MIDDLESEX COUNTY, NJ - One of Middlesex County’s best-kept secrets is the ruins of what was once the site of one of the largest snuff manufacturers in the country. Parsons Brookford Snuff Mill in North Brunswick was at one time a leading producer of tobacco snuff. (Snuff is a smokeless tobacco made from ground or pulverized tobacco leaves. It is inhaled or "snuffed" into the nasal cavity, delivering a swift hit of nicotine.) The mill not only served as a manufacturer, but also as the estate for its owners. Despite not having been in operation for more than a century, remnants of this once active mill are still scattered along the Lawrence Brook in East Brunswick, Milltown, New Brunswick, and North Brunswick. Most people who walk along the site have no idea of this area’s history, and little has been written. For this piece, I want to give the most comprehensive history of the site that I can.
The Lawrence Brook gets its name from Thomas Lawrence, a baker and merchant from New York City who acquired much of the surrounding land from the Lenni Lenape Indians. He owned about 1/5th of the land in what is now present-day East Brunswick. In those days, water was the primary source in powering mills. The mill that would become Parsons dates as far back as 1750, when it was a water-powered grist mill (part of the wheel that helped power the mill now sits outside the Milltown Historical Society building). By the 1800s, Jacob I. Bergen took over the mill and added a saw mill. Sometime later, Isaac Petty took over and made it a fulling mill to produce wool. In 1839, furniture-maker and New Brunswick shop owner, Matthew Edgerton, took over mill operations and converted it into a snuff mill after operations ceased on the domestic carding of wool. In 1851, a fire destroyed the entire property, and it was rebuilt from the ground up.
In 1856, Edgerton sold his mill to William Graham Parsons. From there, he greatly expanded the property and achieved a strong reputation for his tobacco snuff. At one time, they were producing 120-130,000 pounds of snuff annually. Many described the air in that vicinity as very yellow. The mill produced four different varieties of snuff, but it was his famous yellow scotch snuff that was in the greatest demand. Brookford was one of six snuff mills located in New Jersey, and all were within the boundaries of Middlesex County. The plant employed up to 20 people. The grounds consisted of several structures. The main feature of the property was the four-story brick structure, built around 1872, standing alongside what was then known as Parsons Pond. The lower part of the building was supported by wooden oak beams. Attached to the building were two wooden structures on each side. Various rooms in the structure were specially designed for sorting, mixing, and packing. The wooden structures on either side were used for storage. In addition, there was the Brady Ice House, the carriage house, the boat house, barracks, and the greenhouse that housed many luscious plants. Many of these buildings were connected by wooden bridges. Overlooking the entire property was the 26-room Parsons homestead. At Parsons Pond, there was a small dam.
Parsons Sr. passed away in 1885 and operations would be turned over to his son, James M. Parsons. James was active throughout Middlesex County as a staunch Democrat assisting in various political causes. He served on the Board of Freeholders of Middlesex County, the New Brunswick Board of Trade, and was President of the North Brunswick Board of Education. He also served in combat during the Civil War under the New York regiment, and fought during the famous Battle of Bull Run in Virginia.
On August 19, 1914, the mill suffered a second fire. Although, not nearly as destructive as the 1851 fire, the damage was very costly. An estimated $20,000 worth of damages was reported. This included the stable, and the destruction of three barns. None of the workers were injured, however, one Milltown firefighter shortly passed away after drinking water from the contaminated pond. While they were able to rebuild, times were changing in the world of manufacturing. While Parsons enjoyed spending time at his picturesque estate overlooking the Lawrence Brook, it did not help his financial burdens in operating his water-powered snuff mill. The industrial age brought several changes with the way manufacturing worked. In 1917, as a result of economic and labor shortages, Parsons sold his snuff mill to the George W. Helme Company in Helmetta. All his employees and working equipment were transferred over, leaving the old mill to be dismantled.
Parsons remained at his Brookford homestead with his sister. A year later, he passed away at age 75. Because Parsons never married, the estate was left to his nephew, William P. Slocovich. However, Slocovich’s troubles were only beginning. Shortly after his passing, Slocovich drained Parsons Pond, which brought forth a suit by the New Brunswick Ice Company, which used the frozen water as a source of the ice. Slocovich also had to file a complaint against a couple who claimed that Parsons, prior to his passing, left them about 17 acres of the estate. Slocovich argued that he may not have been in a proper state of health when he had done so. In the end, shortly after Solocovich’s mother (Parsons’ sister) passed away, and in accordance to her will, her children were given the Brookford estate, giving Slocovich complete control.
Several years after Parson's passing and the closure of the snuff mill, the property continued to deteriorate. The homestead continued to be occupied by his heirs, but the rest of the property was still left in ruins. Meanwhile, New Brunswick’s water supply was running dry. As more residents started moving into the region, a consistent water supply was needed. When the Weston’s Mill Dam was replaced in 1919, the city was already in the planning the stages to do the same with the Parsons Pond dam. In 1926, construction began on the $91,200 dam. The dam was large enough to hold 800,000,000 gallons of water. The construction of the 550-foot dam meant widening the lake, and with it, the creation of Farrington Lake, named for the late New Brunswick mayor, Edward F. Farrington. However, there was the still the issue on what to do with the former Parsons property. Slocovich eventually sold the 32-acre property to the city of New Brunswick for $30,000 to be converted into a park. From there, all remaining structures of the snuff mill were to be demolished.
In May of 1926, work began to dismantle much of the remaining structures at the former snuff mill. By then, most of the property was in dire condition. Fortunately, the main building was spared the worst of it. A report in The Sunday Times greatly details the conditions of these structures. It was noted that there was still evidence of snuff inside the main structure and had turned the walls into a deep red color. The walls were also adorned with photographs of notable athletes and politicians of the period. The rest of the structures did not fare so well. The sheds, barns, and barracks were damaged, and the greenhouse was practically a shell of its former self. City officials had hoped to preserve the main building to be used as storage space. However, that never came to fruition, and it would eventually meet its demise. The Parsons homestead, meanwhile, was left abandoned as late as 1928. Advocates for saving the home had hoped that it could be used to house people in an attractive setting. This plan did not come to pass. By the 1940s, no structures of the former snuff mill or the estate were left fully standing.
Even though more than a century has passed since the closing of the snuff mill, remains are still scattered near the Farrington Lake dam. Part of the main building sits along the Lawrence Brook, and is a popular destination for fishing. Farther into the woods, there was, as late as 1979, a standing brick wall where the main building was situated. Over time, however, nature took its course, and the brick wall has since been reduced to rubble. Other remains of the property include part of the original dam, a stone structure which held the Parsons Lane bridge over the Sucker Brook, and a lone-standing telephone pole. Fallen trees in recent years have uncovered old snuff mill relics. The legacy of the snuff mill and its historic significance to Middlesex County still live on. Drivers coming in and out of North Brunswick can see the snuff mill displayed on the sign welcoming them to the township. In 1925, Parsons Elementary School was dedicated in North Brunswick in honor of the late James M. Parsons, and the school still bears his name to this day.