Monday, February 6, 2012

Milling around in Ralston

Rambling around the state, I'm always fascinated by places that aren't there anymore. Well, it's not like you're driving into a black hole -- the places are THERE but have been swallowed up by a larger town.

Such is the case with Ralston, now part of Mendham, but once a community on its own. The locals have kept the name as a historic district, now restricted to a few Colonial-era buildings. I went there because I'd heard it was the site of New Jersey's oldest post office. According to The WPA Guide to 1930s New Jersey, the building had served that purpose since 1792, in addition to serving as the community general store.

The drive out from Morristown is an enjoyable one -- you take County Road 510, which doubles as the old State Route 24. Believe the maps on that one if you choose; I didn't see a single Route 24 sign the whole way. You'll pass through some residential areas before you start running into a few farms. I was a little disappointed that a new housing development now covers the hill the WPA guide said had been topped with a large wooden horse.

New Jersey oldest post office buildingDon't travel too quickly, because it's easy to miss the general store/post office at the corner of Roxiticus Road. The slight dark brown building does have a large "GENERAL STORE" sign, but it's basically hidden under the roof overhang. You might see the historical society sign hanging near the curb, telling us the place is open on Sundays during the summer and fall. That's right -- it's no longer an operating store, nor is it a post office, having lost that designation in 1941. In its final years, the post office was down to fourth class status, meaning that residents had to stop by to pick up their mail, even though the Mendham mail route ran right along Route 24.

Originally known by the native name of Roxiticus, Ralston was an active little place. Settled near the north branch of the Raritan River, it was a perfect location for a mill, and several were built within the community. One of the mills, owned by John Logan, even supplied flour to the Continental troops at Jockey Hollow during the difficult winters of 1779 and 1780. That very patriotic gesture ended up forcing Logan into bankruptcy like many other war suppliers when the Continental Congress didn't pay him for the goods.

While he lost the mill, it wasn't lost to the family. Logan's daughter had married wealthy Philadelphia merchant John Ralston, who bought the mill and the adjoining manor house from his father-in-law in 1785. True to the profession that had brought him success, Ralston built and opened the community's general store. Money was generally tight in the young United States, so he bartered with other merchants in New York and Georgia to get goods, creating markets for his community's products, as well. As his wealth and influence grew, the businesses and farms around him prospered, too, and the area was eventually renamed Ralston.

The mills have long since closed, and there are just a few small farms scattered about, but Ralston is a nice place to see authentic Colonial architecture. Mentally erase the modern street signs, electrical hookups and pavement, and it's not hard to imagine what the place looked like back in Ralston's day.

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