Wednesday, December 3, 2014

What's Old Will Be New Again: The Asbury Mill

What's Old Will Be New Again: The Asbury Mill
Written by NJ Historian

New Jersey is home to many unique grist mills. Some are constructed of stone, some timber, and others a combination. Grist mills in New Jersey generally fall into a few categories: working, abandoned, and repurposed. The ones that are still working operate as intended in a controlled museum setting, such as at Walnford in Monmouth County or the Red Mill in Hunterdon County. Abandoned mills can be found in Bloomsbury in Warren County and Hamburg in Sussex County. The last category includes mills that have been repurposed into homes, offices, event space, and shops, such as with the Old Mill in Allentown and Prallsville Mills in Stockton. In the Village of Asbury in Warren County is the Asbury Mill, a former grist mill turned graphite mill. This unique structure, built circa 1865 and essentially abandoned in the 1970s is currently being preserved and transformed into a twenty-first century structure by the Musconetcong Watershed Association that will honor its past while providing the space for today's needs. As this project progresses over the next few years, it will become a leading example of smart growth, preservation, and environmentalism.

A mill existed in what is today Asbury, then known as Hall's Mills, since the mid-eighteenth century along the Musconetcong River. In 1796, Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury helped lay the cornerstone for the church in Hall's Mills. Shortly after, in 1800, the name of the settlement was changed to Asbury in his honor. The original mill, which ground wheat into flour, stood until the 1860s.

A new mill was constructed circa 1865 to replace the one built in the 1700s. The new mill was constructed of stone with a lime stucco exterior finish on at least three sides. The mill rises up five levels, including the basement. Below the basement level is the mill raceway and tailrace, which runs underneath the mill through stone arches on each end. Although there is no direct documentation as to why it was replaced, many mills in New Jersey were modernized and modeled after Oliver Evans’ patent for “automated grist mills” in the mid-nineteenth century. 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.

In 1895, Harry M. Riddle leased the mill in Asbury. Riddle was no stranger to business. By the time he was twenty four years old, he was part owner of two general stores; one is Asbury and the other in the nearby village of Hampton. He also served as Asbury's postmaster. Riddle leased the mill and converted it to grate graphite rather than grist, upon hearing of graphite's untapped potential in the United States. Riddle hired a miller and transformed the mill building. A majority of the raw graphite was imported from Korea and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), but some was sourced from a small Rhode Island mine. A number of early graphite mines existed in the Highlands region of New Jersey, but the mine owners could not find a way to successfully mine the graphite commercially. Riddle called his company Asbury Graphite Mills.

As part of the upgrades that Riddle made, he replaced the wooden water wheel with a cast iron horizontal Leffel turbine, which is still located in the basement of the mill. Numerous changes and upgrades occurred over the next seventy-seven years as technologies and needs changed. Remnants of older machinery, chutes, and industrial parts can be found throughout the building, as they were often left after they were replaced. The mill ended production in 1972 and all operations were transferred to the mill on the opposite side of the river in Hunterdon County. Today, Asbury Carbons Inc. is the world’s largest independent processor and merchant of refined graphite and other carbons.

Sitework for the future parking lot at the Asbury Mill. Note the scarring from the 1930s sheds on the
exterior side wall and remnant of the loading docks on the front.

In 1999, the Musconetcong Watershed Association took title to the Mill, a nineteenth century building across from the street from the mill, and a third building on a small island in the river, as a donation from the Riddle family, owners of Asbury Carbons. In 2009, the Musconetcong Watershed Association opened the River Resource Center, which is now the Association's headquarters. This building, built at the beginning of the nineteenth century and later modified, was designed and renovated to meet U.S. Green Building Council LEED Platinum standards.

The next large project for the Association to tackle is the preservation and adaptive use of the mill building. For the past year, the first phase of the mill's restoration has been mostly related to sitework; contractors have removed incompatible non-historic additions, restored the tailrace island, and have built new concrete retaining walls around the mill property to protect it from floodwaters and erosion. Inside the mill, it has been cleaned of non-historic items and a new interior staircase from the basement to the top floor has been installed. Phase two of the mill restoration will focus on interior systems (electricity, HVAC, and plumbing), windows and doors, and eventually a full interior restoration. Once completed, the ground floor will serve as a meeting room/classroom with a portion of the area dedicated as exhibit space for early mill and agricultural technology. The upper floors will be converted to office space for the Musconetcong Watershed Association. Just as with the River Resource Center across the street, the goal for the mill is to achieve LEED status because of green measures used throughout the property. When fully restored, this historic mill will once again become a living and breathing part of the Asbury community.

Additional photos of my trip to Asbury Mill on Pinterest

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