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Evidence of Stillwater's Past Is Everywhere

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Stillwater Historical Society President Bob Grabowsky in the classroom on the second floor of the museum. Credits: By Jane Primerano
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The Stillwater Historical Society Museum has a history of its own, as a school, library and headquarters of a fraternal organization. Credits: By Jane Primerano
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The Stillwater Presbyterian Church is the focal point of the village Credits: By Jane Primerano
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Credits: By Jane Primerano
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Credits: By Jane Primerano
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The house that was the final home of Joyce Kilmer's widow Credits: By Jane Primerano
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Credits: By Jane Primerano
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STILLWATER TOWNSHIP, NJ – Parts of this sprawling township go by different names: Stillwater proper, Middleville, Swartswood; but the Historical Society keeps archives of each of them in the museum in the Neighborhood House on Main Street.

The museum has been preserving history in the township since 1954, in the former one-room schoolhouse and Mary W. Dixon Library.

The township was established in 1825, but settlement occurred in the early 18th Century by Palatine Germans, many from Electoral Palatine and others from Switzerland, the Alsace and other areas in Germany. They were part of the first wave of German immigration to the Colonies.

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Stone houses and the stone mill in Stillwater evidence the early German influence.

The earliest burials in the Stillwater Cemetery are dated in the 1740's, with the oldest dated 1748, marking the resting place of one Peter Bernhardt, a German immigrant to Philadelphia who retired to Stillwater. The cemetery served Lutherans, and German Reformed settlers. The religious community that is now the Presbyterian Church dates back to 1769.

Casper Shafer, and his brother-in-law John George Wintermute, were two of the most prominent settlers. Shafer was one of three delegates from Sussex County to serve in the new state’s first legislative assemblies from 1776 to 1779.

Among the 18th Century houses that remain is the Casper Shafer House, now known as the A. Roof House, near the Kill on Route 521. It was built in 1741. The slave house which dates to about 1780, has an interesting two-story porch. Apparently, Casper Shafer used the house for his slaves.

The John George Wintermute House dates from 1755. Closer to the road is the Peter Wintermute House from 1791, which was once the Bonnie Brook Stock Farms.

Also dating to the 1700's is the presence of a grist mill in Stillwater. The original mill was built by Casper Shafter in 1741. It was located about a half mile from the current mill site. The second mill, built in 1764, was on the current site on the Paulinskill, but burned and was replaced by the present structure in 1843. The miller’s cottage next door dates to 1800. The mill operated until 1955, making the Casper and Abraham Shafer Grist Mill Complex one of the oldest continuously-operating water-powered gristmills in the state.

After it fell into disuse, a group restored the building and used it again starting in 1970. It was operated for more than 10 years by Gus Roof and Willard Klemm, according to Bob Grabowsky, president of the Stillwater Historical Society. The mill but fell victim to the increasing cost of liability insurance, according to a township history published by the historical society.

“Roof and Klemm sold the property in the 80's,” Grabowsky said. “The dam locked up and the mill dried up." "

The turbine froze in the 90's,” he added. “In the 2000's, the mill was sold to the state.”

The historical society would like to run the mill, but “we don’t have anyone to navigate the bureaucracy,” he said.

Whitehall

Whitehall, marked with a sign as well as with beautiful trees, was built in 1775 by Nathan Armstrong Shafer, a son of Casper. The house was sold in the 1920's to Aline Murray Kilmer, the widow of poet Joyce Kilmer. She lived there for until she died on Oct. 1, 1941. Whitehall is now owned by the Nothstine family.

Other 18th Century structures are along Fairview Lake Road on the way to the YMCA Camp, notably two lime kilns in very good condition. The old Foundry was used during the Revolutionary War and up to the 1790's. During this time, copper was mined along the Old Mine Road along the Delaware. The Foundry is now a tenant residence of the Shultheiss homestead.

The historical society believes the Cornelius VanHorn house opposite the YMCA Campground was built during the Revolution, but property records only show a transfer in 1808. It is now also known as the Joseph Connor residence.

The section of the township known as Middleville also has its share of 18th Century buildings, notably the Middleville Inn, built in 1784 and continuously in use since as an inn/restaurant/tavern, now known as Carijon's Middleville Inn.

Next to the Inn is the Andress Homestead built around 1790 and across the road is the General Store/Post Office from 1835. At West Shore Drive on the lake is a small schoolhouse, now a private residence that was built in 1888, replacing an older building. It remained a school until about 1940.

Another mill was built during the Revolutionary War at the lower end of Swartzwood Lake. Keen’s Mill, which is still standing, replaced that earlier mill in the 1830s. It originally used an overshot waterwheel for power, but later used a turbine. This mill operated until 1920.

Other historic buildings in the area are the Old Swartzwood Methodist Church, 1856, the Snover Tavern and Inn, c. 1832, and the Sanford House, 1834, both now private residences.

Stillwater separated from Hardwick Township in 1824. When Warren County was separated from Sussex County, Stillwater incorporated as a township. Stillwater and Hardwick still appear to be connected to anyone driving north on Route 521. After passing White Lake and the Vass Homestead, then an intact lime kiln, the driver passes into Stillwater.

The center of Stillwater is dominated by the Presbyterian Church, built in 1837. The religious community dates from 1769. The first church was where the cemetery is today and the cemetery’s wall is constructed of stones from the first church.

The museum is opposite the church in a building that was originally a school. It was condemned as a school in 1909, according to Grabowsky. A school was built on Maple Lane to replace it. A fraternal organization, The Patriotic Order of the Sons of America, founded in 1847 purchased the building.

“It became an entertainment hall,” Grabowksy said, noting the group put up a proscenium in the second-floor schoolroom that remains today.

The current township school consolidated the one-room schoolhouses in 1940, but originally didn’t have room for a library, so Mary W. Dixon bought it for use as a library.

The library was featured in a story by James Roty in the April 1, 1951, edition of the old New York Herald-Tribune.

Many of the books from the old library are still in the building, but others were sold to fund the current museum, Grabowsky said. 

More historic houses are along the road toward Hardwick and Frelinghuysen townships. Stillwater is the village center for the nearby sections of those townships.

Today’s Stillwater is smaller than the original municipality, split off from Hardwick. In 1904, Fredon Township was carved out and the Susquehanna Railroad track became the boundary.

The historical society’s brochure concludes with the statement: “Until World War II the township remained largely agricultural with dairy farming its most important business. The lake communities, especially those of Swartswood and Paulinskill, brought many visitors and new residents. Today the community, while keeping its rural image, has much more of a residential nature.”

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