Ralston

n The Ralston Historic District is in the western portion of Mendham Township, centered on the crossroads of Roxiticus Road and Mendham Road West (Route 24). It extends along the North Branch of the Raritan River and up to the Burnett Brook bordering Chester Township. The area, first known by its Indian name Roxiticus, was “purchased” from the Leni Lenape Indians in 1708. In 1713 John Wills, a surveyor for West Jersey Proprietors, bought 862 acres. His son built a farm, and the remainder was settled by other early settlers.

In addition to agriculture that provided produce and livestock, the area prospered in the 18th and 19th centuries from the water-powered industries. These included textile manufacturing in woolen and cotton mills, iron refinement in forges and bloomeries, sawmills for lumber production and grist mills for grinding of wheat, oats and corn. Aside from larger homes for industry owners, most of the earliest houses were modest vernacular style, built for local workers and their families, farmhouses and outbuildings, and tenements for millworkers.
To serve the growing community a simple log cabin meetinghouse was built around 1738 for religious services. The first schoolhouse did not appear until 1793. Another was built after the 1829 New Jersey legislation for public education and in 1850 the Union Schoolhouse was constructed.

Four historic structures in this District associated with the Ralston Nesbitt families are located at or near the crossroads of Route 24 and Roxiticus.

Grist Mill
The first Grist Mill, built in the 1740’s, was operated by Edmund Martins. During the American Revolution Jonathan Logan used it to provide feed and flour for Washington’s army stationed at Jockey Hollow. After the war Logan defaulted on his debts and the Mill was purchased at a sheriff’s sale by John Ralston, Logan’s son-in-law.
The mill is a two-story stone structure with a shingled pitched gable roof. It is located behind a steep embankment on one side and a mill pond on the other. The exterior is preserved except for the replacement of windows, with the interior completely renovated for a private residence in the 1940s. (Photo 1)

Ralston Manor House

Ralston and his wife Margaret moved into the nearby Manor House, raising a family of five. It is a two story Federal style, with a wide center hall. The windows on the front façade are 2/2 sash flanked by louvered shutter. The gambrel roof has chimneys at either end. The fireplace mantles have simple, classical moldings. The stone foundation is now covered with cement. (Photo 2)

General Store
In 1785 Ralston partnered with his neighbor Hugh Nesbitt to open a General Store. It was a thriving business, not only for local residents but also in trade with New York and Augusta Georgia. It served as a store until 1893, and as the local post office from 1893 until 1941. In 1945 it was acquired by the Ralston Historical Association which preserved the exterior flush-board façade on the front and clapboard on the sides and front. On either side of the center door there are large shuttered display windows. The interior original counters and mail slots are preserved. It opened as The Ralston General Store Museum in 1964. (Photo 3)

Nesbitt Mill
In 1848 Mary Ann Nesbitt and her son John Ralston Nesbitt built the larger three-story Grist Mill, located further down on Route 24. It is stone and heavy-timber construction, with two layers of stone walls filled in between with rubblestone. It has evenly spaced windows with larger openings centered on the front façade. The shingle roof is pierced by a stuccoed chimney. Water was transferred from the millpond across the road through a 24-inch pipe to a water wheel. This powered three heavy mill stones for grinding. Milling ceased in 1904 and in 1908 Thomas Laughlin converted the grist mill into a distillery for production of his Tiger Apple Jack and peach brandy. The water wheel was replaced by a turbine power system. The original conveyors, elevators, grinders and presses drew their power from the line shaft. In 1929 Sam Fornaro Sr. purchased the Cider Mill and operated it through 1938.
In 2004 Sam Fornaro Jr deeded the property to Mendham Township. Through efforts of the architect Ray Nadaskay, member of the Township’s Historic Preservation Committee, and a wide range of volunteers, grants were obtained to restore the Mill. In 2008 it opened as the only operating Cider Mill Museum in New Jersey. (Photo 4)

Nesbitt House

The original home of Hugh Nesbitt and his wife Mary Ann Ralston Nesbitt was located on the former Wills Plantation. It was a small wood shingled farmhouse, with an adjacent stone and bank construction barn. The house was expanded in the mid-19th century with the addition of the Georgian center hall and two story Greek Revival portico on the south façade. (Photo 5)

Over 50 other buildings are listed by the National Register of Historic Places as contributing structures for the Ralston Historic District. These are located along Roxiticus Road, Union Schoolhouse Road and Valley View Road, most of which are now private residences.
Here are a few highlights.

The Millworkers Tenant House was built in 1760 on property purchased by Samuel Leddell in 1860. It does not appear on Morris County maps until 1868, suggesting it was a tenant house for millworkers. The two-and-a-half story Georgian-style vernacular house is built on raised fieldstone foundations. It has a five bay façade and gabled roof with two chimneys. The clapboard siding and shed-roofed wing were installed later. (Photo 6)

Wills-Knox Farmhouse was the early 18th century homestead of the Wills family, the first recorded landowners in the area. The oldest section is a story-and-a-half clapboard East Jersey cottage house, with three bays on the façade. It was enlarged later in the Federal style, two-and-a-half stories tall, by the Ralston-Nesbitt family who lived there in the 19th century. It was originally located close to Route 24 but in 1958 was moved 1,800 feet back to Pine Hill. (Photo 7) 

The Wills Cemetery, at Oak Knoll Road and Route 24, is an area 50 by 51 feet surrounded by a low stonewall. Only five headstones and two footstones remain. The only legible headstone records “Rebecca Wells [sic] d. May 13, 1817 age 80.”
(Photo 8)

The Samuel Leddell House was built in 1841 as a wedding gift from Dr. John Wick Leddell for his son and daughter-in-law Margaret Horton. It is a Greek Revival dwelling with a raised basement, three-bay, side-hall plan and a frieze of small horizontal windows on the second floor. It was designed and built by the local architect/builder Aaron Hudson. (Photo 9)

The one-room Union Schoolhouse was in use from 1851 to 1929. It is wood frame construction, with gable roof now pierced by oversized gabled dormers. The tall 16/16 sash windows are flanked by operable shutters. A “Union Schoolhouse” sign is over the original double leaf paneled doors. It was renovated into a private residence in 1941 and remodeled again in 1988. (Photos 10-11)

Pleasant Valley Farm
This estate was created as a “gentleman’s farm” by Arthur Whitney in the early 1900s. In addition to open space, it includes the mill pond and dam of the former woolen mill built by John Ralston. The mill no longer exists but the estate incorporated a number of vernacular houses. Among the historic houses on the former estate are the following:

 The 18th century Thompson House, once owned by farmer John Thompson, is a two-story frame house with wide clapboard siding. It was purchased by Whitney in the 20th century and remained as a tenant house. (Photos 12 & 13)

The Willet House is a vernacular house built ca 1840, later modified with Greek Revival with corner pilasters and shed-roof carried on massive piers. It was owned by three generations of the Willet family, renowned for their blacksmithing. (Photos 14 & 15)

The O’Donnell House, a small one-and-half story, clapboard sided house, was the home of Michael O’Donnell who emigrated from Ireland. It appears on the 1853 map of Morris County and was owned by the O’Donnell family until after 1910.
(Photo 16)

The Whitney House is the 19th century farmhouse Arthur Whitney, chosen when assembling his estate. He enlarged it in Colonial Revival style ca 1910. (Photo 17)

Brookrace Estate River House
The River House on the Brookrace Estate, built in 1914, was the centerpiece of the estate. The large English Tudor Revival house was a wedding gift from R. H. Williams to his son Col. Richard Henry Williams Jr., a decorated World War I veteran. Located at the corner of Pleasant Valley and Union Schoolhouse Roads, it is the only remaining building from the 19th century era on the property. It is two-and-a-half stories tall, with pink quarry-faced granite block first floor, stuccoed upper floors with half-timber detailing and a three story tower. The north wing contained a ballroom which featured a 16th century fireplace mantle originally owned by Stanford White. The picturesque landscape included formal gardens and Lake Therese. This man-made lake was enlarged from an older mill pond, which featured a dam and stone-arched bridge. A millrace can be traced from the pond to stone-wall remnants of the Chamberlain Saw Mill. The McVicars Brook Bridge crossed a brook, leading to a driveway into the estate.

After Williams Jr.’s death in 1931, the Brookrace estate was purchased by Jacob and Therese Schiff. They donated 400 acres to the Boy Scouts in honor of their son, Mortimer, who passed away while serving as the National President of the Boy Scouts of America. A portion of the Schiff estate has been saved by conservation groups as the Schiff Natural Lands Nature Preserve which comprises 768 acres, preserving the tree-covered hills characteristic of the natural scenery of the Ralston area. The remaining 186 acres became a development of 85 single family homes in 1994. The River House estate was purchased in 2007 and underwent a gut renovation and restoration.
(Photo 18)

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