100 years ago, President Harding came to New Jersy and officially ended WWI

100 years ago, President Harding came to New Jersy and officially ended WWI. It was over, over there, but back in the United States, World War I was not officially done.

The killing on Europe’s battlefields, which had devoured the lives of millions, had been mercifully decreed complete 2 1/2 years earlier, with the armistice of Nov. 11, 1918. The ensuing Treaty of Versailles peace plan, with its long-debated concept of a League of Nations, was never ratified by the U.S. Senate.

So as President Warren G. Harding teed off at Somerset Hills Country Club on July 2, 1921, the United States was still officially at war with Germany.

Before the president finished his round of golf in Bernardsville, however, that would change. The Knox-Porter Resolution, ending this country’s hostilities with Germany and Austria, had been passed by Congress the two days before. It was delivered by courier to Harding, who had returned to the Raritan estate of Sen. Joseph Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, his host for the Fourth of July weekend. A century ago Friday, at 4:10 p.m., Harding signed the resolution, spilling ink on the document in the process, and declared, “That’s all,” according to accounts. The war to end all wars was officially over.

Then Harding resumed playing golf, this time at the nearby Raritan Valley Country Club.

Raritan’s moment in World War I history will be commemorated July 10, with a pair of overlapping events at the borough library. From noon to 3 p.m., the Raritan Historic and Cultural Committee will create in the front of the building a tableau of the event that can serve as a backdrop for visitors’ photos. “We’re going to try to make it look like the original signing,” explained Karen Eastlund, the committee chair. She described a “free-flowing” opportunity for people to stop by and step back in time to that scene.
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The war memorial in Hurd Park commemorates World War I and those who served.George McNish | For NJ Advance Media

At 1 p.m., the library and the Somerset County Cultural and Heritage Commission will present a program on the theme at the back of the library, with Kevin Titus taking on the persona of Warren G. Harding. Advance registration is required.

Titus, who has depicted everyone from Clyde Barrow to Benedict Arnold, is no novice at channeling the 29th president. He portrayed him for the 90th anniversary of the signing there in 2011, reenacting the big moment at the original desk. He says that original desk won’t be used this time, but expect him to be garbed in full 1920s golf regalia, with a club and derby-wearing Secret Service men close at hand. He’ll talk about the long-ago presidential visit, answer questions and once more put pen to paper, perhaps taking care to avoid spilling ink.

According to Titus, Harding was not amused that his day on the links was interrupted back then. “When you messed with his golf game, he was not happy with you,” he said. He interpreted Harding’s comment on signing as more an expression of impatience, as in “Is that all?”

Titus voiced an appreciation of the Ohio Republican, even if history associates Harding today largely with the Teapot Dome scandal (“That was not him — that was his administration. He was going to get rid of all those guys.”) and his death in office two years later of a heart attack. (Titus points to food poisoning.)

“He did a lot of good things,” Titus said. “People don’t know what he did.”

Not many people knew of Harding’s actions in Raritan as well, with just a few dozen people in the Frelinghuysen home to witness the occasion. That same day in Jersey City, meanwhile, 90,000 boxing fans watched heavyweight boxing champ Jack Dempsey knock out French challenger Georges Carpentier in the fourth round. The front page of the next day’s New York Times was dedicated almost entirely to the boxing match. A one-column story on the far left side of the page carries the headline, “Harding Ends War; Signs Peace Decree at Senator’s Home.”

“The thirty odd Government officials and their wives, secret service men, county officers, reporters, butlers, maids, chauffeurs and gardeners that were in Senator Frelinghuysen’s living room were busy with their own thoughts,” the Times reported, “and the modest Frelinghuysen ancestral home will have a place in history long after the international heavyweight championship is forgot.”

That prediction, alas, proved overly optimistic. The Frelinghuysen estate is long gone, save for a pair of stone pillars that flank a commemorative plaque near the parking lot of a P.C. Richard & Son appliance store and a Burger King. This small slice of history is perched perilously close to a Route 28 traffic light near the Somerville Circle, a humble island of greenery amid a sea of asphalt and incessant auto traffic, daring anybody to make their way there and read its inscription.

But for one day at least, “Warren Harding” will again be in Raritan, and the Somerset County borough’s historic place in a global conflict will again be at center stage.

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