When one visits the Brearley House today, it is difficult to imagine the setting it enjoyed in 1761. The house was erected on the Great Meadow, a farming and grazing land of the first residents of Lawrence - the Leni-Lanapi People. In fact, students of Lawrence Middle School in archeological digs beginning in 1998 uncovered projectile points and other artifacts from the fields around the house.
When the house was built, there was no Princeton Pike (1807), no Brunswick Pike/US 1 (1804), no D & R Canal (18M), and no Interstate 95(1974). In fact, there was not even a Mercer County (1838). However, there was in 1761 Maidenhead Road (or King's Highway or Main Street or Rt. 206), and there was the Great Meadow Road extending from the village of Maidenhead out what is now Franklin Corner Road to Lewisville Road across Princeton Pike down Meadow Road by the Princessville Cemetery past the Brearley House into the Great Meadow and not ending until it crossed Shipetauken Creek, well past the Brearley family's holdings.*
Over the next 150 years, the lack of natural drainage resulting from the construction of the D & R Canal and the building of many major and secondary roads caused the Great Meadow to become a wooded wetlands.
On the beautiful, rich Great Meadow, John Brearley established the first recorded Brearley holdings. Near that location his grandson James, probably with the help of his father John Brearley II, built the Brearley House in 1761. The house is a handsome Georgian brick house typical of other 181h century colonists' homes. It reflects the style of the English manor houses but scaled down to the needs of an American farming family. Nevertheless, it is a lovely house: balanced, functional, and restrained.
Farmers, successful farmers, take their good fortune from the soil. The Brearley House is built of bricks made from the local clay soil, fired, it is believed, in an oven on the property, a common practice. In the gable of the east side of the house is the date 1761 in glazed bricks, which darken because they are closest to the fire. It was the practice in York, England, from whence John Brearley had arrived 66 years earlier, to identify a house with the date of its construction on the gable that faced the road. Like many Georgian houses of the South, Brearley House had a separate kitchen building, which greatly reduced the threat of fire to the main dwelling.
In fact, the archeological digs of 1998-1999 discovered two kitchen rooms beyond the southeastern corner of the house. Another benefit of an outside kitchen was that during the hot summers, the main house was not overheated by boiling water for laundry, or by cooking, preserving, candle making and so forth.
The 1761 Brearley House was built for James Brearley, who married three times. Although we do not know the name of his first wife, we do know that she bore him three sons... a good omen for a farmer. His second wife, Esther Johnes, had three sons and a daughter, and Penelope Cook, his third wife, had a daughter and three sons. The Brearley House was well built to withstand the exuberance of eleven healthy children.
James Brearley lived to be ninety years old. According to tax records of 1779, he owned at that time 8 horses, 19 horned cattle, 11 hogs, and 2 human beings. It is not known if any Brearleys owned slaves prior 10 James. When James died, his estate passed on to his eldest son, John IlI. John married Matilda Baker in 1805, and they were blessed with four children, two boys and two girls. After John's death, his widow Matilda, who was 67, her two daughters, Mary aged 35 and Susan aged 41 and a 19 year old Black male, John Lewis, comprised one household. Matilda's son Joseph and his wife Gertrude, their two daughters, Louisa 9 and Sarah 12 and an infant son plus a 13 year old Black male, Charles Schenk comprised the other household. The kitchen building had a balcony where the slaves slept.
In 1860, Louisa married Benjamin Pidcock, who eventually bought the farm but never lived in the house. He deeded it to a son, William. At some time in the 1860's, according to the estimate of archeologist Ian Burrow, a door was cut into the southeastern wall to create a roofed corridor to the kitchen outside. A far more damaging alteration occurred in the early 20th century. In 1914 Dr. James Russell, Dean of Teacher's College, Columbia University, bought the house and removed the inside paneling, corner cupboards and fireplace facings to another house he owned nearby. In 1920 the farm, consisting of 125 acres and the house, was deeded to Thomas Boss. He used the property to develop a herd of Golden Guernsey cows until he deeded it to his sister and brother-in-law, Margaret and Walter Fawcett The Fawcetts owned the house and farm from 1925 until 1944.
According to the late Tom Fawcett, the son of Margaret and Walter, it was a wonderful place in which to grow up. He and his sister Virginia (Fawcett Quinn) played at the spring house, gathered eggs, climbed through the old barn, and rode the tractor and the horses. Tom remembered the dilapidated kitchen building with its balcony, demolished in 1935. At that time, the 1860 opening to the outside kitchen was closed, and the kitchen was moved inside to the southwestern corner of the house. An electric stove took the place of the cooking fireplace
Edwin 0. King bought the house in 1944. His son Robert lived there until 1949 and Robert's sister until 1963. Developers bought the property in 1963, holding it until Lawrence Township bought it in 1978. From 1967 to 1969, the Siebert family lived in the house and Clarence Siebert Sr.remained in the house until the township began plans for renovations in the 1980s. Siebert did some pig farming and grew vegetables that he gave away for free during his time on the property. Some of his pigs weighed 400 pounds, it is said. He was also reported to have had 17 dogs. This strange menagerie kept thieves from stealing fine l8th century mantels, doors and woodwork until the house could be rescued.
Rescue arrived with Mayor Gretel Gatterdam and other township officials, who moved Mr. Siebert into a trailer with running water and appointed him caretaker. Meanwhile, the house was secured. In 1998, funding from the Lawrence Historical Society, the Township of Lawrence, and the New Jersey Historic Trust assured the restoration of the Brearley House to its 18th century beauty.
Since 2000 the house has been leased by the Township to the Lawrence Historical Society, which is charged with the responsibility of taking care of it and making it available to the people of Lawrence, especially the schoolchildren. Restored by the noted Philadelphia firm of Theodore H. Nickels, the exterior and interior of the house look much as they did in 1761, or as much as modern research and technology and present day needs make feasible. An addition on the southeast corner houses modern kitchen and restroom facilities as well as handicap accessibility. The addition is similar in size and shape to other such features in 181h century houses in New Jersey, but no attempt has been made to suggest that it is anything but modern. The basement and attic house state of the art heating and air-conditioning, but ducts and electric wiring have been concealed as much as possible. Two rooms on the second floor have been fitted with a small efficiency kitchen and a bathroom to convert them into an apartment for a resident caretaker, who is deemed necessary on such a secluded site. The house is once more a one family home with a concerned, permanent owner - the citizenry of Lawrence Township. Tom Fawcett, who was so distressed that his boyhood home had not been maintained after his family sold it, would indeed be proud.
Many concerned citizens and organizations contributed time and effort toward saving and restoring Brearley House. Special thanks are owed to Lawrence Mayor the late Gretel Gatterdam, Lawrence Historian Winona Nash, Lawrence Historical Society President Ruth Barringer, Lawrence Councilmen Tom WiIfrid, Pat Colavita, Greg Puliti, Mark Holmes, and Rick Miller, President Nancy Cole of Educational Testing Service, and Archeologist Ian Burrow of Hunter Research. Other contributors numbered in the hundreds. The New Jersey Historic Trust contributed half of the $700,000 cost of the restoration completed in 1999-2000 by Nickles Construction of Philadelphia.
*The Lawrence Historic and Aesthetic Maps 1776, 1875, 1978