Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Milling around in Stillwater, generally speaking

Our visit to White Lake built up a thirst, so we found ourselves wandering in search of liquid refreshment. We found it at the general store in Stillwater.

Stillwater General Store Stillwater NJ
Stillwater General Store always
seems to have someone parked
directly in front of it. 
If you've done any wandering through the less built-up areas of the state, you've probably run into a historic general store building or two. I say 'historic' because many of them don't serve the 'general' purpose anymore. Instead of selling various groceries and housing the community post office, they've been converted into gourmet sandwich shops or coffee houses. There's nothing patently wrong with that -- repurposing buildings is often the best way to preserve them -- but they lack a certain authenticity. They often sell fair-trade coffee by the pound instead of penny nails, and if you need toilet paper or soap you'd better be prepared to drive a distance to a big-box store.

The minute we pulled up to the Stillwater General Store, it was clear which category it falls into. An out-of-service Texaco Fire Chief gas pump stood in front of the porch, paired with one of those vintage advertising signs. Both came by their weathered appearance honestly, as did the screen door that had clearly welcomed generations of local residents. Once inside, we passed a wall of post office boxes on the way to the beverage cooler. To be honest, I was so focused on getting something to drink that I didn't study the groceries on the shelves, but it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that they probably focus on the bare necessities someone might need when a trip to a distant supermarket was out of the question. Oh, and when we made our purchase, the proprietor said something about pie. I'm still regretting passing that up. I mean, Sussex County pie must be really good.

Our thirst issue resolved, we noticed that the general store wasn't the only interesting building in town. A short walk brought us to the home of Casper Shafer, the German immigrant who'd settled the area in the early 1740s. While the Vass family was growing grain in Hardwick, Shafer ran a successful grist mill that was paired with a sawmill just before the Revolution. In addition to counting on the nearby Paulins Kill to power his mills, he used the waterway as means to get his product to the Delaware and eventually to customers as far away as Philadelphia.

Shafer Mill Stillwater Mill Stillwater NJ
The Stillwater Mill, looking a lot like one of those
cute figurines people collect. 
Shafer's wooden mill was destroyed by a fire in 1844, but its replacement still stands nearby, looking as if it could be transplanted to an old village in the Alps. In fact, it looks a little too good, as if it shut down just a few years ago. Actually, in the continuum of milling in New Jersey, that's the case. Its continuous operation ended in 1954, but new owners reopened it in the early 1970s, running it as a milling business during the week and an educational establishment on the weekends.

It's not clear when the Stillwater shut down for good, but when it did, it was the last of New Jersey's operating grist mills. The industry had fallen victim to development, as more grain farms were sold and converted to residential communities.

Somehow, Stillwater seems to have avoided overdevelopment, or at least the area around Main Street has. On our Sunday visit it was quiet, except for the steady flow of visitors to the general store. There were an assortment of other buildings we didn't check out... the church on the hill and the historical society, to name two. Maybe another time, when we'll be sure to stop for the pie.

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