Wednesday, August 6, 2014

A Trip to the Prallsville Mills Along the Mighty Delaware

A Trip to the Prallsville Mills Along the Mighty Delaware
Written by NJ Historian

Adjacent to the Delaware River and Delaware and Raritan Canal is a complex of eighteenth and nineteenth century mill buildings and associated structures. They were once a hub of commercial activity along the now-sleepy bedroom community of Stockton, located less than four miles north of Lambertville and twelve miles south of Frenchtown. The Prallsville Mills, aptly named after the site's most successful and significant owner, John Prall, Jr. demonstrates an evolving industrial history along the banks of the Delaware and how it today has become a hub for environmental and artistic talents.

The 1877 Prallsville Mill (right) and grain silo (left).
John Reading, born in Pipe Hill, Lichfield, Staffordshire, England, about 1657, came to West New Jersey with his wife Elizabeth and daughter Elizabeth and settled in the city of Gloucester in Gloucester County in 1684. In 1709, Reading purchased 1,440 acres in Hunterdon County and established a plantation called Mount Amwell (now known as Stockton), after a town in England. He relocated from Gloucester and settled on his plantation sometime between 1709 and 1711. In 1710, Reading's daughter, Mary, married Daniel Howell, of Bucks County, Pennsylvania. As a wedding gift, he presented his daughter and her husband with a tract of land about a mile square on the south side of the Wicheckeoke Creek, at the intersection of the Wicheckeoke Creek and the Delaware River, and constructed a saw mill and a grist mill for them.

In 1733, Daniel Howell bequeathed the grist mill and saw mill and seventy three acres of land fronting on the Delaware River and Wickecheoke Creek, to his two eldest sons Daniel Howell, Jr. and John Howell. In 1750, Daniel Howell, Jr. sold the Mill property to Charles Woolverton, originally from Burlington County, New Jersey. Charles operated the mills until his death in 1773. It remained in trust until 1792, when Charles Jr. and George Woolverton bought the mill property from their father’s executors for 1,500 pounds. Their interest in the property was limited as they sold it two years later to John Prall, Jr. for the same amount.

John Prall, Jr., born in 1757, served in the American Revolution as a Lieutenant. He fought at the battles of Brandywine, Germantown, Monmouth, Elizabethtown, and Millstone. At the Battle on the Millstone he was injured by a bullet through the hip, shot by a Yager rifleman. After the war, he collected what remained of his fortunes and began to rebuild his life as a merchant.

Interior of the 1877 Prallsville Mill.
Two years prior to purchasing the mill property, in 1792, Prall purchased the former Reading/Howell property to the south of the mill tract from the Ely Family. That property, in conjunction with the mill property, totaled 280 acres, enabling him to control all of the land on the Delaware River between the Wickecheoke Creek and present-day Ferry Street in Stockton.

After purchasing the properties, John Prall, Jr. immediately began to expand the site by replacing the wooden grist mill with a new one constructed of stone. Around this time he also built a new saw mill, several stone houses, and a stone structure that served various purposes (including an office and a store.)

Prall opened a stone quarry in the area and operated two fisheries in the Delaware River, making the community of Prallsville a major commercial center in southwestern Hunterdon County. John Prall Jr. died September 21, 1831 and his executors sold the mill property to William Hoppock and John Wilson in 1833.

The current grist mill, completed in 1877, was built after its predecessor caught fire from the blowing embers of a locomotive and was severely damaged in 1874. The mill was rebuilt on the same foundation and reopened for business about three years later. The mill continued to function into the 1950s. From 1888 through 1969, the property was owned by the Smith family and adapted to changes in the industry, converting from grinding grist to flour, to animal feed. The family also operated a hardware store and building supply company from the mill buildings.

The 1877 Prallsville Mill (left) and grain silo (right).
After the mill closed, it became abandoned and was eventually put up for sale as townhouse tract. Local resident Donald Jones, unwilling to let the site be demolished and redeveloped, personally purchased the site in 1969 with the intention of holding it until the State of New Jersey could afford to purchase it. In 1973, the State acquired the mill site and surrounding property from Jones. The property became part of Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park in 1974

In 1976, when the State of New Jersey was unable to fund the restoration of the complex, local citizens formed Delaware River Mill Society and obtained a long-term lease, which gives the Mill Society the responsibility to “restore, preserve, operate, maintain and interpret” the site, which today includes the grist, linseed oil, and saw mills, grain silo, lumber shed, the miller’s residence, feed storage building, pork salt house, nineteenth century scale house, and other sheds and storage buildings. The site was entered into the State and National Register of Historic Places in 1979. Since founding the organization, the mill complex has become a hub of cultural and environmental events. Concerts, art exhibitions, antique shows, holiday parties, school fundraiser auctions, meetings, as well as private parties, are a source of income for restoration and maintenance of the site. Buildings on the property also serve as office space for non-profit organizations such as the Delaware River Scenic Byway, Delaware River Greenway Partnership, Artsbridge, and River Union Stage.

Other buildings at the Prallsville Mills Complex include:

The Miller's House
John Prall, Jr. built a stone home on the property in 1794. A mix of German and English influence, it is six bays and features two doors at the front, one formal and one informal, considered a sign of wealth. The house is separated into two main blocks or sections, with a kitchen on the right and formal entry and parlor on the left. At the rear of the house, the informal section is set back from the formal section, something that is not typically done at the rear of the home. This may indicate that there once was a road at the rear of the property that guests entered from. All of the windows have flat jack arches with projecting keystones, another sign of wealth.

The Prall residence with two entries (formal on left, informal on right).
Inside, a large open hearth and beehive oven dominates the right, or informal, side of the house. On the left side, separating the main entry hall from the back hall is a very unique feature - a paneled summer wall. The summer wall was designed to be removed in the warmer months to allow air circulation. In the winter, it would have been reinstalled to concentrate heat from the fireplace in the front hall. The house includes many other signs of wealth such as extra beading and a punchwork mantle in the parlor. The home was restored and opened to the public in 2005.

Linseed Oil Mill
The linseed oil mill was built circa 1794 by John Prall, Jr. and served in this capacity for about 40 years. Flax was milled to make linseed oil, the base ingredients for paints and wood preservatives. This building was later used for plaster milling, which continued through the1860s. The building was then converted for use as a store and post office and became a storage building in the the twentieth century during the mill property's use as a hardware and building supply store. The building has been restored and remains one of the best-preserved linseed oil mill buildings in the mid-Atlantic region.

The Linseed Oil Mill (left) and circa 1850 sawmill (right).
Saw Mill
The saw mill at Prallsville Mills was built about 1850, during William L. Hoppock's ownership. Nothing is known about the earlier saw mill on the property, including its location. However, this saw mill was most likely powered by the same water that powered the neighboring linseed oil mill. Spent water from the linseed mill was diverted into the saw mill. By the 1880s, it is likely that the mill was powered by a steam engine. The saw mill was fully restored in 2009.

Additional photos of my trip to the Prallsville Mills on Pinterest

For More Information
Delaware River Mill Society

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