Saturday, August 18, 2012

White Lake: nature overtaking history and industry

The appearance of a misplaced brown booby brought Ivan to White Lake in Hardwick a few weeks ago, and when he told me about the location, I knew I had to check it out, too. By the time we went together, the booby had already moved on, but the trip was definitely still worth it.

Just a few hundred feet off County Road 521 (Stillwater Road), the spring-fed lake is fronted by a lovely field of wildflowers that likely yield a nice assortment of butterflies. Parking is easy, as is the walk to the lake's edge, offering unusually quick access to a true hidden gem. Several people were lifting kayaks out of the water just as we arrived; it looked like a nice, calm place to do some leisurely rowing. If I were artistically gifted, I'd be inclined to bring out an easel and paint the landscape. Bob Ross, where are you and the happy little trees?

Managed by Warren County and the State Division of Fish and Wildlife, the White Lake Natural Resource Area contains several habitats, including a hemlock forest and a boggy fen at one edge of the water. However, the property hasn't always been allowed to exist as a pastoral area. The most visible sign of that is the stone farmhouse and wooden barn just across the road; the other indications of man's interference have apparently been overtaken and obscured by nature.

The Vass farmstead dates to the earliest days of the 19th century, home and workplace to German immigrant John Vass and his family. They expanded the farm through acquisition over the years, growing a variety of grains and apples while also raising livestock for sale. Living at first in a log cabin, the success of the farm enabled them to build the sizable stone house overlooking the pond.

After John's death in the 1850s, son Isaac took over the family business, eventually selling some of the land on the far side of the lake to the Knickerbocker Ice Company of Pennsylvania. Ice, however, was only part of the reason the company sought the property. During the warmer months, it mined the water's bottom for the shells which gave White Lake its name. The mineral content of the shells was used first as a marl fertilizer, and then as an essential component in the production of cement. When the region's ice industry was essentially overtaken by more efficient competitors to the west, Knickerbocker withdrew from the lake, replaced by other companies with greater interest in marl and cement production. Their business was short-lived, marked by the scandal of a partner's thievery, and the lake was apparently never mined again.

Today, the only indication of the Knickerbocker company's activity at White Lake is a large stone structure which was once the largest building in the area. Used as a warehouse for ice or marl, depending on the season,  it's now barely noticeable from the farmstead side of the lake. We didn't even see it while we were there, though I suppose it might be more visible after the summer foliage fades away in the fall and winter.

Now 200 years old, the stone farmhouse is being restored through the cooperative efforts of the Hardwick Township Historical Society, Warren County Freeholders, the New Jersey Office of Historic Preservation and others. It wasn't open while we were there, but the adjacent partially-restored barn was hosting a fundraiser to support the effort. Beyond the usual garage sale wares, the upper portion of the barn offered an assortment of old farm stuff and a neat two-wheeled horse cart. I even noticed an old wooden hay rake, the type that angry mobs of townfolk found so useful in fending off monsters in the old Frankenstein and Dracula movies. (Torchlike implements, however, were nowhere to be found.)

More important to us, the sale gave us a chance to get an overhead view into the not-yet restored part of the barn that apparently housed dairy stock. The echoing moos are but a distant memory, but it seems that the property is reverting to a state that John Vass and his family would recognize quite well.

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