Somerset County News

Landmark Grain House Restaurant Celebrating 250th Anniversary in Basking Ridge

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Credits: Courtesy of THSSH
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Credits: Courtesy of THSSH
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Credits: Courtesy of THSSH
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Credits: Courtesy of THSSH
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Editor's Note: The following article on the 250th anniversary of the history of the Grain House restaurant building was submitted by Brooks Betz, a trustee for The Historical Society of the Somerset Hills (THSSH, www.thssh.org). The Historical Society of the Somerset Hills includes Bernards Township, Bedminster, Bernardsville, Far Hills, and Peapack & Gladstone, and is headquartered at the Brick Academy at 15 W. Oak St. in Basking Ridge. The Grain House Restaurant at the Olde Mill Inn at 225 Route 202 in Basking Ridge.

In 1768, Samuel Lewis, a miller from Franklin Corners in Bernards Township, built a water-powered grist mill and a barn on the Passaic River on land originally acquired from William Penn _ the first chapter in the 250-year history of the structure that is now the Grain House Restaurant off Route 202 in Basking Ridge.

Samuel Lewis' grandson, Richard Southard, bought the property in 1777, and soon found that the convenient location along a major thoroughfare between New York and Philadelphia _ so practical for commerce _ had placed him smack in the middle of the Revolutionary War.

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Southard's small wooden mill that eventually became the bones of the Grain House restaurant had the task of supplying desperately needed flour, meal, and feed to the Continental Army encampment at Jockey Hollow, Morristown, during the bitter winter of 1779-80.

The historic origin of the name 'Grain House'

Since the barn was used to store the army’s grain during the Revolutionary War period, it is still known today as “The Grain House.”

As the Revolutionary War moved south, quiet once again settled over the mill. Samuel Woodward, another family member, owned the building into the early 19th century. His daughter, Phebe, married a Peapack miller, Ferdinand Van Dorn, who later purchased the property.

Van Dorn's business prospered, and the little mill, by that time already a bit old, couldn’t keep up with demand. In 1842, Van Dorn erected a larger stone mill with an inside water wheel system. That bigger (and picturesque mill) remains standing on Route 202 opposite the Grain House restaurant. The mill with the water wheel today is still known as the Van Dorn Mill.

Franklin Corners _ new lease on life in 1920s

The property passed through several hands in the ensuing years and gradually fell into disrepair, but in 1928 it received a surprising new lease on life. Famous restaurateur William Childs saw intriguing possibilities in the barn standing near the old mill.

The estate devolved to Marguerite J. McMurtry and the two sons of her sister Anna D. Childs. Three heirs to the family willed the 100-acre farm to William Childs (a brother of Luther Childs) of Bernards Township by deed on September 19,1927, reciting the deed to the Willmere Farm, a New Jersey corporation, of Jersey City, by deed of 27 January 1928. This corporation remained as owner up until December 1958.

While the barn (which had been known to locals as the Southard Barn) was originally next to the mill, Childs moved it to the eastern side of Route 202 during the following year. He then began converting the barn to an inn. The barn's roof and sides were gone but the structure was firm. The community area was known as Franklin Corners, supposedly named after Benjamin Franklin, but it was also listed as Bernardsville and Bernards Township.

Franklin Corners envisioned as small-scale "Williamsburg, VA"

William Childs started a project in 1930 to restore Franklin Corners, envisioning a small scale version of a preserved hamlet like Williamsburg, Virginia, and called it Willmere Farms. He was also inspired by Longfellow's Wayside Inn in South Sudbury, Massachusetts as it was noted in his book "Tales of the Wayside Inn."

The area that served to inspire Child's ambition to create a "Williamsburg-like" active historic community as a real working old time town had up to 14 buildings at times. The buildings included homes, mills (grist and saw), a blacksmith, barns, one room school, general store, rug maker, guest houses, and a restaurant which was at first called the Old Mill Inn.

Parts of the restaurant transformed into different sections of restaurant

None of the lines of the original barn structure have been changed. The wagon and machinery room is now the Childs Dining Room. The stable is now the grill. The upstairs had seven bedrooms.

William Childs had turned his attention to the Grain House and his Revolutionary-era hamlet because he had almost bankrupted the larger corporate restaurant business when he decided to introduce a vegetarian menu to restaurant chain. The board decided Childs was not fit to run the company and he was forced out. William then turned to focusing on his Franklin Corners project, including restoration of the Grain House barn and converting it to an inn and restaurant. Rather than gut the inside, however, Childs chose to preserve the classic old structure’s unique spirit through a painstaking restoration. Not a beam was touched in the barn’s solid frame, and it remains to this day as it was more than two centuries ago. Only the functions of the divided areas inside have changed.

But Childs was unable to complete his project before he suffered a stroke, and died on May 22, 1938. 

The Childs property had started at 50 acres and grew to over 550 acres, encompassing the present day Grain House all the way down to North Finley Avenue in Basking Ridge. Because Childs was a devoted member of the Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church, the property _ which might logically be part of Bernardsville _ became part of Basking Ridge due to Childs' church membership.

Many in the area were thankful for the project because it created local jobs during the Great Depression. Childs was responsible for employing, housing and feeding 50 workers throughout the project. In 1938, over 100,000 people visited the restored mill.

Owners said to be first in US to hire women as waiters

William Childs’ Olde Mill Inn was an immediate success and cemented his family’s already sterling reputation in the restaurant business. William started the first Childs’ restaurant with his brother Samuel (later a N.J. State Senator) in 1889 on New York City’s Cortland Street.

These country boys from the Somerset Hills envisioned a grand, cross-country chain. It's reputation grew, and the Childs’ name eventually graced 107 establishments in North America. They ran one of the largest chains of any kind in the world and served over 50,000,000 meals a year. The Childs’ restaurants were renowned for their large glass fronts and sparkling white walls and tables, and the brothers proved to be not only astute businessmen but progressive employers as well. They were the first in the United States to hire women to wait tables. In William’s words, the Childs’ outstanding success was based on “food as close as possible to that served in the best homes . . . family recipes and absolute cleanliness.” Their concept of moderately priced meals, freshly prepared in a pristine atmosphere in convenient locations, sounds simple enough today. However, in the late 19th century, it truly revolutionized the industry.

The Childs family owned the property until 1952.

The Bocina era _ refurbished in 1990s

The Olde Mill Inn came on the market in 1992. The Olde Mill Inn was a separate facility built in 1977 as a supplement to the old Grain House for use as a hotel, for conferences and social events. By 1993, both were neglected and outdated, and a new group purchased the property and poured millions of dollars into renovations. Bruce Bocina, raised in Short Hills and now living in Basking Ridge, decided the effort was worth it.

To achieve the transformation, Bocina hired architect Dave Minno. Throughout the Bocina restoration, particular attention was paid to update the facility and keep its historic charm. An outdoor patio was added for warm-weather enjoyment. Two years later in June 1994, the Grain House was  gutted and refurbished in upscale Federalist Colonial style. However, even after the restoration, the Grain House has remained fundamentally unchanged since Colonial times. 

Ghosts, including 'phantom carriage'

Along with its historic architect, the building also supposedly has retained a spiritual element from earlier eras. It was said that the barn had the history of being used to sequester fleeing slaves during the days of the Underground Railroad before slavery was abolished. Over the years, people have heard strange sounds, including doors slamming, from what is also believed to be the caretaker's ghost.

The story goes that during the mid-18th century, the caretaker, George, was promised the property but at the last minute was written out of the will. Since then, he's refused to give up his claim to the property and is said to still roam the older parts of the barn. In addition to George's ghost there is said to be two others; Justin, a 70-year-old freed slave from Pennsylvania who died in 1858 while on the Underground Railroad, and a mystery person who has  been seen walking alongside Justin. Lastly, there's the tale of the Phantom Carriage, a horse drawn carriage seen passing through Franklin Corners.

Inside the Grain House today

Today, the restaurant continues to reflect the Bochina family's dedication to supporting local sustainable farms with a kitchen that is presided over by Executive Chef Luca Carvello. What was the wagon and machinery room is now the William Childs Dining Room. The grain storage area that fed Washington’s army is now The Grain Room. The horse stable is the Coppertop Pub, and the bents in the second floor’s great haymow are now individual dining rooms and offices. These upstairs rooms include the William Alexander room, the John Annin room, Henry Southard Office, the Millicent Fenwick and the Mary Lewis Kinnan rooms all of which are famous historic residents of Basking Ridge and Liberty Corner.

Upstairs, hallway ceilings are deeply sloped and beamed, as they were hundreds of years ago, and most of the original windows are small. Like the doors, the windows are fitted with authentic hasps and ironwork. Haymow space beneath the roof beams became sleeping quarters, where beds strung with ropes supported straw mattresses. Now they house offices and meeting rooms available for private functions, each named for a notable New Jersey figure.

Sheila Palka is the Marketing Director for the Olde Mill Inn and the Grain House. "This is like a museum to me," said Sheila Palka. "We went to great lengths to furnish the entire property with antiques according to the period and you can see it clearly here, where the rooms are more intimate. You really get the feel of how people once lived." Downstairs are stone hearths, with striking beamed ceilings throughout. In 2012, the owners built a small organic farm adjacent to The Grain House. Palka said she has since discovered that she is more than an employee. After gathering results from a DNA test and geneology research, she she has learned that shares actual lineage with the Childs family.

Continuing a tradition

Today, The Bocina Group continues The Olde Mill Inn’s long traditions. The Grain House, its setting steeped in a gracious era long past, continues to be a local favorite. Each room of the historic building reflects its historic charm and is fashioned to meet a wide array of needs. The Grain House, so deeply rooted in the Somerset Hills area's past and so lovingly preserved by its many owners, offers a historic atmosphere of charm and fellowship not duplicated anywhere else in New Jersey.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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