Written for MyCentralJersey.com on 5/24/16
Central Jersey is blessed with the presence of cities and large towns budding with modernity and innovation, but it also has claim to one small town that can call itself one of the oldest in the state.
Cranbury, a friendly, walkable, 13-square-mile town of about 4,000 people that is home to a historic district, can trace its first buildings to 1698 and was officially created as a township in 1872.
Visitors to Cranbury can get a taste of that history by picking up a self-guided walking tour from the Cranbury Museum at 4 Park Place East from 1 to 4 p.m. Sundays or at cranburyhistory.org. They can also email firstname.lastname@example.org to organize a guided walking tour.
“Visiting Cranbury is like going back in time, but with access to modern-day conveniences,” said Lina Llona, president of the Middlesex County Regional Chamber of Commerce Convention and Visitors Bureau. “People are very hospitable and there are tons of things to see and do.”
Although there are 31 sites on the walking tour, a few of the highlights include the Cranbury Museum, which was built in 1834 and contains 18th- and 19th-century furnishings and local memorabilia, and the Cranbury Inn, which is one of the oldest businesses in Cranbury, dating to 1800.
“Anyone who likes history or architecture, dating 1700 to 1930 within the historic district, would find Cranbury an interesting place to visit,” said Audrey Smith, vice president of the Cranbury Historical and Preservation Society who has lived in the town for 36 years.
Some of the other must-see stops are Cranbury’s Town Hall, which was originally built as a school, and Brainerd Cemetery, which has more than 40 graves pre-1800 and the graves of eighty Revolutionary War veterans.
Cranbury is also a participant in the State Green Acres program and the Middlesex County open-space programs and has preserved hundreds of acres of open space for recreation and the preservation of natural resources. The significance of Cranbury’s history is woven into its agriculture, as the village was built to serve the surrounding farm community.
The preservation of Cranbury’s historical charm was no accident.
The Cranbury Historical and Preservation Society was formed in 1970, which led to the town being entered on the New Jersey Register of Historic Places in 1979 and the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. Its nomination for the National Register of Historic Places said, “Cranbury is the best preserved 19th century village in Middlesex County… While there are many small mill towns in New Jersey, few are in such an undisturbed environment as that of Cranbury.”
Then, the Historic Preservation Advisory Committee was established in 1988 for the purposes of protecting, enhancing and perpetuating historical resources within the township. Today, they still identify historic landmarks and districts and advise the town’s planning and zoning boards.
“It was the result of terrific insight,” said Bobbie Marlowe, chair of the Historic Preservation Commission who has lived in Cranbury for 35 years. “When they tried to build Route 31 through Cranbury, the community made sure we were recognized as a historic district so it would be protected.”
Although a few other towns in the area are reminiscent of Cranbury, such as Pennington, Hopewell, Bordentown and Allentown, Marlowe stressed that they don’t have the amenities that Cranbury has and residents aren’t anonymous in the historic town, where visitors can find older people and younger people alike calling Cranbury home.
“Cranbury isn’t gimmicky,” said Llona. “It’s easy to remember that people live there.”