Friday, August 15, 2014

A time capsule view into the past: Ledgewood's King Store

Morris County's old Ledgewood Circle is no more, but if you follow a couple of small brown directional signs to the Drakesville Historic District, you'll find one of the earliest remnants of what made this crossroads the focus of a rural community from the heyday of the Morris Canal until the early 1900s.

Just off the intersection of Routes 10 and 46, the Roxbury Historic Trust is in the process of restoring the King Store and Homestead. Hidden New Jersey friend Kelly Palazzi suggested we check it out, but it wasn't easy: the property is open only on the second Sunday of the month and is closed entirely from January through March.

It's easy to imagine a few neighbors trading news
on the porch of the old King Store.
Our welcome to the King Store was probably a lot like the one a canal boat crew would have gotten in the 1800s: the proprietors were standing in the doorway of the stone building and called out a greeting as we pulled up. Walking onto the porch and into the store was like stepping back in time: the interior was lined with wooden shelves, groceries and sundries of a previous age stocked here and there. A cast-iron stove stands in the center of the room, just in front of a large scale, and a tall set of cubby holes near the door sufficed as the community's post office. In the back room, the wooden doors of a large icebox are open to help visitors imagine how milk and other perishables were kept fresh in the days before refrigeration.

Our friendly guides explained that the store was built around 1826 on what was then the Essex-Morris-Sussex Turnpike, one of the first roads chartered by the New Jersey Legislature at the start of the 19th century. The original owners, the Woodruff family, operated the store until 1835 before closing it for unknown reasons. Two years later, canal boat owner Albert Riggs bought the property and reopened it to serve the local community and the increasing traffic through the nearby Morris Canal lock and two planes. Riggs transferred ownership and operation of the store to his son-in-law Theodore King in 1873, and the new storekeeper and his wife Emma moved into the living quarters above the mercantile.

Brands of the past find their homes on the King Store shelves.
Though competition from the railroads was already digging into the canal's business, King was on his way to prosperity. Besides the popular general store, he got into the mining business and bought significant tracts of land, some of which he sold at a handsome profit while retaining the rest as vacation rental space. He also operated hotels and a steamboat company to cater to the tourist trade at nearby Lake Hopatcong. The proceeds from all of these businesses enabled him to build a comfortable Victorian home on the lot next to the store, where he could keep an eye on business while enjoying time with his wife and their daughter, Emma Louise.

King died in 1926, and with him the store. His daughter simply locked the door, leaving the goods sitting on the shelves. Dwindling traffic on Canal had ended with its termination a few years before. According to our guide, family members would come in from time to time to take items they fancied, but for the most part, the building was a de facto time capsule. Louise King divided her time between New Jersey and Florida until her death in 1975.

Fresh milk, anyone?
A few years later, the Roxbury Rotary Club took on the store as a civic project, clearing the overgrown, weeded lot and acquiring state Green Acres funding to buy the property for the township. Now the responsibility of the Roxbury Historic Trust, the King Store is slowly being restored; a new slate roof is the latest improvement, along with a refurbished scale sitting next to the porch.

While work clearly needs to be done to stabilize the structure to prevent further decay, there's much to be said for keeping a good part of the current look. Too much paint and varnish would take away the character of a classic general store. As it stands, it doesn't take much to imagine a local farmer or canal mule tender at the counter, ordering supplies and settling his bill.

The next stop on our visit to historic Drakestown was the King house, just next door... but that's a story for our next installment.

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