Little York Historic District
The Little York Historic District was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2013, The Gombach Group.
Little York Historic District (located in Alexandria Township and Holland Township, Hunterdon County, NJ) possesses historical significance in the areas of settlement pattern, industry, architecture, and archaeology. The village is a good example of the agglomerate settlements that developed in the 18th and 19th centuries to serve the region's dispersed agricultural population, but whose growth largely halted when by-passed in the railroad building boom of the mid-19th century. Industry was the focal point around which the community that became known as Little York gradually coalesced. The two mill complexes and interconnecting hydro-system established there in the early 1800s were periodically enlarged, rebuilt and modified to accommodate a variety of industrial uses, and thus, provide a significant document of the development and evolution of the small scale water-powered industry once characteristic of the region. While losing most of its local economic and social importance in this century, Little York has managed to retain not only some aspects of its role as a neighborhood service center, but also its essentially 19th century character. Almost all of the district's thirty-four principal buildings were built before 1900 and most date c.1830-60. The Little York Historic District's buildings — predominantly houses with outbuildings, but including besides several mill buildings, two churches, two stores, a tavern and a school — are generally well-preserved and exhibit relatively few modern alterations. Collectively these buildings possess architectural significance. Their forms, construction, decorative embellishment, and siting provide a representative illustration of the rural region's essentially vernacular architecture in the middle decades of the 19th century. Their environs, in particular those of the industrial buildings and sites, also have the potential to yield important archaeological information about the region's material culture in that era.
While the village of Little York did not develop until the 19th century, European settlement in the neighborhood occurred in the first half of the 18th century. The pioneer agriculturalists of northwestern Hunterdon County were mostly squatters on the vast tracts of land in the region acquired by absentee owners through New Jersey's system of proprietorial landholding. The site of Little York lies near the southern boundary of a 16,565-acre property which was surveyed for Colonel Thomas Byerly, a West Jersey proprietor, in 1714. After Byerly's death in 1725, the property devolved to Robert Barker of Suffolk, England and his heirs, but to satisfy a claim against Byerly's estate, it was divided in half and the L-shaped southeastern portion was sold at a court-ordered sale in 1749. The purchasers of this 7,380-acre tract were prominent Philadelphians William Allen and Joseph Turner, who several years before had established an iron furnace some miles to the east.
Allen and Turner probably made the first concerted effort to manage the property which evidently had been divided into tenant farms by 1755. While they may well have had difficulty with squatters and dissatisfied tenants, as occurred on their furnace tract, major management problems had likely subsided by 1774 when they sold the property to another prominent Philadelphian James Hamilton. Hamiltons's heir and grandnephew of the same name continued to rent the property until the early 1800s when he began to sell off individual farms. Two of the farms which he sold in 1804 encompassed the site of Little York. The land west of Hakihokake Creek and roughly south of the Pattenburg Road belonged to a farm called "The Low Lands" on Hamilton's 1803 lease roll; another farm called "Trout Brook," included the land north of the road and east of the creek.
Jeremiah Hoff, the purchaser of "The Low Lands," evidently was the first to harness the water power of Hakihokake Creek at Little York. Neither his 1804 deed nor the 1803 lease roll contains anything to suggest that the water power was then being used. Sometime between 1804 and 1815, when he subdivided and sold the property, Hoff appears to have built a saw mill and a grist mill, respectively, at or near the sites of the present upper and lower mills, as well as an extensive interconnected hydro-system. The 1815 deed for a 106-acre portion of his 158-acre farm included water rights for "the saw mill and any other machinery (that might be) erected on the premises," but reserved the privilege of "conveying water out of the old channel below the saw mill into the Grist Mill dam and thence down the race to said mill." The latter was no doubt the mill mentioned in the deed of the same year for the remainder of Hoff's property, comprising two parcels of which the larger adjoined the 106 acres on the south and the smaller was a wood lot to the north. These mills were the focal point around which the village subsequently developed.
The purchasers of the 106-acre tract and saw mill were father and son, Peter and John Van Syckle. While Peter Van Syckle (1766-1830) owned and operated the locally famous Hickory Tavern (which stood several miles east of Little York), his son John (1789-1839) evidently was responsible for developing the upper mill complex. Settling there, according to the family genealogy, he built "a large oil mill and grist mill, a ware house, and other buildings" and also farmed. His homestead, presumably, adjoined the mills. Activity also increased around the lower grist mill where sometime between 1815 and 1823 a distillery was built either by John and William Vanderbelt who bought the property from Hoff or by Joseph King to whom they sold it in 1819. Other milling operations may have been established there as well, since upon King's losing the property at a court-ordered auction in 1823 the sheriff's deed of conveyance mentioned "the mills and distillery" on the premises "whereon the said defendant then lived." King probably occupied the farmstead across the road from the grist mill whose site was formerly part of the 35-acre property.
The settlement is said to have acquired the unusual cognomen of "Pokano" around this time, resulting from a disciplinary incident at Joseph King's distillery when a fireman took a hot poker and "struck the Irish workmen on their noses as a punishment." It became known as "Little York" about 1828, and was so named according to local tradition by John Van Syckle. However, as appears in an 1838 deed, the place name of "Valley Mills" also was used.
Despite its industry, the community apparently was neither large nor important enough to be included among Alexandria Township's villages listed in Gordon's 1834 Gazetteer of the State of New Jersey. At the end of the third quarter of the 19th century, it was still only a mill hamlet with adjoining farmsteads. Within the next ten years, however, considerable growth occurred. Writing in 1844, Barber and Howe noted that Little York was a "flourishing village, sprung into existence within a few years (with) an oil-m., and 2 grist-m., a store, 1 tavern, several mechanics, and about 16 dwellings." A "Tailor and Shoemaker Shop" owned by two sons of John Van Syckle stood on the southeast corner of the crossroads in 1838. The tavern, known as the Franklin House, apparently was built between 1838 and 1841, and a post office was established in 1840 with George V. Alpaugh as first postmaster. It quite possibly was located in the store which occupied an older house at the crossroads. The community is said to have acquired its first resident physician in 1840.
As growth continued in the 1840s and 1850s, Little York acquired institutional components for the first time. Two churches were built in 1844, the stone Christian Church and the wooden Presbyterian chapel, whose frame was brought from near-by Mount Pleasant when the Alexandria Presbyterian congregation erected a new church there. While the chapel remained a branch of the Mount Pleasant church, the Christian church was organized as an independent congregation in 1850. In 1855 a 2-story, stone schoolhouse was constructed at the eastern edge of the village; it replaced the neighborhood school first organized in 1809, which was located about a half mile to the east.
Further commercial and industrial development occurred during the period. A second store was established and by 1855 "a new flouring mill" had been constructed at the upper mills. At that time water was being piped from the spring at the upper mills to the distillery. This line apparently provided the community with a rudimentary water supply system, as it had three hydrants in the main road, one of which was in front of the tavern. Little York's growth in these decades no doubt was stimulated by the improvements in agricultural practices and transportation which occurred in the region during the first half of the 19th century.
By 1860 the physical and social character of Little York was firmly established. The 1860 Hughes map documents the community's physical layout which remains basically unchanged today. It depicts approximately 35 buildings, most of which have survived, clustered around the crossroads and along the road to the south. The 1860 U.S. Census provides a social profile of the community at that time. In that year the village had 139 inhabitants living in 26 households. It contained 28 dwelling houses (including the hotel) of which two were empty. The occupations of village residents, typical of the region's small rural settlements at the time, were mostly in the areas of agriculture, agricultural processing, artisan-level manufacturing, and commerce. The census taker listed 3 farmers, 2 millers and an apprentice miller, 1 millwright, 3 butchers, 1 team driver, and 5 laborers. The artisans included 2 blacksmiths, 2 shoemakers, 1 tailor, 1 dress maker, and a milliner. The building trades were represented by 2 carpenters, 1 painter, and an apprentice painter. There were also 2 merchants, 1 clerk, 1 shopkeeper, and an innkeeper. The latter employed a hostler and a domestic; there were two other female domestics in the village, one of whom was the village's only black resident. The village doctor must have moved away as a "school master" was the only professional listed. Only 10 of the 26 heads of households owned real estate.
Throughout the period the architecture of Little York was essentially traditional in terms of building types, construction practices, and spacial organization and typical of the rural region. Of frame or less frequently stucco-covered rubble stone construction, the buildings erected then are, in general, rather closely spaced with short setbacks from the street. The industrial buildings are small-scale structures of unadorned utilitarian design. Predominating among the dwellings are the 2-story, single-pile traditional types with gable-end chimneys, often with exposed backs. In form and plan, however, a few houses reveal the influence of popular mid-19th century domestic architectural design. While some houses were quite plainly detailed, many of those constructed or remodeled from the 1840s to the 1860s were embellished with simple decorative detailing of Greek Revival, Italianate, and/or Gothic Revival derivation. Greek Revival motifs also were used for the Presbyterian chapel, the Christian Church, and the now much-altered Little York Tavern (Franklin House). Thus, while the region's vernacular architectural traditions dominated Little York in the mid-19th century, the popular architectural influences which were then penetrating the region were felt to some degree.
By the 1860s Little York appears to have ended its major period of growth, sharing the fate of most of the region's communities that were by-passed in the mid-19th century railroad boom. While further development did occur in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was quite limited and sporadic, and at no time reached the level of the community's mid-19th century boom. The 1873 atlas reveals that the village had grown little since 1860 except for the construction of two houses and a Methodist Church on the Pattenburg Road. It also indicates that the community again had a resident physician and that one of the buildings at the upper mills was being used as an apple distillery. In 1881 Little York was described as containing "two stores, two mills, one tavern, two blacksmith shops, and one wheelwright-shop." The distilleries and some of the artisan shops evidently had been discontinued by that time. In that same year, however the village acquired a new industry with the establishment of a creamery, one of the first in the county, at the upper mills. Subsequently specializing in cheese production it became known as the "cheese factory." Another new business was the farm machinery dealership opened by the Fox family in the late 1800s or early 1900s in the old distillery near the lower mill. In this period ice was harvested from the lower mill pond and stored in an ice house near-by; this evidently was a small-scale commercial operation. The lean-to appendage on the west side of the upper store also was an ice house and was used in conjunction with a meat butchering and retail business. The long frame structure just west of the store, probably erected around 1900, accommodated a slaughter house and garages for meat delivery wagons and later trucks. Except for some remodeling, no residential building occurred in Little York in the late 1800s; in the early 20th century residential development was limited to the construction of a few small bungalows and a substantial brick addition to the house adjoining the cheese factory.
The paving of rural roads and the proliferation of automobiles in the third and fourth decades of this century hastened the decline of villages like Little York as local economic and social centers. Good roads and cars enabled local inhabitants to go elsewhere to work, shop, and play. Although the cheese factory remained in production until about the late 1940s and at the upper mills some cider pressing and grain grinding was done into the 1950s, the lower grist mill and store and the farm machinery business were shut down many years earlier. The three churches also were abandoned in the first half of this century and the district school, rebuilt about 1930, was closed in mid-century. Of the businesses and institutions that once flourished in Little York, only the tavern, the upper store, and the post office are currently  operating.
Little York exists today as a residential community whose 19th century rural character and setting survive substantially intact. While most non-residential uses in the village have disappeared, many of the buildings that housed them survive and have been converted to residential use. Although the Christian Church and the cheese factory stand empty, the lower grist mill and store, the west half of the upper mill, the Presbyterian chapel, and the school are occupied as dwellings, having been for the most part sympathetically renovated. Despite the low density residential development that has occurred in the neighborhood around Little York over the years, the farms on the edge of the village still retain their outbuildings and some adjoining land; thus preserving the community's setting. Commuting exurbanites have discovered villages like Little York, and in Little York newcomers have undertaken much of the renovation work now occurring. Both old-time residents and newcomers have become increasingly aware of their community's heritage and of the need to preserve it.
Books & Reports
Barber, John W. and Henry Howe. Historical Collections of the State of New Jersey. Newark, NJ: Benjamin Olds, 1844.
Boyer, Charles S. Old Inns and Taverns in West Jersey. Camden, NJ: Camden County Historical Society, 1962.
Chambers, T. F. The Early Germans of New Jersey. Dover, NJ: The Dover Printing Company, 1895.
Gordon, Thomas F. A Gazetteer of the State of New Jersey. Trenton: Daniel Fenton, 1834.
Hagaman, Paul J. One Town Around, A Pictorial History of West Portal and Vicinity. Asbury, NJ: Estate of Paul J. Hagaman, 1984.
Hunterdon County Master Plan, Sites of Historic Interest. Flemington, NJ: Hunterdon County Planning Board, November 1979.
Schmidt, Hubert G. Rural Hunterdon: An Agricultural History. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1945.
Snell, James P. (ed.) History of Hunterdon and Somerset Counties, New Jersey. Philadelphia: Everts & Peck, 1881.
Wacker, Peter. Land and People. A Cultural Geography of Pre-industrial New Jersey; Origins and Settlement Patterns. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1975.
Wacker, Peter. The Musconetcong Valley of New Jersey. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1968.
Van Sickle, John W. A History of the Van Sickle Family in the United States of America. Springfield, Ohio: John W. Van Sickle, 1880.
Maps and Atlases
Beers, F. W. County Atlas of Hunterdon, New Jersey. New York: F. W. Beers & Co., 1873.
Beers, S. N. and D. J. Lake. Map of the Vicinity of Philadelphia and Trenton. Philadelphia: C.K. Stone and A. Pomeroy, 1860.
Cornell, Samuel C. Map of Hunterdon County, New Jersey. Philadelphia: S.C. Cornell and Lloyd Vanderveer, 1851.
Hammond, D. Stanton. "Hunterdon County, New Jersey, Sheet C", Map Series #4. Genealogical Society of New Jersey, 1965.
Hughes, Michael. Farm Map of Alexandria Township, Hunterdon County, NJ. Michael Hughes, 1860.
McCormick, Richard P. "The West Jersey Estate of Sir Robert Barker," Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society. LXIV (July, 1946).
"Leases Given out the 25th March 1803 by James Hamilton of Philadelphia." The Nathaniel Saxton Papers. Hunterdon County Historical Society.
Little York File. Alexandria Township Historical Society.
Van Sickle Family File. Alexandria Township Historical Society.
Hunterdon County Deeds. Book 21/page 100, 23/100, 32/168, 50/3 & 7, 70/120 & 123, 74/192 & 210, 76/398, 123/652 & 653, and 136/770.
United States Archives. Post Office Records
United States Census. Population schedules, 1850 to 1880. Industrial schedules, 1850 to 1880.
† Dennis Bertland for the Alexandria Township Historical Society, Little York Historic District, Hunterdon County, New Jersey, nomination document, 1987, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.