Bowerstown Historic District
The Bowerstown Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1996. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2013, The Gombach Group.
Bowerstown Historic District possesses significance in the areas of transportation, industry, science, social history, communications and architecture. The Bowerstown community owes its existence to the Morris Canal whose transportation significance has been recognized by listing on the New Jersey and National Registers, and the district encompasses a portion of the abandoned canal including the Pohatcong Creek aqueduct and remnants of inclined plane seven west, as well as a Pratt truss bridge which carried the old wagon road adjoining the plane across the creek. The Bowerstown Historic District possesses industrial significance because of its foundry and grist mill whose histories are representative of the small water-powered industries once characteristic of the region but which were eclipsed by large-scale factory production in the latter 19th century. Significance in the areas of science, social history and communications, stems from Consumers' Research, Inc., a pioneer in the field of consumer advocacy founded by Frederick J. Schlink (1891-1995), which renovated the old foundry property in the 1930s to house the offices and laboratories where the organization tested manufactured products and published a bulletin with its findings. Operations at the group's new headquarters were disrupted in the fall of 1935 by a bitter labor strike, an event which directly led to the formation of the rival Consumers' Union, publisher of Consumer Reports. The main office building erected by Consumers' Research, whose design evokes the form and construction of the adjoining foundry, is notable as an expression of Colonial Revival interest in America's vernacular architectural traditions. The Bowerstown Historic District also has architectural significance as an assemblage of modest, 19th-century buildings which are representative of the rural region's modest vernacular architecture in that era.
The small community, which was first known as Fairmount, developed in the middle decades of the 19th century as a result of the construction of the Morris Canal in 1824-31. Inclined plane seven west and its adjoining boat basin provided a focal point of activity in what had been previously a sparsely settled agricultural neighborhood. The 1824 survey maps for the canal indicate that the land where the canal crossed Pohatcong Creek was then owned by Aaron Van Eita (Vannatta), and a house and two outbuildings depicted on his property were presumably his residence and evidently the only structures in the immediate vicinity. Joining the ranks of local entrepreneurs inspired by the transportational promise of the canal, Aaron's son Jesse opened a foundry in 1829 just east of his father's homestead, engaging a young man who had just learned the business, Michael B. Bowers, to start the operation. The foundry site along a small Pohatcong tributary running down the mountain, which provided a source of water power, was not only close to the canal basin, but within two miles of a potential source of iron, Oxford Furnace, which was reactivated in 1832. Such small foundries typically manufactured iron plows, which were just then coming into common use, and the necessary replacement parts, as well as hollow-ware and other small items.
The foundry property changed hands twice before being purchased by Michael Bowers in 1843. The 1850 Products of Industry census reports that the foundry produced twenty tons of castings valued at $1,500 utilizing twenty-five tons of iron and fifteen tons of coal and employing one hand. It also indicates that Bowers engaged in blacksmith work and the repair of wagons and field machines, work valued at $550 in which he employed another hand and utilized 3,000 pounds of iron and steel and six tons of coal.
The locality acquired its second industry in 1838 when Peter T.B. Van Doren, a lumber, grain and coal merchant from nearby Washington Borough, purchased a 26-acre parcel from Jesse Vannatta at the foot of the inclined plane and erected a grist mill, presumably damming Pohatcong Creek to provide the necessary water power. The 1850 industrial census indicates Van Doren employed a miller who produced wheat flour worth $2,000 and various milled grains worth $9,000, making his operation the smallest but one of Washington Township's five grist mills.
The middle of the 19th century evidently was a prosperous period of expansion for the settlement. Extensive improvements were made to the canal during that time, work which included widening the prism and rebuilding the locks and inclined planes. In addition to the reconstruction of the inclined plane seven west and the widening of the Pohatcong Creek aqueduct, the canal company evidently built a small stone dwelling for the plane tender on land purchased in 1850. The operations of both the foundry and grist mill also expanded during the 1850s and 1860s. By 1860 the foundry work force had grown to include a molder, two blacksmiths and a wheelwright in addition to the proprietor and his son, Sering P. Bowers, and a cupola furnace had been added to the physical plant. Output was valued at $3,200 and included 150 plows worth $1,200. In 1869, upon his father's retirement, Sering Bowers took over management of the business which in the following year with six employees produced 100 plows worth $1,350, castings valued at $7,000, and a variety of wagons, sleds, and equipment valued at almost $700. In 1860 Van Doren's mill employed two millers and produced 880 barrels of wheat flour valued at $6,720 and 457 tons of milled grains worth $13,710, making its output more in line with the township's two large merchant mills on the Musconetcong River. In 1865, James F. Van Doren, who had become associated in his father's business interests, secured the right to rent water power at plane seven west from the canal company, giving the mill sixty-five horsepower, a larger horsepower than that of any other township mill, and leading to a great increase in production. James Van Doren purchased the mill property from his father in 1869, and the 1870 industrial census documents the expansion of the enterprise. Three millers worked to produce $92,000 worth of various milled grains, much of which was shipped by canal, and a clerk conducted a store in the mill which probably catered to the canal trade.
Fairmount obtained its one public institution in the middle of the 19th century, a one-room school house, which apparently was already under construction when its site on the new road over the mountain was purchased by the trustees of newly formed School District #7 in April, 1858. The new school reflected a growing population, which doubled from about 50 in 1850 to around 100 in 1860. While the canal, foundry, and grist mill were important employers, farming remained central to the local economy throughout the period, and census data indicates that most households were engaged in agriculture. Even mill owner Van Doren and foundry proprietor Bowers operated farms in conjunction with their industrial enterprises.
By the 1870s, Fairmount had realized its maximum 19th century development, and thereafter began a period of stagnation and slow decline which culminated in the early 20th century when the canal, foundry, and grist mill ceased operations. While it does not identify the hamlet by name, the map of Washington Township in the 1874 Beer Atlas documents that the community's physical layout had been clearly established by then. The map depicts approximately sixteen principal buildings, many of which survive. Van Doren's mill, however, is not identified, having been destroyed by fire in 1871, followed by the intestate death of its financially strapped owner two years later. The present stone mill was erected in 1879 by Walter and Mary Gurnee, but lost by them through financial difficulties six years later. Except for the loss and reconstruction of the mill, the community changed little in the late 19th century. That Fairmount was a place of minor local importance is clear from the 1881 Warren County history which mentions the community as an afterthought in describing Washington Township villages, noting that it consisted only of "a school house, the foundry of Michael B. Bowers, the old Van Doren (now Gurnee) mill, and a few dwellings and tenant houses."
The lack of rail connections put the community's industries at a competitive disadvantage in the late 19th century, a situation, made worse by declining traffic on the canal, that boded ill for the economic health of the community, which was becoming known as Bowerstown. While the mill changed hands frequently throughout the period, markedly dropping in value as a succession of owners evidently failed to make the business prosper, the foundry remained in the hands of the Bowers family who struggled on despite lagging business and the bankruptcy of owner Robert Q. Bowers, Jr. (the nephew of Bering Bowers) in 1906 until finally closing sometime before 1914 when Bowers moved to Pennsylvania. Bowers rented the blacksmith shop and the houses until 1920 when he sold the property. The grist mill ceased operation by 1917, although a small-scale ice business making use of the mill pond and two ice houses on its banks was conducted there for some years later. The long moribund canal was abandoned in 1924, and the inclined plane and aqueduct were purchased by Washington Township for the relocation of the public road, the aqueduct being used to carry the road over Pohatcong Creek. With the closing of the district school in 1930, the community lost its one institution.
Life changed dramatically at Bowerstown in the 1930s with the arrival of Consumers' Research, Inc., purportedly "the nation's first independent organization to test consumer products." The nonprofit organization began as the Consumers' Club which was founded with 300 members in 1927 by Frederick J. Schlink and Stuart Chase with the mission of protecting the consumer by exposing unsafe and detective products. The two men were coauthors that same year of Your Money's Worth, the buyers beware book which provided the inspiration for the club. The club was incorporated as Consumers Research, in 1931 for the purpose of testing consumer products and publishing the results in periodic reports for subscribing members, and shortly thereafter moved its headquarters from New York to an old piano factory in Washington, New Jersey. With a twenty-five member staff under the leadership of Frederick Schlink as president and technical director and supplemented by about 100 technical and scientific consultants, the organization acquired the old Bowers Foundry property in the spring of 1934, and by the following spring had made the improvements necessary to provide expanded offices and laboratories. The local newspaper reported that the work included renovation of the old foundry and construction of a new "stone and steel" building at an estimated cost of $17,000.
Consumers' Research had only occupied its new headquarters for a few months when operations were disturbed by a bitter labor dispute. In the late summer a majority of the staff, which had grown to about seventy members, went on strike. The strike, which involved both union and nonunion employees and was marred by several incidents of minor violence, subsided early in 1936. A number of the dissatisfied employees whose demands were not meet left and formed a rival organization, Consumers' Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports. Despite this development, Consumers' Research continued to pursue its mission under the leadership of Schlink by focusing on product testing and gearing its publications to professionals although its monthly periodical, Consumers' Bulletin (entitled Consumers' Research after 1973) includes product ratings and other features and information of interest to the general public.
In the years subsequent to the strike, Consumers' Research continued to improve its Bowerstown headquarters, transforming the property into an office campus, which included some recreational facilities for its employees, many of whom settled in the surrounding neighborhood. The old foundry dam was extensively rebuilt and a "weather exposure testing unit and fire pump house" installed, a small frame building (no longer extant) adapted for an "experimental radio and electrical laboratory," and another laboratory building was erected around 1940. The brick house on Lanning Road was remodeled as a recreation center and lunch room, and a tennis court constructed behind it.
Frederick Schlink, who more than anyone was responsible for the success of Consumers' Research, was born on October 26, 1891 in Peoria, Illinois, the son of German immigrants. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Illinois and received as master's degree in engineering from the same institution in 1917. In addition to his work with the Consumers' Club and Consumers' Research, Schlink was an important voice in the nascent consumers' movement in the 1930s through his best selling books. Besides Your Money's Worth, he influenced public understanding of consumer protection issues through 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs, coauthored with Arthur Kallet and published in 1933, and his 1935 book Eat, Drink, and Be Wary which was reprinted a few years ago. Schlink's advocacy role in the consumer protection movement was recognized by President Richard Nixon in his 1969 Consumer Message to the Congress. Schlink maintained his involvement with Consumers' Research throughout almost his entire life, continuing in his position of technical director until he reached an advanced age and ending his formal ties to the organization only in 1983, when having shifted operations to Washington, DC, it closed the Bowerstown facility.
After the Bowerstown headquarters were closed, most of the testing equipment and other furnishing and fittings, including several testing devices invented by Schlink, were sold at public auction. Some of the testing equipment, most notably a sock tester, was give to Rutgers University, as were most of the administrative files and testing records.
In 1986 the complex was acquired by the local regional school district to house its administrative offices and Project Excel, a special education program. Although the school district has undertaken necessary alterations, most notably to the main building, the complex retains much of the office campus character created by Consumers' Research. Unfortunately, a similarly appropriate adaptive reuse has not emerged for the abandoned grist mill whose roof has collapsed in recent years. While modern residential development now encircles Bowerstown, the hamlet retains its historical character.
Books & Reports:
Consumers' Research, Inc. Introduction to Consumers' Research — Not Confidential. Washington, NJ: Consumers' Research, Inc., 1937.
Ferraro, William M. "Biography of a Morris Canal Village: Bowerstown, Washington Township, Warren County, New Jersey 1820-1940." Canal History and Technology Proceedings. Volume VIII, March 18, 1989. Easton, PA: Center for Canal History and Technology, 1989.
Kise Franks & Straw, Inc. Survey of Historic Architectural Resources, Mine Hill Road Bridge, County Route 649, Washington Township, Warren County, New Jersey. Prepared for the State of New Jersey Department of Transportation Bureau of Environmental Analysis, Trenton, NJ, September 12, 1994.
MAAR Associates. Warren County Cultural Resources Survey. Prepared for the Warren County Planning Department, Belvidere, NJ, 1991.
Morrell, Brian H. Historic Preservation Survey of the Morris Canal in Warren County, New Jersey. Prepared for the Warren County Planning Board, Morris Canal Committee, and the Warren County Board of Chosen Freeholders, Belvidere, NJ, 1983.
Shampanore, Frank. History and Directory of Warren County, New Jersey. Washington, NJ: Shampanore & Sons, 1929.
Snell, James P. (ed.) History of Warren and Sussex Counties, New Jersey. Philadelphia: Everts & Peck, 1881.
Wandling, Robert A., Chairman, Commemoration Publication Committee. Washington Township Centennial 1849-1949.
Anthony Pulsinelli, laborer for construction of Consumers Research building, Winter, 1995.
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. Maps of Washington, New Jersey. New York: Sanborn Insurance Map Company, 1914 and 1924.
Walling, H. F. Map of Warren County, New Jersey. New York: Smith, Gallup & Co., 1860.
New York Times. New York, NY.
The Express. Easton, PA.
The Washington Star. Washington, NJ.
Warren County Court House, Belvidere, NJ. Warren County Deed Books; Warren County Road Returns
United States Census Population Schedules, New Jersey, Warren County, Washington Township, 1850-1880. Products of Industry Schedules, New Jersey, Warren County, Washington Township, 1850-1880.
† Dennis N. Bertland, Director, Dennis Bertland Associates, Bowerstown Historic District, Warren County, New Jersey, nomination document, 1995, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.