The Hillside Farms of Pahaquarry

My feet wandered back into the area of old Millbrook this weekend, and I expect they will tread that way again soon, and hopefully for years to come. This region, like the Pine Barrens in the Southern part of the state, completely fascinates me, and for the same reason. For such a small state New Jersey must be unique in having two such areas of restored wilderness. I say restored because in both the Pine Barrens, which make up much of the Southeastern corner, and the Highlands, which take up the Northwestern, civilization once thrived. Agriculture, mining, lumbering, manufacturing, transportation; every major enterprise of eighteenth and nineteenth century America was engaged in on these Northern slopes, and those Southern plains. Today there are, for the most part, just the woods, the hills, the sandy trails and woodland tracks that were once arteries, and the little dots on old maps that mark the towns.

What happened? In the South the economics on which people inhabited what are, after all, called “Barrens” simply ceased to make sense. Over time people left, and forest fires claimed what remained behind them. In the North the government heaved everyone off and claimed the land for the National Park Service, indirectly at least. In the 1960’s there was a plan to construct a huge dam across the Delaware at Tocks Island, for what seemed then, and to some seem now, to be good and sufficient reasons. Eminent domain was brought to bear, and families left the land who had lived on it for two centuries or more. Due to opposition the dam was never built, but the damage was done just the same, and so the land that had been taken became the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. Today, beyond a few preserved structures, little remains save for some remnants here and there, and the roads that are now trails.

In the composite image above the picture on the left is an aerial taken in 1930. That on the right is a current satellite view. The difference is truly impressive. In 1930 there were neat fields and clusters of dwellings and farm buildings. Rocks that had been cleared off the hillsides at great expense in time and labor were pushed into massive stone walls hundreds of yards long. Today the stone walls are there, running through a 50 year-old forest, and here and there are cellar holes and bits of structures. I climbed up from Millbrook on the Orchard Trail, a road that appears on old topographical maps, and connects the Old Mine Road at Millbrook with Ridge Road. My object was to visit several sites that I had determined use to be farmsteads or dwellings, to see what might remain. As I headed uphill it was easy to see the road that had been here before the hiker’s path. Like all of them up here it is lined in most places by the rocks that had to be pushed out of the way to allow horses and wagons to move safely.

Though they call it the Orchard Trail I did not see the remains of an orchard, which is not to say those remains aren’t there. An orchard would not have been an unusual thing to find up in the hills, and you can see regular plantings of trees in many of the old aerials of this part of the state. I stopped first at the site depicted in the aerial image above. As that picture shows there were at least two or three significant structures, with the road running through the middle of the cluster. Today there is a rough, overgrown clearing, lengths of rusty pipe, broken glass and fragments of pottery, stones pushed into a crude rectangle surrounding what may be a cellar hole, a concrete drainage pit, and little else. A fleeting sense of melancholy was heightened by my discovery of the rusty frame of a baby carriage leaning against a tree. On an 1874 map of Pahaquarry township this place was the farm of a J. O. Stickles. Jacob O. Stickles of Millbrook is listed as an heir and next of kin of Zachariah M. Stickles of Stillwater in a probate petition filed April 23rd, 1879. There are plenty of Stickles remaining in Newton, Belvidere, Columbia, and other places, though the farm is just a field now.

Near the top of the hill Orchard Trail connects with Ridge Road, formerly a primary artery along the backbone of the mountain for farmers trundling their grain to Millbrook or Flatbrookville to be milled. It is still paved in sections, though in others it is nearly moss-covered. I headed south, looking for several structures depicted on old maps, and one long-forgotten road that appears on no map I have seen. It was a fine day, but although I had seen a few other people near Millbrook, I saw no hikers on Ridge Road. The sites I wanted were all off the road, and the land long overgrown. I pushed my way through thick brush and tightly packed pines. The ticks were beyond abundant, and I often had to knock ten or twenty from my pants when I passed through a tight place. The first two sites yielded little beyond some rusted junk and heaps of rotted shingles.

I knew that the road I had spotted ran south parallel to Ridge Road, descending into a valley that nestled against the west side of the ridge. I spotted a likely trail and turned off, working my way back into the woods. I soon came to a fork, with the main trail continuing south and another heading off West. Although I knew that the road I sought would not run that way, I decided to poke my nose down the branch at least a few hundred yards, to mark where it went for some future visit. Just over the hill I spied stone stacked in the form of a wall jutting out from the hillside just north of the trail. I had stumbled on the remains of a colonial-era lime kiln, though I didn’t know it at the time. A learned acquaintance who posts online under the nickname Jerseyman provided the identification and the following description in a post on njpinebarrens.com:

The photographs you posted clearly depict a lime kiln—a ubiquitious artifact of Warren County’s agrarian past. Lime burners called the hole at the bottom the eye and constructed the kiln with a grate installed just above the eye. Workers would charge the kiln from the top with successive layers of limestone and charcoal or, in later years, mined coal from Pennsylvania, and then light the kiln off with kindling shoved in the eye and below the grate. The Highlands in Warren County and other counties contain an abundance of limestone formations. The process of charging, burning, cooling, and collecting the processed lime required about a week. The resultant slaked lime could be use in agriculture for sweetening the soil or, if ground in a plaster mill, applied to lath for constructing plaster walls.

Retracing my steps back uphill I rejoined the original trail and continued south, and was almost immediately rewarded. The trail dipped West around a small hill and suddenly the old road lay stretched out in front of me, soft green light slanting through the leaves, heaps of boulders lining the sides, vines draped across the branches that sheltered it like the roof of a tunnel. The forest was so silent I could hear the moss crackling under my feet as I walked south. A few hundred yards along the road turned West again briefly and opened into a clearing, where it promptly disappeared. I followed the clearing to the south and began to see evidence of cellar holes, rusted cans, and other remains of human habitation. Pushing through a line of scrub growth to the East I stepped into a second clearing. On the far edge of it an old utility pole stood. Wires draped from it ran off into the woods to the south.

This power line had to have come up the route of the old road I had just been following, and that I had lost in the clearing. Presumably it used to run straight along the East side of where the structures were located, and over the years had been erased by the forest. As I came closer to the pole I noticed that the line ended here. The wires came in from another pole down the old track a bit, and then ran down the pole in a wooden conduit into the ground. If you cared to dig down and follow that line it would no doubt end in a cellar hole nearby. Once this place was the farm of a J. H. Morris. Down the road a piece were his neighbors the Depues, and not so far beyond them, in the middle of the river, is Depue Island. At the end of the road the old maps say there was in 1874 an abandoned schoolhouse. Some day I will walk down there and see if anything remains of it.

I would have liked to keep on down the old road, for I could see now that it continued along the line of the power poles. It was growing late, and I had a good hour to get back to the truck. Rather than retrace my steps back up the unnamed road to Ridge Road I decided to rejoin that partially paved track by heading directly uphill. Fifteen minutes or so later I found it, but a clearing to the south drew my attention away from the route home. A quick detour would not hurt. It proved to be a line of modern transmission towers running east to west from somewhere in northern New Jersey to Pennsylvania. Looking up the line from the middle of the clear zone I could see the towers march up the ridge to Millbrook Road nearly a mile away. Then I spotted something just to the right of the nearest tower.

It was another of the old wooden poles, this one with its wires hanging down where they had been cut, probably when the power company cleared the land for the transmission line. It was certainly one of the same line that ran up the old road I had been scouting, to the site of the Morris farm. It wasn’t needed any more, so they just cut the wires and let them hang there. I tried to find its opposite number on the north side of the corridor, but had no luck. Perhaps the utility construction crews removed that one. Again I was tempted to try and find that line of poles and follow them back up to the Morris place, but I really did have to go. On my way back along Ridge Road northward to Orchard Trail I saw a few more collections of rusty implements, the improbably bright anchor bolt and guy wire of some long-gone tower, a boundary marker, and what remains of a shallow limestone quarry.

There are in a few places along the roads of Pahaquarry a preserved farmhouse or two, with some barns and outbuildings. But there are far more clearings straddling what are now hiker’s paths, but which used to be roads with names that went places that were important to the people who traveled them. In the clearings are the regular shadows of foundations and cellars, and here and there tucked into a hollow by some stones, a bottle, or a saw blade, or the remains of a pram. West of the Stickles farm the town of Millbrook is a museum and Potemkin village of sorts. North on Ridge Road are the remains of Flatbrookville and the old Pocano-Ramona campground. Further north the field that used to be the home of Wallpack Center’s airport is just a field. Not even a shadow of the runway remains. The Tocks Island Dam was never built, but it might as well have been built, and filled, and then blasted away to let the flood wash down the valley of the Delaware, removing nearly every trace of the farmers who cleared these hills and piled up the stones in long lines. Pahaquarry is a park now, but once it was the heart of colonial America.

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