A HISTORY OF EARLY MORRIS PLAINS
by Julia Beers
The friends of the Morris Plains Borough Museum express grateful thanks for helping us share our interest in our hometown with friends and neighbors.
Julia Beers, the daughter of John Henry and Susan Mintin Beers, was a
young woman when she began her story of Morris Plains. She lived in a
house on Walnut Grove Road (now West Hanover Avenue), not far from Five
Corners, where Mountain Way meets Speedwell Avenue. From there she
watched the world go and by and thought about how things used to be.
She decided to write down what she knew about Morris Plains.
Julia's history of Morris Plains is very special. Written 60 years ago, it tells us how our town grew from a handful of early settlers to a thriving community in the early part of this century. It may be a little hard to follow: Through the years, names and places change. Older houses disappear and new ones are built in their place. Fields and meadows become crowded subdivisions. Once well-used trails are no longer there, and modern roads go to places that did not exist in Julia's time.
Julia Beers' history gives us a glimpse of life in Morris Plains as it was at the turn of the century: no cars, no paved roads, and everybody knew their neighbors. But her history shows that the more things change, the more they are the same. There were good people and foolish people in Julia's day as now, and many of the town's concerns then are still with us today. There was a strong feeling for neighbors, church and school. Morris Plains was likely a "Community Of Caring" even then.
Julia's history shows her to be a person who looked for good in those around her. She had a great gift for telling stories with a dash of humor that shows us, better than anything else, the humanness of our forebears.
Julia's history was edited several times since it was finished in 1929-30. It is presented here as close to the original handwritten manuscript as possible.*
Headings have been added to help you find the parts of most interest to you, and we have provided a cross reference of old and new place names and landmarks so you can find your way around the past.
As you read about early Morris Plains, close your eyes to blot out the familiar modern landscape. Try to see Morris Plains as a flat valley surrounded by gentle hills to the orth and west, sparsely dotted with farmhouses and fields, with dirt roads emanating from "five Corners."
Take a walk around early Morris Plains with Miss Julia Beers.
*Julia's history reflects events and information as they were understood and accepted in her time and does not necessarily represent current knowledge.
Julia Beers' introduction
to her history of Morris Plains
Plains is composed of a heavy deposit of "drift" known as the glacial
moraine, consisting of sand, grave, round stones, and boulders. This
drift was left all along the southern margin of the great body of ice
which covered the northern half of the glorbe during the glacial period.
Evidence indicates that Morris Plains was once the bottom of a great lake. The round stones and accumulation of sand show this to be true. The great rocks in the mountains, now partly hidden by forest growth, suggest the possibility of cave dwellers in the past.
The Minisink Indian Path
early maps of New Jersey, an Indian path is designated running from the
south shore of the Shrewsbury River in a westerly direction, crossing
the Raritan a little to the westward of Amboy and thence in a northerly
direction to Island in the Delaware.
Many branches of the Minisink Path spread out through New Jersey from this trail. The Dutch and Swedes must have traveled it long before the English settlers came to New Jersey.
There are traces of Indian camping grounds, and no doubt there were Indian villages in the Watnong Mountains northwest of Morris Plains. Indian arrowheads are found there even at this time. A perfect arrowhead of New York Brownstone tells a tale of either of attack from New York Indians, or of a visitor from that state, we hope the latter!
Hundreds of years ago, or farther back than that, the Plains must have been a marsh, for the Indian camps are found among the surrounding hillsides, notably the south side. The early settlers also chose these places to build their log huts, which were built without cellars. A cave was dug in an embankment to house produce from garden and field. The Indians camped on the many sources of the Whipponong River above Morris Plains. And that is where the white settlers built their log huts and started to make a living from the soil, which the Indians were incapable of doing.
Now descendents of those white settlers have vanished from the land and other invaders have captured the hill and plain, for "to the strong belong the spoils." New Jersey Records show that the English settlers bought and paid for all the land they acquired from the Indians. We have no doubt that Morris Plains settlers did the same, or acquired land that had been bought by the original proprietors.
The Original White Settlers: Pierson, Losey, Trowbridge, Raynor
the first English settler to come to the region now known as Morris
Plains was Thomas Pierson. In 1685 he established a saw mill on
Thomason's Pond and a residence on the road to the present state
hospital. This mill was operated as recently as the 1860s. The Losey,
Trowbridge, and Raynor families may have come here about the same time,
settling on the north side of the Minisink Path on the east slope of
the mountain known in that day as Trowbridge Mountain. Trowbridge owned
the place that Jesse Pierson purchased. Tradition tells us that
Trowbridge bought this place from the Indians.
Above this tract was a road to the left called the Raynor Road. The land still showed evidence of cultivation in 1880. Whoever the Raynors were, they must have left there at an early date. Jesse Pierson built his house opposite the present T. B. Hospital and turned the Trowbridge house into a wagon shed. There was a lane or Indian path that started from there and traversed the lower part of the mountain, emerging on Pigeon Hill Road. There are signs of habitation on this lane, but they must have been of very early date. We have no record of the people who may have been there. This road was used by the settlers to avoid the steep hill between the Losey and Trowbridge lands. Losey must have given the land for the present road to the Welfare House, thereby losing two acres of land. I don't know what the former hill was like. It must have been impossible. I think the present one is nearly so. Losey's son built the house now occupied by Reeds. The road was changed for their benefit.
Recently there was a tree uprooted by the elements on the old Losey place. In its stones were two stones, one oblique in form, the other small and square. Someone must have been buried there, probably during the Revolutionary War when Morristown, Morris Co., New Jersey was occupied by the soldiers. It might have been William Losey who bought the land from the Indians.
Tradition tells of three long houses built in Spring Street. These people may have been some of our early settlers who moved to the mountains north and west of Morris Plains.
H. Jonathon Stiles
next settler of whom we have any accurte knowledge was Jonathon Stiles,
who came to the plains in 1727. His grandfather, Isaac came to New
England in 1634 in the ship Christian. Their English home was in
Milbroke, Bedfordshire, England. Millbrook, near Shongum Pond, was
probably named by the Stiles family in memory of the home of their
ancestors in England. Shongum Lake was owned by Ebenezer Stiles, son of
Ebenezer Stiles was a member of the firm of Gregory, Stiles & More. This firm owned and operated a forge in 1764. This was on the Valley Road, where 80 years later, a paper mill was build by Joseph Alexander. Members of the Alexander family recall picking up scraps of iron about the vicinity of the pond and mill, and a cannon ball was found in the sand pit below the Old Stone School House when the state hospital was being built. It may have been one of the products from this forge. The surface rocks of Watnong Mountain contain more or less iron. Thirty tons of iron ore were mined by Henry Beers (father of author) in 1880. It was of a very inferior qulity. This iron came from the place owned by Mr. Tiebolt (Thebaud) west of the state hospital.
The Moores of Morris Plains
French name Moore occurs very early in the history of Morris Plains.
Tradition says that the site for the Old Stone School House was given
by a Frenchman named Moore, probably the same one that was a partner
with Stiles and Gregory in 1764. The Old Stone School House was
originally a sheep pen. The sheep pool where the farmers washed their
sheep is nearby on the Valley Road.
An old lady from Sussex County told me that her grandmother lived on Morris Plains during the Revolutionary War and her name was Moore (Mary Moore or Mrs. Benjamin Woodruff). Her grandmother, she said, always called it "Wadlon Plains." This was probably Dutch or French pronunciation of Watnong Plains.
The Inns of Morris Plains: Puff's and Gregory's
flourishing hamlet had to have at least one "ordinary," or inn, for the
entertainment of travelers. We find there were two inns on the Plains.
Puff's Tavern was located on the Walnut Grove Road, now known as West Hanover Avenue. When it was no longer a tavern, the old inn was owned and occupied for many years by Dr. Jonathon D. Marvin and family, who came here about the year 1830. The property is now the house of John H. Nunn, Jr. The house is probably two hundred years old. There was a graveyard on this place as old as the house.
Seth Gregory conducted the other inn located on the Plains on Walnut Grove Road, not far distant from the present Stiles Avenue. Seth Gregory was a Captain in Washington's army.
More Early Settlers
old Walnut Grove Road must have been much traveled in those days. It
numbered among it's residents the following families: Bryant, Gregory,
Turner, Marvin, Canfield, Todd, Johnson, Fairchild, Wilson, Jennings,
Benjamin, Beers, and Ayres, most or all of whom were early settlers.
Some of them may have come here with Stiles and Pierson - others later.
A Bryant who settled in Mendham is said to have led the first colony
into Morris County in about 1744. Some of these may have come to Morris
Plains, and descendents of the above named families still live in this
A Love Story in "Wilsonville"
small attractive cluster of homes near the back of the state hospital
property was known as Wilsonville, for the Willison family who lived
there. Here is a story told me about the Willisons: [Ed. note:"
Wilsonville was originally Willisonville"]
One of the Willisons, a young lawyer from New York, was on Walnut Grove one day on his way to Wilsonville. He saw a beautiful young girl and fell deeply in love with her. He induced her parents to send her to a private school, and afterwards they were married and "lived happily ever after."
If the young girl was a beautiful as her niece Sarah Wilson who married Fletcher Johnson, we are not surprised at the young lawyer's infatuation.
Betts, Blanchard and Freeman
was the name of another of the earlier pioneers. His house was on the
road leading from the state hospital to Dover. Further along the same
road was the Branchet house. The name is now called Branchard. This
house has been moved nearer to the hospital and at the tie of this
writing is occupied by William Ayers, superintendent of the state farm.
The old Betts house was also moved to the same place. Betts was an
early settler, too.
In those days when the sons married they were given land and timber to establish homes for themselves. The we see Ebenezer Stiles, the grandson of Jonathon (who was the first grantee) giving his sons John, Ezra and Moses portions of his estate. Lewis Burnet Stiles inherited the old homestead which was sill standing on what is now Glenbrook Road. He was the father of Lewis Ogden Stiles, who was editor of the Morristown weekly newspaper The Jerseyman from 1869 to 1895.
Another son, Abraham Ogden, became a physician and practiced for many years in Warren County. The home of John on Stiles Avenue became the home of his son J. Hazen, whose only daughter married John Coleman and lived there until her death.
I have heard old people say that in the early part of the nineteenth century, every family with possibly one or two exceptions owned their homes and most of these had at least a few acres surrounding them.
Descendents of the Pioneers
are descendents of the old families still living in Morris Plains,
among them are Mr. and Mrs. William Ayres, Mr. and Mrs. Aldridge
Leasing. (Mr. Leasing having married Nancy Youngs of Mt. Freedom). Mr.
and Mrs. William Blanchard, and Mrs. Colby, widow of Thomas Colby.
We have very pleasant memories of Mr. Colby. If Lige (Elijah) Trowbridge was the wit of the early '80s, Tom Colby was the wit of our day. His comments on the topic of the times would fill a book worth reading. He was one of Nature's Gentlemen.
Mrs. Straly was a descendent of the Coe family of Mt. Freedom. Mr. John Boyd, a descendant of the Boyd family of Ireland, was very fond of exhibiting a written memorial given to his father who was superintendent of the Sunday School in Ireland for fifty years. Mrs. Boyd was of the DeHart family of Mt. Freedom. Other names that occur to me are Mr. and Mrs. Daniel Vansyckle, Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Roff, and Mrs. Clarence Talmage who is a descendant of Daniel Evans who lived in the Valley eight years ago, and James McNeil, son of James McNeil, Sr. who died a number of years ago, aged eighty years.
J. Hazen Stiles forgets to shave
Hazen Stiles was a prominent man on Morris Plains. He was a school
trustee and took a great interest in its affairs. He often came into
the room when school was in session bringing something to the children
that he had read or thought about.
One day he taught us this little couplet:
"One step and then another
And the longest walk is ended.
One stitch and then another
And the longest rent is mended."
Another he told us the right was to spell "architect."
At our school entertainment Mr. Stiles was the first speaker. He told us he had been so busy that day he had forgotten to shave. Reverend Feagles spoke next, and he said, "Mr. Stiles forgot to shave. He did not say 'himself.' It must have been an unusually busy day for Mr. Stiles when he forgot to shave somebody." Mr. Stiles enjoyed the joke. He was a shrewd business man and, as one of his neighbors said, always "kept his hands on the long end of the flail." [Ed. note: an old meaning of "shave" is swindle. In this anecdote, Reverend Fleagles apparently is teasing Mr. Stiles about his reputation as a sharp business man, jokingly inferring that he "shaves" his customers on a regular basis.]
Sunday School in the Old School House
when the "Old Stone School House" was built, we have not been able to
ascertain. The grandfather of the writer went there to school, and he
was born in 1786. Dr. J. D. Marvin was superintendent of the Sunday
School held within its walls for many years and only resigned because
of the infirmity of years. The lessons learned in his Bible class were
long remembered by at least some of those privileged to hear his
teachings. A marked feature of his religious life was his readiness to
serve his fellow men wthout regard to creed, race or color.
He was, for those days, quite an extensive fruit grower, and his orchards of peaches and pears were widely and favorably known. They were a continual source of income to those who succeeded to the farm after his death. His only son, Dr. Cornelius Marvin, practiced his profession in Brooklyn, where he died some years ago. One unmarried daughter remained on the old homestead until her father's death. The other daughter married and for years her home was in Newark.
The Marvin girls spy on the Deacon and Betsy
here reminded of a story told me by one of these ladies. Deacon "L" of
the First Presbyterian Church in Morristown, confided to Doctor Marvin
that his home was sadly in need of a mistress since his wife's death.
As his son refused to marry, he himself would have to. Dcotor Marvin
told his wife of the problem and she recommended a neighbor, Betsy "A".
So one day an appointment was made with Betsy, and the deacon came to
Doctor Marvin's home to be escorted to the home of Betsy, who was then
about sixty years old. It promised to be an interesting occasion, and
the young daughters of Doctor Marvin ran across empty lots to get there
first. After the deacon had been ushered into the front room where Miss
Betsy awaited him, these girls - awful to relate! - laid down on the
floor of the adjoining room, and peeped under the door!
This mirthful incident reminds me of a paragraph in an old history printed in 1840 as follows: "Would it not be well for your young ladies to spend a little time in reflecting upon the perils, the toils and the hardships endured by their fathers and mothers, to gain the patrimony, the luxuries, the refinements or privileges with which their daughters are now so richly blessed?"
So the young have always been censured. As one person has remarked in this connection: "No doubt the elders of Israel shook their hoary heads with disapproval when Miriam danced and sang for joy on the banks of the Red Sea!"
Mrs. Marvin Thinks fast
more incident relating to the Marvins, and we are done. One Sunday Mrs.
Marvin was at home along, the rest having gone to church, when suddenly
there appeared in the open door a rough unkempt man of ferocious
aspect. With remarkable presence of mind Mrs. Marvin sprang from her
chair and said, "Oh, don't come in here! Every soul in the house but me
has small pox!" He gave one leap off the low porch and ran down across
the garden, never once looking back.
The beautiful Gregory Garden
Plains must have been a beautiful place then, with flower gardens,
apple and peach orchards, cherry, plum, and mulberry trees along the
roadsides, and plenty of room for wide views of the hills. As late as
1870 the Gregory garden still showed that it had possessed much beauty
at one time.
A lady told me that in 1852, when she was a little girl, she attended a small private school in the old Gregory house, kept by Seth's daughter Mary, and she remembers the garden with it's profusion of old fashioned flowers, its beehives, the well and watering-trough near the house. A curious partition designated "The Bar" had by then lost its original meaning from long ago when the home was an inn.
The end of the world in Morris Plains
A man who would be over a hundred
years old, if he were living today, told me the following story that
took place in the 1830s:
His family were awakened one night by Absalom Trowbridge who lived near them. He came to tell them that the world was coming to an end! The stars were falling as thickly as snow flakes. Persons now living had the testimony of eyewitnesses that this phenomenon continued until daylight. The boys parents were deeply religious and awaited the outcome calmly and with faith. But the son was much frightened at this time. Yet it had this effect on him: he never feared any manifestation of nature after that. [Ed. note: The falling stars were the result of a spectacular meteor shower.)
Abraham's son Lige was accounted the wit of the mountain, and I was told many anecdotes in proof thereof, but can recall only one. His brother-in-law, Harvey Wilson, sent his boy over to tell his Uncle Lige that his geese were in their grain. Lige turned to his own boy and said "Go and git them geese quick! They'll starve to death over there."
We wonder if Washington and his aides ever came through Morris Plains and stopped at the Seth Gregory Tavern. Or over the Walnut Grove Road and called at Puff's. Seth's granddaughter, Mrs. Maria Gregory Riley, has a glass from that old tavern.
More waves of immigration to the Plains
Morris Plains began to grow after
the Revolution, for people who had survived the horrors of Long Island,
Staten Island, and East Jersey began to emigrate inland for greater
safety in case of another war. About 1860, or even earlier, a number of
young Irish immigrants came to Morris Plains to pick stone to pave
streets in Newark. Among them we find the names of McNeill, Drake,
Coleman, O'Neil, Gorman, Cooney, Martin. Cummins (this Cummins was
station agent at one time), Elliot and perhaps others whose names don't
come to mind. James Elliot died very recently at his home here, aged 87
years. His son held a responsible position with the Delaware,
Lackawanna, and Western Railroad company. The immigrants of 1860 were
the second donation of Ireland to our new country. First the brains and
then the brawn. Working on the railroad occupied a number of them, but
the larger number worked for the descendants of the old settlers.
The young Irish girls became excellent housekeepers under the tuition of Aunt Polly Johnson. Mrs. Gordon Burnham, Mrs. Marvin, and the Stiles women. One day I saw a daughter of one of these emigrants putting new feet in her stockings. "Where did you learn that?" I said. Many of the descendants of these emigrants have become prominent citizens elsewhere, and their success if probably due to the economic principals taught their grandmothers by women of Morris Plains.
Morris Plains and the Civil War
Among the volunteers for the Civil
War was William Drake, Ferdinand Campfield, William Beers, Theodore
Rily, James Fairchild, and others. We remember we were playing with the
Drake children when their father came home from the war. His children
did not recognize him and we all ran away and hid. Their mother had a
hard time making them come to welcome their soldier father.
Barly Owen from Littleton also settled here at that time. He was a civil war veteran. We remembered when he came to the Gettysburg reunion, how came came to our house after and showed us maps and told his reminiscences of the battle here. Here is one story he told us:
One night in Virginia, his regiment was commanded to guard a pass that the enemy were likely to come through. They stayed there all night in a drizzling rain. In the morning, seeing no sign of the enemy, they straggled home. All at once the band struck up "Hail Columbia." They went on double quick time to the scene, and there before a log cabin in a lonely place sat a very old lady in an arm chair holding an American flag, with her grand-daughter beside her. He said that a new hope and determination to defend that flag was renewed within them all.