26 December 2020

Somerville Poultry Farm (1954 - 1969)


Today, if the Somerville Poultry Farm is remembered at all, it is for its much-loved roadside Egg-O-Mat vending machine, like the one pictured above. But for Hillsborough residents who lived and worked near New Jersey's largest poultry operation in the 1950s and 1960s, the jogging of memories might better stir up the sentiment expressed in the newspaper headline below.

12 September 1962 Courier News

In the decades before 200,000 laying hens came to Hillsborough, the 100-acre plus property on Route 206 - site of the present-day Hillsborough Promenade - was the Seven Elm Farm. It was operated for twenty-five years by Socrates and Emily Yeomans and included the historic Abraham C. Whitenack residence.

Abraham Whitenack residence from the 1860 Farm Map of Hillsboro'

After the farm was used as a private airfield during World War II, the widowed Mrs. Yeomans signed a contract with a developer to turn the farm into a commercial airport. Hillsborough Township officials opposed the airport and promptly changed the zoning to residential/agriculture. This led to court battles - ultimately lost - which consumed most of the rest of Emily Yeomans' life. With what lay ahead, the township might have wished for the airport instead.

26 October 1956 Courier News

The Somerville Poultry Farm moved to the property in 1954 and soon had 60,000 chickens in residence. As eggs aren't the only thing that comes out of a chicken, the problems with odor began almost immediately. 

1963 aerial view of Somerville Poultry Farm

Falcon Road residents were the first to complain. As can be seen in the aerial view, the farm was right in their backyards.

18 July 1958 Daily Journal

The inefficient removal of the chickens' waste led to the second noxious concern - flies. Area residents were overwhelmed for years by swarms of flies so great that they couldn't let their children play outside. Spraying at the farm gave some relief, but the flies came back again and again.

Ads from the 1950s and 60s

By 1960 the farm had increased its output by growing the brood to 150,000 layers producing 100,000 eggs a day. This was no family farm. In fact, was it a farm at all? That was the question debated at the township committee meetings, where at least one committeeman, Robert Conard - a farmer himself -suggested that this was no farm at all, but rather a commercial establishment, and should be regulated as such. 

25 August 1960 Home News

Organized opposition began in 1961 and continued through the decade as the farm grew to 200,000 chickens and included satellite operations on Triangle Road and in South Branch. Each summer as warmer weather set in residents appeared before the Board of Health or the Township Committee to complain about the smell and the flies. By the mid-60s they added dead rats to their list - as the extermination program carried out at the farm did not require poisoned rats to actually die on the property.

Considering its fifteen years of somewhat notorious operations, the Somerville Poultry Farm quietly went out of business in January 1969 and almost immediately demolished all of the buildings save the historic Whitenack house.

28 November 2020

Scrumpy Cider Mill (1973 - 1996)

"Please don't call it juice!" That's the first thing apple cider entrepreneur Jerry Sundheimer would tell you if you asked him to describe the delicious output of the Scrumpy Cider Mill. Apple juice is that overly sweet pasteurized "stuff you buy in supermarkets." He began the business  - officially the Belle Mead Beverage Company, and known to locals as Scrumpy's - in his barn in 1973 and moved to the site of the old Belle Mead Creamery in Montgomery Township in 1977.


1977 Newspaper Ad

From there he built a regional apple cider empire. In a few short years, Sundheimer was the largest producer of apple cider in the tri-state area - churning out hundreds of thousands of gallons each season.

November 1981 Home News

It takes twelve pounds of apples to make one gallon of cider. Typical varieties used at the Scrumpy Cider Mill included Winesap, Golden Delicious, Delicious, Macintosh, Rome, and Cortland. Apples were sourced from all over New Jersey and New York and were delivered in half-ton crates.

November 1979 Courier News

Apples were moved to a conveyor where they could be inspected and stray leaves and twigs could be removed, brown spots cut away, and rotten apples tossed. Scrumpy is a word for cider originating in the west of England and typically refers to a hard cider made from apples that were not exactly choice.

November 1981 HomeNews

Before pressing, apples had a final cleaning in a water bath.

November 1981 Home News

The next stop for the apples is the grinder where they are turned into a mixture with the consistency of apple sauce.

November 1981 Home News

The ground apples are then delivered to the press through a hose.

November 1979 Courier News

Three thousand pounds of pressure is applied to produce the liquid cider.

November 1979 Courier News

After the cider is strained, jugs are filled and readied for shipment. Scrumpy Cider was ubiquitous in the refrigerated sections of grocery stores and supermarkets in the 1980s. The season for cider is typically between September and March.

November 1979 Courier News

For locals and daytrippers, Scrumpy Cider wasn't just a market day purchase - it was a whole experience. A trip to Scrumpy's in the fall offered an education in cider-making and a fun day out for the whole family. Just about anything and everything to do with apples could be purchased at the mill store - apple butter, apple pie, apple cake, not to mention the apples themselves!

Photograph courtesy of Vivian Makin

In June 1992 Jerry Sundheimer sold the business to a young couple - Kerstin and Francis Humann - each with graduate degrees in business and looking to become entrepreneurs. They dove headfirst into Scrumpy's - expanding the product line into juice beverages and other products while continuing to produce everything on site. Their hope was to build a business that would operate year-round instead of shutting down in April and May as Sundheimer did.

April 1993 Home News

The Christmas holiday season became a big part of Scrumpy's during this period. 

On December 19, 1996, a small blurb appeared in The Courier News stating that Scrumpy Cider Mill would close for the season on New Year's Eve. It is unknown whether or not they opened again the next year but by 1998 Francis Humann had begun a new career in the pharmaceutical industry where today he is the president and CEO of OncoVirx.

09 November 2020

The Amwell Road Bypass

For Hillsborough natives who return for a visit after moving away in the 1980s, it is utterly confounding - yet many who moved to the township during the mid-1990s housing boom do not even know it exists! The Amwell Road Bypass - officially known as the Amwell Road Realignment - was officially opened thirty years ago this month. 

28 November 1990 Courier News

The official reason for the construction of the 1.7-mile bypass between Pleasant View and East Mountain Roads was that it would allow motorists to avoid the dangerous intersection of Amwell and South Branch Roads - at the site of the Corner Store - although no accident statistics were ever provided.

19 February 1990 Courier News

The realignment of Amwell Road had been on the drawing board at Somerset County from at least the 1970s but began to pick up speed with the construction of four residential developments in the area later in the decade. A common stipulation in developers' agreements was that they include the bypass in their plans and contribute towards its cost. Because of that, the bypass was built in fits and starts - by the mid-1980s the right of way was basically cleared, and some roadbed laid down between Pleasant View Road and Ernest Drive.

21 February 1990 Courier News

Ironically the thing that helped get the project back on the front burner in the 1970s - the developments - is the thing that threatened to derail it in 1990. As homeowners in the new developments realized that the right-of-way in their backyards was not for a country lane but rather for a four-lane 45mph county highway, they protested. In their view, the fact that the bypass literally cut some developments in two outweighed any benefit for motorists. They quickly formed a group called Citizens Against Amwell Road Realignment and proposed as an alternative much less costly improvements to the old Amwell Road and the South Branch Road intersection.

28 November 1990 Courier News

Opponents were fighting an uphill battle as much of the work on the $2.2 million road had already been completed. Besides, residents in favor of the plan blamed the newcomers for contributing to the traffic woes which necessitated the bypass in the first place! The Amwell Road Bypass officially opened on November 27, 1990.

06 November 2020

The Old Flagtown Bridge (1912 - 1991)

In April of 1967, the State Board of Public Utilities Commission ordered the Lehigh Valley Railroad to submit plans for the reconstruction of the Flagtown Bridge. The Commission offered to pay 95% of the estimated $200,000 price tag and set a date of August 1, 1967, for submission of the plans. And then for the next 19 years, exactly nothing happened...

19 April 1986 Courier News

...except for the continued deterioration of the bridge. The Lehigh Valley Railroad built the 25-foot wide bridge to separate the dangerous South Branch Road grade crossing around 1912. But by the mid-1950s the railroad was in serious financial trouble, finally declaring bankruptcy in 1970. The railroad continued to operate through the bankruptcy, but repairing the bridge was out of the question.

22 August 1911 Courier News

Conrail - which acquired the assets of the LVRR in 1976  - likewise had no intention of repairing the bridge. In fact, they abandoned ownership of it altogether. A January 1985 state inspection report declared the bridge to be in "fair condition and needing only minor rehabilitation." Hillsborough residents were incredulous. Things came to a head in February 1986 when the Hillsborough Board of Education stopped allowing school busses to cross the bridge.

19 April 1986 Courier News

Rust, missing guide rails, and rotted planks - which made up the roadbed - were some of the more serious issues. Somerset County weighed in and agreed that the bridge needed immediate attention - but was unwilling to do anything about it - demanding that the state repair the bridge. At this point, Conrail suddenly decided that they owned the bridge once again, but couldn't get to it for another three years. And with that, Somerset County shut down the bridge. In the end, the state, county, and even Conrail, all contributed to repairs which took place in the summer of 1986.

26 July 1992 Courier News

Even before repairs were complete residents were agitating for a completely new bridge. A narrow 1912 bridge with wooden deck planking was just not adequate for modern Hillsborough. Plans for a new wider (32 feet) and higher bridge were approved in 1988 and work began in 1991. After multiple delays - which some say led to an automobile/train collision at the Beekman Lane crossing - the new bridge finally opened in the fall of 1992.

05 November 2020

Adams Air Park (1956 - 1967)

A search for the term "skydiving" on the newspaper archive website Newspapers.com yields just 68 hits for the year 1956 - the same year William C. Adams bought the initial 38 acres in Hillsborough and East Amwell Townships to develop a small airport to be known as Adams Air Park. By 1967 - the year Adams sold the property - that same search delivers a whopping 4,712 results!

Ad for the 1961-1963 TV series Ripcord

It is not known if the 36-year-old former fighter pilot and New York native had parachutists in mind when he laid out the runway and had an artificial lake dug at the foot of the Sourlands south of Wertsville Road - but the sporting daredevils eventually found him.

1963 aerial view of Adams Air Park - 
look carefully near the top of the image to see the airplanes.

In its first few years of operation, Adams Air Park seems to have catered to recreational fliers/airplane enthusiasts. World War II veteran Adams - who after the war was a professor at Horace Mann School for Boys - hosted Civil Air Patrol cadets at the airfield in October 1957 for an overnight campout including training and rescue missions.

20 October 1957 New York Daily News - 
William C. Adams is on the far left

International competition in the sport of skydiving had been taking place since the mid-1950s but the adrenaline-inducing sport didn't take off as a recreational activity in the United States until the early 60s. Excitement for the sport spawned a popular 1961-63 television series called Ripcord - and even led to a plotline in a Frankie and Annette "beach movie" - 1965's Beach Blanket Bingo.

West Point graduate Captain George Gividen  - a paratrooper who lost his left leg to a grenade while serving in Korea - began skydiving on the weekends after he retired from the Army in 1960. Before long he formed the Tri-State Skydivers and began operating the Tri-State Parachute Center out of Adams Air Park.

5 April 1963 Oakland Tribune

Between 1961 and 1965 skydiving competitions and exhibitions were regular features at Adams Air Park. Tri-State boasted 218 members in 1962 - eighteen of which were women. It wasn't always fun. Local newspapers regularly featured headlines such as "'Chutist Plummets 7,200 Feet, Lives", and "Chute Fails, Skydiver Hurt". During a Civil Defense exercise in 1962, a parachutist drifted off course and landed in a Hillsborough farmer's field. He was fined $10 for trespassing!

4 June 1962 Bergen Record

A June 1963 competition which attracted 200 contestants was said to be the largest US skydiving meet up to that time. An exhibition by the US women's parachute team that August featured a stunt where the women unfastened their parachutes while still airborne and dropped into the lake below.

27 June 1963 Ridgewood Herald News

The airport - including what then amounted to 352 acres of land - was sold by Adams in 1967. In the years that followed the property was used for various other purposes such as horse shows, and for a time the lakefront was a well-known illicit nude beach!

On October 26, 2020, the New Jersey Conservation Foundation purchased the property and added it to adjoining land in Somerset and Hunterdon Counties to create a 1,150-acre nature preserve. 

31 October 2020

Dine-Out Thanksgiving - 1930s, 40s, and 50s

Are you preparing the feast at home this Thanksgiving? How quaint! The modern family leaves the brining and basting to the professionals - or at least you might think so after taking a look at these area newspaper ads from the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, and beyond.

1930s newspaper advertisements

In the 1930s a full Thanksgiving dinner could be had at even the classiest establishments such as the Park Hotel for just $1.50. The best bargain didn't even entail leaving town, as the Three Towers offered a De Luxe Turkey Dinner for only a buck!

1940s newspaper advertisements

I love the graphics in the above ads from the 1940s - how can you go wrong with turkeys and pilgrims? Plainfield's Park Hotel ad from 1943 includes a family member possibly on leave from their military service - a female no less - enjoying Thanksgiving. The best places had raised their prices to $2 or more, but it was still possible to get a $1 dinner at the Brick House on Route 29 (today's Route 202).

1950s newspaper advertisements

I'll have to admit I never thought of Howard Johnson's for Thanksgiving - but in 1958, why not? The Town and Country Inn (the former Three Towers) offered a BYOT - Bring Your Own Turkey - service, but if you wanted to carve, please be sure to bring your own knives too! By the end of the decade, many restaurants had stopped advertising their prices - but the popular Somerville Inn was proud to boast of their $2.25 dinner in 1958 (kids half price).

I cheated on two of the ads above - the Amwell Farms Inn ad is from 1967 and Duke's Farm Inn (the former Town and Country) is from 1971. Still a pretty good bargain at $4.95!

13 October 2020

The Somerville Academy

On July 4th, 1801, in observance of Independence Day, some number of men from Somerset County gathered in Somerville to celebrate. Among them was Colonel Peter D. Vroom of Hillsborough and his nine-year-old son of the same name. The festivities of the day included public speeches - including one on the discovery of America given by the son of J.R. Hardenburgh, Esq. and one on the death of George Washington by young Peter.

Plan of Somerville showing the location of the Academy.
From the 1850 map of Somerset County

Colonel Vroom, who had served under Washington during the Revolution, was no doubt moved by his son's tribute to America's first president - but he was bothered by something. After the orations were complete, the men adjourned to the local hotel and the subject of education came up. Vroom and many of the others had sons between eight and twelve who were bright and would need to be educated beyond the log cabin schoolhouses of the rural county. They decided that day to establish a classical school - one where Latin and Greek, as well as the usual academic subjects, would be taught in preparation for a college career. On July 18th the group met again and adopted a constitution. Abraham Messler describes it in his book, "First Things in Old Somerset":

"[On] the eighteenth of July, at another meeting, a constitution was adopted, which provided for the erection of a building and the organization of an association aiding in its support and patronage. The preamble recites that 'whereas, an attempt made by the inhabitants of Somerville and vicinity, to raise by subscription in shares of ten dollars each, a sum sufficient to erect a suitable building for a classical school, had succeeded so far as to warrant the commencement of such building; that, therefore, it had become necessary to form a constitution for the government of the said association. The first article fixes its name as "The Proprietors of the Academy of Somerville", and defines it as an institution expressly set apart for the instruction of youth in the learned languages, the English, the arts and sciences, and public speaking.'"


At their December 1801 meeting, they fixed the price of tuition at $4 per quarter and authorized an additional $50 to attract a teacher. By March of the next year, the school building was nearly complete and the school had hired its first teacher, an Irishman by the name of Luca George.

Newspaper ads for the Somerville Academy from 1811, 1824, and 1833.

The only other "high school" in the area was the academy at Basking Ridge (known today as the Brick Academy). The school building was located on the west side of North Bridge Street (then called Jersey Street) between Main Street and High Street. Many scholars attended the school in the more than 50 years of its existence, including that nine-year-old boy - Peter Dumont Vroom - who grew up to be governor of New Jersey.

The school was discontinued in 1855 and the property sold to prominent landholder S.S. Hartwell.

23 September 2020

Five Iron Bridges of Hillsborough

Hillsborough Township, NJ might not be an island, but you wouldn't be able to tell that from the abundance of bridges required for autoists to escape the city limits. Bridges in Somerset County were mostly made of timber and stone until the first iron bridge was installed at Weston in 1872. Hillsborough's four - technically five - remaining iron road bridges were built between 1886 and 1902.

Nevius Street Bridge

On November 17, 1886, the Somerset County Freeholders accepted the Nevius Street Bridge as complete from the Wrought Iron Bridge Company of Canton, Ohio.   According to the National Register of Historic Places nomination form, Somerset County's oldest remaining iron bridge is a "two-span, 10-panel, double-intersection Pratt. pin-connected, through-truss bridge of either steel or iron approximately 300 feet long, 18 feet wide, and 23 feet high."

The Nevius Street Bridge circa 1912.
Note the 6-ton weight limit sign.

The iron bridge replaced an earlier wooden bridge spanning the Raritan River between Raritan Boro and Hillsborough that dated from 1846. Motorists who remember faring for the safety of their side-view mirrors before the bridge was designated as one lane can blame local residents who petitioned for a last-minute change to the design increasing the width from 16 to 18 feet! A width of 16 feet would have pretty much eliminated any possibility of two-direction travel in the modern era.

Nevius Street Bridge circa 1989

The Higginsville Road Bridges

Bridges two and three of our survey carry Higginsville Road across the South Branch of the Raritan River - both the main channel and a smaller channel that served as a mill race - in the Hillsborough Township village of Higginsville. The two bridges are similar in that each is of a Pratt metal through-truss design and they are each 100 feet long, 16 feet wide - but they are from different manufacturers and constructed on different dates.

Higginsville Road Bridges circa 1999

The bridge over the main channel, constructed in 1890, is a rare surviving example of a bridge by Milliken Brothers of Brooklyn, New York. Somerset County originally contended that because the river had two channels in this location, the bridge over the main channel was wholly the responsibility of Hunterdon County. It took a judge to decide that both channels of the South Branch - because they never were more than 500 feet apart - constituted one waterway and that both counties were responsible for both bridges.

In 1893 the Freeholders of both counties met to discuss what to do about the deteriorating 88-foot wooden bridge spanning the minor channel. After some resistance from the Somerset delegation, it was agreed to construct another 100-foot long, 16-foot wide Pratt through-truss bridge as a replacement. The contract was awarded to the Wrought Iron Bridge Company of Canton, Ohio - a company that had already built several other bridges in Somerset County including in North Plainfield, Somerville, Rocky Hill, and Raritan Boro. The only one of these bridges which survive today, besides the Higginsville Bridge,  is the Nevius Street Bridge described above.

Elm Street Bridge

One of the most recognizable bridges in Hillsborough is one of the six structures that constitute the Neshanic Mills Historic District - the Elm Street Bridge. Unlike Hillsborough's other iron bridges, the Elm Street Bridge is not a Pratt through-truss bridge but rather a lenticular truss bridge. 

The Elm Street Bridge circa 1980

After a devastating 1896 flood destroyed nearly every bridge on the South Branch and the main stem of the Raritan River between Neshanic and Bound Brook in 1896, Somerset County Freeholders had their hands full. The contract for the Elm Street Bridge was awarded to the Berlin Iron Bridge Company of East Berlin, Connecticut. Each of the two spans of the bridge is 140 feet long, and the roadway is seventeen and a half feet in width.

The Elm Street Bridge circa 1989

Woodfern Road Bridge

Our final bridge carries Woodfern Road over the South Branch of the Raritan River from Hillsborough to Branchburg. Like most of the others, it is a two-span Pratt through-truss bridge with an earth-filled stone pier in the middle.

Woodfern Road Bridge circa 1989

The bridge was constructing by J.W. Scott of Flemington in 1902 and is 187 feet long with a roadway width of 15.4 feet. This early 20th-century bridge was rehabilitated most recently in the 21st century and looks great today.

Woodfern Road Bridge builder's plaque

16 September 2020

The Great Train Hold-Up (1910)

On Saturday afternoon, April 30, 1910, excited passengers tumbled out of the cars of the Lehigh Valley Railroad's Buffalo express train as it made its scheduled 3:45 p.m. stop in South Plainfield. They hurried to the station agent eager to share what they had just witnessed as the train passed Flagtown - the greatest and most daring train hold-up in Hillsborough, and possibly New Jersey, history!

The South Branch Railroad - a division of the Central Railroad of New Jersey also called the Flemington Branch - runs parallel to the Lehigh Valley Railroad's mainline in the vicinity of Flagtown affording the Lehigh Valley travelers a view of the stopped locomotive and the South Branch passengers lined up outside the coaches as armed bandits, some on horses, held them at gunpoint and went through their belongings.

The daring caper had been planned long in advance, you might even say it was well-scripted. The bandits arrived at the scene early, riding through the Hillsborough woods before dismounting at a small clearing. Their leader described the plan. Disguised as a railroad flagman, he would go out onto the tracks with a red flag and stop the train between Flagtown and Neshanic. Once the train was stopped he would approach the engineer's cab with revolver drawn.

Another of the gang held the conductor at gunpoint while three bandits headed for the coaches. The panicked passengers dove under their seats and screamed for help, but to no avail. One passenger, E.J. Sanborn, was shot through the arm as he leaped at a robber in a desperate attempt to disarm him. Things seemed to be going well for the gang until they made their way to the first passenger car. 

2 May 1910 Courier News

It was here that the outlaws ran into two visitors from Virginia - F.J. Halley and R.J. Wilson - who were packing pistols of their own and returned fire. It was just then that the Buffalo express was passing on the Lehigh tracks in time to see some of the passengers from the second and third coaches of the South Branch train - who had been lined up alongside the tracks - realize they had their own firearms tucked into their belts. A general melee ensued. Mr. Wiley who had been guarding the safe in the express car jumped from the car and was met with a shower of bullets, but managed to get off a couple of good shot s dropping one of the desperados, then another.

There's more to the story - including how the bandits were eventually captured with the help of the two small children of the Flagtown station agent. But it is unlikely any of those scenes took place in Hillsborough. What those passengers on the Lehigh Valley Buffalo express actually witnessed that April day in 1910 was the filming of the train scenes for one of the first American features produced by the Pathe Freres film company - The Great Train Hold-Up.

23 May 1910 Daily Gate City

Pathe Freres actually opened a large film processing facility in Bound Brook, NJ in 1907, but it wasn't until 1910 that they entered the American market with narrative films of their own. Scenes filmed around the Flagtown train station were shown in some theaters independently of the full movie in May 1910, with the entire film - all 950 feet of it - being released later on June 25.

18 June 1910, The Film Journal

Although the film was a sensation upon release and was well-received by critics, it appears to have never been re-released and may exist now only in the hands of collectors. The first two images in this story are from the film, the third is possibly from the film. Other than those few images and the descriptions of the action from industry trade journals nothing seems to be left from The Great Train Hold-Up of Hillsborough!