Hats? Rags? Snuff? How one town on the Musconetcong River Evolved
We don’t always recognize the historical treasures in our own backyard. One such example is New Hampton, a section of Lebanon Township, situated on the Musconetcong River, with interesting stories to tell. This tiny hamlet is packed with history and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
This nearly 300 year old settlement (one of the oldest in the region) is located adjacent to the colonial road that ran from Trenton to the Oxford Furnace (today’s Route 31). Its taverns and hotels served weary travelers. Other businesses included a general store, tailor, blacksmith, and cooper. These businessmen traded with the local Native Americans, supported valley farmers, and facilitated the local iron mines and forges.
The surrounding forests were cleared and burned for charcoal, which was needed for high temperatures to smelt iron. Unfortunately, this practice soon resulted in a disappearing forest and the end of the forges. The original Native American population was stricken by white diseases such as small pox, measles, and influenza (against which they had no immunity). In 1778, the New Jersey Legislature established a permanent home for the Lenni-Lenape tribe on a reservation in Burlington County, effectively erasing them from the Hunterdon County hills they called home.
Despite those changes, the hamlet continued to flourish. Later, commercial activity in New Hampton during the late 1800s and early 1900s consisted of a hat factory, a mail order business at the general store, and a snuff mill. For a short time New Hampton was referred to as “Snuff Town.” The Shoddy Mill, whose remains lie between Musconetcong River Road and the river, served as a collection facility for used clothing or “waste” (hence the name shoddy). The mill used the river for power to convert this “waste” into industrial rags.
Downhill from the mill, the Shoddy Mill Bridge facilitated local trade over the river. Constructed in 1868 as a Pony Pratt Truss Bridge, it remains one of the three truss bridges in New Jersey. The Pony Pratt Truss Bridge was America’s first scientifically-designed truss bridge.
One notable resident was Daniel Morgan. As a teenager during the 1700’s, Daniel left New Hampton and ventured on his own to Virginia. He fought for the British in the French and Indian War and later joined the American Revolutionary Army. Despite no formal education, he rose to the rank of General. His leadership contributed to the British defeat in Saratoga, and his brilliant strategy in Cowpens, South Carolina, enabled the Americans to rout the British who fled to Yorktown, Virginia – the site of the final battle of the Revolutionary War.
In 1825, the New Hampton School opened. Constructed on land provided by resident Henry Dusenbery, the school was a one story building until a second story was added in 1870. It was in continual use as both a public school and Sunday school until 1929. The school building then spent many years in neglect and disrepair until a small and dedicated group of historians worked to preserve it.
In 1982, the school reopened as a Museum, one of the few found along the Musconetcong River with Dorothea Connolly as its first Curator. Dorothea was also an early MWA member, and she arranged for the Association to hold its meetings at the museum in what was the first official MWA meeting place.
The Lebanon Township Museum provides educational displays and programs throughout the year. Gina Sampaio, Museum Curator, provided much of the information in this blog. To learn more about the Museum or to contact Gina, visit: www.lebanontownship.net/services/museum.aspx.
To become more involved with protecting our historic and environmental resources, join the MWA, and learn more about how your river town helps manage and protect these resources through the Musconetcong River Management Council.