Asbury Historic District
The Asbury Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2013.
Asbury Historic District, situated in Franklin Township, Warren County, and Bethlehem Township, Hunterdon County, possesses significance in the areas of architecture, religion, industry, politics/government, and commerce. The village exemplifies the small agglomerate settlements that proliferated throughout the region in the 18th and 19th centuries to serve its dispersed agricultural population, but whose growth was arrested when by-passed by 19th century transportation innovations. The Asbury Historic District has architectural significance as an assemblage of mostly 19th century buildings whose construction, form, detailing, and spatial organization are representative of the rural region's vernacular architecture in that era, as well as for several buildings of individual distinction. The community's religious significance is due to its Methodist congregation, the first in northwestern New Jersey to organize and the second to build a church, and its association with Bishop Francis Asbury, a founder of American Methodism, who laid the corner stone of the pioneer church in 1796 and in whose honor the village was renamed. Local entrepreneur Col. William McCullough, who played a key role in establishing the church and in the early development of the community, was a significant figure in the area of politics and government, having held public office at both the local and state level and served as a county judge for over thirty years. While McCullough was the first to fully exploit the community's water power site, Asbury's industrial significance stems from its grist mill, the only one of its water-powered industrial buildings to survive, and the graphite milling business established there in 1895 by Harry M. Riddle, a rare instance of the adaption of one of the region's many small water-powered mills for what became an important 20th century industry. Asbury also was home to one of Warren County's most prominent 19th century industrialists, Daniel Runkle, a founding director and long time president of the Warren Foundry and Machine Company in Phillipsburg, NJ. Another 19th century resident of Asbury, Thomas McElrath, who made his summer home there in the 1870s, was a significant figure in the field of publishing, as publisher of the New York Tribune, the influential and successful daily newspaper of which Horace Greeley was editor. The village also possesses commercial significance because of its store and hotel, physical documents of the important economic and social roles of such establishments in a small rural community.
While a tavern was established at what later became Asbury in 1763, it was not until the 1780s when a grist mill was built there that a village began to develop. With the construction of a church in 1796-98 and the establishment of a number of industrial and commercial enterprises around that time, the settlement emerged as a place of local importance. Favored by its location at an ample water power site and surrounded by a fertile agricultural district, the community flourished in the early 1800s and continued to grow in the middle decades of the century, attracting individuals of some wealth and enterprise. At a time when the movement of people and goods was largely limited to horse-drawn conveyances, such small communities provided the region's isolated rural population with almost its only centers for commercial and social activity. Although the Jersey Central Railroad passed through the Musconetcong Valley in 1852 and a station was established on the line about one mile south of the village, Asbury experienced little development after the 1870s, overshadowed by other communities in the region more favored by transportation connections. Except for the graphite mill started in 1895 and more recent residential development scattered at its outskirts, the village has grown little since that time.
As a result Asbury has managed to preserve much of its 19th century character. The vast majority of the Asbury Historic District's buildings were built c.1800-75, although several pre-date 1800 and a few more date to the early 20th century. The distinctive historical character of the village results from the survival of these buildings, their linear organization with varied spacing and setback, and their juxtaposition with the surrounding open countryside. These resources — mostly dwellings with attendant outbuildings, but including a number of industrial, commercial and institutional structures — are in general well preserved and exhibit relatively few modern alterations. Collectively they possess architectural significance. Their form, construction, detailing, and siting provide a representative illustration of the rural region's essentially vernacular architecture in the first three-quarters of the 19th century. The grist mill, typical of the area's early industrial buildings, is a small-scale structure of unadorned utilitarian design, and many dwellings exemplify the traditional house types and construction practices found in the region. The influence of popular architectural styles is readily apparent in the design and/or detailing of many district buildings. They are essentially vernacular structures of traditional or popular type embellished with Georgian, Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate, and/or other of the styles current between the late 18th and early 20th centuries.
Several Asbury Historic District buildings are of individual note and testify to the relative prosperity and sophistication of a number of village owners. The McCullough/Riddle House, a double-pile side-hall-plan dwelling dating to the late 1700s which was subsequently enlarged to a full center-hall plan, exhibits relatively high-style Georgian detailing, including a modillion cornice and locally rare pented gable pediment, and rather sophisticated Colonial Revival embellishment designed by noted Easton, Pennsylvania architect William M. Michler in 1908. The c.1815-18 Warne/Castner House, an outstanding brick version of the single-pile center-hall plan type, evidences an Adamesque refinement in its detailing and is especially distinguished by the blind arcading of its front elevation, a Federal motif otherwise unknown in Warren County. The Daniel Runkle House, Asbury Historic District's largest and most impressive dwelling which was built c.1846 in the Greek Revival style, is fronted by a full height portico, a rare domestic example of such a treatment in Warren County and the only one with Doric columns. Complemented by a cast-iron yard fence, Greek Revival out kitchen, and Stick-style carriage house, it presents a striking image of a 19th century rural capitalist's residence. The 1914 Methodist Church is notable as an uncommon rural example of the auditorium plan church type and, with its polychrome masonry, point-arched tracery windows, and decorative buttresses and pinnacles, as a rather late example of the Victorian Gothic style.
In addition to the important Paleo-Indian archaeological resources known to exist at Asbury at the Plenge site (near the southwest corner of the district), the environs of district buildings like the grist mill, a mill seat since the 1780s, and houses like the Richey Homestead may have potential to yield important archaeological information about the area's 18th and 19th century material culture.
European settlement of the Musconetcong Valley of northwestern New Jersey began in the second quarter of the 18th century, initiated largely by pioneer agriculturalists of English, Scotch-Irish, Dutch, and German stock. While the pioneers typically were tenants or squatters on property acquired by absentee owners through New Jersey's system of proprietary landholding, freeholders who purchased the land which they settled and improved also were present and in the second half of the 18th century became more common as absentee owners sought to divest themselves of their holdings, often unprofitable or difficult to manage. The site of Asbury forms part of the Stanbury Tract, a 1,250-acre parcel fronting for about three miles on the north side of the Musconetcong River surveyed in 1715 at the request of Nathan Stanbury by right of warrants vested in his wife Mary, daughter of Daniel Wills and widow of Thomas Olive, both of whom were West Jersey Proprietors. When settlement first occurred on the Stanbury Tract is unknown. According to a 19th century source, however, the earliest settlers around Asbury were the Richeys and the Woolevers, and members of both families acquired title to portions of the Stanbury Tract in the middle of the 18th century.
In the 1740s and 1750s, the heirs of Mary Stanbury divested themselves of their Musconetcong Valley holdings by several conveyances. A 200-acre tract just west of Asbury was purchased by John Richey in 1741 for 50 pounds. The five hundred acres to the east, including the village site, were sold to Peter Woolever sometime before 1754, although the deed of conveyance was not made until 1755. While both men may have been tenants on the property for sometime before their purchases, documentary evidence suggests that both previously lived to the south in Amwell Township, Hunterdon County. While Richey held onto his acquisition until his death in 1777, Woolever subdivided his property, beginning the day after receiving title when he sold its northwestern quarter, including all of the village site north of the "great road" (Kitchen Road/Route 623), to Christian Cummins who evidently settled there. A smaller tract of about 30 acres to the south of the road was acquired by Joseph Park in the 1760s by two purchases, one in 1763 from John and Sarah Holden and the other from John McMullin in 1768; both parties presumably had received title from Woolever sometime before. Park opened a tavern on the property which he described in his 1763 tavern license petition as "a very convenient place for a public house...being very commodiously situated for that business on the great road...and well furnished (with) pasture and middow (sic)." By 1786 there was a "smith's shop" on the premises, and the tavern remained in operation into the early 1800s.
In 1781, Peter Woolever sold a 2-acre lot on the river to Adam Hall upon which he erected a grist mill, giving the nascent community the place name of Hall's Mill. Hall advertised the property for lease in 1787, describing its improvements as "a grist mill and commodious house," but sold it in 1792 to William McCullough. The following year, Woolever disposed of what apparently was the remainder of his holdings, including all of the land between the mill lot and Park's tavern, to William Runkle. Two years later Runkle sold the land between the mill and the tavern to Daniel Hunt who on the same day conveyed the portion west of what is now Main Street and an L-shaped lot to the east to William McCullough.
It was largely due to the efforts of Col. William McCullough that the mill hamlet of Hall's Mill became the thriving village of Asbury. William McCullough (1759-1840), the son of prominent Musconetcong Valley landowner and Revolutionary War officer Captain Benjamin McCullough, also saw service in the War (his military title resulted from a later militia appointment) and, according to secondary sources, settled at Hall's Mill in 1784. McCullough became a large landowner, acquiring considerable property in the area, and is credited with greatly expanding milling operations at Asbury. In addition to purchasing Hall's grist mill, he established a second grist mill, a saw mill, and an oil mill on the south side of the river. By 1821, his mill complex on the south bank of the Musconetcong had grown to include a plaster mill and a distillery (probably extant by 1811), and a woolen factory was built there on a lot sold by him to Thomas H. and James D. Higgins in 1812.
Converted to Methodism in 1786 and a staunch supporter of that faith, Col. McCullough hosted Bishop Francis Asbury on several of his missionary visits to the neighborhood and was the driving force behind the construction of the community's first church, the second Methodist church built in northwestern New Jersey, erected on the site of the present church on a lot purchased from Daniel Hunt for 15 pounds. The corner stone of the pioneer church was set in place on August 9, 1796 with the assistance of the Bishop, who recorded the occasion in his journal, at a ceremony marked by hymns and prayers "after a good meeting at Brother McCullough's." The community was renamed Asbury in honor of the Bishop and the event. The church proved to be too small for the crowds attending the quarterly meetings, forcing the congregation to hold the April 16, 1800 meeting in William McCullough's barn.
In addition to his business and religious interests, McCullough had a long career of public service. He was county freeholder for Mansfield Township in 1797 and served in the New Jersey state assembly in 1793-99 and legislative council in 1800-03. He was appointed judge of the Sussex County Court of Common Pleas in 1803 and continued in that position for Warren County (created from Sussex in 1824) until 1838.
Asbury's growth quickened in the early 19th century after the public road to the mill was relocated from the Richey/Woolever boundary line to the McCullough/Hunt boundary, present-day Main Street, in 1800. During the first decade of the century nearly all of Daniel Hunt's and William McCullough's frontage along the new road was subdivided into small lots and sold, establishing a linear development pattern. Deed references indicate that dwellings and "shops" existed on several of these lots at the time of their subdivision. That the village had a school by this time seems clear from deed references to the "school house lot," located on the west side of Main Street at what is now the School Street intersection. Considerable new construction evidently occurred in Asbury during the early 1800s; an 1804 tavern license petition described the place as a "growing village," and on an 1807 visit Bishop Asbury noted the presence of "about forty houses in or near (the) village."
Joining its pioneer agriculturalists and industrialists, a number of businessmen, artisans, and professionals established themselves at Asbury in the late 18th/early 19th century period. Daniel Hunt, Asbury's other early landed proprietor, was a merchant and owned his "mansion house" and store house. Another store is said to have been built in 1810 by Silas Dunham, and a second tavern was licensed in 1804 to William Johnson in a house which he rented "near Col. William McCullough's mills" (probably on the Asbury Hotel site) Methodist minister Johnson Dunham, a son-in-law of Daniel Hunt and most likely Silas Dunham's relative, also is credited with pursuing a mercantile career at Asbury and became the community's first postmaster upon the establishment of a post office in 1812. Two doctors made their residence at Asbury in the late 1700s, Ezekiel Holmes, who acquired and evidently settled on the L-shaped lot adjoining Parks, and John Ball, another son-in-law of Daniel Hunt, whose house stood on the site of the Methodist parsonage. The village also attracted a number of artisans; it had a hatter before 1802, a tailor in 1805, and a cabinet maker by 1807. By the end of the 19th century's first decade, Asbury clearly was a thriving, prosperous settlement, a fact perhaps grudgingly recognized by Bishop Asbury in his 1811 observation "were it not for the brewing and drinking miserable whiskey, Asburytown would be a pleasant place."
While bypassed by the region's 19th century turnpike and canal building boom and receiving only limited railroad connections in the 1850s, Asbury experienced modest growth in the middle decades of the century and prospered as a service center for the surrounding agricultural community. According to Gordon's 1834 Gazetteer of the State of New Jersey the village, "lying in a deep and narrow valley on rich limestone soil, contain(ed) a Methodist Church, 2 grist mills, 1 saw mill, an oil mill, a woolen factory, 1 tavern, 3 stores, and about thirty dwellings."
Writing in 1844 Barber and Howell described Asbury as a "flourishing village...contain(ing) 2 stores, 1 plaster, 1 saw, 1 fulling, and 2 grist mills, a woolen factory, several mechanics, a Methodist church, and about 40 dwellings." Coverlets woven at Asbury in the 1830s and 1840s, no doubt at the woolen factory, survive in several local collections.
In 1836 Col. McCullough sold most of his Asbury holdings, including the entire mill complex, to his sons-in-law Isreal Dissoway of Newark and William Van Antwerp of New York City. Two years later Dissoway and Van Antwerp divided the property, the latter receiving the northern grist mill and the woolen factory (which McCullough had repurchased in 1832) and the former the remaining industrial holdings on the south side of the river. The mill seat was reunited in one ownership by David Hoffman who acquired Dissoway 's holdings in 1850 and Van Antwerp's mill in 1857. Hoffman later conveyed portions of the complex to his sons, selling the mill on the north side of the river to his son James M. Hoffman in 1864. Joseph Park's lot was purchased by John Richey, Jr. in 1813 and in the 1835 intestate partition of Richey's landholdings formed part of his son William's share. Most of the Park property was subsequently acquired by William Richey's son-in-law Daniel Runkle who, gaining title to the major portion of Daniel Hunt's land (which after his death in 1810 had been divided among his heirs) and other lands on the north and west sides of the village, became Asbury's principal landed proprietor in the mid 19th century.
Daniel Runkle (1823-90) was the grandson of pioneer settler William Runkle from whom he received a considerable inheritance which assisted his pursuit of a successful career in business and real estate. In the 1850 census his real estate holdings were valued at $50,000, more than twice that of any of his neighbors, and the porticoed Greek Revival house he built in Asbury around that time clearly reflects his position as the community's wealthiest and most prominent resident. In 1856 he helped organize and capitalize the Warren Foundry and Machine Company at Phillipsburg, New Jersey, one of Warren County's most important 19th century industries. Owning a major share of the company, he was one of its original directors and for many years beginning in 1864 served as its president and treasurer. Runkle later became involved in a number of other successful business ventures including several gas and water companies around the state, he also was a trustee and benefactor of the Asbury Presbyterian Church. At his death his wealth was estimated at over $1,000,000.
That the middle decades of the 19th century were a prosperous time for Asbury is attested to by the residential, commercial, and institutional development which occurred then. The village spread northward along Main Street with residential construction along its east side. In addition to Daniel Runkle's house, two other substantial dwellings were erected on the former Park property in the 1840s and 1850s, a simpler Greek Revival house by Runkle 's sister-in-law Catherine Richey and an Italianate cubical villa by Dr. Robert B. Brown, and by 1860 a number of more modest houses were built north of Kitchen Road. In the 1850s Asbury grew eastward with the construction of about a half dozen houses on the road to New Hampton (Maple Avenue), and two dwellings were built on newly opened School Street. Several other dwellings were built on School Street in subsequent decades, most notably the c.1876-82 Presbyterian parsonage, and houses were erected on the west side of Main Street north of Kitchen Road after I860.
That Asbury had some attraction as a place of residence in the period is attested to by the fact that Thomas McElrath, publisher of the New York Tribune, made his summer home there during the post Civil War era. Thomas McElrath (1807-88), a Williamsport, Pennsylvania native whose early New York career included a lucrative law practice and election to the state assembly, assumed business management of the Tribune, a new New York City newspaper, in 1841 with Horace Greeley as editor. During their celebrated partnership, which lasted for several decades with a short hiatus in 1857-64, the Tribune rose to a nationally recognized "position of social and political leadership." McElrath acquired the McCullough homestead, identified as his residence and farm in the 1874 county atlas, in 1868 and retained ownership of the property (title actually was vested in his wife) until 1882.
Asbury also witnessed religious and educational development in the mid 19th century period. An academy was built on School Street in the 1840s under the auspices of the Rev. James Lewes, minister of the nearby Musconetcong Valley Presbyterian Church. Church services were held on the upper story of the Greek Revival building, and classes below; it became a public school about 1868 after the octagonal district schoolhouse (located on the Bloomsbury road) burned down. Around 1860 Pine Grove Seminary, a short-lived girls' boarding school, was opened in the former McCullough house. In 1842, the Methodists replaced their dilapidated pioneer house of worship with a new church, another Greek Revival structure. A Presbyterian congregation organized in 1860 and in 1868-69 built a substantial brick church, exhibiting fashionable Italianate/Romanesque design influences, on a School Street lot donated to it. The Presbyterians also established a cemetery at the end of School Street around 1860. A village improvement society was active in the period, raising money for projects, one of which the was the installation of slate sidewalks, by social events held in the Academy.
Asbury's commercial and industrial activity also increased moderately in the middle decades of the 19th century. A second hotel, the American House (was built in the 1850s, and by 1860 a "shoe manufactory" was established by Jacob Weller and a machine shop operating on the south side of the river in the Hoffman mill complex. The present stone grist mill on the north side of the river was built by James M. Hoffman in 1863; in 1870 it did both merchant and custom work producing flour and feed worth $30,000, a considerable increase from its predecessor's production in1860. In addition to two or three merchants, Asbury had a variety of tradesmen and professionals during the period including a cabinet maker, tailor, butcher, several blacksmiths, wheelwrights and harness makers, several representatives of the building trades, a silversmith and/or watchmaker/jeweler, and at different times one or two physicians, lawyers, and clergymen.
In the late 19th century, however, business and industrial activity at Asbury markedly decreased. Weller's shoe factory closed before 1874, and the woolen factory was destroyed by fire in 1881. The northern grist mill ceased operation by the mid 1890s, and by 1909 the only element of the mill complex on the south side of the river remaining in operation was the grist mill. The community did acquire two new enterprises of some note during the period. A livery stable and horse dealing business was established by the Smith family in a complex on the site of the old Asbury Hotel, which several generations of the family carried on until the 1960s, and in 1895 Harry M. Riddle founded a graphite processing company in the Hoffman grist mill which grew to be the largest refiner of crude graphite in the United States.
Harry M. Riddle (1865-1937), who grew up on a farm at nearby New Hampton and was educated at the Trenton State Normal School, pursued a mercantile career in early adulthood, becoming owner of general stores at New Hampton and Asbury by 1895 and postmaster at the latter place in that year. He also started his graphite company in 1895 when the Hoffman grist mill, owned by his wife's aunt, became available, adapting the old works for processing graphite, shipped in from elsewhere, which was used in making a variety of products including stove polish and paint. Meeting with success, he expanded his operations in the early 20th century, purchasing the Hoffman mill in 1903, acquiring the grist mill on the south side of the river in 1908, and erecting a small building on Main Street to house his company offices and the post office before 1908. His purchase of the old McCullough house in that year and its Colonial Revival remodeling as his residence clearly reflects his success as an industrialist and prominent position in the community. Riddle's son, H.M. Riddle, Jr. joined the company in 1914, and during World War I improved machinery and a diesel engine for more power were installed, allowing the company to expand its product line. Growth resulting from the development of new markets and products continued in subsequent decades, and the laboratory, erected on the site of the old woolen factory, no doubt played an important role in the operation. H.M. Riddle, Sr. also diversified his interests, becoming a trustee of the First National Bank of Washington, NJ in 1923 and bank president in 1933. It was after his death in 1937 that the company developed its national prominence as a graphite manufacturer, extensively rebuilding and expanding its Asbury plant on the south side of the river and more recently acquiring and establishing facilities elsewhere.
Despite the growth of the graphite company, Asbury experienced little residential or commercial development in the early 20th century, no doubt in large part due to the fact that the company employed a small work force. Except for two important institutional building projects, the 1914 Methodist church (built to replace its 1842 predecessor which was destroyed by fire) and the 1919 school, new construction in the village has been limited to a few infill and replacement dwellings, garages and related outbuildings, and more recently a firehouse, post office, restaurant, and new graphite company offices.
Asbury exists today as a largely residential community whose 19th century rural character and setting survive substantially intact. Although many non-residential uses in the village have disappeared, the buildings that housed them mostly remain. Neglect and deterioration, however, threaten a number of district buildings, such as Smith's Horse Barn, and the open farmlands surrounding the village are subject to increased development pressure. Responding to these conditions, local residents have become increasingly aware of the community's special historical and architectural heritage and the desire to preserve that heritage.
Books and Reports:
Barber, John W. and Henry Howe. Historical Collections of the State of New Jersey. Newark, NJ: Benjamin Olds, 1844.
Bertland, Dennis N. Early Architecture of Warren County. Warren County Board of Chosen Freeholders, 1976.
Clark, Elmer T. (ed.). The Journal and Letters of Francis Asbury. 3 vols. Nashville, Tennessee: Abington Press, 1958.
Cummins, George W. History of Warren County. New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1911.
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Fisher, Benjamin Van D. The Runkle Family. New York: T. A. Wright, 1899.
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Hampton, Vernon Boyce. Newark Conference Centennial History, 1857-1957. The Historical Society of the Newark Annual Conference of the Methodist Church, 1957.
Harpster, Richard E. (ed.). Historical Sites of Warren County. Warren County Board of Chosen Freeholders, 1964.
Honeyman, A. Van Doren. (ed.). Northwestern New Jersey: A History of Somerset, Morris, Hunterdon, Warren and Sussex Counties. 5 vols. New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1927.
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Wacker, Peter. The Musconetcong Valley of New Jersey. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1968.
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Maps and Atlases:
Beers, F. W. County Atlas of Warren, New Jersey. New York: F. W. Beers & Co., 1874.
McCarty, D. Map of Warren County, New Jersey. Philadelphia; Friend and Aub, 1852.
Sanborn Insurance Map Company. Map of Asbury. New York: Sanborn Insurance Map Company, 1908.
Seiwell, Hattie M. Mary Olive Stanbury's 1250 acres fronting on the Musconetcong River. Hattie M. Seiwell, 1990.
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Monographs, Pamphlets and Periodicals:
Belvidere Apollo. Belvidere, NJ: 1825-1849 and 1869-1944.
Belvidere Intelligencer. Belvidere, NJ: 1850-69.
Warne, Arlene D. (ed). Asbury Bicentennial, 1771-1971. Asbury Bicentennial Committee, 1971.
Washington Star. Washington, NJ: 1868-1970.
New Jersey Archives, State Library, Trenton, NJ — Judiciary Records, Prerogative Court Division; New Jersey Deeds New Jersey Wills; Tavern Licenses; West Jersey Proprietors Records, Surveys.
Sussex County Court House, Newton, NJ. — Sussex County Deed Books; Sussex County Road Returns; Sussex County Will Books; Sussex County Inventory Books.
Warren County Court House, Belvidere, NJ. — Warren County Deed Books; Warren County Road Returns; Warren County Will Books.
United States Census — Population Schedules, Franklin Township, Warren County, NJ, 1850-1910; Industrial Schedules, Franklin Township, Warren County, NJ, 1850-1880.
† Dennis N. Bertland, Bertland Associates, Asbury Historic District, Franklin Township, Warren County and Bethlehem Township, Hunterdon County, NJ, nomination document, 1992, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.