Califon Historic District
The Califon Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. Adaptation copyright © 2013, The Gombach Group.
Califon Historic District encompasses approximately 150 dwellings or commercial buildings and innumerable out-buildings such as sheds, out-houses, carriage-houses and barns. Generally the structures date from the mid-19th century to the early-20th century with less than a dozen buildings which pre-date 1850 and fewer than twenty new structures. The Califon Historic District is generally residential with a commercial center on Main Street.
The district developed along the South Branch of the Raritan River, several streets and, later, the tracks of the Central Railroad of New Jersey.
The streets within the Califon Historic District emanate from a hub roughly centered at Main and Academy and crudely forms the spokes of a wheel. Most of the historical village lies on the south side of the river with only a few 19th century dwellings across the bridge on First Street.
Califon is representative of the small rural-oriented communities which formed throughout much of New Jersey during the late 19th early 20th centuries.
The town which contains a number of intact 19th and early 20th century commercial structures centering along Main Street and surrounding residential dwellings has had few alternatives or intrusions since the early 1900's.
The small commercial buildings along Main Street continue to project an impression of the 19th and early 20th centuries while providing livelihoods for contemporary merchants.
The dwellings also generally produce the same effect, especially in light of the numerous 19th century outbuildings (sheds, carriage-houses, barns, etc.) which are still extant.
Early accounts and maps indicate that a number of buildings were scattered about Califon as early as 1830.
Basically rural up until that time, by 1850 the beginnings of a farm village become to take form. Aaron Sutton's mill is now operated by Benjamin Cole, Jacob Neighbor erected another mill, soon to follow are the establishment of a distillery and tannery and by 1870 a 'Union Hotel' in operation. The following is from an early Business Review dated 1890:
"Califon, a growing post village in High Bridge and Tewksbury Township, is picturesquely located on the south branch of the Raritan River on the High Bridge Branch of the Central Railroad of New Jersey. Clinton the nearest banking town is eight miles, and Flemington the county seat 16 miles distant. It is one of the most progressive towns in the county, is attractively laid out and has many handsome and cozy looking residences. Capital and push have given the place good stores, the stocks of which are large and varies, and offered at prices comparing favorably with those prevailing in the great centres of wealth and population. Consider the place in any light you may, it is a most desirable place to locate either for business or as a place of residence. Situated in the very heart of a wealthy peach growing district and surrounded by productive farming land, within a short distance of rich deposits of iron ore and limestone; and evidences of prosperity observable on every hand, and enjoying the very best sanitary conditions; what place in all Jersey can offer advantages superior to these? Telegraph and express facilities are enjoyed; good schools are sustained; and the Methodists and Presbyterians have places of worship here and meet with hearty encouragement and support."
The following is a description of one of the businesses listed in this same 1890 review:
"Jacob M. Johnson Mill. This is one of the best mills of this section it is a substantial four story structure 25 x 30 feet in dimensions, furnished throughout with all the necessary appliances and machinery and has four run of stones driven by a powerful turbine water wheel. The products comprise both flour and feed of the first quality in which a merchant and custom trade is maintained while a specialty is made of buckwheat. Two assistants are employed and a team for delivery and all orders are promptly filled at lowest market prices. Mr. Johnson also pays the highest market rates for grain and carries on extensive trade. He is a native of Hunterdon County and has a wide spread reputation for square dealing."
The mill referred to is probably the Geist Mill originally built over a hundred years ago as a saw mill by Jacob Neighbor. The dam is on record as having been in existence 10 years prior to erection of the mill building. Mr. Geist bought the mill from Joseph A. Tiger, who bought it from Charles Potter. Mr. Potter obtained it from Benjamin Cole and wife who bought it around 1870 at a sheriff's sale. The basic development of present day Califon is a direct result of the prosperity enjoyed by the varied businessmen of this particular era. They were the architects of its homes and shops. The mode of transportation has changed but the motivation is the same, people coming to purchase their everyday wants and materials.
The Union House opened in 1870 was a hotel very prominent in downtown Califon until the bull-dozer arrived on the scene. A brief description of the operation follows: "the building is two and a half stories in height and fitted up in the most approved manner and supplied with all modern conveniences. There are 10 sleeping rooms comfortably furnished and kept neat and clean. In addition, there is an attractive sitting room, a handsomely furnished parlor, dining room admirably appointed and having a seating capacity for 20 persons, also a pool room with fine pool table and a bar room having a fine bar, well stocked with the choicest foreign and domestic liquors of all kinds. In connection with the hotel is a good stable, having the best of accommodations and three horses are kept for livery purposes."
In the early twentieth century Califon continued to grow and the value of taxable property was $175,000. An early industrial report indicates the desires of the community to welcome industry and mentions "50 men, 40 women of the resident population could be depended upon to accept employment in a new industry." This report also states, "the dairying industry is carried on here on an extensive scale and large quantities of butter and cream and milk are shipped daily to the markets of the large cities. Farming and fruit growing are carried on quite extensively; the soil is good, and fine crops of wheat, rye and corn are raised. The peach and apple crops are very large and of particularly fine quality. There is no uncultivated land in the village or its vicinity, and no farms for sale. The non-English speaking immigrants consist of 20 Italians and 10 Pollocks."
Geist, Helen H. The Califon Story, 1966.
Barber, John and Howe. Historical Collections of the State of New Jersey, 1844. (pps.238-257).
Snell, James P. History of Hunterdon and Somerset Counties, New Jersey, 1881.
The George W. Beaty Journal Books. Four volumes, dated 1848 to 1865. Located in the Califon Historical Society.
Atlas. Map of Hunterdon County, New Jersey, prepared by Samuel C. Cornell, 1852.
Atlas. Topographical Map of Hunterdon County, New Jersey, 1873. Information gathered by Madeline Morris, Helen Apgar, Geraldine Nyce, and Mary Juguaggiato of the Califon Historical Society.
† Terry Karschner, Historian/Curator, Historic Sites Section, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, Califon Historic District, Hunterdon County, NJ, nomination document, 1974, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.