UNION, NJ — British soldiers were swarming the villagers’ homes in 1780 when the Rev. James Caldwell left his wife, Hannah, and two of his children to join small group of 60 militiamen hoping to stave off King George III’s troops from destroying George Washington’s relatively rag tag band of armed American Colonists.
Nicknamed the “the rebel high priest,” the minister would later learn that his wife had been shot through the parsonage window by a British soldier. That was in Connecticut Farms, now the Township of Union.
That fatal shooting from more than 235 years ago is now depicted on the seal of Union County: Hannah Caldwell is pictured in a white dress against a log cabin structure, arms flailing upward as a redcoat discharges his musket, proof of the pivotal role Union played in U.S. history.
“It swayed the opinion of a lot of people to join the militia,” David Arminio, vice president of the Union Township Historical Society, said.
Union’s history also was told by Barbara La Mort, president of the historical society, as she walked with Arminio through the preserved version of the former Caldwell home.
“I really think that the fact that heroes from the American Revolution are from our community. It’s our mission to get the word out about (Caldwell),” La Mort said.
In order to keep up with that mission, the Union Township Historical Society will host a gala at the Suburban Golf Club on Oct. 28, to raise money for the organization and recognize the 350th anniversary of Connecticut Farms.
Three people will be inducted into the historical society’s Hall of Honor at the gala: The historical society’s first founder, Louis Giacona; the organization’s former president, Michael Yesenko; and former Mayor Anthony Russo, who also served on Union’s Township Committee for 27 years.
Ownership of the Caldwell home has changed several times throughout the years. Built in 1730 by the Connecticut Farms parsonage, it was burned by British soldiers in 1780, after they killed Hannah Caldwell.
Around 1782, the church rebuilt the house. It was later sold to the Headley family and used as a boarding house around the 1920s, but started to fall into disrepair around the 1950s.
That’s when the Union Township Historical Society bought the house to turn into a museum.
There were some complaints about the amount of traffic a museum would bring to the area, Arminio said, but it was quiet and easy to find parking when LocalSource visited.
Presbyterian settlers first came to Connecticut Farms around 1667, probably to escape the Puritans in Connecticut. At the time, Connecticut Farms was a part of Elizabethtown, which encompassed multiple modern-day municipalities.
The area comprising Connecticut Farms was purchased from the Lenni Lenape tribe for 12 to 15 cents per square mile. Chief Kawameeh was part of the tribe at the time; the middle school at 490 David Terrace is named after him.
The settlers built the First Presbyterian Congregation of Connecticut Farms on Stuyvesant Avenue in 1730, making the trek to the Presbyterian Church on Broad Street in present-day Elizabeth unnecessary.
Rev. Caldwell preached at the church in Elizabeth until he was shot dead by a fellow militiaman James Morgan, one year after his wife had been killed.
La Mort said his killer probably wanted the British bounty that had been placed on the minister’s head. Morgan was later hanged for the murder, according to newspaper clippings from the time.
The Caldwell home, which is now a museum at 909 Caldwell Ave., bears several mementos of Union’s past, including old maps, busts of former mayors, pianos and framed deeds.
Having been part of Elizabethtown, Connecticut Farms changed its name to Union and became incorporated in 1808.
“There’s speculation that they were doing it in tribute to the reinventing of the new United States,” La Mort said, referring to the name change.
Although the Caldwell legacy is a major part of Union’s history, the township has been home to many other prominent figures throughout the years.
Fred Biertuempfel, for example, served as a Republican mayor for 34 years until his death in 1973. He worked most of his tenure full-time as mayor, which was unusual, but allowed him to devote himself to keeping taxes low.
“The politicians wanted his blessing because he had so much clout,” La Mort said, standing by a bust of the former mayor.
The township, in 1969, also made headlines after the school board started busing students out of Jefferson Elementary School in a crackdown against school segregation in the wake of the Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.
According to Arminio, this is the reason Jefferson Elementary School now only houses one grade.
About 99 percent of students who attended the school were black in the 1960s, a New York Times article reported at the time, in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
To avoid losing federal funds, the school board bused 80 percent of students to other schools in the town.
Also hanging in the Caldwell home was a painting of Eulace Peacock, who was born in 1914 and graduated from Union High School.
He won many Amateur Athletic Union championships and almost made it to the Olympics in the 1930s, but suffered an injury.
Several professional baseball players are also memorialized in the museum, including Elliott Maddox, another UHS graduate, who played for the Mets and Yankees in the 1970s.