By Christine Dell'Amore
Wednesday, December 16, 2009; C03
Not long ago, I probably would have thought that the Greenwich Tea Party meant scones and petits fours at a lower-Manhattan luncheon. Little did I know that nearly 235 years ago, on Dec. 22, 1774, a feisty town in southwestern New Jersey called Greenwich threw the last of the colonies' five major tea parties opposing British taxation. These acts of defiance led to the Declaration of Independence, and the rest is history. But when Greenwich faded as a major commercial hub in the early 1800s, so too did the country's memory of the Greenwich Tea Party.
That's why, as a fan of the forgotten, I found myself on a Saturday in November turning onto Greenwich's wide, tree-lined main street, which reminded me of Europe's grand boulevards. Indeed, circa-1684 Ye Greate Street (which means "main street" in Old English) was laid out by English Quaker John Fenwick, who bought much of West Jersey in the 1670s.
Joan McAllister, head of the Cumberland County Historical Society, took me on a walking tour of part of the two-mile-long street and its houses, which span five centuries and various styles. We passed gingerbread-style Victorians and Colonial buildings with Flemish-bond bricks that had been toasted blue, "like marshmallows," McAllister said. Many of the buildings are now homes but were once businesses, such as the clockmaker's, the bakery with its big picture window and a 1773 general store that until its recent shuttering was the longest-running of its kind in the state.
At the beginning of Ye Greate Street, we crunched through fallen leaves to the banks of the Cohansey River, where a thriving port once received goods-laden European ships from the nearby Delaware Bay. This is where, in December 1774, an English ship unloaded tea into a Greenwich warehouse. A few days later, as many as 40 young men from Greenwich and its environs disguised themselves as Indians, stole the tea and set it ablaze on the market square -- almost exactly a year after the Boston Tea Party. In 1908, the town erected a large granite monument in the middle of the square inscribed with the names of the tea burners, who are now regarded as local heroes. "They made a statement," McAllister said.
In its heyday, Greenwich had 11 taverns where people would gather and gossip, much "like a Starbucks of the day," McAllister said. Today there's just the Greenwich Country Store & Deli, where I stopped in for lunch. A table of people lingering after their meals welcomed me over, among them Bob Watson, a restoration architect whose family goes back generations in Greenwich, and Joe Felcone, a Princeton rare book dealer who weekends in town. Both said it's Greenwich's genuineness that appeals: "There's nothing really heinous here, no McMansions," Felcone said. Added Watson, "It's real."
I could see what they meant. The town has fiercely protected itself from development, mostly by preserving surrounding farmland. (McAllister was decidedly pleased to tell me that Greenwich's notorious mosquitoes keep developers quite literally at bay.) This attitude has a long history, too: In 1826, a Greenwich resident -- the grandson of a tea burner, no less -- built a cellar in the path of a planned connector road from the county seat of Bridgeton to Greenwich, successfully blocking it. "Which is probably another reason why we stayed the way we are," McAllister said. "Because we're the road to nowhere."
At 2 p.m., the deli's owner shooed out the regulars in what seemed like an oft-repeated ritual, and I walked up Ye Greate Street for a tour of the Gibbon House, headquarters of the historical society. The 1730 replica of a London townhouse is furnished with all-authentic period pieces, including an 18th-century tea caddy that held the infamous product.
I then took in some of Greenwich's saltier side, taking a peek at the county's maritime museum and a drive through the wetlands with Felcone's wife, Linda Hull Felcone. An avid kayaker, she took me to one of her favorite spots, called Bayside. The riverside lookout had once been part of a lively fishing village, named Caviar after the sturgeon caught there. Now it's just a remote dead end, like so many in Greenwich, with a front-row seat of the sunset. As I drove to nearby Vineland for the night -- not surprisingly, Greenwich has nary a place to stay -- I felt a shock at being among the glaring lights and strip malls.
My last stop the next morning was back on Ye Greate Street, at the county historical research library. Retired history teacher Jonathan Wood enthusiastically showed me old documents, including an 1862 Greenwich map marked with the tea-burning site. As I peered over his shoulder, I realized that Greenwich wouldn't easily let go of its town pride -- not even, I'm guessing, for all the tea in China.
Dell'Amore is a freelance writer in Washington.