History comes to life at Livingston Benedict House

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Bob and Julia Peterson, the current residents of the Livingston-Benedict House
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Joyce Garrow portraying the Great-Great Grandmother, Julia Benedict (1800’s)
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MaryAnn Fischer portraying the Great Great Grandmother

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Carolyn Chambers, 16, student at Morris County Vocational School was portraying Susan Risedof; Katrina Kilpack, 16, student at Parsippany Hills High School was portraying Julie Dutton; Caitlin Chambers, 19, student at Rutgers, was portraying Helen Benedict and Barbara Anastasi, 16, student at Parsippany Hills High School was portraying Lois Benedict. The girls were the 1920s “flappers” and some 1960s “hippies” comparing notes, music and dancing.

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Livingston-Benedict House located at 25 Old Parsippany Road
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Handweaving and needfelting by Lois Macknik

This year marks the 350th anniversary of the founding of the colony of New Jersey in 1664.

Since the Livingston Benedict House was built in the 1750s, much has happened there. William Livingston, the first elected Governor of New Jersey, lived in the house 1777-1781. It has been owned by members of the Benedict family since 1857.

The costumed re-enactors told stories from the house’s history. Stories about a private in the Civil War, and an all-women’s expedition to the Adirondacks in the 1800s and World War II food rationing and Victory Gardens.

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The sign reads “Livingston-Benedict House, Circa 1752. Revolutionary War refuge home of William Livingston and his family. Livingston was the first elected governor of New Jersey.”

“Living in a 250-year-old house is like living with an ancient person,” says Julia Peterson. The house has wisdom, memories, is a great teacher and can be difficult.

Bob and Julia Peterson live in the Livingston Benedict House on Old Parsippany Road. It is one of Parsippany’s few surviving pre-Revolutionary War houses, and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.

The house has special meaning to Peterson, since she have been in and out of it since she was born. When she was brought home from the hospital, she came home this house. Six months later, her parents and she moved to the little house (originally the out kitchen of the bigger house) across the road, but since her grandmother and grandfather lived in this house, she was always around.

The National Register listing of the house is due to the Revolutionary War occupancy of Gov. William Livingston and his family. Livingston was the first elected governor of New Jersey (1776 -1790), and commanded the militia during the war. He was a close colleague of George Washington, and a signer of the U.S. Constitution.

In 1857, Peterson’s ancestor, Farrand N. Benedict, purchased the house and moved here from Burlington, Vermont, where he was a professor and surveyor. He and his wife, Susan Ogden, were both natives of Parsippany and returned here because she was ill and wanted to be near her family in Troy.

Relatives of Julia have lived here for the last 150 years. What makes this strange and wonderful is that all of these people have left pieces of themselves: their marks, their stories and possessions, in the house.

She found letters that her grandmother wrote to her grandfather during their engagement in 1909. Her great-grandfather’s sermons are in a chest in the attic, and she found a bayonet buried in the dirt floor of the cellar.

They found a set of notes from Columbia Medical School that belonged to her aunt’s first husband, surveying equipment from the early 1900s. and many, many old books and magazines (all dusty). Both her grandmother and her aunt wrote memoirs about the house. She spent her childhood listening to her grandmother’s stories, she feel like she knows many of the people that she knew.

She also knows a lot about the Livingston family. They leased the house and moved here in 1777, when it was not safe for them to remain at Liberty Hall, in Elizabeth, due to the close presence of British troops. It was National Register nomination which saved the house from being demolished during the construction of Interstate 80.

The original 160 acres planted by the Livingston’s has shrunk to 4 1/2. A fox, hawks, many birds call our property home, and deer and an occasional bear wander through. The trees and perennials were planted by generations of gardeners in my family. Julia and her husband, Bob,  especially like the opportunity that we have to be outdoors caring for the property.

An agreement with the New Jersey Historic Trust legally protects the site from development. The wooden barns, houses and outbuildings must be maintained the way they appear now. The Peterson’s do most of the restoration work themselves, often finding places where a repair has been made in the past.

When they work, they are connecting themselves to a long line of workers who have cared for the house: her great grandfather, grandfather and grandmother, father and mother.

Each year, the Peterson’s  invite the public to two open house afternoons, during which volunteers act out the roles of people who have lived here.

An old house invites people to imagine the past: a time before the Internet, cell phones, cars, television, stores, central heating, indoor plumbing. As years pass, houses change, but the first beams of our house were laid before 1752, before the United States was a country.

This house has been here through every war in U.S. history, through blizzards, heat waves and droughts. It has seen Parsippany change from a wilderness to a developed suburb. Through it all, it has sheltered people with love and contained their memories.

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