Mention of Newly-cut Whiteoak Lumber Gives One an Appetite
Some Local Sawmill History
by Egbert T. Bush, Stockton, N.J.
Hunterdon County Democrat, October 17, 1929

If the boy has ever lovingly watched the operation of one of the original sawmills, the old man’s memory will often go fondly back to those boyhood days. Whether they were or were not “the good old days” of which we hear so much, makes no difference at all. They were the days in which sawmills along country roads were almost as common as filling stations are today. And how much more interesting they were, and how much sweeter smelling!

The fumes of gasoline are a sorry substitute for that indescribably appetizing smell of newly-cut whiteoak lumber. The common saying, “He eats like a sawyer,” was an apt expression for the gastronomic achievements of a really hungry man. And there is no mystery in that, for no one working in such wood could help being hungry. The mention of that smell, after all these years, makes one wish the women would hurry up that dinner.

And the water wheel—what a joy was that! There was life. There was power, visible and understandable. One could see it, feel it and enjoy the thrills of it thru all his after life. So deliberate but so sure. So soothing that, after a few minutes of looking and listening, the splash of the water and the rumbling of the machinery gradually slid into music so soporific that Morpheus, the ever-tricky god, was likely to intrude where he had no business at all.

And all the time the up-and-down saw was so greedily biting and tearing into the big log, so securely fastened upon the carrier that it could not get away. There was no little mystery as to how the carrier managed to move the log along just fast enough to make a comfortable bite for the saw, but it never failed.

Oak Grove and Croton Sawmills
Many such mills come crowding upon the memory, and in memory alone several of these are now to be found. The sawmill at Croton and the one at Oak Grove—both now things of the past—appear as rivals for the boy’s first love in that direction; Croton because of very early and frequent association, and Oak Grove because of its fine old wheel so plainly visible as the boy sat “holding the lines” while the business with the proprietor was transacted. But, as is often the case in such matters, Croton wins because of closer association.

The first sawmill at Croton was built by Albertus King, son of Jeremiah King, between 1808 and 1813. The real date is thought to be 1811, but that cannot be positively fixed. This was something of a mill, in its way, being rigged with two carriers, one of which accommodated logs to the length of sixty feet, a contrivance which would be of little use now. The power, however, was furnished by an old-fashioned “flutter” wheel which was made to flutter by the rather feeble headwaters of the Wickecheoke Creek.

In 1825, the mill property together with 156 acres of land including all of Croton on the west side of the Trenton Road and extending up that road to the northern boundary of the present school house lot was sold by the Sheriff of the County to Isaac Bronson. In 1829 the property was sold by Bronson to Amy Aller and John Aller, widow and son of Peter Aller. They came from the vicinity of Copper Hill after the death of Peter, cut the mill lot from the farm and made other changes to meet their ideas of business necessity.

A Dangerous Experiment With Steam
In 1840 the mill burned down. It was soon rebuilt by John Aller, who put in steam power as more fitting to modern requirements and to a diminishing stream. In 1844 the mill was sold to Daniel Sebold, who was a live farmer but not scienced in steam. However, he would try out the “tarnal contraption,” tho water and a big wheel were more to his liking. So he and his helper, evidently with serious misgivings, made due preparation for the dangerous experiment.

They put some water into the boiler and a liberal supply of dry wood under it. Then they touched off the fire and retired to a safe place to await the explosion. It came as scheduled by their fears, wrecking the boiler, but otherwise doing no great damage. That was enough. No more steam for Sebold. He sold the wrecked boiler to Dennis Carkhuff for junk, and soon after sold the property to Johnson Gary, who went back to safety and good old water power. Gary sold the sawmill property to Bateman Hockenbury in 1853 and became a prosperous farmer in the vicinity of Stanton.

Present Method Wasteful
In those days men still cut what logs were needed and carted them to the mill. But that soon became too slow for the age. Now, if a piece of timber can be located and secured, we take the mill to the woodland and destroy all sizes and varieties at once. As the quickest and easiest way of producing a painful shortage in hardwood lumber, the new vogue has worked admirably, but as an economic proposition, its wisdom may be open to question.

Whether too slow or not, the old way was filled with fascinations all its own. The great heaps of logs that at times accumulated, varying much in size and length, were a study well worth making and worth remembering. Their skillful arrangement for convenience in rolling upon the carrier in the order needed, and the chalk marks across the butt ends of the logs denoting the names of the owner and how the log was to be cut, were always interesting. The logs were chiefly of white oak. At that time no other oak was thought fit for frame work, planks or boards. A single plank of red oak or black oak slipped into an order for bridge plank would have been indignantly rejected, and the seller would have suffered much in reputation for an attempt to palm off an inferior article. Now even pin oak, the most despised of all, would hardly be rejected.

Mr. Hockenbury, the Sawyer
Mr. Hockenbury was the first sawyer at Croton of whom I have any distinct recollection. Like his work, he was always interesting. A reliable sawyer, never in a hurry, but always accomplishing something worth while, he appealed to me as one living an enjoyable life and making it pay as he went along. He was a good farmer too, as I learned in later years, when big enough to help him with his hay and harvest. In this association he lost none of my early respect for his solid qualities of head and heart, however careless he might seem about letting them be seen. He then owned and farmed what was known as “the burnt lot” lying a short distance east of Croton, just above the angle of the road as it was then. As to the name “burnt lot,” I know only that old people used to give a bad fire that swept away the buildings long before as the origin of the name.

“Bate” Hockenbury Could Cradle
Of all the men with whom I ever cradled grain, “Bate” Hockenbury could lay the nicest swath and could do it without any apparent effort. Perhaps his leisurely swing and lack of effort largely accounted for the even butts and parallel stalks of grain in his swath. Anyhow, the boy had no right to comparison with him in this particular. When it came to mowing with the scythe, which had been practiced from his thirteenth year to seventeen, the boy felt himself quite the equal of the man. And how well that boy remembers a compliment upon a half day’s mowing alone in heavy clover and timothy, so tangled that it could be cut but one way. Hockenbury came out after dinner, looked at the job, paced the right-angled piece of ground both ways, made his calculations, and then said, “You’ve got a full acre cut. I call that a good half day’s work for any man in such grass as that.” It never cost him a cent to say that. But it was worth more than a good many cents to me, and it has left a good and pleasant feeling to this time. I wonder if it did not pay two persons—the laborer to try and the employer to show appreciation.

But interest in the man and his work has led us too far away from the sawmill. He was the same deliberate, steady-going man at the mill as in the field. Big piles of logs never seemed to worry him in the least. He would get all off hand in time, if the water held out, which was always a factor to be considered.

The piles of logs grew less and less year by year. The days of the old-time sawmill were rapidly passing away. Hockenbury held on to the diminishing business until 1895, when he sold out to Henry Wrage, a well-known carpenter of that day and the mill soon after died a natural death.

Jacob Gray’s Sawmill
Many other sawmills come crowding upon the memory, all seeming to claim honorable mention, which would be gladly given it if were not for the law of limitation. There is room to mention only one more. That is the mill of Jacob Gray, a prosperous farmer living one mile west of Flemington, and doing a little sawing as a side line. His mill stood on the north side of the road to Croton, just west of the tenant house on the same side. The last tenant there, so far as memory serves, was Aaron H. Rake, who occupied the house for many years.

The motion of the saw in that mill was so slow that the boys named the mill “Up To-Day and Down To-Morrow.” But that was only boyish jocularity. The mill was always enjoyable and the owner was a good old man, remembered as an attendant at the Hemlock Church, as the operator of that unpretentious mill, and for his unfailing appearance of quiet earnestness.

Nothing is left to remind one that a sawmill was ever there, and the exact location of the house would be about as hard to find. All that now remains is the spring on the opposite side of the road. In the early days that spring was much patronized by the traveling public. It is remembered less for the quality of the water than for the courtesy of the owner or the tenant or both, as shown by keeping a standing invitation—in the form of a cup—to stop and have a drink.

Notes on Old-Time Sawmills:

Amy Aller was the widow of Peter Aller (1756-1813). She may have been a Hoppock. Her husband Peter was a Revolutionary War veteran. Amy Aller died on June 24, 1844 at her home in Flemington at the age of 64. Her death notice included this poem:  “Leaves have their time to fall, / and flowers to wither at the north wind’s breath, / And stars to set-but all. / Thou hast all seasons for thine own oh! Death.”

‘Bate’ Hockenbury, like many in Hunterdon, was named after the Rev. David Bateman, pastor of the Kingwood and Locktown Baptist Churches, who died in 1832. It appears he was beloved by all who knew him. Bateman Hockenbury was the son of John Hockenbury and Sarah Sutton. He appeared in the 1870 census for Delaware Township as a farmer, age 51, land worth $5000, His wife was Rebecca Snyder (age 48 in 1850), and he had eight children. I did not find an estate for him in the Hunterdon Surrogate’s Court. His granddaughter, Elizabeth Leigh Hockenbury married William U. Bohren.

Daniel Sebold (c.1797-after 1865) signed a petition for a road from Kingwood to the sawmill on Plum Brook near the farm of Albertus Myers. He was listed in the 1850 census for Franklin Twp. as age 53, a farmer worth $4300, wife Phebe 40, Matilda R. Sebold 20, Israel B. Sebold 18, Susan B. Sebold 16, Amy F. Sebold 13, Charles W. Sebold 4, and Sarah J. Sebold 8 months; also in the household was Elias H. Gary 33 laborer [#220-242]. Next to Sebold in the enumeration were John Hockenberry 62 and Andrew A. King 41. I could not find Daniel Sebold living in Hunterdon in 1860. According to Bush, he left the county and moved south after the Civil War. But he would have been about 68 years old in 1865. Sebold’s father Jacob Sebold, born about 1761, served as Kingwood Freeholder from 1817-1820. He signed the same road petition as son Daniel did. He was listed in the 1850 Kingwood census as age 89 (name spelled Seabold), living with Sylvester and Permelia Bloom. There was also listed a Jacob Seabold age 44 with wife and children.

Jacob Gray’s mill was in Raritan Township. In 1839, he bordered a lot owned by John A. King. In the 1850 census for Raritan Twp., he was listed as a farmer, age 43, born New York State, and worth $4000. Wife Matilda was 33, and two children William C. 1 and Hannah 4. Living with them were Rachel Paxton 24 born Pennsylvania and Rubin Paxton 23 born New York.