Giant Oak Caused Trouble Before It Arrived at the Mill.
A Big Event in the Town

by Egbert T. Bush, Stockton, N.J.
published in the Hunterdon Co. Democrat, September 5, 1929

The Oak Tree by Thomas Bewick

The Oak Tree by Thomas Bewick

This is another in a series of articles by Egbert T. Bush on the subject of Hunterdon County trees. Whenever Mr. Bush writes about an event, there is always an interesting back story—often more than one. This article about Stockton takes us north to Kingwood and Alexandria, and south to Lambertville. There are a few people of particular importance: John Finney, William V. Case, Edward P. Conkling and his father Rev. Cornelius S. Conkling. The biographies of Finney and Case can be found at the end of Mr. Bush’s article. The Conklings will appear in a subsequent post.

Today one might suppose that Stockton, as its limits were until the incorporation, had never been interested in big logs or in logs of any description whatever. But that would be a mistake. It is true that one might now walk leisurely up Saw-mill Avenue, from Bridge Street to Ferry, carefully examining the well-cultivated gardens on either side, and never suspect that anything like a mill of any kind had ever stood along his route. But for many years that narrow “avenue” was the scene of great activity in the lumber business.

from the Beers Comstock Atlas of 1873, Stockton Village

from the Beers Comstock Atlas of 1873, Stockton Village

Note: Stockton was incorporated in 1898, when it was divided off from Delaware Township. That was the result of new legislation allowing incorporation of small municipalities, and contributing to the huge number of small towns in New Jersey, perhaps more municipalities per square mile than any other state. This is a cause for concern among budget cutters. But it does give New Jersey an enriched cultural heritage that critics often overlook.

If you click on the image to enlarge it, you will see W. V. Case & Bro. located next to the canal. That little alley that ends at the house of Mrs. E. Wilson is the Sawmill Avenue that Mr. Bush is describing.

In 1862, John Finney, a practical timber man, came down from his old sawmill in the vicinity of Kingwood and built a bigger and better one where those gardens are now growing. He bought and cleared various tracts of timber. One large farm on the Ferry road to Locktown afterward known as the Finney Farm, was bought for sake of the large area of fine timber thereon. He lived here {in Stockton} until 1865, keeping his business always humming and always a benefit to the town. But he had bigger aspirations. In that year he sold out to William V. Case and Henry W. Case, and removed to Lambertville. There he became the head of the Lambertville Spoke Manufacturing Company. This company later added the manufacture of wheels to its other activities and became one of the big things in Lambertville, with Mr. Finney still at its head.

Stockton Spokeworks

In 1874, the Cases greatly enlarged the saw-mill, built a mill adjacent for the manufacture of spokes and formed a combination known as the Stockton Spoke Works. Nearby they also built a turning mill and put in machinery for turning handles for axes and various other tools. They became recognized as big business men for the time and place. They owned many properties and made Stockton a lively town. They employed many men—not many women, of course. At that time, women were still known (by men) to be incompetent as clerks, book-keepers, office secretaries or anything of that kind.

But big things, like big men, come to an end; sometimes they are swallowed by bigger things, sometimes they gradually dwindle away, and sometimes they blow up. This one blew up. In 1878, the bubble burst. Stockton was a long time recovering from the shock—if, indeed, it has fully recovered to this day.

It is surprising that Mr. Bush made no mention of the massive fire of 1877 which destroyed the Spoke Works. Iris Naylor treats of it in her book Stockton, New Jersey; 300 Years of History (p.32).

One of the many disastrous fires broke out on April 19, 1877 in the Stockton Spoke Works and burned it to the ground. The Hibernians brought their hand engine up from Lambertville but were unable to save the building. They did, however, help save the surrounding property. The senior partner of the firm of Wm. V. Case & Bro. promised to have the factory rebuilt and running within four weeks and he did. The company resumed business, turning out spokes by the thousands and shipping them all over the world.

It may be that in order to rebuild quickly after the fire, the Case Brothers got in over their heads. Mr. Bush continues:

The New Proprietor

In 1879, Rev. Cornelius S. Conkling of Frenchtown, who had been County Superintendent of Schools from 1870 to 1876, purchased the mills and most of the real estate of the Case combinations. He lived in the mansion house on the hill and did business here during the remainder of his life, his death occurring in 1888. Under his management, the business was less spectacular, but far more satisfactory. He told the writer that he had taken over the property and business in order to protect himself in some measure. No questions were asked, but the inference seemed plain.

Samuel Wilson's farm, Beers Atlas of 1873

Samuel Wilson’s farm, Beers Atlas of 1873

During all these years of active cutting and hauling from many of the fine tracts of timber to be found within range, hundreds of big logs had been carted to Stockton and fed to the hungry mills. But the master log of all was reserved as a triumph for the last named proprietor, who brought it down in 1885 from a mile and a half southwest of Quakertown. The tree stood in the southeast corner of a four-acre tract which had been a sort of head to a forty-acre body clipped off and destroyed many years before. Mr. Conkling bought the little tract of Samuel Willson, some said chiefly because that great tree stood on it. Be that as it may, the tree was calculated to arouse any man’s admiration, and the purchaser did like the unusually fine in natural objects.

I’m afraid Mr. Bush got his date wrong (although it might have been a typographical error). Here is an item published in the Hunterdon County Republican on August 31, 1882:

“The big log recently carted to the saw mill of Rev. Cornelius S. Conkling, came from the woods of Samuel Wilson, near Quakertown, where it stood the champion big tree of the neighborhood. It produced about 3,000 feet when cut. People differed as to whether it took ten mules or eighteen horses to draw this immense load. Ten is the correct number, but they were not all mules.”

Returning to Mr. Bush’s article:

The Giant Tree

Many a time has the writer walked slowly around the semi-vacant spot in which the giant stood, stopping to gaze up and down its great bole, now on this side and now on that, always lost in admiration of its magnitude and beauty. Fully fifty feet without a limb, then up and up, overtopping everything in sight, there it stood, the most magnificent growth to be found anywhere near, perhaps anywhere in the state. There it had been growing on Friends1 and friendly ground for about a hundred and fifty years. Yet it was not an old tree as old oaks go. It appeared to be young and vigorous, and was certainly without a flaw anywhere. If it had been left to do its most, there is no doubt it would have been growing to the present time. How peaceful it looked! In calm and storm it stood unmoved, never a visible tremor of its great body, let the winds blow as they might. So quiet it was, seeming to have absorbed something of the spirit from the soil and,

In its quiet and grandeur appearing to say,
“I’m the good quaker monarch of all I survey.”2

But the good old monarch had to fall—old as measured by generations of men. There it lay. Now the question was how to get it to its destination. The great trunk must be transported whole, not in parts. Stockton must see it in all its magnificence. And how could one think of desecrating that noble entirety without first making a grand display of it somewhat to mitigate the offence?

No wagon known to the local log business being capable of bearing the enormous weight, it was decided to use two wagons, one behind the other. That biggest log of all the country around was just what the owner had set his heart upon. It must and should be carried whole, no matter if it took all the horses and wagons available.

A Great Day

The day for action came and the Rev. lumberman soon appeared with his “Factotum,” the kindly term by which he usually alluded to William Menaugh of Stockton in whose knowledge of timber he declared himself greatly indebted.3 They came well prepared, bringing a strong force of men, two wagons and, as recorded in the memory of a reliable man, eight double teams. One wagon broke down in the loading and caused much delay. Another was secured, and the proud procession was at last on its way rejoicing. But their troubles were not yet over. Another breakdown was on fate’s schedule for the journey. That too, being finally remedied, the triumphant procession reached Stockton late in the day, and passed along the principal streets with horses properly caparisoned and horns raucously tooting, to the manifest satisfaction of the good old gentleman and the wilder delight of applauding youngsters.

To get from Wilson’s farm to Stockton, those heavily loaded wagons had to travel down Route 579 through Croton, and on to Route 523. I imagine the wagon broke down on that steep decline approaching the Sergeantsville Road. From there, they traveled along Route 523 through Sergeantsville to the north end of Stockton, where they encountered another steep hill. It was a very hazardous trip.

An alternative route begins in the Pittstown Road, then on to Route 12 and Whiskey Lane which would bring the team to Ferry Road, and another rather steep hill. The problem was getting the tree off the Croton Plateau and down to a destination close to water level, and over unpaved roads.

Trouble was encountered at the street corners, but the memorable feat was accomplished at last. The old monarch lay in state at the mills for the admiration of all beholders and the veneration of a few. For it is certainly true that great trees do properly inspire reverence in some of their admirers. Man at the head holds no higher place in animal life than the tree holds in vegetation, and it is becoming more and more doubtful whether any fallen monarch of historic or prehistoric times was ever carried to his doom with more unusual demonstrations.

The board-measure contents of this giant log were given out later. They ran far into the thousands, but, with no reliable figures for support, it does not appear safe to give what memory insists upon. Memory’s figures look too big and may be wrong. But it is safe to say: it was the biggest log I have ever seen in New Jersey.

A Visit Without Reward

A few weeks ago the writer grabbed the opportunity—yes, “grabbed” is the right word for it—to visit for the first time in over forty years the exact spot on which the monarch once stood. Briers and fallen trunks and barbed-wire fences resented the intrusion. But the walk of two hundred yards from the road to the corner desired, was accomplished by going this way and that and making the distance about three times as great. Nothing looked natural. Small trees and underbrush were claiming the grounds which the monarch had so long dominated as his own, never tolerating any such intrusion. Not a trace of fallen greatness could be found. The stump had gone the way of the monarch, the men and the mills.

It was a fool’s errand, of course. There could be no reasonable hope of finding what was sought. But I did want to stand once more on that spot, gazing up to the sky and imagining the old giant there in all his glory. And, to be strictly fair, it is by no means certain that there was not cherished a lurking hope of finding means thru which if ever too hard pressed, one might, as things sometimes go, prove the previous existence of the tree by exhibiting a sliver of the stump.

Postscript

John Finney

John Finney (27 Aug 1828 – 15 Jan 1894) was one of Hunterdon’s more remarkable characters. He was born in Connecticut to John C. and Katherine Finney. I do not know what inspired him to come to New Jersey, but he was in Bound Brook around 1855 when he married Elizabeth Boice Coriell, daughter of Ira Smalley Coriell (1799-c.1864) and Jane Manning Boice. By 1860, he was 29 years old, living in Kingwood Township, described as a farmer with land worth $3500 and personal property worth $1800. With him were wife Eliza age 27, and daughters Emma 5, Adelaide 3, and Ida May 2. Also in the household were Margaret Coryell 25 (1835) a domestic; and James Weekley 25, farm laborer.4 I do wonder if Margaret Coryell was related to Mrs. Finney’s family.

Finney’s Kingwood farm was located on part of the farm once owned by Gen. Daniel Bray, which was conveyed to him from the estate of Daniel Bray Jr. in 1859.5 He also bought property in Kingwood from Abraham & Sarah Flack of Kingwood and Joseph and Margaret White of Frenchtown.6 Although he was a farmer in 1860, he must have been logging at that time, for, as Mr. Bush relates, he had a sawmill in Kingwood before he built a new one in Stockton in 1862. Snell wrote:

“In the spring of 1862, Mr. John Finney erected a steam saw-mill, 120 by 20 feet, in Stockton, on the wharf of the canal-feeder, and commenced the manufacture of both pine and hard lumber.7

Finney bought his sawmill lot in Stockton in 1862 from Asa and Sarah Reed. He paid $1600 for a one-acre lot bordering the canal.8 He also bought a house and lot in Stockton from the estate of Job Woolverton dec’d for $1400.9

This location of Finney’s sawmill appears on the Stockton map from the Beers Atlas (above) showing the name of W. V. Case & Bro. Locating next to the canal made sense for transport, but it carried some risk. As Iris Naylor wrote in her history of Stockton,10 Finney’s steam mill was not even completed when a flood “carried off the engine house. The ‘June fresh’ as it was called crested at 19 feet at Frenchtown, one foot less than the flood of 1841.”

About the same time that the sawmill was built, Finney bought the farm on Ferry Road in Delaware Township from John A. Carrell, 125 acres for only $700, suggesting there was no house on this property.11 Deeds for surrounding properties make it clear that this farm was indeed on Ferry Road and not on the Locktown-Sergeantsville Road, which makes it strange that the Ferry Road would have been called the Great Road from Locktown to Sergeantsville. It is interesting that the property was called “The Finney Farm,” even though it was not his residence. Some of that property is now owned by the New Jersey Conservation Foundation and has been preserved as a natural land area where people can hike. I don’t recommend it in the early spring, as the ground can get pretty soggy there in the Great Swamp of Hunterdon County. But as Mr. Bush has often pointed out, the Great Swamp produced a vast amount of fine timber, which Finney was eager to harvest.

In 1866, Finney was elected a director of the Amwell Mills Company which was located in Lambertville; William Cowin was its president. That same year, Finney partnered with William L. Hoppock, miller of Prallsville, and Samuel C. Hoppock to purchase part of the Anderson Bray farm, a tract of 66.5 acres, for $6,000. It was sold back to Bray the next year for only $1,000, since all the value had been removed, which is to say, Finney and company had timbered the tract and had no further use for it.12 This was Finney’s usual practice.

Finney may have sold the Stockton saw mill in 1865, but Mr. Bush is mistaken in saying he moved to Lambertville that year. He became treasurer of the committee to erect a Presbyterian Church in Stockton in 1867. And he was still living in Delaware Township in 1870, when the census for that year showed that he was a 42-year-old lumber dealer, with land worth $40,000 and personal property worth $25,000. Quite a difference in ten years. His wife Eliza was 38, and their five daughters were Emma 15, Melia E. 13, Ida M. 11, Sarah J. 8, and Louisa 3. Living with them was Epa (Ephraim?) Shotwell 22, bookkeeper born in New York; T. A. Wabrith 26, woodturner born in Pennsylvania; and John C. Reed 19, harness maker born in NJ.

Also in 1870, Finney joined with other Delaware Township residents to promote a railroad to run from Flemington to the Delaware River, passing through Delaware Township.13 Rev. Joshua Primmer; Isaac S. Crammer and John Finney were appointed to wait on the Legislature and petition for a charter for the railroad. Although the bill was “before the legislature” by January 27th, no charter was issued.

Finney Lumberyard and Spoke Factory, Beers Atlas, 1873

Finney Lumberyard and Spoke Factory, Beers Atlas, 1873

Finney was definitely residing in Lambertville by 1873, when he had a house on Elm Street, just up the street from the location of his lumber yard and spoke factory, on the east side of Union Street.14

Although Finney was a man of considerable importance and wealth in Lambertville, he neglected to have his history and portrait included in Snell’s History of Hunterdon County. Snell did write that that for several years, John Finney was “the leading member” of the Lambertville Spoke-Manufacturing Company, owning 7/8s of the company stock.15 Another indication of Finney’s stature was the marriage of his daughter Emma to Ashbel Welch, Jr., son of the great engineer of Lambertville, in 1878.

Although the 1880 census for Lambertville does not list the value of property, we can assume Finney was even richer by then. Living with him were his wife Eliza, his unmarried daughters, and a black family—John and Louisa Hall, servants, and their 10-year-old daughter Clara.

John Finney died at Lambertville on January 16, 1894, age 65, without having written a will. His wife Eliza died on April 19, 1900, age 68. They are both buried in the Mount Hope Cemetery.

The Case Brothers

In her history of Stockton,16 Iris Naylor wrote:

“Finney sold the saw mill in 1865 to Wm. V. and H. W. Case. They enlarged the mill and increased the business, under the firm name of WM. V. Case & Bro., the same partnership that built the Stockton Spokeworks in 1874.

The photograph above is shown in the Naylor history of Stockton; and was provided by the Hunterdon County Democrat

The photograph above is shown in the Naylor history of Stockton; and was provided by the Hunterdon County Democrat

“The Case brothers built an addition to their steam saw mill in 1866 and installed a new 40 horsepower stationary engine. These improvements made the mill “one of the most complete running mills between Belvidere and Trenton.” In 1880 they were shipping lumber to Australia, Africa, the Sandwich Islands, Oregon, California and other places.”

There is a problem here—in 1880, the Case brothers no longer owned the Spoke Works, as Mr. Bush has written. It was sold to Rev. Conkling in 1879, so he was the one exporting spokes to the world.

William Voorhees Case and Henry Whitfield Case were the only adult children born to Henry Case and Mary Eliza Voorhees of Alexandria Township. William was born on July 19, 1830 and Henry on October 3, 1841. On May 20, 1857, William Case was married to Sarah Warne, daughter of George Warne and Sarah Fulmer with Rev. Cornelius S. Conkling officiating. It seems likely that this couple were members of Rev. Conkling’s congregation at Mount Pleasant. They had four children (Oretta, Laura, Lizzie and George).

Two years before the wedding, William V. Case had the unpleasant duty of having his father declared a lunatic, and himself appointed his guardian.17 Henry Case had been “under treatment” at the New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum from 1853 to 1855, when he was about 50 years old, and thereafter confined to the Asylum at Brattleboro, Vermont, with no hope of recovery. His illness was described in the petition for guardianship:

“. . . about three years ago {c.1852}, to the surprise of his family and friends and without previous apprehension on the part of anything of the kind, his mind and reason gave way and appeared almost if not entirely gone. He became very much excited, and very violent and threatening in conduct and conversation. He represented himself as the Deity, and invested with Supreme power, and that his commands and wishes must be promptly and implicitly obeyed.”

The account that Case rendered for his father’s property in 1855 shows that Henry Case was running a sawmill before 1853, which his son carried on for several years. Thus, William V. Case was no new-comer to the sawmill business when he took over the operation in Stockton. The account shows that from 1858 to 1866, William V. Case was able to increase income from the mill from $550/year to $3400/year.

In 1860, William V. Case age 30, was the head of the household, his brother Henry was 19, and their mother Mary was 49; also living with them was their aunt Rachel Vorhis and their grandmother Mary Vorhis, age 70. Both Henry and Mary Case died in 1876. In 1870, the brothers sold the Alexandria Township farm to Samuel Cooley.18 I do wonder if some of the money from the sale of the farm was used to invest in the Spoke Works.

As Mr. Bush described, the Case Brothers were investing heavily in their milling business and created the Stockton Spoke Works in 1874, apparently disregarding the impact that the Panic of 1873 might have on the business climate.19

While operating his own Spoke Works, William V. Case also partnered with Finney’s Lambertville operation, along with William Thatcher. They were “doing a large California trade.”20 Unlike the shrewd John Finney, the Case brothers overextended themselves, probably by rebuilding right after the fire, and by 1878 they were obliged to hand over their businesses and property to assignees—Edward P. Conkling and David Van Fleet. This notice appeared in the Hunterdon Republican on Dec. 26, 1878:

Notice is hereby given that William V. Case; Cyrus Risler and Richard Higgins, partners, trading under the firm of the Stockton Spoke Works, of Delaware Township, hath this day made an assignment to Edward P. Conkling and David Van Fleet, their Assignees, for the equal benefit of their creditors and that the said creditors must exhibit their respective claims, under oath or affirmation within 3 months.

Note that by this time, younger brother Henry had given up his interest in the Spoke Works. But he had not completely severed his ties. On Jan. 2, 1879, Conkling and Van Fleet advertised the sale of the personal property of William V. Case and Henry W. Case, partners trading as the firm of William V. Case Bro. & Co., of Delaware Township. The advertisement offered:

Over 8,500 feet of Pine Boards, 550 feet of Poplar Boards, 370 feet of No. 1 Poplar Boards, 200 feet of Cherry Boards, 3000 feet of Felloe Plank, 390 feet of Chestnut Boards, 19,000 feet of Plank of assorted wood and vast selection of other cut wood and logs. Also, Wagons, saws and other equipment used in the business.

On February 6, 1879, Conkling and Van Fleet, as assignees of William V. Case, Richard Higgins and Cyrus Risler, partners, trading under the name, style and firm of “Stockton Spoke Works,” advertised a “Sale of Real Estate.” The sale was to take place at the Spoke Works on March 8, 1879, and included about one acre of land with all the factory buildings and equipment.

In a separate sale on the same day, the remaining real estate of the Case Brothers was offered for sale, including a parcel of six lots in Stockton, the first of them being the saw mill with double stone dwelling house, ice house, office, blacksmithing shop, barn and sheds. Also four more dwelling houses, a grain & store house and an empty lot.

On March 27, 1879, William V. Case and wife Sarah, of Philadelphia, and Henry W. Case of Brooklyn, New York, quit claimed to Cornelius S. Conkling of Frenchtown for the sum of $1 their rights in several lots consisting of the Spoke Works, the sawmill and other properties in Stockton Village.21 This suggests that as soon as the brothers found themselves forced to assign their property, they got out of town. It must have been a terrible disgrace considering how ambitious they had been.

Henry Case married Sarah Jane Atwood, daughter of Rev. Joseph Atwood and Louisa Cranmer, in Camden, NJ on September 18, 1879.22 This seems odd, given how far away Brooklyn is from Camden. Henry Case continued to work as a lumber merchant in Brooklyn, where he and Sarah Jane were counted in the 1880 census. Henry died there in 1908. I do not know where he was buried.

Like his brother, William V. Case also continued to work as a lumber merchant, but in Philadelphia, where he died in 1898. He was buried in the Mount Pleasant Cemetery with the rest of the Alexandria Township Case family. His widow Sarah died in 1917 and was buried next to him.

There are two more gentlemen to describe but I will save their stories for my next post—“The Conklings, Father and Son.”

Footnotes:

  1. Samuel Willson, who owned the lot where the tree was located, was a Quaker.
  2. Mr. Bush was something of a poet—he published a book of verse called “When Leaves Grow Old” in 1916. These two lines are no doubt composed by him as something of a riff on a well-known poem by William Cowper entitled “The Solitude of Alexander Selkirk.” The opening line reads: I am the monarch of all I survey.”
  3. I know very little about Mr. Menaugh other than that he was born about 1844 to John Menaugh and Mary Dilts, and was working as a clerk in 1870, living with his widowed mother in the household of Robert Sharp of in Stockton.
  4. U. S. Federal Census, Kingwood Twp., 1860, number 277-371.
  5. H.C. Deed Book 120-530. And as recited in deed Book 120 p. 430, dated 1868 when Finney sold the property to Joseph Green.
  6. H.C. Deed Book 124 p. 585.
  7. James P. Snell, History of Hunterdon County, p. 386.
  8. H. C. Deed Book 125 p. 793.
  9. H.C. Deed Book 132 p. 302, 304.
  10. Stockton, New Jersey; 300 Years of History, p. 22.
  11. H.C. Deed Book 124 p.588.
  12. As described in Mr. Bush’s article of April 19, 1934, “Anderson Bray Farm and The Pyatt Family.”
  13. Hunterdon Co. Republican, Jan. 13, 1870.
  14. There are deeds dated 1869 and 1870 in which Finney purchased property from William Thatcher and William V. Case which probably relate to Finney’s move to Lambertville, although I have not checked them; they are Book 132 p. 138, Book 145 p. 74 and Book 146 p. 470. There are also two purchases from Charles Arnett of Lambertville recorded in 1877 (Book 178 p. 174) and 1880 (Book 189 p. 430.)
  15. Snell, p. 285.
  16. Stockton, New Jersey; 300 Years of History, pp. 22,27.
  17. H. C. Surrogate’s Court, Guardianship file #369.
  18. H.C. Deed Book 147 p. 471.
  19. For more on the Panic of 1873, see this article.
  20. Sheila Bihasa, In the Beacon Light, p.86.
  21. H. C. Deed Book 182 p. 238.
  22. This comes from an unsourced Ancestry.com tree—it needs verification.