Looking Back...Historical Museum Preserves Hunterdon's Past (from the 32nd
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
“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.”
A student tries her hand at
rolling a hoop. Photo courtesy of the Hunterdon Historical Museum.
The Red Mill.
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
Interpreter Daniela Johnson
teaches a class in the schoolhouse. Photo courtesy of the Hunterdon
|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