Princeton, N.J.—There are heroes who are commemmorated for a single act of courage. And then there are the heroes who continue winning battles for the betterment of humankind. Bob Vaucher of Bridgewater Township, who is 100 years old, falls into the latter category of continuous battle winner.
As a lieutenant colonel, Vaucher flew 117 combat missions during World War II. He led the squadron of planes that flew over the USS Missouri as Gen. Douglas MacArthur was presiding over the formal ceremonies that ended World War II. Most recently, Vaucher proved his mettle working with partners led by his neighbors and D&R Greenway Land Trust to preserve 36 acres of historic property in Bridgewater Township.
The land, where Gen. George Washington stationed more than 5,000 soldiers during the Revolutionary War (the Middlebrook Encampment), is also on the Washington-Rochambeau National Historic Trail.This was the route taken in 1781 by Gen. Rochambeau’s French Army after it joined forces with Washington’s Continental Army to fight the British Army in Yorktown, Va.
“We are grateful to all the partners who made this ‘revolutionary’ preservation possible,” says D&R Greenway Land Trust President & CEO Linda Mead. Those partners included Bridgewater Township, Somerset County, the New Jersey Green Acres Program, the Crossroads of the American Revolution Association and 70 individual contributors. Private donations from neighbors and a surprise gift in honor of Vaucher’s courage ranged from $100 to $50,000.
“These are not our usual partners,” continues Mead. “Some first learned about us as a result of this project. Others who are enthusiastic about this site’s preservation include the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route Association.”
A key partner was the State of New Jersey. “Green Acres is proud to be a partner with the Crossroads of the American Revolution Association and others in the preservation of this significant property rich in historic resources relating to the American Revolution,” said Ray Bukowski, NJ DEP’s Assistant Commissioner for Natural and Historic Resources. “The property not only helps to tell the story of the Revolutionary War in New Jersey, but will also be available for passive recreation opportunities, such as hiking and historic interpretation.”
The land will be owned by Bridgewater Township for passive recreation. D&R Greenway will support and advise Bridgewater Township and neighbors in creating trails and interpretive signage, making the land accessible to all.
“I am pleased that so many partners came together to preserve these 36 acres and I am grateful to D&R Greenway for facilitating the deal and coming through with necessary funding. Preservation of open space is a priority and I look forward to continued partnership with D&R Greenway as we move forward to establish trails and signage that will acknowledge the historic events that happened on this land.”
The newly preserved property may be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, according to the Cultural & Heritage Commission of Somerset County, because of its association with the Continental Army’s Middlebrook Encampment during the American Revolution.
“It is one of the few sections that allow the modern traveler to imagine what a road layout in the 18th century may have looked like,” says Dr. Robert A. Selig, historical consultant to the National Park Service. “Today even this very short section of the National Historic Trail is twice broken up by highways… But time is running out to preserve [elements] of America’s past.” The 700-mile long trail commemorates and celebrates American independence and needs protection for future generations, he continues.
“There are very few natural areas left on on the Washington-Rochambeau National Historic Trail,” says Laura Szwak, a board member of the Crossroads of the American Revolution Association. “When you’re on the property you can feel the presence of hundreds of troops and horses—it takes you back in time, you can envision that this is where they stopped to rest.” Artifacts indicate it had been the site of Steeles Tavern, an encampment for soldiers near the spring that was once the original water source for Somerset Township.
“Now that the land is preserved, the opportunity exists for an archaeological study,” Szwak continues. “It is our mission to save these last spots that show the significant role New Jersey played in the Revolutionary War.”
“You can’t separate history from natural resources—it’s the history of the land use that makes a difference in where we are today,” says D&R Greenway’s Mead. “What a wonderful way to kick off our 30th year preserving land, protecting a property of significance to both community and nation,” she continues. “Visitors will be excited to learn how significant the area was in the formation of our country.”
“Somerset County was pleased to participate in the preservation of this unique property,” said Somerset County Freeholder Deputy Director Patricia L. Walsh. “Through the efforts of many individuals and organizations, its open space and historic qualities will remain in perpetuity. We applaud the hard work of all of the individuals who made this preservation effort possible.”
The story of protecting the land, with its starts and bumps, begins with William Lester Wemple, Assistant U.S. Attorney General during the Taft Administration, who purchased the property as farmland in 1918. When he died, in 1933, the property passed to his heirs. In 1995, his son John Wemple signed an agreement with The Nature Conservancy to donate a portion of the property, but his will was overturned subsequent to allegations that he was incompetent at the time it was drawn.
“John became very attached to that property,” said Vaucher, the recipient of two Distinguished Flying Crosses who lives next door and was a close confidante of John Wemple. Vaucher learned from Wemple that he was determined the property should never be developed. Vaucher, who is still sharp at 100, gets a twinkle in his eye every time he speaks about saving his friend’s land and a piece of American history.
Though John Wemple had hoped to preserve the land with The Nature Conservancy, it ended up with his heirs who sold the land to developer Steve Lang. Lang had plans and approvals to put 15 lots on the wooded property on a hill overlooking a spring. After completing the engineering work he learned just how impassioned the neighbors, led by Vaucher, were about preservation and fulfilling Wemple’s vision for the property.
Vaucher, joined by neighbors Brendan Burns and Dave Stempien, approached D&R Greenway for help in preserving the 36 acres on the Watchung Ridge.
Through a mutual connection, Burns was put in touch with Wade Martin at Morgan Stanley, who connected him to Linda Mead at D&R Greenway.
“When D&R Greenway saw that no one was working on preservation in this important ridge area of Bridgewater Township, we stepped up to play a unique role,” says Mead.
D&R Greenway had worked with developer Steve Lang before, on preservation of its Sourlands Ecosystem Preserve. As a result, Lang became a D&R Greenway supporter. When Vaucher and his neighbors approached D&R Greenway for help, Lang felt confident that a good settlement could be reached.
Together the neighbors and D&R Greenway approached Bridgewater Township, who determined this was a preservation priority for them. The land was valued at 2 million, and the Crossroads of the American Revolution had $250,000 in funding from the New Jersey Green Acres Program.
Somerset County agreed to match the funding. But an additional $200,000 was still needed.
D&R Greenway negotiated a reduction in price, known as a bargain sale, and dipped into its Revolving Land Fund—created during the land trust’s Land for Life Campaign in 2017—to create a matching grant for the neighbors.
It is a story of chain excitement. Burns, impassioned by Vaucher’s quest, in turn took to rallying the neighbors the good old-fashioned way: making phone calls and knocking on doors. While the neighbors were knocking on doors to raise more money, D&R Greenway set up a special web page for this project. “D&R Greenway’s website donation page made a big difference,” says Burns. “In two weeks—the deadline required by Bridgewater Township in order to support a vote by the Township Committee that would commit municipal funds to this purchase —we managed to raise the necessary dollars. When you have a good story to tell, people respond.”
“Supporters were so taken with the human interest aspect of this story, and the property’s historic significance, that the gifts started pouring in,” says Mead.
“I am thankful to D&R Greenway and the neighbors for their determination in raising dollars to support the preservation of this property, and to Bridgewater Township for paying me a fair price for my land so that it can be a part of history,” reflected Steve Lang speaking about how preservation was made possible.
During the veteran’s recent birthday celebration, Vaucher spoke of his responsibility to do the right thing, recounts Burns, and was lauded by Bridgewater Mayor Daniel Hayes Jr. and the Bridgewater Civic Association for his accomplishments. “As a World War II veteran, he felt a strong connection to Washington’s men. He couldn’t bear the thought of plowing through a field of Revolutionary War artifacts to put up houses.”
“How often do you get the chance to make a 100-year-old veteran’s come true?” asks Mead. “This is an important story to tell, a heartwarming story about how land preservation really happens. It’s a true story of heroes.”
To learn more, please visit www.drgreenway.org.
D&R GREENWAY LAND TRUST IS IN ITS 30TH YEAR of preserving and protecting natural lands, farmlands and open spaces throughout central and southern New Jersey. Through continuous preservation and stewardship — caring for land and easements to ensure they remain protected and ecologically healthy in perpetuity — D&R Greenway nurtures a healthier and more diverse environment for people and wild species in seven counties. Accredited by the national Land Trust Accreditation Commission, D&R Greenway’s mission is to preserve and care for land and inspire a conservation ethic, now and for the future. Since its founding in 1989, D&R Greenway has permanently preserved more than 20,000 acres, an area 20 times the size of New York City’s Central Park, including 30 miles of trails open to the public.
The Johnson Education Center, a circa 1900 restored barn at One Preservation Place, Princeton, is D&R Greenway’s home. Through programs, art exhibits and related lectures, D&R Greenway inspires greater public commitment to safeguarding land.