North America,  Travel

On the Trail of Bonny River Towns

Summer has come in with a show of jazz hands. The days are hot, and the nights so lovely and soft, filled with breezes of pure delight and fireflies that twinkle and dim like their very lives depend upon it. The gentle warmth in the air has as if unlocked the ridiculously sweet fragrance of the Sweetgum trees in the park. Every night as I walk through the maze of tall trees, a strong scent cocoons the senses in the quiet of the night. A skunk skulks around in the dark and I look warily at its quivering fan of a tail. Would not do to spoil the peace of the night.

Which reminds me of the other evening when a friend accompanied me on my nightly walks. She shrieked hard at the sight of a skunk. I do not know who was more startled – the skunk or I.

Summer is the time to potter around and we have been doing so on weekends —  seeking the solitude of the small towns that flank the mighty Delaware. The river that the Lenape Indians called Lenapewihittuk. It means rapid river of the Lenapes. But I have found it to be a remarkably serene river for the most part. To pick your way slowly along the Delaware is to pave the way for bluish green hills and rolling farmlands (how they make me sick for the British countryside) which land you in the middle of surprisingly photogenic towns nesting along the river. Perhaps you remember Lambertville (there’s a separate photo op on it here) and New Hope. They are of the Delaware river town tribe that set us off on this trail.

Imagine here, towns with historic vibes, all part of the Lenape belt where the Algonquin speaking Native Americans lived. That is till colonisation took place and the settlers came in, hopping around, renaming places and rivers. Delaware, for instance, was named after a British politician, Baron De La Warr. Along with some heritage, throw in generous dollops of old architecture, art galleries, antique centres, decor boutiques, bookshops, and friendly folk — and you know it’s gonna be something special.

It turns out that the Raritan River, which is connected to the Delaware River via a canal, has its share of pretty townships. Like Clinton, a town in Hunterdon County in New Jersey, where we ended up in our quest for placid weekend rambles.

The main protagonist of Clinton is a red mill. The rest of the town is cobbled together with old houses built in ornate architectural styles. Plenty of balusters, gables, pilasters and porches there.  During the 1800s, travelling theater companies would make stops in Clinton because of its banging music hall. But all footsteps now lead to a couple of old mills there that straddle the South Branch of the Raritan River. I have a weak spot for barns and mills. The older, the better (but of course).

Under the sufficient glare of a June sun, we trod across the rusted grid of the truss bridge. On one side of it stood two picture-perfect mills, facing each other across the smooth spill of a man-made waterfall. A small flock of geese drifted around the waters and everything around was somnolent in the heat, like a picture playing out in slow motion. On the other side of the bridge, we watched an angler, submerged in knee-deep water, cast a fly rod into the mossy green waters. I wonder if he struck lucky. Meanwhile, people sat on garden chairs of some café that lined the pavement along the river – and I would like to think that they took cooling chugs of heady drinks to stave off the heat shimmering around us.

Now the Red Mill is the kind of place you walk into and get lost for the better part of an hour. The men behind its conservation must have put in enough thought to engage the visitor, for it is mighty easy to induce a snooze fest with so many details. It is when you recreate the lives and stories of people who worked and lived around the mill that it can spark off the imagination. The mind then latches onto the recreation of a lifestyle that was the only one the people of the age knew and lived. Several universes away from this modern world of ours where man has contrived to make life as divested of effort as possible.

A one-house schoolroom with its coal burner, small wooden chairs and slate-boards, the blacksmith’s quarters, the quarries where Irish immigrants must have slaved away to earn their daily bread, corn cribs and herb gardens, … life would have been tough and yet rewarding for the settlers who made a living off their surroundings. Just for those moments when I was peering into the schoolroom, sheds, quarries and log cabins, I was whisked back in time to the Smoky Mountains where the legacies of the settlers are everywhere, even in the mid of dense forests. Come with me into Clinton and have a peek?

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Main Street in Clinton
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Historic properties line the roads of Clinton
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A lane that turned out to be not Dickensian in the least but filled with vintage guitars, bearable Thai food and friendly locals.
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Maine Coons of Clinton on the prowl
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They have great personality, like you can well make out from the visage of this whiskered beauty.
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Candy pink and white ice-cream parlours
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The bootery in town
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Graffiti showcasing the Red Mill and the adjoining quarries 
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The old truss bridge 
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The stone mill on the South Branch of the Raritan River, known formerly as the Dunham-Parry Mill. Nowadays it goes by the name of the Hunterdon Art Museum. It was a grist mill before it was repurposed to serve as a space for art lovers. Before this particular stone mill came up, on this site stood another mill that is said to have been used by George Washington’s army to grind wheat in the mid-1700s.


The Red Mill. A Mr. Ralph Hunt owned both the Red Mill and the Dunham-Parry Mill in the 1800s so that the town was naturally called Hunt’s Mills. However, his use of the Red Mill as a wool producing one ran into severe losses and he had to let go of it. The mill changed several hands over the decades. The subsequent merchant owners decided to rename the town from Hunt’s Mills to Clinton, after the New York Governor of the time, DeWitt Clinton.
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Fly fishing on somnolent days in the South Branch of the Raritan.
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The Red Mill went into operation around the early 1800s and has had many epithets since. First  was Hunt’s Mill, as you well know by now. Then it was dubbed the Black Mill. You see, one of the new owners turned from making grist to graphite. Greasy black dust issued forth from the mill. The same owner decided to switch next to the production of talc. So the next local name for it was the White Mill. And now, as you see, it is the Red Mill.
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Willows and an old pick-up made for good friends
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The look of the mill has changed with each ownership. The mill I saw that day with Adi was the result of centuries of tweaks.
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In the same county as Clinton, roughly 10 miles away, is the town of Alexandria where this one-room schoolhouse called Bunker Hill School House once stood. It was the Old Church School then and began life as a log building in the 1700s that was revised to give way to this 1860-frame. In use till the early 1920s, it was retired and used as a chicken coop and pig house before it was moved in the ’70s to its current location within the compound of the Red Mill.
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Students from the year 1891. They would have studied by the light of kerosene lamps and the sexes would have sat separately in the room. Girls to the left, boys to the right. The ‘good’ students would have been awarded the privilege of stoking the fire in the coal stove that heated the classroom. Students who were poor at studies would have got the dunce cap and high corner stool treatment. Loos were outdoors and these little men and women would have made do with corn cobs and catalogue pages as toilet paper. 
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Parsing the school room as it was. Windows came with generous frames as you can see, to allow the room maximum exposure to natural light, there being no electricity at the time. The children had sand tables at the front of the classroom to practise writing and on a shelf at the rear of this room there used to be pails in which the students carried their lunches.
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Coal stove
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Old school paraphernalia. No laptops here, mind you.
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The Tenant’s House for quarry workers. It had a parlour and kitchen on the first floor and two bedrooms on the second. The unit was first built by an Eli Bosenbury in the 19th century for the sum of $38. Life was notoriously simple. There was no electricity till the 1940s, so it was lived in the light of kerosene lamps, water had to be lugged to the kitchen in 8-quart buckets from a spigot located outside since there was no plumbing, children slept on the floor on mattresses, and stacked their clothes on the floor, there being no dressers at their disposal. 
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One of the quarry workers who lived in the Tenant’s House starting 1860 was Peter Dalrymple. He was a day labourer who paid up $25 annually as rent for this house. He had a large family that included his wife and 8 children. From the expression of their faces on this snippet, they look quite contented to me despite the hardships they must have faced in their daily lives.
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The replica log cabin, modelled on the early 18th-century childhood home of local Revolutionary War General, Daniel Morgan. Here is a typical way the original colonial settlers lived when they occupied this new land.
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The log cabin originally had a sod roof which had to be watered during dry spells. Log cabins usually had these small rooms because trees that were used were seldom more than 30 feet in length. Plus smaller rooms could be heated more efficiently by the open fires on which one cooked as well.
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Windows were small and few to prevent the loss of heat, and more than often they had no glass,  but were covered by a loose fabric. Roofs were pitched low and there was normally just enough headroom to allow a sleeping loft for children because it was warmer near the chimney.
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Essentially your kitchen garden
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Corn crib where corn was dried and stored
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The quarry was named the Mulligan Quarry after the Irish Mulligan brothers from Cavan County in Ireland who worked at the quarry and later bought it.
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Clinton was rich in dolomite limestone, a kind of calcite rock. After a great fire in the town in the 1800s, Mulligan stone was used to rebuild the town.

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The Stone Crusher and Screen House stands adjacent to the quarry. Limestone was dynamited and loaded here. Large chunks were pulverised and the screen sorted them out into four sizes that would then be led into chutes to be loaded onto wagons that would wait at the bottom of the building.
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An impressive 19th century carriage shed
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Kayaking on the South Branch of the Raritan
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Because one cannot have enough of such views.
Or this, for that matter.


  • lexandneek

    The Red Mill is such a beautifully preserved place. I loved The Bunker Hill school and the photo of the children who had attended long ago – how solemn they look! What a great visit to such a historic place. Thanks for sharing it and also your encounter with a skunk 😉 Neek

    • dippydottygirl

      Hehehe, thank you for noting the skunk-y details of this post, Neek. The Red Mill was so engaging. I loved it! Hope you all are doing well. xx

      • lexandneek

        Yes, we are despite having another aftershock early this morning from the Ridgecrest quake. We are hoping things get better for the residents in that area. Hope you have a great weekend!

        • dippydottygirl

          I just heard about it. Glad you are safe. It is literally shaking to feel the tremors. Amen to the thought of residents recovering from the effects of it. You too have a good weekend, Neek. *hugs

  • Virginia Duran

    What a delightful introductory paragraph. It got me hooked into the story. The mills are stunning and the scenery around them so beautiful. Recently, I’ve been reading about Victorian children, their education, diseases and aspirations and your words and images made me curious to continue my research to the other side of the pond. Hope summer continues going well on your side.

    • dippydottygirl

      Hey V, thank you. 🙂 I think these old towns full of Victoriana would be up your alley, and what with the various styles of architecture to browse through, you would be a busy bee.
      Wish you a wonderful London summer too love! xx

  • wanderessence1025

    I love your visits to these small towns. Your photographs are really interesting; you have such a great eye for composition. And I love reading your introduction as well. I’ll come along to these villages any time. I need to get out and take some little wanders to small towns around me. I take them all for granted as I’ve lived here for so long! Thanks for the inspiration. 🙂

    • dippydottygirl

      Aw thanks Cathy! Gladdens my heart to read this. We are trying to make the most of these weekends. Since we love antique-ing, it feels grand to stumble across these towns and go a little berserk trying not to pick up every neat thing we come across. I know that it is easy to take things for granted. We are all guilty of it.
      You have a fun weekend. xx

  • TheresaBarker

    Lotta history here! though modern compared to spot in England. (sorry!) Dippy Dotty Girl, I love your graceful and thoughtful text articles. How long does it take you to write them? It seems to flow so naturally, but I’ll bet a lot of writing and rearrangement may be involved to achieve the natural effect. Love it! 🙂

    • dippydottygirl

      Hehe, I hear you Theresa. You said it. 🙂
      Thank you for the words. It did take me time because I am flitting in between writing and attending to house guests for a month and you know writing requires solitary sessions. It is not easy to disengage from everything and just keep writing. I see why people attend retreats! Love and hugs. xx

      • TheresaBarker

        House guests! That’s a commitment. And in July – I’m imagining it’s warm temperatures and muggy there in NJ. 🙂 Yes, having time to oneself and the quiet space to write is a gift. Have a wonderful weekend! xx

        • dippydottygirl

          It is. The in-laws. 🙂 It is hot but not yet too humid, the latter in fits and starts. The unbearable version of it shall arrive in a month. I think one needs a coffee shop a step away, a quiet room and a whirring fan for company, to write peacefully. 😉 Hope you are having a wonderful weekend too, lovely. xx

  • restlessjo

    I love the chaos with a cat photos and that wonderful upside down kayaking. 🙂 🙂 Beautifully written and presented. I want to dabble my toes by a mill.

    • dippydottygirl

      Thank you Jo. 🙂 Hahaha, I like your observations. To dabble your toes by a mill is a fine, fine idea. As good as scones and tea after a long hike. xx

  • Mad Hatters NYC

    I’m glad you warned us about the “bearable Thai food”, but I’m sure I’d be happy with something substantial from that adorable scoop shop instead 😉 What a fun find!

    • dippydottygirl

      I have hardly come across average Thai in this country yet, you know. So I was a bit bummed. The law of averages had to level it out for me. 😛 The scoop shop is reserved for our next trip back to Clinton, because it is too pretty not to see again. 🙂 xx

  • carolinehelbig

    What a charming town, but I must admit I got stuck at the cat photos—big fan of felines, particularly Main Coons. The old photos are great; everyone looks so “put together”, even the workers.

    • dippydottygirl

      Danke schoen, Caroline. The Maine Coons are such feline supermodels! I am not a big fan of cats (more of a dog person), but it was easy to fall in love with these beauties that kept curling themselves around my legs. I get what you mean by ‘put together’ wrt to the people from those old photos. I am fascinated by them. They speak volumes if you look at them long enough.
      Hope you have a productive week. xx

  • equinoxio21

    Still exploring America? 🙂
    Been out of the blogosphere for almost 2 months. 6 weeks in Paris were a hard sacrifice. 😉
    Sorry to report I din’t find Tagore in the boxes that were at my brother’s.
    (But we didn’t have time to open all the boxes – brought Tolstoï’s War and peace back though – so I have hope for next year.)
    Hope all is well with you.

    • dippydottygirl

      Nah exploring Europe and you know how it sinks its claws in. Now returning home should be a chore. I can well believe that Paris occupied all your time and blogging must have been right behind everything else. Just as it should.

      No worries about not spotting Tagore. Books come and go. War and Peace is one of the best. Enjoy reading it again.

      • equinoxio21

        Yes, Europe “doth” sink its claws in. 🙂 (And I never travel and blog. No time. The blogging comes back afterwards.
        War & peace I’m glad I’ve brought back along with one and half suitcase of books. I think I only to go Paris to buy books. 😉
        But before Tolstoï, I’ve just read King Lear. I thought I’d already read it, but no. What a book. And what misery did one live – or die – in in those times.

        • dippydottygirl

          It is but one of the greatest. I have forgotten King Lear almost. Time to revisit it perhaps. 🙂

          Blogging can wait. While travelling, there is no time for anything else, but living in the moment. I hear you.

          • equinoxio21

            All Shakespeare is worth a visit or re-visit. Macbeth is probably my favourite. (Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…) 😉
            I also go back to Enid Blyton when I want something fresh to briefly alleviate the world’s atrocities. Just moved Kamala Markandaya to the re-read shelf. 😉
            Be good ma’amji.

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