Back in February, I published an article on the cemetery connected with the Locktown Baptist church. Previously I have written about the Baptist congregation here as well as the Locktown Christian Church and its Cemetery. It seems appropriate now to include Mr. Bush’s own history of this neighborhood, which was published in the Hunterdon Democrat, on May 22, 1930. Along with the churches, Mr. Bush discusses the school house, the distillery and the Locktown Hotel, which began its life as a humble tavern, and also some of the old families, like the Chamberlins, Heaths, Lairs, Rittenhouses, Smiths and Suttons. Photographs in this article were provided by Paul Kurzenberger.

View of Locktown, c.1925

View of Locktown, c.1925

The photo above shows the three principal institutions of Locktown: on the left, the Hotel or tavern, in the middle the Baptist Church, on the right the old store. Milt Smith, who died in 2012 age 94, is sitting at the base of the gas pump, and the roads are clearly not yet paved.

Locktown Got Its Name as Result of a Church Quarrel

First Church, Erected There in 1819, Is Still Standing

Old Families Have Gone

by Egbert T. Bush, Stockton, N.J., May 22, 1930

Among the good old towns and hamlets that have taken names from some trivial incidents or unimportant circumstances, Locktown stands out as probably the only one that took its name from anything like a church quarrel.

The Baptist Church of Kingwood (O.S.)1 was organized at Baptisttown in 1745. It grew and throve. By the early years of the nineteenth century, so many holders of that faith lived in the vicinity of what has now long been Locktown, that it was decided to build a church here, composed chiefly of members from the Baptisttown organization.

By deed dated May 29, 1819, Daniel Rittenhouse conveyed to Adam Williamson, Uriah Sutton and George Opdyke, “Trustees of the Baptist Church and Congregation of Kingwood,” one lot for the church building and an adjoining lot to be used for a burial place.2 The substantial stone house, still in fine condition, bears date of 1819.

Rev. David Bateman was the first pastor and served to the time of his death. By his own request he was buried under the floor of the church. If we remove the top from a table standing in front of the pulpit, directly over his final resting place, we find a neat marble slab inscribed: “Sacred to the Memory of Rev. David Bateman whom Jesus called from this life, September 10th, 1832, in the 55th year of his age.”

Dissention in the Church

The church remained harmonious and prosperous for several years. Then some dissention arose, dividing the congregation into two distinct factions. What it was all about, nobody seems to know; but things got so warm that at last one faction padlocked the doors against the other. The keeper of the tavern on the adjoining lot was not satisfied. His artistic eye detected lack of harmony. After due consideration, he came to the conclusion that three locks would harmonize better than two. So he secured the biggest padlock that could be found and fastened it against the wall, midway between the other two. Of course the ever-present wag saw his opportunity. He promptly nicknamed the place “Locktown;” and Locktown officially and otherwise, it has remained to this day.3

This interesting old church survived the storm, and prospered for many years. Then it began to dwindle. Now there are only about a dozen members, only one of whom lives in the vicinity. But it has set its indelible stamp upon the community.4

By deed dated May 8, 1832, Joseph Lair conveyed to the “Christian Church of Amwell” a lot upon which to build a house of worship, the deed providing “That the house shall be a free house according to the Principle of Christian Liberty, that it shall bear the name of Christian Chapel and shall be under control of the Christian Society so long as they act according to their views of Christian Liberty, believing as they do,” . . . Here is given a resume of the doctrines held by the organization. The house, said to have been built three years before the deed was given, is still in fine condition, and the organization is flourishing.5

The Tavern Built

The tavern on the corner lot south of the Baptist Church was evidently built by Daniel Rittenhouse soon after he sold the land for the church.6 He probably retained this desirable corner for that purpose. We find by his will dated 1843 and probated 1848, that Daniel left “the tavern property” to his wife Elizabeth, “so long as she remains my widow.” This shows the tavern as an established institution in 1843, but leaves the date of the building still a question.

In 1858, the tavern property, as the estate of Daniel Rittenhouse, was sold to Ely Britton, who sold it to Elisha Warford in 1863. Warford sold it to John Picker in 1868. After that time it had several owners for brief periods. Benjamin Horne sold it in 1907 to Mary D. Bodine, wife of Henry F. Bodine. She is still the owner and, with her son Harry B. Bodine, occupies the house. No license has been granted there for over 50 years.

From 1861 to 1863, the tavern was occupied by Elisha Warford’s daughter Mary Ann and her husband Benjamin Ellicott. They had been living in Baltimore until the Civil War made life difficult there. Ellicott kept a diary during his stay at the tavern which has been saved and archived at the Hunterdon Co. Historical Society. I hope to write about it one day for its personal view of the Civil War as well as the vicinity of Locktown. It is curious that Elisha Warford bought the tavern after the death of Benjamin Ellicott; perhaps it was to give his widowed daughter some security. Eventually, she and her children moved into her father’s house in Croton where they were counted in the 1870 census.

Like the other taverns in Hunterdon County, this one merits its own story, which must wait for another day. Mr. Bush continues with a chain of title for a farm to the north of Locktown:

May 1, 1816, Jonas Waterhouse sold to Daniel Rittenhouse a farm of 135 acres, lying northward from Locktown. The deed says: “Whereas Joshua Waterhouse at his decease was lawfully seized of 406 acres of land conveyed by certain deeds, one from George Fox, May 28, 1746, another from Israel Pemberton and wife, April 23, 1763, division having been made in 1799, Jonas Waterhouse became owner of the above 135 acres.” This farm was left by will of Daniel Rittenhouse to his sons, David and Dansill Later it became the property of George D., generally known as “Dans” Rittenhouse.

This is a wonderful and very valuable deed recital giving a chain of title back to 1746. The property was not the homestead farm of Daniel Rittenhouse, but instead an investment property, at a time when Rittenhouse was expanding his distilling operation. He no doubt had need of space for apple orchards as well as timber for the fires that kept the stills in operation.

Jersey Lightning

The place became somewhat noted for its distillery, from which the famous “Jersey lightning” flashed brilliantly, illumining much of the country around. “Dans” Rittenhouse is said to have been one of his father’s 32 children—18 by one wife and 14 by another. The tradition is persistent, but confirmation is lacking. No distilling has been done there for a half century. The farm was later owned by Samuel Worthington.7

The first school-house here, so far as can be ascertained, stood on a lot leased by Daniel Rittenhouse, April 5, 1805, to Richard Heath, Benjamin Rittenhouse, Sr., John Heath and William Lair, for 99 years, “for the use of a school house and for no other purpose.” The grounds are described as “adjoining the public road near the south end of the bridge over the Wickecheoche Creek, beginning at a stone, thence south thirty-three feet, west twenty feet, north thirty-three feet, and east twenty feet.” All that land was leased “for the yearly rent of one pepper corn every year.”

The grounds seem rather restricted. Yet in the little frame house built thereon, and with the road and the big creek for play-ground, the children of those days were probably as happy as modern children are in very different surroundings. It is even possible that, in spite of all handicaps—lack of space, of proper equipment, of easy and attractive books and of “trained” teachers—some of them did as well as their descendants do in fine houses, with beautiful yards and all the modern facilities for easy learning and laborious play. Certain it is that many “graduates” of that little school became prominent in later days.

In 1863, the Democratic Club of Delaware Township was created, with a president (Joshua Primmer), and vice-presidents from each of the township school districts. The 5th or “Locktown” district was represented by E. M. Heath.

Famous Graduates

Among such graduates, we may name a few. Edward M. Heath, Richard’s grandson, began his school life there in 1841. Equipped with what that school could give, he went to Madison University. Then he came back to be a teacher here in that and the present house until he was appointed Superintendent in 1888. Octavius P. Chamberlin and Harlem G. Chamberlin became prominent lawyers of Flemington, the former serving as prosecutor 1872-77. Andrew B. Rittenhouse was elected County Clerk in 1870. Many others and their descendants merit mention, but we must halt for the present.

The Locktown School, built in 1868

The Locktown School, built in 1868; Milt Smith in the doorway

The school-house now in use stands on land conveyed by Dutilly B. Sutton, November 19, 1866. The deed says: “Beginning at a corner to lands of Francis Rittenhouse,” and conveys forty-eight hundredths of an acre on the north side of the road. Francis Rittenhouse owned the property on the south side. He is thought to have built the store house, in which John Chamberlin, Elizabeth Chamberlin, John M. Hyde, Watson LaRue and Manning Sherman were later merchants and in which Joseph Smith now does business.8

We cannot find any very early blacksmith here. But that indispensable artisan must have “followed hard upon” the earliest settlers. We do find that in somewhat later days William Rockafellow, Harry Swales, Hiram Hockenbury and William Perrine carried on the business in the shop standing on the Heath property; also that Samuel A. Carrell did blacksmithing in his own shop opposite to the store, from some time in the 70’s to less than 20 years ago. All gone except the memory.9

Chamberlins, Early Settlers

The Chamberlins were early settlers here. Andrew Chamberlin of the township of Salem in the state of New York, by deed dated Dec. 31, 1814, conveyed to Alpheus Chamberlin two lots here, “which were assigned and set off to said Andrew Chamberlin by commissioners appointed to divide the real estate of Lewis Chamberlin, deceased.” These lots were partly bounded by lands of Alpheus Chamberlin and Alason Chamberlin. Other deeds mention other Chamberlins here.

Amplius B. Chamberlin, the County Clerk, evidently of the same family,10 was born in Vermont and raised in the state of New York. As a young man he came to Hunterdon County, taught school at Quakertown and other places, and came to this vicinity a little later, no doubt teaching here, more or less from 1836. At and after that date, we find him buying various small tracts of land. In 1848, Joseph Lair and wife and George D. Rittenhouse and wife quit-claimed to Amplius B. Chamberlin a farm of 95 acres lying a short distance northward from Locktown, “being the same that was conveyed to Peter Wert in 1799 and inherited by his daughter Elizabeth Lair and his granddaughters, Amy Rittenhouse and Rhoda Henley, daughters of his son John Spencer Wert, and the same that was conveyed by Mary and John Spencer Stout April 1, 1847.” This farm was later owned by John Eick, son-in-law of Amplius B. Chamberlin.11

Some Family History

Amplius B. had a family of 6 boys and 6 girls, all of whom except one son lived to grow into useful citizens. The attorneys before named were among them; another is Amplius B., second, the only surviving son, father of Dr. John Leavitt Chamberlin of Sergeantsville, named after grandfather, Dr. John Leavitt.

The Heaths were quite numerous here in early days. Edward M. Heath’s father was George D., his grandfather’s name was Richard and his great-grandfather’s name was Andrew. The Goodell farm—earlier owned by Jacob Rodenbaugh and still earlier by Joseph West—was the original Heath homestead. Now Edward’s son, Robert T., and Robert’s son, Edward, are the only representatives of the name in this community.

The Jacob Rodenbaugh mentioned above was the preacher at the Locktown Christian Church. The Heath/Goodell farm is located at the southwest corner of Locktown, now owned by the Waverka family. There is an old small stone house on the property that was no doubt built by some early Heaths.

The Locktown Creamery

The Locktown Creamery

By deed dated February 24, 1881, John Mechlin conveyed the creamery lot to Samuel Worthington, Asa Hockenbury, Asher W. Carrell, Jacob Rodenbaugh, Britton Bird, Wesley S. Hawk and Cyrus Risler, Directors of the “Locktown Dairymen’s Association.” The house was promptly built, and the association did a flourishing business for a long time. Then, it went the way of so many local enterprises of those days.

Jacob Rodenbaugh, Preacher-Farmer

The Jacob Rodenbaugh named as one of the directors, was then pastor of the Christian Church and an enterprising farmer among enterprising farmers. He bought the Joseph West farm of Amplius B. Chamberlin in 1879. He is still remembered by some of the workmen on the creamery building as “a live man about the works.”

William Lair owned two big farms, separated by the Ferry Road.12 He gave the one on the north side to his son Joseph, whose son Peter was living in Frenchtown in Centennial days and some years later. William’s sons, William, Mahlon and John, erected the three-story dwelling on the south side of the Ferry Road. This farm later came into possession of the Bodines, brothers of Henry F., the auctioneer. The dwelling is still a conspicuous object as we approach by way of the Ferry.13 No person by the name of Lair is found here now, the Rittenhouses are away out on the borders, the Chamberlins have no representative nearer than Sergeantsville, and many other old names are but matters of history.

A lifelong resident of Locktown used to say: “Locktown is seven miles from everywhere—seven miles from Flemington, seven miles from Frenchtown and seven miles from Stockton.” And it did appear in those days to be rather an isolated place of no great pretensions. But it was always recognized as a live hamlet, active, wide-awake and enterprising. It was a good old community of farmers, with a few indispensables thrown in. Difficulties arose, but its people were accustomed to overcoming difficulties. No profitable volunteer crops grew there, as in the tropics. Crops must be forced to grow; and Locktown people knew how to force them.

Locktown people lived in what has long been known as the Great Swamp, a situation caused by heavy clay soil laying over impenetrable argillite bedrock. Those who can coax a crop out of this are skilled farmers indeed.

I should add that Mr. Bush did not chose the title or the headings for his articles; that was done at the Hunterdon Co. Democrat, presumably to create a nice-looking layout. But often the headings are confusing or extraneous to the content of the article. I’m sure Mr. Bush was not charmed by that.

Footnotes:

  1. O.S. means ‘Old School,’ a designation for one branch of the Baptists of Hunterdon.
  2. The burial lot is not exactly “adjoining”, but is nearby, situated on the west side of the tavern lot. The deed stated that the burial lot was “adjoining the road leading from thence to Johnson’s Tavern.
  3. So far, this is the only source I have come across with the story about three locks. Mr. Bush was no doubt relying on the general wisdom of the neighborhood. It’s such a good story, I hope it is true.
  4. The church finally closed it doors in 1967, when Howard Johnson, the last trustee, turned the key in the remaining lock, “with sadness forever. Fortunately, it was not forever. The church is now owned by the Township of Delaware, and available for weddings and other gatherings thanks to the Friends of the Locktown Stone Church.
  5. See Locktown Christian Church for Sale.
  6. There is some evidence that the tavern lot came first. See Daniel Rittenhouse.
  7. For more information see Daniel Rittenhouse of Locktown.
  8. This was the father of Milt Smith, the little boy pictured in the photo above. He bought the store in 1924, and died in 1960.
  9. The building used for the blacksmith shop burned down many years ago.
  10. It appears he was not of the same family. His father was John Chamberlin of Connecticut, Vermont and New York, and his mother was Lydia Hosford, born in Vermont. The Lewis Chamberlain family spelled their name with the extra ‘a.’
  11. This farm was located in Kingwood Township.
  12. Odd that Bush would call the Locktown-Flemington Road, which is the one separating the two Lair farms, “the Ferry Road.” I assume he was thinking, the road to the ferry, which was located at Plum Brook, corner of today’s Ferry Road and Locktown-Flemington Rd.
  13. Several years ago this was the home of Floyd and Diana Evans. The farm has been saved under the NJ Farmland Preservation program.