| (Photo: Courtesy of the Morris County |
Historical Society at Acorn Hall)
MORRISTOWN – At long last, Acorn Hall, the 1853 Georgian-style house at 68 Morris Ave., has its own biography.
The story of those who owned the Italianate estate, now home to the Morris County Historical Society, spans three families—the Schermerhorns, Cranes, and Hones— and many chapters of American history.
“Morris County’s Acorn Hall” was penned by Jude Pfister, chief of cultural resources at the nearby Morristown National Historical Park, known for commemorating the encampment of Gen. George Washington and his ragtag Continental Army during the bitterly cold winter of 1779-80.
“I’ve been driving by Acorn Hall every day for 10 years on the way to work. It’s always fascinated me,” said Pfister, a 20-year veteran of the National Park Service who has penned four other books.
When he uncovered connections between Acorn Hall and the historical park, the project became irresistible.
Among the park’s Revolutionary War attractions is the Ford Mansion, another Georgian-style home—an eighth of a mile from Acorn Hall—built in the early 1770s for Jacob Ford Jr., an iron manufacturer. Ford’s widow allowed Gen. George Washington to use her home as his headquarters during that fateful winter.
“I came across the deed that the Schermerhorn and the Hone family signed, where Schermerhorn bought the property for Acorn Hall, and it was attested by Henry Ford (grandson of Jacob Ford),” Pfister said. “Right there, from the beginning, you have this connection.”
Yet, he explained, it’s easy for historic sites like Acorn Hall, located next to Westin Governor Morris Hotel and just outside the park, to be overlooked.
“Whenever anyone thinks of Morristown history,” Pfister said, “they think of the winter encampment.”
The park attracts some 275,000 visitors annually, with 30,000 of them touring the Ford Mansion, he added. Yet last year Acorn Hall attracted 448 visitors, according to the Morris County Historical Society.
The new book, Pfister explained, can be used to increase public awareness of Morristown history that’s not related to Washington and help the national historical park forge partnerships with other historic sites.
Not that the partnering idea is new. In the two years since park Superintendent Tom Ross took the reins, he has formalized partnership agreements with a dozen nonprofits to keep up the grounds, which include 27 miles of hiking trails and specialized gardens. The agreements are particularly important given the $2.6 million park budget this year—a 3.5 percent decrease from 2010, he said.
But Pfister pointed out there’s another plus to partnering among historical sites. It increases awareness of more historical options – and more historical stories – in the public eye.
Recently, for instance, Acorn Hall used five Windsor chairs on loan from the historical park to create a display that enabled it to participate in the multi-day Revolutionary Times festivities this past July 4th.
“It’s not 1933, when our park was founded, anymore,” Pfister said. “People simply do not look up to the founding generation the way they did 80 years ago. There’s no way we, as the park service, or any historic site, can survive telling the same story of the starving soldiers the same way to the same people for 80 years. It’s not going to happen.”
New stories to tell
Acorn Hall certainly provides some different and animated Morristown narratives.
On one end of its timeline is the 1876 death of 27-year-old Mary Crane Hone, who grew up in the house and succumbed to typhoid fever. On the other is the colorful, globe-trotting life of her granddaughter and namesake, a glamorous Broadway actress and Franklin Delano Roosevelt supporter who stayed single her whole life.
It was the younger Hone who, in 1971, donated Acorn Hall to the historical society, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year.
In its 154 pages, “Morris County’s Acorn Hall” romps through the triumphs and tribulations of the two first patriarchs of the home—Dr. John Schermerhorn, who built the place but could not bear to live in it more than five years after his wife’s untimely death, and Augustus Crane, who listed his profession as “gentleman” on the 1860 Census and who named the estate after the many oak trees on its premises.
So, too, the book follows the interesting lives of their spouses, children, and children’s spouses.
No personality so stands out, though, than that of Mary Crane Hone, born in 1904 to Augustus Crane Hone, who owned a consulting engineering business, and his wife, Alice Castleman, a Southern belle who hailed from Kentucky and was the daughter of John Castleman, an officer for the Confederacy during the Civil War who later fought for the U.S. in the Spanish-American War.
As an only child with such a pedigree, Mary Crane Hone had the money and freedom to follow her every impulse as an independent thinker.
“She knew she had talent. She knew she was photogenic, and I think she knew she had some inherent drawbacks,” Pfister said. “As an actress, she was her own worst critic. She was almost David Letterman-esque in being self-deprecating.
“Though she wasn’t self-conscious of her lineage, she certainly was self-conscious of her accent,” he added. “In one letter she compared her language to what she would have heard from African Americans in the cornfields when she was growing up.”
Consequently, she journeyed to England to learn proper English for a stage career that brought her as close to home as a Broadway production of Ibsen’s “Lady from the Sea,” in which she played the lead, and to as far-flung places as Egypt, her only chance to act in Shakespearean roles.
But as women gained the right to vote, the Depression came and went, and World War II unfurled, Hone, a Southern Democrat evolved into a New Deal Democrat.
“As a Southern Democrat, she was an anti-Lincolnian,” Pfister said. “We first see her in politics in 1920 in San Francisco with her mother and her grandmother at the Democratic National Convention, which was the first year that women were allowed to vote in a presidential election.
“It’s also the first appearance, on a national ticket, of Franklin Delano Roosevelt,” he added. “He was the vice presidential nominee for the Democrats. Of course, they lost that year. I’m guessing she and FDR met in 1920 because her grandmother was very much a figure in Democratic circles.”
Immersed in the political issues of the day, Hone left acting and embraced the initiatives of FDR.
In his book, Pfister writes Hone cared deeply “for the advancement of labor causes through organized unions.” Combining her love of theater and the Democratic Party, she contributed to FDR’s final and fourth campaign with a song called “Let’s Re-Re-Re-Elect Roosevelt.”
She also loved the notion of the League of Nations, and then the United Nations, to the extent she was offered a job at the UN in the early 1950s, which she declined, though she accepted a number of secretarial jobs through the years, including one for the BBC.
All these activities distinguished Mary from her mother.
“They were two different people when it came to their world views,” Pfister said. “Mary’s mother came from a time and place where women certainly did not act and certainly did not work outside of the house.
“All the evidence points to her mother being more of the Southern belle,” he added. “She was concerned with the proper number of servants and the proper place settings at a table, all, of course, with a Southern twist. To her mother, there was certainly a class that ruled, or a class that led society. From what I’ve been able to tell, Mary didn’t see it that way.”
That preoccupation is shown in Acorn’s Hall interior opulent displays and bedazzling first floor, complete with dining room, library, music room, and more, all open for tours.
Other facets of Hone’s life also are explored, including the tough time she had bequeathing Acorn Hall, finally settling on the county historical society in 1971 and then subsequently moving, in a state of somewhat typical unrest, to Nantucket.
A beautiful woman with many suitors, Hone never settled down.
“I think,” Pfister said, “she was a wanderer at heart.”
Amy Curry, director of the society, said it was an honor to have an historian as distinguished as Pfister chose Acorn Hall, and its generations of owners, as a subject.
“He illustrates why Acorn Hall is so special,” she said, “and why it’s so important to preserve this gem.”
Lorraine Ash: 973-428-6660; email@example.com
•MORRIS COUNTY’S ACORN HALL: AN AUTHOR TALK AND BOOK SIGNING
WHAT: Meet Jude M. Pfister, author “Morris County’s Acorn Hall” (The History Press)
WHEN: 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 2
WHERE: Washington’s Headquarters Museum Auditorium, 30 Washington Place, Morristown
INFORMATION: 973-539-2016, ext. 210 or http://tinyurl.com/nw5fv4j
•BRIGHT LIGHTS AND BIG CITY: MARY CRANE HONE ON BROADWAY!
WHAT: An exhibit of Mary Crane Hone’s stage costumes
WHEN: Coming in early September
WHERE: Acorn Hall, 68 Morris Ave., Morristown
INFORMATION: 973-267-3465; www.acornhall.org
*This article written by Lorraine Ash was originally published July 26, 2015.
Permission to republish here, courtesy of The Daily Record.
Permission to republish here, courtesy of The Daily Record.