Bridges, near the intersection of Raritan and Terrill Roads west of Ash Swamp, is an Anglo-Dutch style colonial home. It was very likely built by the 18th century carpenter and joiner, Gershom Frazee who bought 14 acres of land on Raritan Road in 1760 adjacent to John DeCamp from one Jeremiah Pangborn. In 1761, Frazee bought another adjoining property at Ash Swamp from one Jacob Winans, also a carpenter, in the 1750s. Winans or Winants was a Dutch family from the Staten Island vicinity. Frazee also built a house frame with James S. Coberly in 1758 for Cabinetmaker Samuel Prince on William Street in NY near where the Scotch Plains Baptist Society was then founding the NY Baptist Church. Frazee also bought wood from Douw of Albany at one point. Frazee was influenced by the earlier Dutch homes of the region with their low profile and cantilevered pent roof that extends in front of the kitchen. The heavy, widely-spaced beaded joists with plank floors are also characteristic of Dutch versus English "summer beam" and light joist construction techniques.

 

A Dutch-influenced Kas cupboard probably made by him and an eighteenth-century joiner's bench, also probably Frazee's, were found in an early lumber shed, next to the corn crib of his brother Moses Frazee's home, later Thomas Lee's, now the site of the Union County Technical Institute. This shed and the corn crib were subsequently moved to Black Birch Road by Architect Charles H. Detwiller for Marge and Bill Elliott.

 

"Aunt Betty" Frazee and her husband Gershom, carpenter and joiner, raised their nephew Gershom Lee, son of her brother Thomas Lee. The tradition that she was baking bread during the Battle of Short Hills is supported by the fact that they fed American militia in 1777. Gershom's 1791 inventory lists 3 dough troughs, 3 flour casks, and a chest for bread strongly suggesting that Betty may well have been a bread baker.

 

Based on the research conducted as part of this project and prior research, it appears that the kitchen wing of the existing Frazee House was possibly constructed for Gershom Frazee, Sr. (170?-1754) after his arrival with his wife from Rahway in 1727. In his will, Gershom Frazee, Sr. left property to his sons and upon turning 21 years of age in 1756, Gershom Frazee, Jr. would have received the ten acres bequeathed to him. It is unknown when he married his wife Elizabeth Lee (circa 1738-1815). This early kitchen wing has probably rebuilt and expanded circa 1758 by Gershom Frazee, Jr. Frazee was ordering materials similar to those used in the construction of the main portion of the house in the late 1760s, and probably built the larger western portion of the house at that time.

 

Gershom and Elizabeth Frazee lived in the house and raised their nephew Gershom Lee, son of Elizabeth's brother Thomas and his first wife, who died at a young age. One source states that Gershom and Elizabeth had two children of their own, Moses (1764-1850) and Jemima, however only Elizabeth Frazee and Gershom Lee were named in Frazee's will of 1791. If they had other children that were still living in 1791, it is curious that they were not also named. It is more likely that this was their niece Jemima, daughter of brother Abraham and that Moses Frazee (1764-1850) was the son of Gershom's older brother Moses. Moses Sr. was made guardian of Abraham's 7 year-old son, also named Gershom, and 5 year-old daughter Jermima at the death of Abraham in 1762. This younger nephew Gershom (b.1755) is sometimes confused with Aunt Betty's husband Gershom Frazee, carpenter and joiner (1735-1791).

 

During the Revolution, it appears clear that the Frazees were feeding the militia troops under Captain Littell in February of 1777, according to original documents cited by F.C. Detwiller in War in the Countryside, Battle and Plunder of the Short Hills, June 26, 1777, Apprendix F, p. 38. It is equally certain that troops entered the Frazee house during the Battle of Short Hills on June 26, 1777, based on the damage claims filed by Gershom Frazee and neighbors as further cited by Detwiller. While Cornwallis may not have taken any bread, it seems the British troops certainly availed themselves of nearly everything else on the property.

 

Claims filed by Gershom Frazee, Jr. for plundered items include "Tools Lost by the regular Forces, June 26th, 1777." The inventory lists 64 woodworking tools, three cows, 23 sheep, a hive of bees, household goods, "Garden Fence and other fence burnt." In the course of this research, we examined other Frazee-Lee family papers and found a citation for the bread-baking story. Detwiller cites the source as The History of Union County by F.W. Ricord, 1892 as the earliest known account of the Aunt Betty-Cornwallis encounter. A second inventory of Elizabeth Frazee was filed at Westfield, and whether this is our Elizabeth Frazee or another known to have lived in town at the time, her inventory of items dated June 27, 1777. This inventory is a very good account of nearly the entire wardrobe of an eighteenth-century woman including several aprons, "one good check and one good white apron...one gauze apron...4 lawn aprons" among other household and farm items including a pewter tankard, a small brass kettle and two sheep.

 

The Frazee Family weathered the war and continued their residence on the property after Gershom Frazee's death in October 1791. He was buried in the Westfield Presbyterian Cemetery graveyard. Gershom Frazee left a will, but died in debt. His brother-in-law, Thomas Lee, handled the sale of property on the east side of Raritan Road to help pay off the debts. An extensive inventory was made in 1791 detailing the contents of the house and outbuildings. As part of the estate settlement, the Wagon Shed was on Cooper Road, where they probably moved the shed. Widow Elizabeth Frazee continued to live on the property with her nephew until her death in December 1815. She was buried beside her husband.

 

Frazee Lee Family (circa 1817-1893)

 

Gershom and Aunt Betty's grand nephews owned and operated the property for over sixty years. Gershom Lee married Sarah Hetfield and continued to live on the family farm. Gershom and Sarah had two sons, Daniel H. Lee and Matthias Frazee Lee, generally known as Frazee Lee. Gershom Lee died intestate in 1845 and the Essex County Surrogate Court granted the estate to his sons that year. Sarah Hetfield Lee lived with her bachelor sons on the farm until the 1870s.

 

The Lee brothers were farmers; however, they amassed a considerable estate through numerous real estate transactions and through the loan of money. The brothers died within five weeks of one another in 1888, leaving modest bequests to close family and friends. Surviving brother Frazee Lee left his residual estate to the Scotch Plains Baptist Church in order to help it pay off the debt incurred through the recent completion of a new church, which is still standing on Park Avenue in Scotch Plains and to help in "spreading the Gospel."

 

Twenty-seven would-be heirs, including some people who owed the Lee brothers substantial sums of money, contested the will, and eventually won in Prerogative Court. Depositions were gathered from those who knew Frazee Lee, some of whom who stated that he was a drunkard and others who stated that he was an upstanding citizen and shrewd businessman. Some of the contestants were members of the Scotch Plains Baptist Church themselves, and the resulting in-fighting damaged the congregation.

 

A quit-claim from the church was filed in 1890 and the church was given a sum of money sufficient to only pay off its debt. Portions of the estate property were sold off at public auction, including the Frazee house property, and what property remained in 1893 was divided equally among the 27 remaining "heirs" in Chancery Court and deeded to them.

 

The 1862 Map of Union County shows a barn adjacent to the Frazee House with its fenced farmyard. An early photo confirms its existence just to the west of the house. There is no barn shown in 1862 at the location opposite the "Thriteen-Star" House, just up Raritan Road, where an eighteenth century barn was found, dismantled and moved to the Stage House in the 1960s. This suggests that barn may have been the old Frazee barn relocated a short distance up the road in the late nineteenth century by the Frazee Lee family who owned both properties, as indicated on the 1862 map.

 

Ryno Family (1893-1949)

 

The Frazee House was purchased at public auction by Albert Ryno in 1893 for the sum of $675.00. His family farmed the land until 1949 when his sons sold the property to Franklyn Tuttle Terry and Ella Louise Terry of South Plainfield. It appears the Rynos made few changes with the exception of possibly replacing some of the older Frazee buildings with the garage seen in the 1940s photos.

Zoo owner Frank Terry in an undated photo by Richard Kole
Zoo owner Frank Terry in an undated photo by Richard Kole

Terry Family (circa 1950-1995)

 

The Terry Family was famous for its Terry-Lou Acres Zoo, New Jersey's largest privately owned zoo. The Terrys lived in the house and operated the TerryLou Zoo on the property until 1994 when they sold the property and zoo to Harold and Deborah Kafka. The Terrys made extensive changes to the property including the addition of barns, a silo, and large animal pens to house "New Jersey's largest privately-owned zoo." The locations of the Terry-Lou Zoo buildings are recorded on a site plan made by EKA Associates P.A. in 1995, as well as in numerous photos of the period, some taken by Dick Koles, who was Terry-Lou Zoo's "official" photographer.

 

Subsequent History (1995-2005)

 

The Kafkas operated the establishment as the Scotch Plains Zoo until 1997. The property passed through two owners in 1997 and 1998. The property was taken under eminent domain by the Township of Scotch Plains in 1998 and remained in arbitration until 2000. The township presently owns the property and plans to use it as a passive park. The zoo buildings have been demolished and animal enclosures removed. These and other changes in the property will be further discussed in the following "Evolution of the Property and Structure". Plans for the future use of the Frazee house have not been decided at the time of this writing. However the study of the property continues, along with the restoration project by the Scotch Plains Fanwood Rotary Frazee House , Inc. as its Rotary International Centennial Project.

Video

 Click to see a 33:00 video recounting the Frazee House's place in the history of the Battle of the Short Hills. This video is a detailed look at some of the places in and around Scotch Plains that are historic relics of the revolutionary war including a re-enactment of the rumored confrontation between Betty Frazee and Lord Cornwallis. 

Historic References

Download
National Historic Registry Filing
National Registry filing smaller.pdf
Adobe Acrobat Document 1.9 MB

A History of Union County, F.W. Ricord, 1897

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