The Old Barrack celebrates a century as a colonial museum

Trenton museum holds 14th annual ball.

By: Christian Kirkpatrick
   The British built the Old Barracks in Trenton, but scholars agree that they never attended any of its Capital Balls. For if they had, the Continental Army could never have persuaded them to leave town.
   Capital Balls are delightful concoctions of tradition and fun that celebrate the Old Barracks Museum, local history and the City of Trenton.
   The 14th annual ball was held on Saturday. The evening began at the Barracks, where some 200 guests wandered through its facilities, gallery and period rooms.
   These rooms, which are in the Officer’s House, have been appointed as they might have been during various periods in the Barracks’ history. The dining table in the long room downstairs is laid for dessert. Upstairs, the junior officers’ room is crammed with the beds and belongings; the senior officers sleep alone. All the bedchambers contain enough fine uniforms and toiletries to suit any English gallant or Yankee Doodle Dandy.
   Through these quarters, Saturday night, glided almost as many men in knee britches and ladies in mobcaps as ball guests. One almost felt transported, especially when the violinist strolled by, playing 18th century dance tunes.
   Inside the gallery, guests viewed an exhibition entitled "Furniture, Curios and Pictures: 100 Years of Collecting by the Old Barracks Association." It tells how the organization that preserved and operates the Old Barracks has acquired and used objects inside the building.
   During its early years, the Association filled the barracks with beautiful old things, many of which doubtless came from their own homes. In recent decades, however, it decided to take these antiques out of the soldiers’ rooms and to substitute reproductions of objects that might actually have been used in an army barracks. Today, therefore, the Association displays fewer and more historically pertinent pieces that are not priceless, which is an important consideration in a museum visited daily by children.
   The Old Barracks is known, however, for its collection of Early American artifacts. The Association continues to collect antiques, but they are now studied and used in gallery exhibitions. The current exhibition, which runs through Aug. 8, includes a covey of graceful case clocks, muskets and inkwells, chairs of various design, a wall of samplers by local girls and a delightful collection of Toby jugs. However, curator VivianLea Stevens seemed proudest of a new acquisition — two colorful frakturs (especially decorated antique manuscripts), created by a Hessian who was captured at the Battle of Trenton and eventually settled in America.
   Guests hardly had time to stroll through the gallery and period rooms before they heard the musical summons of The Fife and Drums of the Old Barracks. Wine and hors d’oeuvres at the Barracks are always followed by cocktails and dinner at a nearby venue, this year the Trenton Marriott.
   Guests always go there in a procession. This year they were led by the fifes and drums, which also performed during cocktails. This well-trained group was recruited from high school students in Trenton and surrounding communities. In the uniforms of the 2nd New Jersey Regiment, they played a rousing collection of military marches and arrangements of colonial-era melodies.
   Decorated as it is with paintings and memorabilia that commemorate the history and landmarks of Trenton, the Marriott seemed an excellent spot for dinner, dancing and a silent auction of items and entertainment packages, most of which involved local history and amusements.
   During dinner, 18 century-style toasts were given by Trenton Mayor Douglas Palmer; Howard Mitchell, president of the Old Barracks Association, and ball attendees. Then Ball chairman Eric Stahl honored Mercer County’s institutions of higher education: Princeton University, Rider University, the College of New Jersey, Thomas Edison State College and Mercer County Community College. The evening was dedicated to them, and they all helped to underwrite the ball.
   Another important sponsor of the event was Wachovia Wealth Management. Sean Murray, managing director and senior vice president with the organization and a member of the Old Barracks Association’s Board of Trustees, said he remembers visiting the Barracks as fourth grader. Wachovia likes to support education, the Titusville resident said. The Wachovia Foundation recently gave the Barracks $25,000 to support its educational efforts.
   The Barracks welcomed 28,000 visitors during the last fiscal year. Some 22,000 of them were school children. Proceeds from the Capital Ball will support the Barracks’ education programs.
   Adults can also learn at the Barracks, of course. Mary Crawford, another trustee, said she has recently enjoyed a program by Lynne Cheney, the vice president’s wife, and another on identifying antiques.
   In upcoming months the organization will begin a series of events, many of which commemorate its 100 years of service. On Feb. 16 the Barracks will celebrate George Washington’s birthday. The public is invited to meet the General and have a piece of cake in his honor. Outwater’s Militia will be at the Barracks on Feb. 22 to drill and interpret the life of the common soldier. In March the 2nd New Jersey Regiment will come; it was one of the first units raised at the Barracks. A coffee house series of period music will begin on Wednesday nights in March, and an author’s lecture series is also planned.
   The British built the Old Barracks in 1758 to house troops fighting the French and Indian Wars. In late 1776, German mercenaries, their entourage, and some loyalists were billeted there when George Washington took Trenton. Throughout the rest of the war it served as a military hospital. During the 19th century its condition declined as its importance was forgotten. Then a group of ladies from Trenton raised money to rescue it and turn it into a museum, which opened in 1903.
   The Old Barracks is open every day from 10 am. to 5 p.m., except Thanksgiving and Christmas. For more information, cakll (609) 396-1776 or visit