On Saturday, June 15th, a large group of people gathered to follow Dennis Bertland on his walking tour of Sergeantsville. It was fascinating and fun. Dennis showed us how the village evolved from its earliest days. And it was great to see so many people with memories of old Sergeantsville. Towards the end of the tour the subject of Skunktown came up. Sue Lockwood told a story about its origin (there are several versions; see What’s In A Name). She said the name came from the fact that there was once a tanner here who sold skunk pelts. I’ve heard that before, but this time I got to thinking.
There was, in fact, a tanner in Skunktown, and his name was Peter Prall. His tannery was located on Route 523, about one mile south of town, on the west side of the road. Now, if you disregard the smell, skunk pelts are really very attractive. So there probably was a market for them. But if you were approaching the old Rockafellar tavern (now the Township Hall) from Howell’s Ferry (Stockton), you would be greeted with an unforgettable odor, which you would always associate with the place.
So who was this Peter Prall?
I have not consulted the Prall Genealogy like I should, so here is my best guess. He was born on November 21, 1777 to John Prall Sr. and Susannah Barber. On January 12, 1800, he married Lucretia Trout, daughter of George Trout and Hannah Lequear. The earliest deed I have for Peter Prall is the purchase of a 4.75-acre lot along the Wickecheoke from Samuel Opdycke in 1799. But on May 1, 1800, not long after marrying, he bought a 6-acre lot along Route 523 from John and Elizabeth Buchanan. There was no recital in the deed to explain how the Buchanans came to own it, but a hint is that Elizabeth’s father, John Rockafellar, was identified as bordering the lot on the west side. So perhaps it was a gift from him. The lot was located at Block 34 Lot 11 on the tax map.
So, Peter Prall probably started his tannery soon after acquiring this property. The problem is, the name Skunktown appears as early as 1794, so if this theory is to hold water, then there had to be a tannery in operation there before Peter Prall bought it. But who that might have been, I cannot say, at least not yet. I don’t think that Prall was renting the property before he bought it for the simple reason that he was only 20 years old in 1797. But I have not seen any record suggesting that John Buchanan was a tanner.
I also do not know if a shop journal or other record of Peter Prall’s tanning business has survived. There was a deed of 1818 in which he was identified as a tanner. He bought other lots of land in the vicinity, and often appeared in the estate records of his neighbors, taking inventories, witnessing wills, etc.
There was a Peter Prall who got involved in local politics in the 1820s, but I rather doubt it was the tanner. This other Peter Prall, born 1796 to Abraham Prall and Sarah Fisher, married 1817 to Catharine Sutphin, lived in East Amwell, and was chosen as Tax Collector and Pound Keeper for Amwell Township in 1839, only a few months before his death. Assuming that once a tax collector always a tax collector, then this Peter was also chosen for that job in 1838. In 1830, the Hunterdon Gazette published the names of those nominated for office from Amwell Township, showing that Peter Prall was nominated for Town Committee and Tax Collector. (Oddly enough, the Gazette did not print the list of those who were chosen.) It seems likely that this East Amwell Peter Prall was also the one who served on the Amwell Township Committee from 1826 through 1837. He died at the age of 43 in 1839, of typhus fever, leaving a wife and seven children. His obituary in the Hunterdon Gazette identified him as “Mr. Peter Prall,” which may have been a way to acknowledge his public position.
But getting back to Peter Prall of Sergeantsville—by 1834, he was ready to retire. He was about 57 years old by then, and advertised his tannery lot for sale in the Hunterdon Gazette:
A SMALL FARM, AT PUBLIC SALE. The subscriber will expose to Sale, At Public Vendue, on Wednesday the 26th day of November next, on the premises, A SMALL FARM, on which he now lives, containing about 58 acres of land, situate in Amwell Township, on the road from Centre Bridge to Flemington, 3 miles from the former, and seven from the latter place. About 9 acres are Woodland, and 5 acres of well watered meadows; the remainder arable, divided into ten fields, and water in each field. The improvements are, two dwelling houses, two barns, and out buildings; also a good TAN YARD, near one of the dwellings, and good buildings at the Tan Yard; a good apple orchard of 150 trees of grafted fruit, in the prime of bearing, with other kinds of fruit. The above property is well situated to divide into two small farms, and will be sold separate or altogether, as may best suit purchasers. Persons wishing to view the property may call on the subscriber. Sale to commence at one o’clock. – Conditions made known by Peter Prall.
Apparently he soon succeeded in selling the place, because on April 22, 1835, this advertisement appeared in the Gazette:
Tanning, Currying, &c. The subscriber respectfully informs the public that he has purchased the TAN YARD and premises of Peter Prall, on the road from Centre Bridge to Sergeantsville, one mile from the latter, and three from the former, where he intends carrying on the Tanning Business in its several branches – and will keep constantly on hand for sale, at customary prices, SOLE LEATHER, Upper Leather, and Calfskins, of the best quality. He will also pay the highest prices for Bark. He hopes, by strict attention to business, to receive a share [of] public custom. [signed] David Enos.
Who, you may wonder, was David Enos? Actually it was David Innes who bought the tannery. Where he came from I cannot say. Innes is not a well-established old Hunterdon name. He is supposed to have married Elizabeth Britton, perhaps around 1837, but there is no marriage record for them. Census records show they had at least eight children, from about 1838 to 1856.
In 1839, David Innes came upon some hard luck, as reported in the Gazette on November 5, 1839:
Fire.—We learn that the Currying Shop connected with the Tannery of Mr. David Innes, in Delaware township, about one mile beyond Sergeantsville, was consumed by fire, on Saturday night. A quantity of leather, and all the tools belonging to the establishment, value about $1,000, were also destroyed.
By 1851, an “H. Lawshe” was running the tannery.1 I suspect this was Henry Lawshe (1798-1872), son of Jacob Lawshe and Hannah VanSyckle, husband of Sarah Carter, and father of six children, but he always turned up in the census records as a farmer, so it’s hard to be sure, and it’s hard to say, without a lot more research, how long he carried on the business. There was an “H. Lawshe” there as late as 1873, when the Beers Atlas showed “H. Lawshe” and “Tannery” at the same location. But Henry Lawshe had died in 1872, at the age of 74. So who exactly this “H. Lawshe” was I cannot say.
David Innes was counted as a 41-year-old farmer in the Delaware Twp. census for 1850, so he may have sold the tannery to Lawshe before that year. Not too long after that, he moved west. He appeared in the 1860 census for Champaign Co., Illinois with wife Elizabeth and five of their children. The youngest, Ada, was born about 1856 in New Jersey, so they must have left sometime after that.
Getting back to Peter Prall again, he had his own disaster in 1839 when his wife Lucretia died. An obituary for her was published in the Gazette that is quite lengthy, praising her selflessness and devotion to her family and her religion. I began to wonder who wrote this effusive testament to a long-suffering woman. A look at the family tree gave me a good suggestion. Peter Prall’s sister Jemima Prall was married to Rev. Garner A. Hunt, a highly regarded Baptist minister. It must have been him.
Things did not get better for Peter Prall. He and Elizabeth had five children. The first child, Asa, died in 1830, the second, daughter Susan, died in 1802, age 3. The last three, daughters who each married, all died before reaching the age of 40. The youngest daughter died age 37 in 1855. But by that time, Peter Prall had also died, at the age of 71, on November 29, 1848.
Many years ago I visited Joe Maresca at his farm south of Sergeantsville. He told me that one of the several outbuildings on his farm was the tannery, built around 1800, and taken from Peter Prall’s property. It was converted to a workshop.
Update, June 13, 2013: Just heard from Jim Buchanan, who informs me that John Buchanan was indeed a tanner, according the Buchanan file in the Deats Genealogical Collection at the Hunterdon Co. Historical Society. There is probably a record somewhere to tell us more. I will just note that this John Buchanan married about 1793, so he and wife Elizabeth Rockafellar may have started keeping house on that lot, until they sold it in 1800 to Peter Prall. Those Buchanans turn up everywhere.
- Cornell Map of Hunterdon County, 1851 ↩