Looking Back...Historical Museum Preserves Hunterdon's Past (from the 32nd edition)

by Victoria Memminger

A narrow, graceful river with an energetic waterfall, banks lined with willows, a view into a small, tidy village—for sheer bucolic tranquility, you can’t improve on the view from the Hunterdon County Historical Museum in Clinton, N.J.

The museum complex, which includes seven buildings you can go into and an equal number of sites to look at, has been there since the 1960s. It’s centerpiece, the Red Mill, has been there since 1810.

“We’re more than just the Red Mill, though,” said Amy Caputo, the educational director of the Museum. “Because we have nine acres, people often think this is a park with a pretty old barn, but there’s a lot to see here.” 

rolling a hoop
A student tries her hand at rolling a hoop. Photo courtesy of the Hunterdon Historical Museum.

The Red Mill
The Red Mill.

Museum's basket collection
Museum's basket collection includes peach baskets made at the mill.

That’s true, but because of its size and proximity to the parking lot, the Red Mill is the place to start. It also houses the gift shop, where you can pay as much as $60 for cobalt blue glassware from Williamsburg, Va., and as little as 25 cents for candy or a small toy. The majority of the goods is priced somewhere in between.

The water wheel still works in the Mill and among the exhibits surrounding it are displays of the various tools needed to shape the building through its evolution from a woolen mill to one that produced, successively, plaster, grist, talc and graphite, and peach baskets. Naturally enough, there is a 2,000 pound millstone, but there are also old bicycles, something that looks like the ancestor of the go-cart, tools for corn husking and cultivating. The walls are hung with old signs.  There is a large collection of butter churns and equally large number of baskets. One display area is devoted exclusively to spinning and weaving and has old looms and carders. On the top floor is an exhibit sure to delight children:  a replica of the Mill, doll-house size. When a visitor commented on the number of items in each area, Ms. Caputo nodded. “There are more than 40,000 artifacts in this complex,” she said.

The land behind the Red Mill was owned for  three generations by a family named Mulligan, who ran it as a limestone quarry from 1848 to 1964. The first building to see is the quarry office, which would boggle the minds of today’s ergonomic planners. Built in the early part of the 20th century, the Mulligans’ headquarters was smaller than many a built-in closet in today’s custom-built homes. It houses the original desk, three plain wooden chairs, a stove for heating the room, a mounted deer head, an Oliver typewriter (which does not remotely resemble any other typewriter you have ever seen) and a hat rack that offers a nice cinematic touch—a man’s battered felt hat, very like ones worn in movies of the 1930s, hangs on one of the hooks.
The next stop will be blacksmith’s shop. On the way there you will pass the stone crusher, the screenhouse, and the lime kilns—all essentials in the quarry business. The blacksmith shop, built some time before 1873, was first used as a wagon shed and may have been the first quarry office. Today it is a working blacksmith shop, run by a real blacksmith every day that the museum complex is open. The tools date from 1750 to 1950 and the blacksmith uses the old tools in the demonstrations he gives. Your nose will attest to the shop’s authenticity; there is a not-unpleasant lingering odor of smoke and hot metal.

The two-family tenant house that the Mulligans built in 1860 for their employees is historic proof that the good old days were not necessarily good for everyone. Each family had a kitchen and a parlor downstairs and two bedrooms upstairs. There was no heat except for the kitchen stove and no indoor plumbing; until the 1940s, there was no electricity. The parlors have been turned into a replica of a general store of the period and the space also includes a post office, which was typical of many general stores during that era. The merchandise in the store includes all manner of dry goods, shoes, clothing, hats, dishes—it looks a lot like any number of antique shops that dot the countryside today. Ms. Caputo said that the items were mostly antique, though reproductions were included to create the proper atmosphere. This is true of the kitchen, as well. A small room with dilapidated furniture and plain pottery, the most noticeable item is a kick-start washing machine, which was dragged out to a dock on the river where the laundry was done and then hung on lines between the trees. It must have been a thankless job, since grey quarry dust tended to cover everything in sight. 

Down the road from the tenant house is the schoolhouse, which was built in 1860, but is not original to the property; it was moved here from a neighboring township when the museum complex was established. The school was heated by a central stove and held 50 children. The desks in front are very small, indicating they were for the little children—towards the back of the room, they are larger. The school probably went from first to eighth grade, and it was crowded—children had to sit three to a bench and where there were no desks, they were put on benches against the back wall.

class in the schoolhouse
Interpreter Daniela Johnson teaches a class in the schoolhouse. Photo courtesy of the Hunterdon Historical Museum.

The last stop is the log cabin, which was built for the Bicentennial celebration in 1976. It’s an amazingly good replica, and gives a clear picture of what family life must have been like during the Revolutionary War period. It’s one room, and not a big one. There is a large stone fireplace with a loft above it, which is where the children slept on straw. There is a small four-poster bed, some ladderback chairs, a breadbox doing double duty as a nightstand, a table, and a spinning wheel. Ms. Caputo said that, like the general store display, the furniture and accessories here are a mixture of authentic and reproduction.
There is plenty to see outdoors at the Museum, too. The herb garden, the spring house, the wagon shed, the corn crib are all worth a look. It is the buildings, though, that give you a feeling of what life was like between 1810 and the early 20th century. The Hunterdon Historical Museum is an interesting and educational way to spend a couple of hours.

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