by Jonathan M. Hoppock
published in The Democrat Advertiser, January 25, 1906

This article was written by J. M. Hoppock. I have added corrections and additions in footnotes. Mr. Hoppock’s very specific description of this building, which was demolished long ago, is invaluable to students of the township’s history and early architecture.

The Risler School, photo from the Democrat-Advertiser, 1906

The old structure above shown has, perhaps, the rare distinction of being the oldest building still standing in the County, if not in the State, that was built for—and used—as a school house for a long number of years.1 It is located on the west side and near the Wickecheoche {sic} creek, about one mile southwest of Locktown, on the southwest corner of the farm at present owned by John T. Risler.2

It is a log structure, built after the manner of old-time buildings during the early settlement of this and other parts of the county in colonial days. The logs used in its construction are flattened at the sides by being hewn with the axe, notched at the corners and firmly held together by wooden pins. The interstices are filled with clay. At the northwest corner is a chimney with an ample fire place, showing that when used as a school room it was heated in this manner. It is twenty feet square, the door fronting the south with two small windows, one on the south and the other on the west side. The beams overhead are unhewn logs, notched and pinned into the topmost log of the frame work, seven feet above the floor of the room, the bark still remaining upon them, and are as sound as when first placed there by the hardy old pioneers of the long ago3

In what year it was built is somewhat a matter of conjecture, as no records can be found to prove the exact date of its erection, but from what can be gleaned concerning its history it is evident that it was built more than one hundred and twenty-five years ago.

Cyrus Risler and Anderson Bray, two of the oldest life-long citizens of this locality, both of whom are widely and favorably known, informed the writer that they both during their first school days were pupils in this school, Mr. Risler in 1834, seventy-two years ago, Mr. Bray nearly seventy-five years ago.4 Mr. Bray also informed us that the teacher at the time he attended was Abraham Chatman. No school has been kept in the old building since that time.

Mrs. E. Fisher, living in the same vicinity, states that she remembers her mother, Lucinda (Gordon) Reading, deceased, say that in this house was where she first attended school at the age of about eight years. As Mrs. Fisher’s mother was born in 1817, it is evident that she passed her first school days here more than eighty years ago.5

Daniel Heath, an uncle of ex-County Superintendent E. M. Heath, frequently told Cyrus and John T. Risler, both of whom are now living, that in this old house, at a very early age, he was a pupil, and spoke of others—then nearly grown to manhood—who attended at the same time. As Daniel Heath died in 1878 at the advanced age of nearly 87 years, it establishes the fact that it was used for school purposes as long ago as the time above given—one hundred and twenty-five years 6

Another verification of the foregoing statements is that, according to the records kept of the present adjacent school districts, giving the time and at what place other school houses were built, it is shown that (with probably two exceptions) no other buildings were erected for school purposes in this part of the township longer than one hundred years ago.

The first {school} house in the Locktown district, at present including that immediate part of Kingwood and Delaware on the north and east of the building here shown, was built in 1804.7 The first trustees were William Lair, Captain John Heath and Richard Heath. The first teacher was William Heath, who taught for about seven years, and was followed by Adam Williamson, who taught for about the same length of time. Readings, on the west, built in 1796. First trustees Samuel Wolverton, John Reading and John Hoffman.8 The few meagre records still to be found of Sergeants, on the south, show that a school house was built in that district in about the year 1800.9

From what can be shown by extant deeds, and also well authenticated traditional facts relating to the early settlements in this region, it is evident numerous settlements were made here more than one hundred and fifty years ago, a long time prior at which places named, houses were built for school purposes, and doubtless here, as in other parts of the State, the old settlers after having secured a title for their homes, erected their log cabins and cleared the land, their next great care was to erect a school building for the benefit of the generations that would follow, and doubtless by mutual efforts—and with their own hands—this “temple of knowledge’ was reared; still standing a mute reminder of the happenings of the long ago—a connecting link between the present and pre-Revolutionary times.

The farm upon which the old house stands, as before stated belonging to John T. Risler, is a part of the original tract purchased by William Rittenhouse in 1734. This tract was situated west of the Wickecheoche creek, and extended westward to the road leading from Rosemont to Kingwood.10 Portions of this were sold shortly afterward to the Greens, Gordons, Rousers and others. The staunch old stone mansion, built by Richard Green in 1743, and now occupied by E. L. Higgins, situated about one mile southwest of the old school house, was erected on the farm included within this tract, and was purchased by Green from Rittenhouse in 1742.11

On the east of this tract the Williamsons settled about the same time.12 This place is at present owned by Frank P. Williamson. Northeast from this, and still closer to the school house, is situated the old Gordon homestead, settled about one hundred and fifty years ago, now occupied by G. W. Mount.13 On the south adjoining the farm of John T. Risler, is located the farm now owned by Anderson Bray, who was born and has continuously lived on this place for nearly eighty years. His father, Andrew Bray, owned it before him, and his maternal grandfather, Elisha Rittenhouse, previous to this bought the place of Gideon Rouser, and built the handsome old mansion now standing upon it.14

The old stone dwelling built by Rouser, once standing on the site of the present structure, was torn down, and the stones used in building the walls underneath the same. Elisha Rittenhouse purchased and built here previous to the year 1800, and as Rouser is said to have occupied this place for a long time, it clearly proves that the first settlement here must have been made nearly one hundred and fifty years ago.15

About one-eighth of a mile east of the school house, on the opposite side of the creek, is still standing the old mill, known for miles around as “The old Rittenhouse mill.” This mill probably was built about the year 1780.16

Charles Wilson Opdyke, son of former Mayor George Opdyke, of New York city, in his history of the Opdyke family, claims that “Thomas Opdyke received from his father by deed, in 1775, 267 acres of land in Amwell (Delaware) township, and in the year 1790 purchased at sheriff sale the property on which this mill stands, and in paying for it used in part payment 107 acres of the land given him by his father, John Opdyke, to satisfy the claim of a dower of the wife of Benjamin Tyson.”17

As it is a well-known fact that another mill, or mills, once stood on the same premises, a short distance away from the site of the one now standing and that Peter Rittenhouse, prior to the Tyson-Opdyke purchase,18 was the owner of the property, the inference can be safely drawn that settlements were made here at least one hundred and forty-five years ago. The foundation of the house, a short distance from the mill, once occupied by Peter Rittenhouse, is still to be seen.19

In addition to these names given, many other families, long before the outbreak of the Revolution, within a radius of two miles from the old house, purchased land and made this part of West Jersey their homes, notably among the number were the Heaths, Suttons, Lairs, Myres and others, whose children doubtless received their schooling in this roughly built old cabin. The old building is rapidly falling into decay. The teachers (or masters) who once ruled here, not with a “mailed hand encased within a velvet glove,” but heeded the saying of the wise man of Israel: “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” have long since gone from earth, and the few remaining pupils living are men and women of nearly four score years of age.

Old methods of teaching have given way to the new, but if the same rigid discipline in the schools of today prevailed as in days of yore, perhaps the standard of morality would be elevated, and coming man be made a better citizen, if not a more polished scholar.20

For many of the facts here stated we are indebted to Anderson Bray, Cyrus Risler and John T. Risler and family for their courtesy.

Of the two other school houses referred to, the existence of which is well nigh forgotten, the one stood on what is known as the Ferry Road, two or more miles east, and the other nearly the same distance south of the old house shown in the cut on first page, on what was once known as “The Salter Place,” now owned by John W. Fisher.21 These three houses were probably built at about the same time. Of the last mentioned, tradition alone can be depended upon to bring it to memory.

John Hoppock, born in 1767, and grandfather of the writer, frequently told him that in his boyhood days he attended school in the old house on the Ferry road, and that his instructor was an English sea captain, a man advanced in years, and who, in consequence, had abandoned a sea-fairing life, and had become so reduced in circumstances that he resorted to teaching as a means of gaining a livelihood.22

18th century penmanship from John Hoppock’s teacher

He was spoken of as a man of much knowledge, a deep mathematician, and a skilled penman. A specimen of his penmanship is shown above.23 The copy of the original is at present at the office of “The Democrat-Advertiser,” where it may be seen. The old manuscript is bound with rough leather, and on the first page is written: “John Hoppock—his cyphering book, 1789.”

This penmanship of the long past, on paper with a coarse, rough surface (before steel or fountain pens were even dreamed of) with a pen made from a goose quill, certainly compares favorably with the penmanship of the present day. It would be a satisfaction to know if any school work (outside of this old manuscript) done in any school in the State one hundred and seventeen years ago could at present be found.24

The old Captain taught at the Risler school first described, and wound up his professional career at the house on the Salter place.25 The late Green Sergeant, Esq., who lived for more than eighty years at Sergeant’s Mills, near where this last named house was located, often told the writer that this quaint old school house was built of logs and thatched with straw, and that the old Captain, while teaching here, sickened and died. On being prepared for burial, twenty gold English guineas were found in a girdle around his person. The authorities took charge of this and gave the old gentleman a decent burial.

 

  1. I do not think Mr. Hoppock had certain proof that this school was in fact the oldest school in Hunterdon County. It may have been the oldest schoolhouse left standing in 1906.
  2. The Risler farm was located in Delaware Township on Block 10 lot 6, north of Old Mill Road.
  3. This is an excellent description of the type of log structure that was commonly built in southern Hunterdon County in the 18th century. Today there is only one known log structure remaining, which I hope to write about someday. Fortunately, the owners allowed Richard Veit, a well-known New Jersey archeologist, to study the building while it was being restored, and he documented its construction in a bulletin of the Archaeological Society of New Jersey.
  4. Cyrus Risler (1828-1921) was the grandson of Elisha Rittenhouse, who probably attended the school when it was built in 1780.
  5. Lucinda Gordon (1817-1897), the daughter of John Gordon and Sarah Fulper, married John Woolverton Reading (1812-1898) on September 21, 1839. Her daughter, Sarah Elizabeth, born 1852, married Charles T. Fisher (1851-1893) on November 25, 1873.
  6. Daniel Heath was born in 1791, so if he attended the school when he was 9, then it was in use in 1800. He was the son of Richard Heath (1759-1849) and Catharine Rittenhouse (1762-1830), and married to Rebecca Sherman (1796-1879). Their children were born about 1815-1820, and are likely to have also attended the Risler school.
  7. This Locktown school was built on a small lot leased to the trustees by Daniel Rittenhouse. It was located in Locktown, just south of the bridge over the Wickecheoke Creek, on the west side of the road. This later became the church lot. Since this article is about the Risler school, I will avoid going into detail about the other schools that Mr. Hoppock mentions here.
  8. The “Readings” school still stands on the north side of Route 604, not far from the old Wescott farm and the much older Reading family cemetery.
  9. “Sergeants” school also still stands, although it is not the original building of 1800. The surviving building was constructed about 1830 and is located at the intersection of Reading Road and Route 604. It is now a private residence.
  10. Not exactly. The Hammond Map of proprietary tracts shows that William Rittenhouse owned two lots of 177 and 241 acres which he purchased from Ralph Brock. These lots were located on both the east and west sides of the Wickecheoke, ending at Locktown on the north. What Hoppock is describing is the huge Biddle tract that ran from the Rittenhouse Locktown land west to Route 519. William Rittenhouse owned another tract of land running from Rosemont south along Route 519 and west of the Reading tract.
  11. Exactly where Richard Green lived is very difficult to say, because the property he owned was so extensive. He did buy land from Wm. Rittenhouse in 1742, but that property was near Locktown, not near Rosemont. On the other hand, his only son Samuel, would have inherited the home plantation after his father Richard died intestate in 1794, and Samuel lived near Rosemont. The jury is out at the moment.
  12. William Williamson bought his plantation in 1735 and added to it in 1742. The plantation straddled Pavlica Road.
  13. I assume Mr. Hoppock is referring to the home of Philip Gordon, who lived along Pine Hill Road from about 1793 until he moved to Ohio in 1839.
  14. That is, Anderson Bray’s maternal grandfather; but Elisha Rittenhouse did not buy the land from Gideon Rouser. It was inherited by Gideon Rouser’s son Jacob, and after Jacob died, it was sold to Thomas Opdycke, who sold it to Elisha Rittenhouse in 1801. See my article on Andrew Bray, and his wife, the daughter of Elisha Rittenhouse.
  15. Hoppock has omitted the fact that the heirs of Gideon Rouser’s son Jacob sold the farm in 1793 to Thomas Opdycke, who then sold it to Elisha Rittenhouse in 1801. If the original Rouser house was replaced by another one, it was most likely built by Thomas Opdycke, not Elisha Rittenhouse. See Mr. Bush’s article on the Bray Farm.
  16. Actually, there was a sawmill on this property in 1767 when William Rittenhouse bequeathed it to his son Peter Rittenhouse. There was also a mill here in 1791 when Peter Rittenhouse bequeathed it to his son Elisha. Egbert T. Bush wrote about this in his article Holcombe’s Mill.
  17. I hardly know where to begin with this misunderstanding. Hoppock is referring to land near Headquarters, which was never associated with the property on Old Mill Road. For a description of the actual land swap, please see my footnote to Mr. Bush’s article on the Bray Farm, as well as these articles about Headquarters: The Magic of Myths and Tyson’s Mill at Headquarters, among others.
  18. The Tyson name should only be linked to Headquarters, nowhere else.
  19. I would love to know where that foundation was located. Since Hoppock was writing over 100 years ago, it seem unlikely that the foundation can any longer be found. And I wish to emphasize again that Benjamin Tyson had nothing to do with this property. Thomas Opdycke bought it in 1801 from Elisha Rittenhouse.
  20. Hm.This shows how perennial is the feeling that schools just aren’t what they used to be.
  21. This would be on the Sergeantsville-Rosemont Road west of the Covered Bridge, on the Harriet Fisher farm. As for the location of the old school on Ferry Road, I haven’t a clue. No school is indicated there on the Cornell Map of 1851. Mr. Hoppock seems to be indicating a location on Ferry Road between Biser and Mezaros Roads.
  22. Oh dear. “Resorted to teaching? The teaching profession has long been held in low regard.
  23. Titled “Subtraction.” Too bad Mr. Hoppock’s grandfather did not recall the name of this memorable character.
  24. And also whether this particular specimen has been archived at the Hunterdon County Historical Society, or allowed to go the way of so many other old documents.
  25. This was the James Salter farm on Rosemont-Sergeantsville Road.