31 March 2020

Eugene O'Neill and George Bellows: Winter in Zion (1909)

Perhaps it was during the farewell tour through New Jersey of "Monte Cristo" - the play to which his name had become inseparable - that actor James O'Neill first heard about the property for sale in Hillsborough. It was the summer of 1906 and the charming leading man had already portrayed the Count in upwards of 6,000 performances dating back to 1875.

George Bellows - Winter in Zion (1909)

Looking for a summer getaway spot, O'Neill borrowed money from his theater friends to purchase the old mill property on the Rock Brook at Zion - formerly known as Rock Mills. The mill - in ruins by 1906 - was one of several along the swift-moving stream that dated back to the 1700s. The property also included the miller's house - a large ancient cabin with a long covered porch.

8 August 1906 Asbury Park Press

With his youngest son Eugene ready to start school just down the road at Princeton in the fall, the "farm" at Zion seemed like a perfect complement to the O'Neills' other summer home in New London, Connecticut.

George Bellows - Clouds and Hills (1909)

As it turned out, Eugene didn't make it through the year at Princeton and never visited Hillsborough that year. It wasn't until the winter of 1909 that he first set eyes on the cabin at Zion.

1873 map showing the location of the O'Neill property

Family friend Sadie Koenig described the Eugene O'Neill of this period as "a kind of bum." Unable to hold a job for any length of time and always getting into fights - he later bragged to the Zion postmaster that he was thrown out of every hotel bar in Trenton - his father, in an attempt to rein in his behavior, reduced Eugene's allowance to just $1 a day.

George Bellows - Haystacks and Barn (1909)

On January 18, 1909, O'Neill, joined by his friends and rising artists George Bellows and Ed Keefe, arrived at the cabin. What they saw was somewhat disheartening, to say the least - an unheated, unelectrified, unkempt house. They would be camping out for the next four weeks.

The O'Neill house at Zion

The elder Bellows, understanding what a winter month at the farm would really be like, sent the boys a box of cigars and several bottles of whiskey.

1873 map of Rock Mills/Zion indicating the location of the O'Neill property.

While Bellows and Keefe painted, O'Neill tried his hand at poetry. Years before the now-famous playwright penned "Anna Christie (1922)" and "Desire Under the Elms (1924)"  he told the postmaster, "Oh., I try a little writing - but I wouldn't tell anybody." He managed a few sonnets in the course of the month.

George Bellows - Jersey Hills (1909)

George Bellows and Ed Keefe were a little further along in their careers. Members of New York's "Ashcan School", their work had already been exhibited to growing acclaim - notwithstanding the fact that Keefe would give up painting the next year.

The porch at the O'Neill house

Before he became famous for his vivid and visceral depictions of prizefighters, Bellows was painting New York street scenes. In that vein, he took his easel and paints up and down the Sourland Mountian that winter and was often to be seen with a local resident peering over his shoulder providing criticism. Bellows was always happy to point out things that he was seeing in the farm buildings, stone fences, and fallen trees that were lost to people who had grown too accustomed to their surroundings.

George Bellows - The Brook (1909)
George Bellows complete eleven paintings in four weeks. According to locals, his favorite subject was Rock Brook.

Eugene O'Neill and George Bellows

On February 12, 1909, the trio returned to New York. James O'Neill kept the cabin for many years afterward, visiting at least once a year to pay his taxes and look in on the place. He eventually sold the property to someone who rented it out to summer vacationers from the city.


  1. What a delight to have deepened our knowledge of this place that I love so much and to think that Bellows & O'Neill hung out there. Thanks.

  2. Just curious. What was your source for this story?

  3. Just curious. What was your source for this story?

    1. Henry Charlton Beck had some of this, then I surfed all over the internet to fill in the details, as I recall.

    2. The New Brunswick Home News also did a atory in 1930.