Thursday, November 1, 2012

Two-Hundred Years of Milling at Walnford

Two-Hundred Years of Milling at Walnford
Written by NJ Historian

In rural Monmouth County is the remains of a small but once-vibrant community. Historic Walnford in Upper Freehold relays the agricultural and milling history of a well-to-do Monmouth County family around the time of the American Revolution through the early twentieth century. The remoteness of the site and appreciation of its history by subsequent owners allowed it to survive into the twentieth century virtually unchanged and today is a showcase for agricultural development in central New Jersey.


 Like many communities that sprang up before the American Revolution, the first building at what would become Walnford, a mill, was built in 1734. A 1772 newspaper advertisement offering a grist mill, saw mill, fulling mill, blacksmith and cooper’s shops, a large two-family brick house, five tenant houses, farm buildings, 100 plowed acres and two orchards was noticed by Richard Waln. Richard Waln was a prosperous merchant and Philadelphia Quaker. Waln purchased the site, renamed it Walnford, and moved in with his wife Elizabeth and children in 1773, as soon as their elegant home was constructed. The home that Waln constructed was fairly simple, perhaps reflective of his Quaker tastes. The evolution of the home over the years has been documented by historians and shows a smaller structure that over time develops into a country-estate as the family became more prosperous.


Waln lived at Walnford during the Revolutionary period, and sometime after the close of the war returned to Philadelphia, where he continued to reside until his death, with Walnford serving as a summer home. He married Elizabeth Armitt, the daughter of Joseph Armitt, a Philadelphia merchant, on December 4, 1760. Elizabeth’s family had a long history in Burlington County, from which descended Henry Armitt Brown, the eloquent orator and able lawyer of Philadelphia a generation before. Elizabeth Armitt Waln died in 1790.

Of all of Richard’s sons, only Nicholas showed an interest in agriculture. Nicholas learned the family business in Philadelphia and then returned to Walnford. In 1799, at age thirty-six, Nicholas and his bride Sarah Ridgeway Waln took charge of Walnford. Nicholas inherited the property after his father’s death in 1809. Nicholas’ income grew substantially from the grain, flour, lumber, pork, and other Walnford products, which he shipped to market in Philadelphia. Reaching its height of activity, the property grew to 1,300 acres from its original 320 and the village expanded to house about fifty people.

In the early 1800s, many millers around the country were beginning to replace the older style mills with new, efficient mills that were more automated than ever before. The design of newly constructed mills was modeled after Oliver Evans’ patent for “automated grist mills.” Oliver Evans was a young millwright from Delaware who perfected the milling process in 1780 by building a completely automatic grist mill in New Castle County. Powered by a water wheel, the mill was the first continuous flow, production line mill in the world. An English book of the day described the mill: “Mr. Oliver Evans, an ingenious American, has invented ... a flour mill upon a curious construction which, without the assistance of manual labor, first conveys the grain ... to the upper floor, where it is cleaned. Thence it descends to the hopper, and after being ground in the usual way, the flour is conveyed to the upper floor, where, by a simple and ingenious contrivance, it is spread, cooled, and gradually made to pass to the boulting hopper.” The product was not touched by human hands from the time the grain was dumped into the receiving hopper until the finished flour flowed into a bin ready for packing into barrels or bags. Evans submitted a proposal for his design to the newly-formed United States Patent Office in 1790. Evans received the third patent issued by the United States government. Nicholas Waln decided to rebuild the mill in 1822 to take advantage of the new technologies and methods as described by Oliver. The new four-story mill included a corner stone with the initials and date “N W 1822”. The new mill at Walnford enabled Nicholas to increase production and ultimately profits.


 After Nicholas died in 1848, his wife and daughter, both named Sarah, maintained Walnford. Sarah was born in 1816, married in 1856, and was widowed only seventeen months later. She remained at Walnford her entire life and managed the property alone for thirty-five years after her mother died in 1872.

As milling production moved west to larger facilities with greater capacities and the mid-west became the bread basket of America, Walnford diminished in both commercial importance and size. With fewer acres to manage, Nicholas Waln’s wife and daughter focused on the home, redesigning the front porch of the house and installing decorative fencing and plantings.

Sarah Waln Hendrickson (Nicholas’ daughter) made substantial investments in Walnford. A post office was added to the village, the mill was rebuilt after a disastrous fire in 1872, and the current carriage house and cow barn were constructed, as well as additional tenant houses. Forty-eight Guernseys were housed in the cow barn. The carriage house was built in 1878-1879 at the height of horse-drawn carriages in America. Sarah wanted to ensure that her carriages and horses were housed in an attractive, up-to-date structure. The new carriage house was placed at the front and center of the barnyard, providing a buffer between the house and the barns. In order to finance this work, Sarah sold and mortgaged some property, but kept the original farm intact.

The cow barn.
After the death of his great aunt Sarah Waln in 1907, Richard Waln Meirs and wife Ann Weightman Meirs transformed the property into the quiet Colonial Revival estate you see today. The Caretaker’s Cottage was added to the rear of the house in 1910-1912. The white pine trees separating the house and farm were planted around the same time, as Walnford was changing from a working farm into a country retreat. The Meirs’ took a great interest in American history and the history of their family, which was the inspiration for the work completed at Walnford during this time. Using early hardware, paint colors, and window treatments, the Waln homestead was restored to what they believed it may have looked like in the eighteenth century. The interior of the home was filled with family heirlooms and period antiques.

Walnford circa 1905, before the store wing was removed.
Richard Waln died in 1917 and the mill closed permanently. Ann Meir continued to operate the farm until 1948. William Miers, the last of the original Waln family to own Walnford, inherited the property in 1958. In 1973, after 200 years of occupancy by the Waln family, Edward and Joanne Mullen purchased the property as their home. They generously donated the historic site to the Monmouth County Park System in 1985. Since 1985, the Monmouth County Park System has restored the Waln home, its various outbuildings, and the mill which now operates once again.

For over 200 years, Walnford’s mill and agricultural fields supplied the Philadelphia region and local markets with goods. Today, the mill and farm buildings demonstrate Walnford’s importance and educate visitors about farming in rural Monmouth County. Take a stroll through this remote area with its sandy road and tall pines to catch a glimpse of what life may have been like for the Waln family throughout their ownership of the property.


Additional photos of my trip to Historic Walnford on Pinterest

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