Friday, February 24, 2012

Califo(r)n(ia), here we come!

If your mind plays with words the way mine does, you often wonder about the origins of terms and especially names. It was that with me and the quaint, mile-square town of Califon in Hunterdon County. Far be it from me to cast judgement on a name, and 'Califon' is a perfectly serviceable one, but it sounds too much like something else to be a name on its own merits.

Turns out that the original name wasn't Califon at all. It was California. Resident Jacob Neighbor had gone west to seek his fortune in the 1849 gold rush, and flush with success, he returned to build a couple of saw mills on the nearby South Branch of the Raritan River. Honoring the place where he'd made his fortune, he called the settlement "California."

So far, so good, but how does California become Califon? The official story is that the name change occurred when the train station painters couldn't get the entire name onto the sign. Another version states that the painters were too inebriated to get all of the letters painted.

Regardless of the origin of the name shortening, Califon proper is a delightful little Victorian-era enclave of just over 1000 residents. They're clearly proud of their little town and its history, with 170 structures on the National Register of Historic Places and a vintage trestle bridge crossing the river. At one time, the community hosted a variety of industries, including an iron and steel works, stone quarries and even a basket factory, but there's no visible industrial activity left. It's simply a quiet community with shops, parks, and a meandering river.

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