Friday, December 6, 2013

Hamburg's castle made of wheat: the milling history on Wheatsworth Road

Most Northern New Jersey explorers know about the Gingerbread Castle in Hamburg. Some even remember visiting the whimsical structure during its heyday as the centerpiece of an amusement park between 1930 and 1978. It's one of those places that tends to stick in your mind -- a fanciful fairy-tale castle replete with characters like Humpty-Dumpty and arch-backed black cat, among others.

The Wheatsworth factory, as seen from a HiddenNJMobile.
In near total contradiction to the whimsy of the castle, a large, forbidding concrete building casts a shadow over the abandoned property. A few small turrets and balcony-like structures break up the monotony of the facade, but it's not a pleasant looking place. The windows that aren't boarded up are mostly broken, evidence of a lengthy abandonment. A posted sign informs visitors that an environmental cleanup is in process, not surprising after you notice the traces of painted lettering atop the building which seem to spell the word "synthetic."

Why in heck would someone put something so ugly next to something so adorable ... or was it the other way around? Unfortunately, New Jersey has more than its share of juxtaposition of beauty and industry, but why, when there's so much room in Sussex County, would these two be so close?

A first clue can be found on the old stone gateposts nearby. They're adorned with Arts and Crafts-style Flint Faience tiles depicting idyllic scenes of fields and mills. One even features a steaming bowl of hot cereal, a comforting start for a chilly Sussex County morning, and a millstone is embedded in a nearby wall. Each scene is labeled "Wheatsworth Mills."

Wheatsworth? Like Nabisco Wheatsworth crackers? Absolutely.

Turns out that the Gingerbread Castle's less-than-attractive industrial neighbor was just the last of the wheat-related ventures operated on that spot in Hamburg.

Today, the Wallkill River flows unimpeded past the building and under Wheatsworth Road, but in the day it was harnessed to power a waterwheel for the industry of the day. Joseph Sharp, Jr. built a stone grist mill there in 1808, replacing an ironworks that had made cannonballs surreptitiously for the British during the Revolutionary War. Sharp's mill, by contrast, ground local wheat into flour for American troops during the War of 1812 and no doubt benefited from its location just off the Hamburg Turnpike (now Route 23) after it opened in 1795. That mill was lost to fire in 1834 but was partially rebuilt.

Moving forward to the 20th century, New York-based F.H. Bennett Biscuit Company purchased the site in 1921 to supply flour for its bakeries across the Hudson. Six years later, the company changed its name to Wheatsworth to capitalize on the popularity of the brand name under which it sold biscuits, flour and other bakery goods. Around the same time, the company substantially enlarged the mill building, erecting a taller concrete structure that basically swallowed up the old Sharp mill.

An old sign with a valuable message.
As the story is told, F.H. himself was inspired to add the Gingerbread Castle to the factory campus after seeing a production of Hansel and Gretel at New York's Metropolitan Opera. He hired the opera's set designer, Austrian architect Joseph Urban, to create what became the centerpiece of a children's amusement park where Grimm's fairy tales came to life. Reflecting Bennett's business, the castle appeared to be constructed of cookies and crackers, and after its opening in 1930, visiting children were told that if they touched the building, the appealing treats would turn to stone. 

The National Biscuit Company (Nabisco) purchased Wheatsworth in 1931, taking ownership of the factory/mill building but not the castle. After operating there for six years, Nabisco sold the plant to Canterbury Mills, the last operator to use the building for baking-related purposes. The final owner, a wire coatings manufacturer called Plastoid Corporation, took possession in 1943. While they eventually moved production to another location, Plastoid's corporate offices remained in the building until sometime in the 1980s.

Together, the mill building and Gingerbread Castle were listed on Preservation New Jersey's Most Endangered Historic Places list in 2012. Not surprisingly, the castle attracts the greatest interest and has benefitted from partial restoration and a brief reopening in 1989. The far less photogenic mill/factory building seems ignored by all but adventure seekers despite its arguably more historic past. Reportedly suffering from a collapsed roof and internal deterioration, it would no doubt take a lot of effort to make it habitable again, but who knows? And with the Gingerbread Castle and Wallkill River on either side, the view from any of the factory's windows would be a welcome site for anyone who chose to work or live there.

It's a thought...

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