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Sandyston's Rich History Spreads Across Its Villages

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Sandyston dignitaries, including Mayor George Harper and Historian Patte Haggerty Frato with the new marker at the Layton Post Office. Credits: By Jane Primerano
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The sign over the front port of the Layton Post Office. Credits: By Jane Primerano
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One of the former locations of the Layton Post Office, a much smaller space. Credits: By Jane Primerano
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Another building that once housed the Layton Post Office. Credits: By Jane Primerano
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The store shares a parking lot with the Post Office building. Credits: By Jane Primerano
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The current post office looking from the former post office Credits: By Jane Primerano
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A barn on the Layton-Hainesville Road sports an advertising sign. Credits: By Jane Primerano
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Credits: By Jane Primerano
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Sandyston Township Municipal Building Credits: By Jane Primerano
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Credits: By Jane Primerano
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SANDYSTON TOWNSHIP, NJ  -- On a bright, crisp fall day dignitaries and other residents of the township gathered at the Layton Post Office to dedicate the fourth historic marker in this sprawling riverside township.

If anyplace is the “town center” of Sandyston, it is the post office, located in the former municipal building. It became the post office in 2007 after the new municipal building was constructed. The post office only moved across the street into bigger quarters. The current location is the fourth in a few hundred feet along the same road.

Prior to its use as a municipal building, the current post office was the Delaware Valley Grange Hall, according to township historian Patte Haggerty Frato. Frato said the grange purchased the building for $675 in 1906 after meeting in the basement of the home of Dayton DePue, across the street. Many events were held at the Grange Hall, including local church dinners, school functions and graduations.

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Mayor George Harper said, “I heard about the dances on the second floor, but they were held in the fire hall by the time I went.”

The building was built by John Jacob VanSickle who also built the two buildings next door.

VanSickle was born July 12, 1851, to Benjamin P. and Rachel Hedgling VanSickle. He taught in the township, then ran a store in Bevans, before moving west to deal in hay, and grain. When he returned, he became the owner of several productive farms. He later moved to Newton, where he owned the Park Block and served on several municipal commissions. He had been a freeholder from Sandyston in the days when each municipality supplied a freeholder. He sold 500 acres of property outside of Layton to the Flatbrook Valley Club in 1905, according to Frato’s history.

Frato’s history of Layton credits John B. Layton as bringing mail delivery to what was then known as Centerville in 1861. Since there was already a Centerville, N.J., the post office department assigned the name "Laytons" to the village. Later, the “s” was dropped.

The first post office was in “McKeeby’s General Store and Post Office,” next door to the current structure. It was owned by Frank McKeeby. He and his wife, Anna Hursh McKeeby, ran stores at Bevans, Layton, Peters Valley, and Hainesville, according to the article in the Sussex Independent written for their 50th anniversary on March 30, 1939.

In later years, McKeeby’s Layton store was known as “Shay’s Store,” according to Frato’s history.

The first Layton store, also the first home of the post office, is further along the road and dates to the early 1800's, when it served the miners traveling along the Old Mine Road. It was later owned by Lester T. Smith.

The historic marker was dedicated as part of the 250th anniversary celebration of the township. It was established by Royal Patent in 1762, and split from Walpack Township, one of the four original municipalities that made up Sussex County.

Bordered on one side by the Delaware River, Sandyston is nearly cut off from the rest of the county by the Blue Mountain Range. Of its 42 square miles, 70 percent are owned by the state or federal government, and are therefore tax-exempt.

The original residents were members of the Minisink tribe of the Lenape. European settlers moved in and purchased land, which worked well, until some of the native people realized they had been cheated.

The Minisink had a path along the river that Dutch miners improved between 1632 and1650, to transport ore from the Pahaquarry copper mines to Kingston, N.Y. The road has been called variously, “King’s Highway,” “Queen’s Highway,” “The Trade Path,” in 1682; “The Path of the Great Valley,” in 1731; the familiar name “The Old Mine Road” was first used, but in 1770 it was changed to “The Good Esopus Road.” During the American Revolution, it was called “The Road Behind the Mountains,"and was used by General Horatio Gates to move troops from Sarasota, N.Y., to Trenton to aid Washington in the Battle of Trenton.

Layton has always been the hub of the township, but there are several other named sections.

The name “Sandyston” originally referred to Hainesville. It was settled by Simon Cortright, son-in-law of the area’s first schoolmaster, William Ennis, before the Revolution. Cortright purchased 1,000 acres of the Gardner Tract. Ownership passed to Peter Hotalen, then John Shay and, in 1825, to Parshall Howell, who opened the first hotel and established a post-village with mail delivery through a four-horse state, according to the historic marker at the municipal building.

The marker also states a school was established in 1815 with schoolmaster John D. Everitt. “The Shaytown Cemetery was erected in 1812 on lands shared by Benjamin DePue and Timothy Shay,” the marker reads. The Reformed Church was built in 1855.

In 1845, the name was changed to honor former governor Daniel Haines.

The Peter of Peters Valley

In 1761, Peter VanNests, the first surveyor of highways in the area, surveyed the area that came to be called Peters Valley.

As the village grew, supporting the surrounding farms, it was named Hen’s Foot Corners for the shape of its crossroads. The first general store opened in 1830, the Dutch Reformed Church was built in 1838 and the Universalistic Church came to be in 1847. A flouring mill was constructed on the Big Flatbrook. The village adopted the name Bevans when the Bevans family established a post office around 1880. Although the village served surrounding farms through the 1800's, it began to decline after 1900, according to the historic marker. Summer vacationers discovered the scenic area and filled the hotel each year through 1950, but few year-round residents remained.

The historic marker keeps the name alive, although the village disappeared when the federal government bought land for the failed Tocks Island Dam Project in 1965. When the craft center was established, the name Peters Valley was reinstated.

Many Names From The Past Still Familiar In The Township

Frato writes of Warren C. Hursh, the third son of Benjamin DePue Hurch and Anna Shay Hursh of Layton.

Warren Hursh was named for Warren Corry Nelson, pastor of the Centerville Methodist Church in Layton. He married Barbara Arnst of Dingman’s Ferry, Pa., right across the river, and had three daughters. One, Cora, married into the Shay family. Another, Anna Mary, married Frank McKeeby.

A teacher and historian, in the 1890's Hursh wrote a series for The New Jersey Herald called, “A Tramp and his Travels,” about walking from Flatbrookville to Hainesville, and describing the people and places he encountered. His home is opposite the Red Schoolhouse on Layton-Hainesville Road.

The true chronicler of Layton was Myra Virginia Shay Barnard who was born there in 1915, and grew up in Shay’s store. She taught in the Wantage Consolidated School until she married George Barnard in 1943, according to a narrative written by her son, Richard Shay Bernard. The couple ran Shay’s store following Seth Shay’s death in 1946, until they sold it in 1955. She then taught in the Sandyston-Walpack Consolidated School from 1956 to 1972. After she retired she tutored children, mostly in math.

During the 1990's, her grandchildren beseeched her to chronicle her life in the village. After her death, at 93 in 2009, her son found some unfinished manuscripts.

Having a particular interest in Layton because he was born in Shay’s store (his mother had the mumps and wasn’t allowed at the hospital), Richard Barnard started editing the documents.

In his words, he “became interested in what certain places mentioned in the narrative looked like during the 1920's timeframe relative to how they appeared today, and if pictures existed of the many people she mentioned in the text. I decided to put together a small book which would include Mom’s original narrative with explanatory footnotes, a section of 'Then and Now,' photographers of the town and photographs, where I could find them, of the people that lived in Layton at that time.”

He got together with Frato, and her daughter, Sandyston Township Clerk Amanda Lobban, who had researched the Shay family. The three decided to distribute the book through the historical society.

The final of the four historical markers in Sandyston commemorates the oldest house in Sussex County, the Westbrook/Bell House. The marker reads: “Johannes Wetbrook, who was among the earliest permanent settlers of the Minisink region, built this homestead around 1701. It was subsequently fortified when incidents of hostility increased between the residents of New York and New Jersey during the height of the “border war” between the two colonies. Ownership of the land was finally secured from its Lenape owner for 5 pounds Sterling and a generous measure of rum.”

Fanfare and a Mystery

One of Patte Frato’s stories of the township is set in 1911 at the dedication of a new barn on the Alsacia Farm, owned by the Stoll brothers, Frank and Ira, just on the New Jersey side of the Dingman’s Bridge. The original barn and other outbuildings were destroyed by fire in 1909.

Guests toured the barn amid Chinese lanterns, and danced to the Fenner orchestra from Port Jervis, N.Y.

A reporter from The New Jersey Herald covered the event, and noted much of the conversation centered around the building of a proposed “boulevard” from Trenton to Port Jervis.

Another story was written by Brian Salisbury, a Long Island writer and motorcycle enthusiast, who enjoys traversing the roads of the National Recreation Area.

On one trip, Salisbury stumbled upon a small grave in the back corner of the Mettler Cemetery. Since the old marker was weathered illegible, he had no idea who was buried there, or why there were child-related tokens scattered about.

When Salisbury met Frato in 2007, she had the answers he was searching for, enabling him to write “A Young Life Remembered in Mettler Cemetery.”

In the essay, he wrote, “Nearly 200 years ago, two prominent families who owned this and the surrounding property carved their own private cemetery into the dense woods. . .For the most part, descendents today can trace the lineage of each person buried here back to their own direct and distant relatives. . . except one.”

For years people have visited that one grave where Mary Ann Perigo died at 14-years-old in 1856 and was buried.

Frato’s research determined she was a daughter of Thomas and Clarissa Perigo and had two brothers, John and Thomas, and a sister, Nancy Jane, was well as other relatives throughout the county. She also discovered Mary Ann Perigo's father and brothers worked as itinerant farm laborers, and her mother was a housekeeper.

The best guess as to why the teen was buried in the Mettler Cemetery, is that the family was working for one of the families, and living in quarters provided by them as was the custom of the time.

It is not known what caused the girl’s death, or exactly why she was buried there.

Another mystery centers around the items still being left at the gravesite.

That was partially cleared up when The New Jersey Herald received an email from a woman who claimed her grandmother left the first memento, a blonde, blue-eyed baby doll, and then would write notes to the girl, and leave them on the grave.

On June 3, 2012, the Sandyston Township Historical Society dedicated a new gravestone, and placed it next to the badly weathered stone. It reads: “Mary Ann Perigo, beloved daguther of Clarissa and Thomas Perigo; Died April 11, 1856; Aged 14 yrs, 7 mo, 2 day.” 

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