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Johnsonburg Historic District

Frelinghuysen Twp, Warren County, NJ

The Johnsonburg Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [‡] .

Johnsonburg Historic District possesses significance in the areas of community development, architecture, commerce, and industry. One of northwestern New Jersey's oldest communities, 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 largely halted when by-passed by 19th century transportation innovations. The Johnsonburg Historic District has architectural significance as an assemblage of modest, largely 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 individually distinctive structures located there. The village possesses commercial significance because of its surviving general stores and hotel, physical documents of the important economic and social roles of such establishments in an isolated agricultural neighborhood. The industrial significance of Johnsonburg stems from its artisan shops and mill which illustrate the small-scaled shop manufacturies and water-powered industries once characteristic of the region.

The seat of newly formed Sussex County in the 1750s and the site of two taverns and a grist mill as well as of the first county jail, Johnsonburg (originally known as "Log Gaol" after the crude prison erected by the county in 1754) was one of the region's earliest settlements. While abandoned by the county government within a few years, the community was favored by its location on one of the region's major roads and, acquiring a church, school, store, post office (one of the first in northwestern New Jersey), tannery, and several artisan shops by the early 1800s, remained a place of some local importance in the 19th century. 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. By-passed in the 19th century's turnpike, canal and railroad building booms, the village experienced almost no development after the 1870s, overshadowed by other communities in the region with those advantages. Although the construction of the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad cut off just to the north produced a minor flurry of activity in the early 1900s, Johnsonburg has grown and changed little since that time.

As a result Johnsonburg has managed to preserve much of its 19th century character. Nearly all of the principal buildings in the Johnsonburg Historic District were built c.1800-80, and a few evidently pre-date 1800. 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 grist mill, several churches, and a few stores and artisan shops — are in general well preserved and evidence 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 industrial buildings like the grist mill and wheelwright shop are small-scaled structures of unadorned utilitarian design, and various dwellings exemplify the various traditional house types found in the region. While traditional construction methods and building types predominate, the influence of popular 19th century architectural design is evident in the detailing of many district buildings and less frequently in their form and plan. For example, buildings like the Christian Church, the Johnsonburg Hotel, and most houses are essentially vernacular structures embellished with Greek Revival, Italianate, and/or Gothic Revival detailing typical of the mid 19th century. More unusual is the "Eight-square" house (the Octagon House) a simply detailed dwelling of vernacular stone construction whose octagonal form is a rare local expression of an unusual mid-19th century house type.

Several other Johnsonburg Historic District buildings are also of individual note. The stone Episcopal Church, which dates to the early 1780s, has importance as an uncommon transitional form between the traditional meeting house and gable-fronted church types and, despite its mid 19th century conversion into a dwelling, retains notable early fabric including a plaster cove cornice. The c.1816-22 Green/Vail House with its ashlar stone facade and delicately carved and molded wooden trim, perhaps the Johnsonburg Historic District's most sophisticated dwelling, is an outstanding Federal style version of the side-hall-plan house type. Hardin's Store, a brick example of the gable-fronted store type built in 1871, with its third-story social hall provides a good illustration of the combination of economic and social functions in such commercial buildings.

In addition, the environs of Johnsonburg Historic District buildings like the grist mill, a mill seat since the mid-18th century, and the sites of other noted structures such as Petits Tavern, which was occupied before 1753, and the 19th century tannery and foundry may have potential to yield important archaeological information about the area's 18th and 19th century material culture.

European settlement of the Pequest valley of Warren County began in the second quarter of the 18th century, initiated largely by pioneer agriculturalists of English, Scotch-Irish, Dutch, and German stock who in due course followed the surveyors locating land for the West Jersey Proprietors and their assignees. The most prominent early settler in the neighborhood of what became Johnsonburg was Samuel Green, Sr., a surveyor whose work on the northwestern New Jersey frontier during the first decades of the 18th century enabled him to acquire extensive landholdings in the region. Probably as compensation for his surveying services, Green received titled to a large tract of land encompassing the site of most of Johnsonburg in 1745 from the heirs of Col. Daniel Coxe, the son of Dr. Daniel Coxe, one of the greatest West Jersey Proprietors.

Exactly when Samuel Green, Sr., who according to family genealogists was of English Quaker descent and lived previously in Burlington and Hunterdon Counties, located on the property is unknown, but it was during his tenure that the settlement which became Johnsonburg began to coalesce. A 1746 deed for a nearby parcel surveyed to Green by right of the 1745 Coxe indenture makes note of the road leading "from the lower inhabitants to Samuel Greens," suggesting that he was in residence by that time. His original homestead is said to have been located just north of Johnsonburg on the road to Yellow Frame Church. Green's near neighbor was Jonathan Petit who was licensed to keep a tavern in his house as early as 1752. Petit's house was the venue for the first courts of newly created Sussex County convened on November 20, 1753, and in following year a county jail was built not far from Petit's tavern on Green's property; according to 19th century sources the "log gaol" stood on the site of Robert Blair's wagon house. To accommodate individuals attending the county courts Petit is said to have erected a row of one-room log "lodgings" across the road from his tavern. While the jail was abandoned for public purposes when a courthouse and jail were built in Newton in 1763-65, Petit 's tavern continued at least until 1784.

By 1760 the community had acquired another tavern and a grist mill, both owned by Samuel Green. The tavern, licensed to Green in May 1760, was kept "in a house erected by the road, near the house belonging to Jonathan Petit, Esq." This evidently was the house to the east of the mill creek and pond where Green, having moved from his pioneer homestead, was living when he made his will in September 1760, and which along with fifty appurtenant acres he left to his wife for her lifetime. The 20-acre mill lot and the 50-acre dower lot formed part of the 300-acre tract which Green devised to his minor son John who retained ownership of much, If not all of it, until the late 1780s. While the tavern apparently had been discontinued by that time, newspaper references to John Green's mill suggest that it remained in operation.

Log Gaol experienced new development in the post Revolutionary War era, most notably the stone church built on John Green's property probably in the early 1780s. Itinerant Methodist minister Ezekiel Cooper mentioned in his diary preaching on August 27, 1786 in "a new church lately built for the Church of England, so-called." Although no parish appears to have been formally incorporated, the stone church was used by Episcopalians and others until well into the 19th century. Francis Asbury, founding father of American Methodism, visited the stone church several times during his missionary tours between 1787 and 1811, on one occasion in 1789 recording in his journal that he "rode to the stone church, and found stony hearts."

The settlement had two licensed taverns in 1789. One of them was established in a "commodious house" (probably on or near the site of the present Johnsonburg Hotel on the former Green property which later that year was acquired by William Armstrong who is credited by 19th century sources with being the village's pioneer merchant. He may have been proceeded by James Ludlum. Ludlum was described as a merchant in the 1794 deed by which he sold a quarter-acre lot on the south side of the great road to Armstrong, and the purchase price of 122 pounds suggests the existence of considerable improvements on the parcel. Henry Johnson moved to Log Gaol in 1792 and formed a mercantile partnership with his brother Jonathan and Christopher Longstreet. In 1796 a post office, the second in what is now Warren County, was established at Log Gaol under the name of Johnsonburg, with Jonathan Johnson as the first post master. As improbable as it may seem the village attracted a silversmith, Adam Hibler, who purchased a quarter-acre lot from William Armstrong in 1791. By the early 1800s, the community also had a tanyard, schoolhouse, blacksmith, joiner, and resident physician. William Armstrong was the principal landed proprietor of the place during the period, including his residence, the grist mill, tavern, and store among his holdings.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries Johnsonburg, as the village gradually came to be known, grew linearly, particularly at its east end, as lots were subdivided along both sides of the great road. For example, Col. Abraham Shafer, a large landowner from nearby Stillwater, acquired property on both sides of the great road, just west of the Yellow Frame Road corner (the Routes 519/661 intersection) and divided it into at least seven small lots which he sold to various individuals in 1814 and 1815. One lot was purchased in 1816 by Dr. David Green, a descendant of Samuel Green, who established a medical practice in the community and built a substantial stone dwelling on the property before 1822.

Growth during the period undoubtedly was stimulated, at least in part, by the settlement's location on the main road from Easton, Pennsylvania through Newton to Goshen and Newburg, New York which according to one local historian "as early as 1777...was acknowledged as the best line of travel between Philadelphia and New England." In 1793 the route was designated a branch post road, and as early as 1803 the Easton and Goshen mail stage was operating along it. In 1814 a meeting was called in Johnsonburg at Morris Sharp's Tavern for "those interested in a turnpike from Johnsonburg to the Morris and Sussex Turnpike at Newton," suggesting that at least some residents realized the importance of transportation to local development.

While no turnpike link was ever built, and northeastern Warren County was bypassed in the subsequent 19th century canal and railroad building boom, Johnsonburg 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 contained "an Episcopal and a Presbyterian Church, a church belonging to the sect of Christ-i-ans (sic), 2 taverns, 2 stores, many mechanic shops, a grist mill, and from 25 to 30 dwellings. The surrounding soil is of fertile limestone, and well cultivated."

Writing in 1844 Barber and Howell described the village as consisting of "2 stores, a grist-mill, a tannery, a coach manufactory, several mechanics, and Episcopal church, free for other denominations, and about 200 inhabitants." The cabinet maker, shoemaker, cooper, blacksmith, harness maker, and wheelwright were all represented among the "mechanics" or artisans working in mid 19th century Johnsonburg.

The Armstrong property was acquired in the 1840s by James Blair who operated the store next to the tavern, both of which buildings he owned; he presumably was responsible for the Greek Revival remodeling of the Armstrong house. The other large landed proprietor of mid-19th century Johnsonburg was Issac Dennis whose holdings at his death in 1866 included six village properties. The mill property was acquired in 1845 by Lewis J. Youngblood who is credited with erecting a substantial house with stylish Greek and Gothic Revival detailing. Dr. Green's house, owned since its construction by a succession of physicians, was reoccupied in 1847 by Dr. William Penn Vail, by avocation a genealogist and local historian, who presumably gave the house its Italianate/Gothic Revival updating.

That the middle decades of the 19th century were a prosperous time for Johnsonburg also is attested to by the commercial and institutional development which occurred then. A small foundry was established by the Doland Brothers on the tannery lot between 1849 and 1852, and sometime between 1845 and 1855 during the ownership of Lewis J. Youngblood extensive improvements appear to have been made to the mill property, judging by the increase in sale price from $1,500 in 1845 to $5,000 in 1855. The Drake and Mackey store was built c.1860. In the late 1860s the hotel was extensively enlarged and remodeled by Jacob T. Vass, and in 1871 a brick store with third-story social hall was built across the road from the hotel by Samuel Hardin, then owner of the mill property. Sometime between 1860 and 1874, a small fanning mill factory was opened on the Allamuchy road. A new school house was erected on Mount Rascal in 1868, replacing the small stone school built in 1826 on the Yellow Frame road corner. While the old stone church was converted into a dwelling, three new churches were erected. Although organized in 1826, the Christians did not build a house of worship until the 1840s when they erected a substantial stone structure with up-to-date detailing, on the Allamuchy road. They were followed by the newly organized Methodist congregation who constructed a church in 1850 on a lot donated by Issac Dennis; in the following year the First Presbyterian Church of Hardwick erected a branch chapel near the Methodist Church.

Both the Christians and Methodists established cemeteries at Johnsonburg, and the Christian cemetery is of note for the marble obelisk marking the grave of Joseph Thomas, an itinerant evangelist of the Christian sect. Better known as the "White Pilgrim" from his habitual white clothes and white horse, Thomas became ill and died of small pox during a visit to Johnsonburg in 1835 after preaching one sermon in the stone church. Originally interred in the Dark Moon graveyard on the Newton road, his remains were moved in 1846 and the present monument erected by the local congregation at a cost of $125.

While documenting the modest commercial and institutional improvements noted above, maps of the third quarter of the century indicate that Johnsonburg experienced little growth during the period, but continued as a small, stable settlement with its present configuration firmly established. The 1860 county map and the 1874 county atlas respectively depict thirty and thirty-three dwellings in the village, few more than the 25-30 houses described there in 1834, and the 1881 county history records its population as 215, almost no increase from the 1844 estimate of 200. The small industries established in the mid 19th century had all ceased operation by 1881; only the grist mill and several artisans (a few blacksmiths and wheelwrights, two shoemakers and a cooper) remained in business as did the hotel and three stores. Thus while its industry disappeared, the village retained its historic role as a service center for the surrounding agricultural community.

Johnsonburg witnessed a flurry of activity in the early 1900s due to the construction of the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad cutoff across northern Warren County. This massive undertaking, built between 1908 and 1911 and passing just north of the village, employed a large work force which included many local men. A stop at Johnsonburg was established, but except for a creamery and ice house erected across the road from the station in 1912, the railroad stimulated little local development. New construction in the village in this century has been limited to a few infill and replacement dwellings, garages and related outbuildings, and a service station addition to Hardin's store.

The paving of rural roads and the proliferation of automobiles in the second quarter of this century hastened the decline of isolated villages like Johnsonburg as local economic and social centers. Good roads and cars enabled local inhabitants to go elsewhere to work, shop, and play. Reflecting changes in local agriculture the grist mill ceased operation in 1937 and the creamery closed in the 1960s.

Johnsonburg 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, and the open farmlands surrounding the village are subject to increased development pressure. Responding to these conditions, both township residents and officials have become increasingly aware of the community's special historical and architectural heritage.


Books & Reports:

Armstrong, William C. Pioneer Families of Northwestern New Jersey. Lambertville , NJ: Hunterdon House, 1979.

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.

Burr, Nelson R. The Anglican Church In New Jersey. Philadelphia: The Church Historical Society, 1954.

Clark, Elmer T. (ed.) The Journal and Letters of Francis Asbury. 3 vols. Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1958.

Cummins, George W. History of Warren County. New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1911.

Gordon, Thomas F. A Gazetteer of the State of New Jersey. Trenton: Daniel Fenton, 1834.

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.) Historic 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.

Johnson, William M. (comp.). Memoirs and Reminiscences Together with Sketches of the Early History of Sussex County, New Jersey, by Casper Schaeffer. Hackensack, NJ: the Compiler, 1907.

Kay, John L. and Chester M. Smith, Jr., New Jersey Postal History, Lawrence, Massachusetts: Quarterman Publications, Inc., 1976.

Snell, James P. (ed.) History of Sussex and Warren Counties, New Jersey. Philadelphia: Everts & Peck, 1881.

Wacker, Peter. Land and People. A Cultural Geography of Preindustrial 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.

Whitehead, William A. et al. (eds.). Archives of the State of New Jersey: Documents Relating to the Colonial, Revolutionary, and Post Revolutionary History of the State of New Jersey. First Series, 42 vols. Various Places: State of New Jersey, 1880-1949.

Wilson, Thomas B., Notices from New Jersey Newspapers, 1781-1790. Lambertville, NJ: Hunterdon House, 1988.

Vermeule, Cornelius Clarkson. Report of Water Supply, Water Power, the Flow of Streams and Attendant Phenomena. Geological Survey of New Jersey, Final Report of the State Geologist, Vol III, Trenton, NJ: John L. Murphy Publishing Company, 1894.

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.

Walling, H. F. Map of Warren County, New Jersey. New York: Smith, Gallup & Co., 1860.

Monographs, Pamphlets and Periodicals:

Belvidere Apollo. Belvidere, NJ: 1825-1849 and 1869-1944.

Belvidere Intelligencer. Belvidere, NJ: 1850-69.

Benson, Helen Encke Orton. The Samuel Green Family of Northwest New Jersey. San Diego, California, 1972.

Crozier, Ida Florence Wright and Charlotte Barbara Ann Green (compilers). A Green Genealogy 1678-1986.

Sussex Register. Newton, NJ: 1805-1923.

Warren Journal. Belvidere, NJ: 1832-1947.

Your Guide to Historic Frelinghuysen Township. The Frelinghuysen Bicentennial Committee, 1974.

Public Records:

New Jersey Archives, 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, Frelinghuysen Township, Warren County, NJ, 1850-1910; Industrial Schedules, Frelinghuysen Township, Warren County, NJ, 1850-1880.

‡ Dennis Bertland, Bertland Associates, Johnsonburg Historic District, Warren County, NJ, nomination document, 1992, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places.

Nearby Neighborhoods

Street Names
Mill Road • Route 159 • Route 661