This is a continuation of the story by Egbert T. Bush of the “Biggest Log Ever Brought to Stockton,” in which he wrote about the owners of the Stockton Sawmill and the Stockton Spoke Works. These Hunterdon industrialists took risks to build their businesses, and sometimes failed badly. Here are two more examples of failure and success.
Edward Payson Conkling, Esq.
The failed business known as Wm. V. Case & Bro. was assigned to David Van Fleet and Edward P. Conkling. David Van Fleet (1819-1890) lived such an interesting life I will have to save him for a future post. What is relevant here is that Van Fleet, a former Assemblyman and then Judge on the Court of Common Pleas, had a lot of practice dealing with bankruptcies before the Case Brothers went broke.
Edward P. Conkling was much younger than Van Fleet and did not have as much experience in these matters. The first assignment that Conkling worked on with Van Fleet occurred in 1871 when Conkling, Van Fleet and Miller Kline were commissioners to sell the real estate of Aaron Barcroft dec’d. The next year, 1872, Conkling was admitted to the Bar and began practicing law, after his apprenticeship with George A. Allen in Flemington. At first he partnered with John T. Bird, but after two years he opened a sole practice.1
Edward P. Conkling was born on August 10, 1847 in Morris County to Rev. Cornelius S. Conkling and Clarissa C. Mowbray. In 1870, he was a 24-year-old “student at law” boarding at the house of Elizabeth Combes. On June 27, 1871, he married Margaret (Jennie) Kee, daughter of John Kee and Elizabeth Thompson. John Kee, born about 1778, came from Ireland and was already active in Amwell Township matters by 1811. He died in 1854 and was survived by his widow Elizabeth Thompson Kee, at whose Flemington house her daughter Jennie married Edward P. Conkling. The ceremony was performed by Edward’s father Rev. Cornelius Conkling.
When John Kee died in Flemington at the age of 76, his widow was only 36 (really), with two young children to raise. But he left them well provided for. In 1860, the widow Kee had real estate worth $5,460 and personal property of $1,000. It seems that Mrs. Kee had some business sense of her own, because ten years later, her real estate was worth $9,000 and personal property worth $15,000. This may have had something to do with the fact that Mrs. Kee’s mother, Elizabeth Morehead Thomspon, had died in 1861, and probably left property to her daughter.2
Just before marrying, Jane or Jennie Kee had personal property worth $20,000, as shown in the 1870 census. Clearly, Edward P. Conkling married well. He and wife Jane had six children (Howard, Russell, Edward, Charles, Elizabeth, and William).
In 1875, Edward P. Conkling bought two properties in Flemington, one on Branch Street3 and another on Main Street. The Main Street property, purchased from John S. Emery, cost $6,000, and was probably the Conklings’ home.4 The same year Conkling joined the Darcy Lodge No. 37, A. F. & A. M. (Ancient Free and Accepted Masons). He also acted as assignee of George T. Robbins.
In August 1878, Conkling purchased the factory and machinery of the Stockton Paper Works, under the name of E. P. Conkling & Co. In April 1879, Conkling became the “principal owner” of the Stockton Paper Ware Company. Sadly, the factory burned down in April 1879, incinerating Conkling’s investment.5 Stockton certainly suffered from damaging fires; only two years before, a fire had destroyed the Stockton Spoke Works.
The Stockton Paper Works came into existence thanks to a fast-talking salesman from Canandaigua, NY. He persuaded local Stockton businessmen that a paper company was a good investment, and got them to construct a factory building and purchase all the necessary equipment. But the company was soon in debt by $9,000 and shortly thereafter went bankrupt. That’s when E. P. Conkling & Co. bought it.6
As for the fires, apparently this was not all that uncommon. As Iris Naylor wrote, “The paperware factory in particular seemed to catch on fire every few weeks.” (p. 32) Eventually, in August 1881 Conkling managed to sell the paper-works to Knox & Co. of New York.
There were many real estate transactions made by Edward P. Conkling, but the sale that concerns us the most is the one in which the Stockton Spoke Works and Saw Mill, formerly owned by Wm. V. Case & Bro. was sold to its principal stockholder, Rev. Cornelius S. Conkling.
Rev. Cornelius S. Conkling
Rev. Cornelius S. Conkling was the son of Thomas Wheeler Conkling, who was a principal of a public school in New York, and then a merchant and farmer on Long Island.7 His son Cornelius became a minister and began preaching in Boonton, Morris County, then West Milford in Passaic County, before settling in Mount Pleasant to be pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Alexandria.
Rev. Conkling appears to have had a life-long interest in education, which was acknowledged on April 5, 1870, when the State Board of Education met in Trenton and appointed Rev. Cornelius S. Conkling of Mount Pleasant, Superintendent for Hunterdon County schools. The practice of naming County School Superintendents only began in 1867, when John C. Rafferty was appointed. Rev. Conkling was only the second such Superintendent. During this time, and for years afterwards, he was also active in the Hunterdon County Bible Society and the Hunterdon County Sunday School Association, of which he was president in 1875.
The Hunterdon Republican reported that Conkling contemplated moving to Flemington.8 Instead, he and wife Clarissa moved to a house in Frenchtown.
During the last year of his term as Superintendent, he sent out a call to all the school districts in the county for a summary of each school’s history. He was appalled to discover that many districts had never kept records of its teachers or pupils, although some did. He compiled the information he received into a report that can be viewed at the Hunterdon County Historical Society. Despite the many lapses, it is a remarkable document and valuable piece of county history.9 When Rev. Conkling retired as Superintendent in September 1876, he was presented with an ebony cane by the teachers of Hunterdon, in appreciation of the good work he had done.10
Mr. Bush wrote that Rev. Conkling “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.”
Apologies for the unsightly electric wires in the photograph; they could not be avoided.
Rev. Conkling was heavily invested in the Spoke Works. This probably came about from his acquaintance with the Case brothers—both the Cases and Rev. Conkling lived in Alexandria Township before coming to Stockton, and Rev. Conkling had performed the marriage of Wm. V. Case and Sarah Warne in 1857.
It is rather curious that Rev. Conkling’s son was one of the assignees of the bankrupt Case Brothers. Edward P. Conkling must have known that his father was one of the creditors of Case Brothers & Co. Today that sort of relationship would be frowned upon, and would be considered a conflict of interest, but apparently it was not a problem in 1878.
Rev. Conkling must have thought long and hard about taking over the Spoke Works. His son and David Van Fleet had to advertise the sale of the business again on Feb. 13, 1879. Rev. Conkling had been retired from his work as County School Superintendent for three years. He was about 69 years old in 1879, a time when most people prefer to slow down.
Instead, he bought a failing business, uprooted himself from his home in Frenchtown and moved to Stockton, where he built his “mansion on the hill,” and lived there with his wife Clarissa Mowbray. They had married 42 years previously in Suffolk County, NY. Edward P. Conkling was the only one of their three children who survived to adulthood.
The sale of the Spoke Works took place on May 15, 1879 when Rev. Conkling paid $7,510.22 for one acre of land with the factory, buildings, machinery and fixtures. On the same day, he purchased the real estate and firm of William V. Case and Henry W. Case for $11,082.50.11 That is a considerable amount of money. In the 1870 census, Rev. Conkling’s personal property amounted to only $500; he had no real estate. His wife was possessed of $7000 in personal property, and I doubt very much that the Reverend imposed on her to invest in his new business venture. Where the money came from is an interesting question.
I found three mortgages recorded for Cornelius S. Conkling. The first was dated December 23, 1879 to Daniel Hulsizer of Greenwich, Sussex County for land and premises in Stockton, consisting of two lots, one of 0.39 acres and one of 0.38 acres. The mortgage was for $2000, which was far less than the purchase price of the Spoke Works.12 The other two mortgages were dated 1886, many years after the Spoke Works were purchased. So the source of Conkling’s funds remains an open question.
Rev. Conkling must have recognized that he did not have the expertise to run his business. He hired Peter S. Kugler, spoke producer of Frenchtown, to do that in 1880.13 Two years later, Conkling was ready to quit his Stockton business ventures: “Rev. Cornelius S. Conkling, who owns the spoke factory, steam saw mill, grain store and several dwelling houses in Stockton, desires to sell out and retire from business.”14
Although he gave notice of this in March 1882, he was still in business in August when the big log was brought to his saw mill. And he continued on into 1883, when he informed the Hunterdon Co. Republican that his steam mills were “active,” and he had “all the work which can be done.” All this time, Conkling continued to officiate at weddings and to participate in the Sabbath School Association and the Bible Society. He must have been prospering because in 1885 when a bond of $150,000 was required for the County Collector Joseph Williamson, Conkling was one of those who signed up.15
1885 was also the year that the Hunterdon County Historical Society was established, and Conkling was one of the founding trustees. He was named to the Executive Committee at its first organizational meeting held in September 1885, and was serving as it president in 1887.
In March 1886, he was nominated by the Republican Legislative caucus to be a member of the State Board of Education and a trustee of the State Normal School. This was clearly a man who was not slowing down. In August he gave a talk at the Holcombe Family Reunion at Mt. Airy called “Voices from the Past.”16
As for the Spoke Works, Conkling made another commitment to the business when he mortgaged the two small lots described above to his son Edward P. Conkling for $6,00017 And he mortgaged other properties in Stockton on July 1, 1886 to the Bucks Co. Trust Co. of Doylestown for $6500.18 Perhaps he was financing major improvements to his factories.
In 1887, another huge tree was brought to his saw mill, but, compared to the tree that Mr. Bush wrote about, it was not so impressive.
“An immense white oak tree was recently cut down in the woods on the farm formerly owned by James H. Hoagland, dec., near Flemington. The tree was 72 feet tall and contained 1,400 feet of lumber. It was 5 ft. 3 in. in diameter at the butt and 10 inches at the top. It was sold to Rev. Cornelius S. Conkling of the Stockton steam saw mill.”19
Rev. Conkling always had an inquiring mind. Even to the extent of measuring distances, as seen in this item:
“The distance from Stockton to Flemington has long been a matter of dispute in the former place. Some contended that it was not over 9 miles, while others were sure that it was nearer 10 than 9. Rev. Cornelius S. Conkling determined to have the matter settled and a party was organized, principally under his direction, to chain the road and ascertain the precise distance. On Tuesday morning last, the party started bright and early. David Lawshe and William Menaugh, carrying the chain and Capt. Lewis & Asa Rittenhouse, drove a stake every mile. The distance as chained was 10-1/8 miles from the Hotel of John S. Hockenbury in Stockton to the Court House in Flemington. The distance has always been said to be 9 miles and the distance from Stockton to Sergeantsville, which has always been called 3 miles, was found to be 3 1/2 miles.”20
The chain that was used to measure the distance was 66 feet long, and was the standard measuring tool for surveyors until well into the 20th century. Hockenbury’s hotel was today’s Stockton Inn.
Rev. Conkling wrote a will that was undated. He left his property to his only child, Edward P. Conkling, and also named him sole executor. He gave Edward the power to either sell the property, listed as the Stockton Spoke and Wheel Works and Saw Mill, and other real estate, fixtures and machinery, or to lease it or operate it himself.
Rev. Conkling died on February 26, 1888, age 78, and was buried in the Presbyterian cemetery in Mount Pleasant next to his wife Clarissa who had died on February 8, 1882. Given all he had accomplished during his life, I was surprised at the brevity of his obituary, published on February 29, 1888 in the Hunterdon Co. Republican, which only stated that the Rev. Cornelius S. Conkling was 78 years old, a widower, and that his wife had died in 1882.
Edward P. Conkling, continued
Despite minor setbacks, Edward Conkling’s career prospered—for awhile. But he seems to have run into trouble in 1879 when he had to sell several properties as a defendant. There were at least six properties in which Conkling was identified as a defendant in the deed index, out of 16 that were recorded in 1879. One of them was to his father, Cornelius, but that was the Spoke Works. There were also two deeds with Conkling as a defendant recorded in 1880. One of them was a sale by Conkling to himself (probably to his assignees).21
It surprises me that a person who was apparently sued for debt and had to sell properties at a sheriff’s sale would also be named an assignee for other debtors, but such was the case.
In 1880, Conkling was 32 years old, his wife was 32 (her name was given as Mariah F. or L., which is odd), and their children were Howard 10 (1870), Russell 8 (1872), Edward 6 (1874) and Charles 3 months (born February). They had a servant named Susan Gary, age 15, and a boarder, John Gobel, 40, an English-born laborer. Next door there was a black family who may also have been employed by the Conklings–Mary Peterson 18 servant, Moses Roberts 17 boarder and James Gilbaugh 30 boarder, laborer.
Despite his financial setbacks, Conkling was made a Director at the Flemington National Bank in 1882, and was well-respected in the legal community. He continued to work as a commissioner appointed by the Orphans Court, along with David Van Fleet. In 1883 he was elected to the Board of Trustees of the Flemington Presbyterian Church. For a time he had his law office at the Union Hotel, but had vacated it in 1884; I do not know where he set up a new office. His card stated that his office was “in Humphrey’s block.”
That year, Conkling’s name appeared on a list of those being considered for the Congressional seat, although nothing came of it. However, in 1885 he was elected to the board of commissioners for Flemington, and served on the committee for street lights. He was re-elected in 1886 and 1887.24
In 1879 and 1881, Conkling was selling some of his real estate, or at least advertising it. There were 16 deeds recorded in 1879 from Conkling. Perhaps some of this was to support a mill he owned in Readington known as Rowland’s Mills. In 1881 (April 7), this notice appeared: “David Neft has again assumed the proprietorship of Conkling Mills, to the great satisfaction of many farmers in this locality.” And on May 5, “Edward P. Conkling, Esq., has a force of men employed in erecting a new mill at Rowland’s Mills, to take the place of the one recently destroyed by fire.” Neft was very popular; Conkling was lucky to have him, as we can see from this notice of Feb 16, 1882: “David Neft, the miller at Conkling’s Mills, in Glen Gardner, is one of the best in this neighborhood. The town trade and the farmers keep the mill constantly on the go.”
More spending took place in 1881. On June 9, the Hunterdon Co. Republican reported: “Edward P. Conkling, Esq. is making extensive improvements to his Main Street property. The present residence will be moved to the rear and a new one erected in front. When completed it will be one of the finest in town.” This property was located at the corner of Main Street and Williams Street, on the east side of Main.
In 1885, he was Special Master of Chancery for the disposition of the Carrell farm in Delaware Township, which had been divided into two parts. He sold the whole to Hugh Frazer for $5,000 and then bought back the eastern half for $6,250, which hardly makes sense.25 Not long afterward, he bought the western half.26 And there was more buying and selling in 1885.
In the deed index, six deeds were recorded in 1886 for property sold by Edw. P. Conkling. In 1887, there were three more, and in 1888 four more. That’s 13 properties in 3 years. Then in 1888, the year that his father died, things came crashing down. Remember that Cornelius S. Conkling had made two mortgages in 1886 for $12,500 altogether. That debt was part of Edward P. Conkling’s inheritance, along with all his own debts. Things must have been going badly in 1887, for on January 25, 1888, Edward P. Conkling assigned the mortgage he had been given by his father in 1886 along with four others to the Flemington National Bank.27
On March 8, 1888, his father’s will was recorded. By September 1888, Conkling had to assign all his property for the benefit of his creditors. The assignees were John A. Bullock and John L. Connet, along with Wm. Richards, Andrew T. Connet, Alexander B. Allen and John J. Van Lieu. The assignees recorded 39 deeds to Conkling’s property in 1889, and another five the next two years. Some of those deeds were for the properties of Cornelius S. Conkling, which included the Spoke Works in Stockton.
Iris Naylor wrote that the inventory of Cornelius S. Conkling’s property offered for sale included “the spoke and wheel factory, the saw mill property, four double houses, two single houses, a store, several vacant lots and the Conkling residence.”28
After this debacle, Edward P. Conkling’s life must have been much more restrained. He was living in East Raritan Township (probably the eastern end of Flemington) in 1900 when he was counted in the census. He was 55 years old, living with wife Jennie (52) in their rented house. With them were son Edward R. Conkling 21, a clerk at a light & gas company, daughter Elizabeth Conkling 19, a schoolteacher, and son William R. Conkling 17, a student.
Edward P. Conkling died at age 62 on August 27, 1909 in New York from typhoid fever, complicated by pneumonia. He had apparently lost all his property, for there was no estate recorded for him. I do not think he had moved to New York; he was buried in the Presbyterian Cemetery at Mt. Pleasant, and his wife Jennie was still living in Flemington the next year when the census was taken.
Jennie Kee Conkling 62 was living in Flemington (Branch Street in East Raritan) in 1910 with her sister, Eliza K. Richards, age 60, and her daughter, Elizabeth K. Conkling 28, single, public school teacher. Jennie and Eliza were at the same location (No. 10, Branch Street) in 1920. In 1930 when she was an 82-year-old widow, Jennie Conkling was living at 10 Main Street with a companion named Susan Cullen (age 62). I did not find a record of her burial in Find-a-Grave and do not know exactly when she died, but it can’t have been much after 1930.
Edward P. Conkling was given a sympathetic obituary in New Jersey Law Journal (vol. 32, p. 286). It concluded:
“Mr. Conkling was at one time one of the best known members of the legal profession in Hunterdon county and enjoyed a large practice. He met with reverses, however, which hampered his success in later life. He was a pleasant, cultured gentleman.”
Correction, 11/8/14: I mistakenly inserted a photograph of a person I thought was Rev. Cornelius S. Conkling into the original version of this article. But in fact, it was a carte de visite of Rev. Gabriel Conkling, a Baptist minister, which Ian Schoenherr found in an album of Old-School Baptist ministers on E-bay. (For the time being, the album can be seen here.) I do not know if Gabriel Conkling was related to Rev. Cornelius S. Conkling.
- There is a short biography of Conkling in Snell’s History of Hunterdon (p. 213), but since the book was published in 1881, it does not include all of Conkling’s life. The portrait included here comes from Snell. ↩
- I have not looked up the estates of John Kee and Elizabeth M. Kee, but they would certainly shed light on this question. ↩
- Branch Street no longer exists; it might have been an extension of Main Street. ↩
- Both sales were announced in the Hunterdon Republican, on Dec. 2 and Dec. 9, 1875. ↩
- H. C. Republican, April 17, 1879. ↩
- James P. Snell, History of Hunterdon County, p. 387. ↩
- Snell’s History of Hunterdon County, p. 213. ↩
- H.C. Republican, Dec. 8, 1870. ↩
- See E. T. Bush, “Leaves From Old Hunterdon’s School History,” published in the Hunterdon Co. Democrat, Dec. 4, 1930. Conkling’s history can be read in the Hunterdon Historical Newsletter, vol. 48, no. 2, Spring 2012, p. 1136, et seq. It’s introduction states: “He was tasked with gathering information about the history of schools in the county for the New Jersey exhibit at the United States Centennial Exhibition at Philadelphia in 1876. He sent questionnaires to the township clerks throughout the county and asked them to compile the history of schools in each township.” ↩
- H. C. Republican, Sept. 7, 1876. ↩
- H.C. Republican, March 20, 1879. Deeds for the Spoke Works and other lots were recorded in 1879; for the company in Book 182 p. 232; from Wm. V. Case in Book 182 p. 238; from his partners Cyrus Risler (Book 182 p. 246) and Richard Higgins (Book 182 p. 249), and from Wm. V. Case, defendant in Book 185 p. 436. ↩
- H. C. Mortgage vol. 51 p. 433, cancelled July 20, 1882. ↩
- H.C. Republican, Feb. 26, 1880. ↩
- H.C. Republican, March 23, 1882; abstracted by William Hartman. ↩
- Along with George T. Arnwine, William R. Bearder, Anderson Bray, Isaiah S. Cramer, James P. Dilts, Jonathan M. Dilts, William M. Dilts, Moses K. Everitt, John S. Hockenbury, Lemuel Hoffman, James N. Pidcock, Asher Reading, John W. Reading, David Van Fleet, and Lambert T. Warman. H.C. Republican, March 4, 1885; as abstracted by William Hartman. ↩
- I have not seen this, and hope it might be preserved at the County Historical Society. ↩
- H. C. Mortgage vol. 65 p. 168. ↩
- H.C. Mortgages vol. 63 p. 191. ↩
- H.C. Republican, May 25, 1887; abstracted by William Hartman. ↩
- H.C. Republican, June 1, 1887, as abstracted by William Hartman. ↩
- H. C. Deed 188-258. I was overwhelmed by the number of deeds listed in the index for E. P. Conkling, and did not have the time to look through them. ↩
- H.C. Deeds, vol. 191 p. 50 ↩
- H.C. Deeds, vol. 191 p. 053. ↩
- All this information was gleaned from the Hunterdon Co. Republican. ↩
- H.C. Deeds 208-178 and 210-278. ↩
- H.C. Deed 210-281. ↩
- H. C. Assignments, vol. 14 p. 406. ↩
- Iris Naylor, Stockton, New Jersey, p. 36. ↩