Origin as Nesbitt Grist Mill

In 1818 Mary Ann Ralston, daughter of John Ralston, married the nephew and namesake of her father’s business partner Hugh Nesbitt. She had grown up at a time when the Roxiticus area (now called Ralston) became of thriving industrial center. Her father, a wealthy merchant from Philadelphia, moved to Mendham Township in 1785 where he acquired a small grist and sawmill from John Logan, whose daughter Margaret he married. The General Store he opened with Nesbitt became a major trading center with Boston, New York and Augusta, Georgia. He also built a cotton spinning factory and woolen fulling mill, taking advantage of the abundant water-power of the north branch of the Raritan River.

Mary Ann may have acquired some business acumen during those years because nine years after her marriage, widowed with three young children, she took over her husband Hugh’s businesses. These included farmland, peach orchards and various real estate properties in Mendham and Pennsylvania. When their son John Ralston Nesbitt was 30 years old, she entered into an agreement with him to build a larger grist mill on the Burnett Brook, a short distance from the original grist and sawmill and General Store.

1848 Article of Agreement between Mary Ann Nesbitt and John R. Nesbitt

Click on image to enlarge

The Nesbitt Grist Mill was a large, three story structure, with four-foot thick stone walls and heavy timber wood structure. Local farmers brought their corn, rye, barley and wheat to be made into flour and feed. Nesbitt ran the mill for more than 50 years, employing only one worker. On November 21, 1904, he was on the third floor of the mill, at work as usual, when he died from an apparent heart attack. He was one day short of turning 86.

The Grist Mill was purchased a year later by Thomas Laughlin who converted it into a distillery, moving his Tiger Applejack production there from Bernardsville Road. Extensive modifications were made, including replacing the grinding wheel with a cast-iron turbine, steel beams and columns constructed to support heavy vats, an apple elevator added and pressing equipment manufactured by the Boomer and Boschert Company was installed. Brandy and cider production in New Jersey remained popular and (legally) profitable until Prohibition hit in 1919. Laughlin then moved production underground into hidden basements, supplying speakeasies locally and in Newark and New York until his death in 1920.

The Cider Mill was then purchased by George DuBucs who produced apple cider vinegar and may have continued supplying distilled applejack to speakeasies. His death on February 3, 1930 was reported in The Newark News. His wife found his mangled body after, apparently, his clothing was caught in a revolving shaft. She was unable to turn off the press and ran out into the street where a passing motorist was hailed and came to her assistance.

DuBucs’ widow sold the Cider Mill to Sammy Fornaro, Sr. who owned a speakeasy across the street. When Prohibition ended, dozens of applejack distilleries were opened in NJ, but soon closed because production with rye, grains and corn was more profitable than with apples. The speakeasy became Sammy’s Ye Olde Cider Mill restaurant in 1933. Fornaro continued to produce cider at the Mill, at some point converting it from waterpower to electrical power. It remained in operation until 1938 when local orchards began to disappear.

The mill remained vacant for several decades, but with all the existing cider making machinery still in place. The National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form of 1999 included the Nesbitt Mill-Tiger Distillery as a contributing building to the Ralston Historic District. In the early 2000’s new attention was given to the building when it was declared one of the 10 most endangered historic sites in NJ. The mill had begun to deteriorate when large sections of the roof had collapsed, and weather-damaged floors buckled under the weight of the heavy machinery. A campaign to save the building was launched by the Mendham Township Historic Preservation Committee and historic preservationists. In January of 2004 the mill was purchased from the Fornaro family for $900,000, with $400,000 of that paid from the Morris County Open Space Trust and the remainder from Mendham Township open space fund. The Township Committee transferred rights for restoration and operation of the cider mill to the Trustees of the Ralston Cider Mill, a non-profit that included Raymond Nadaskay, Architect; Anthony Bastardi, Contractor; Carolyn Daly, Esq. and Patricia Maynard. Funding was raised through grants, foundations and private individuals.

Over the next four years the mill went through extensive renovation, with structural and machine renovation undertaken by Rondout Woodworking of Saugerties, NY. Using research and documentation of the existing structure and machinery, the historic elements were maintained as much as possible.

In 2008 the Ralston Cider Mill was brought back to life, becoming the only operational cider mill open to the public for research and education.

To learn more about the Cider Mill’s history, structure and technology, and to see before and after pictures of the renovation, visit www.ralstoncidermill.org

 

Sources

Ralston and Nesbitt Family Papers 1700-1964, North Jersey History and Genealogy Center, Morristown and Morris Township Library
https://mmt.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p16100coll21

Pressing On – Applejack’s History in New Jersey, Creating a Living Museum to Applejack,” by Fran McManus, Edible Jersey, September 2, 2021
https://ediblejersey.ediblecommunities.com/drink/pressing-applejacks-history-new-jersey

Town buys historic Ralston Cider Mill,” Jan 29, 2004, New Jersey Hills, online
https://www.newjerseyhills.com/town-buys-historic-ralston-cider-mill/article_db037b35-e100-5611-8811-94c9eeff39e9.html

Jersey Lightning,” Autumn 2008, New Jersey Skylands, online
https://njskylands.com/hs_ralstonmill_083

Ralston Cider Mill renovation, Pre-restoration photos and renovation story, Rondout Woodworking, Saugerties, NY
www.rondoutwoodworking.com/Ralston_Mill.html