The Millbrook Village Society recently shook out their bonnets and bowlers to give the public an entertaining and educational taste of life at the turn of the century and earlier on November 4 as part of the Warren County History Tour.
Millbrook Village, located at the top of Millbrook Road in Hardwick, is a historic site and part of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. Volunteers from the Millbrook Village Society, a nonprofit organization, have tirelessly recreated an 1800s community to educate the public about the history of the area when electricity, and other common modern amenities, were non-existent.
“Last year was the first year Millbrook Village participated in the Warren County History Tour. Initially, we were told by the county we were too far out,” said Millbrook Village Society President Will Bullivant. “But after some negotiation, they put us on the list, and we wound up having the highest turnout out of all the participating sites in the county.”
Bullivant is thankful the county is opening up historical sites to the public.
“It’s nice that the county has opened up so many sites to people, some who didn’t even know [these sites] existed,” he said.
When asked about the importance of educating younger generations on life 100 years ago or more, Bullivant pulls his own smartphone out of his pocket.
“Nowadays everything is centered around cell phones and the like,” he said. “This [event] gives people an opportunity to experience what life may have been like 50 to 150 years ago to realize that modern conveniences didn’t exist.”
Once a small farming community, Millbrook Village boasted 75 residents in its heyday and was even connected through battery-powered phones in their homes at one point but were not connected to the world beyond the village.
“So many of these small villages were quite remote. If you compare what they had 50 years ago to what we have today they are worlds apart,” said Bullivant.
“For instance, when you want to visit your sister who lives in upstate New York, you just get in your car and drive three hours,” explained Bullivant. “Back then, this wasn’t possible, even to just pick up the phone and say hello.”
When you come to Millbrook Village on an interpreter day, you may experience some of those feelings of isolation but also the joy in the little things that made life bearable, from smelling venison cooking over an open fire to the satisfying sound of a corn cob being shucked by a hand-cranked machine.
“The volunteers are very dedicated to what they do and are very good at interpreting and giving you the feeling of life back then,” said Bullivant.
And it is the volunteers of the Millbrook Village Society that breathe life into an era most people today feel disconnected from. They donate their time, materials and warmth (metaphorically and figuratively) to recreate what life may have been in the 1800s. Volunteers take questions, crack jokes and impart some serious history lessons.
“Let’s take a look at my 18th-century smartboard,” said Millbrook Village Society Vice President Fred Schofer, bringing a crowd over to a hand-drawn map of the area nailed to the interior of one of the cabins. “The Old Mine Road from the gap to Kingston is the oldest road in the United States. The first road was in St. Augustine built by the Spanish, but it doesn’t exist anymore, so it doesn’t count,” he said with a wink.
As he continued explaining the history of the area, from the Paleo Indians to the Dutch, he handed visitors 2,500-year-old bison bones, tea bricks (like the ones thrown into the river during the Revolutionary War), arrowheads, war clubs of Indigenous people, petrified poop and more, so visitors could fully immerse themselves in what life may have been like long ago.
Outside, volunteer Dr. Paul Kovalski, explained the struggle of getting dental care at the turn of the century, especially in rural areas like Millbrook Village.
“Travelling dentists knew there was a need for people who lived out so far. So, they would pack up and make the rounds,” he said.
Kovalski displayed many turn-of-the-century dental tools and described the evolution of moving to the materials dentists use today.
“G.V. [Greene Vardiman] Black, the father of dentistry, designed many of these tools,” he said. “Today they are still similar but have to be autoclaved [sterilized] and cleaned, so the design is much smoother today than they were back then.”
When asked what common dental ailments were treated by traveling dentists in the 1900s Kovalski said, “They were treating things like periodontal issues and trauma rather than the decay we see today due to eating refined foods.”
At the Sylvester Hill House, volunteers Sally Orgren from the Handweavers Guild of America and textile enthusiast Doug Phillhower gave demonstrations on textiles and weaving. The house once was home to a couple with nine daughters and one son.
The gap between the past and present was threaded neatly closed as Orgren detailed the history of moving from hand looms to larger mechanical looms.
“There is a relationship between weaving and coding,” said Orgren. “Dobby looms have rows of pieces of wood that became punch cards, they were either set at a zero or a one, to create the pattern, and that was the beginning of computer-driven looms.”
John McGeehan, an interpreter at the grist mill, gave demonstrations on shelling corn using a 105-year-old sheller, which stripped corn from their cobs and got it ready to be ground.
“They also saved the stripped cobs to use as toilet paper,” said McGeehan, handing them out for visitors to feel.
Originally built in 1832 by local farmer Abram Garis along the Van Campens Mill brook, the mill was more convenient for farmers living on that side of the mountain. Eventually, the area became known as Millbrook. The mill closed in the 1900s and was subsequently rebuilt on the original site in the 1990s.
“When I first volunteered for the society, they put me in here because it was where they needed me, and then I fell in love with grist mills,” he said. “It’s the place to be.”
You can keep up with the Millbrook Village Society by following their Facebook page here.
To learn more about the National Park System and other historical sites, please visit: https://www.nps.gov/state/nj/index.htm.
Cybele Tamulonis, Contributing Writer
Cybele is a writer and editor with more than 16 years in the publishing industry. An avid reader, you can usually find her with the latest new book release from the local library. She currently resides on a farm in Hardwick with her husband and four children. In her spare time, she writes historical fiction specific to New Jersey.