Raritan River Basin

Upper Raritan Hamlet

Mountainville – an Historic Hamlet:
Where you Can Go Home Again!

Story and Photographs by Alison M. Jones

Road sign: "One Lane Bridge"

I grew up on both sides of Mountainville. I lived on its eastern edge on Sawmill Road from ages three to nine. From nine until my marriage in our hay barn, I lived one mile away on the village’s “western front.” All my life, even after moving away, I have lived under the spell of Hell Mountain. It is especially brilliant in the fall, hence the probable derivation of its name from the German word “hell” meaning “bright.”

I remember my father standing on Indian Rock atop Hell Mountain and pointing out our little stone cottage next to the Sawmill and Guinea Hollow Road bridge. I was intrigued that, from an elevation of 957 feet, I could see my mother and sister playing in our backyard. Then my father would take me to the other side of Hell Mountain to see faraway views of New York City. Perhaps this was his way of showing me I could go out as far as I wished into the world, but Mountainville would always be there behind me.

One generation later, my two daughters spent many weeks each year with my parents in Mountainville tasting the differences between their Connecticut suburban home and this historic New Jersey hamlet. In this “never-never land” my children watched tadpoles turn into bullfrogs. They learned their grandfather’s way of calling the cows to dinner. In the summer they drove along the scenic one-lane roads of Tewksbury with their grandmother, singing as loudly as possible, “The corn is as high as an elephant’s eye....!”

A dozen years ago my work as a photographer took me to Michigan where I visited Horton Bay’s General Store. Hemingway married Hadley there in 1920. I saw through my lenses that I’d traveled halfway across the country to photograph a building identical to the Mountainville General Store. I’d taken my own very special hometown for granted! A card was mailed posthaste to my parents from Horton Bay acknowledging a newfound appreciation for my own backyard!

The Mountainville General Store and Post Office was established at the “T” in the center of this cluster of settler families. It was, and still is, the heart of the village. Joseph C. Farley, third generation of Mountainville General Store proprietors, said in 1984:

“This was quite a town. Every night people would gather at the store around the potbelly stove, spitting tobacco and telling stories.... you could walk into any house around here and know everyone. This has been a nice town – it’s been a good town.”

Some 45 years ago as a child I loved the general store’s wood stove and its briny barrel of pickles. Jean Douglass, of Philhower Road, tells how she and women of all backgrounds met there to wrap and package bandages to be sent to the front during World War Two. Now, once again, the general store is open for business as The Mountainville Post, serving meals, coffee, warm smiles, and community connections.

I have now returned to my roots in Mountainville, and live in the sanctuary of the stone cottage on Sawmill Road in which I grew up. I’ve always stood more solid and breathed deeper in Mountainville for simple reasons: an open double-Dutch door, quince blossoms by the old pump, the lullaby of the stream. The dragonflies darting over the pond and the catbirds in the mock orange tree remind me I’m on the right track. Wildflower petals drop onto 18 inch deep window sills and old pumpkin-pine floors just as slowly as soft feathers float from the trees. Life here is not to be hurried. This hamlet’s history and memories of my childhood define my moments here.

When I was six, Razz Teets, maybe 70 years old then and a Mountainville resident since 1883, would stop to chat with me on his daily walks along Sawmill Road. His freckled pink face showed his sympathy with my concern that our golden retriever needed protection from a sassy garbage collector. My sister Pammie, our neighbors Gail Nichols and Christine Smith, and I built tiny “villages” for the fairies amidst mossy tree roots. The weeping willow and tall grass “nests” were my “hideaways” for reading the Wizard of Oz books borrowed from the attic of our neighbor Jim Peale.

At age eight my next-door neighbor Nancy Vandewater and I published “The Mountainville News.” This two-page gazette welcomed new residents, shared tree identification techniques, and published the Mexican weather report (“Chile today, hot tamale!”). Copies were made with carbon paper lifted from my father’s office and were delivered by bike. Those were carefree years – Mountianville’s gift.

Nineteenth-century residents of low-lying Mountainville, and the Indians before them, were blessed with other Mountainville gifts: natural resources of plentiful game and streams full of fish. These settlers roamed and hunted in the hilly forests. They farmed the flat lands. They built their log cabins and stone farmhouses by the four trout-filled streams that meet at the base of Hell Mountain. Seven bridges, three of them originally of stone-arch design, traverse the waterways. Seven mills, I’ve been told, in and around Mountainville used natural water power to saw wood, grind grain, produce cider and, of course, distill whiskey!

For the children, Mountainville built a one-room school house that now serves as the Tewksbury Municipal Building and the Tewksbury Historical Society headquarters. I remember casting my first vote behind curtains in that room. Main Street also boasted the Mountainville Hotel, which is now the residence and studio of a renowned ceramic artist and his young family. 45 years ago the hotel’s owner, Meta Potter, was also the school-bus driver. I believe she was the only Democrat in town, for she certainly caused a fuss with the parents when she stuck a “Vote for Adlai Stevenson” bumper sticker on the school bus. Mountainville continued as a political hotbed in 1960 when Bonnie and Stone Douglass, Kelsey Cameron, my sister, and I pulled our little red wagons along Main Street covered with “Vote for Nixon” bumper stickers.

The spirit of Mountainville, however, far surpasses politics. It has withstood the test of time, Indians, storms, modernization, children, and dogs. It has a history. It is animate. 30 or 40 homes are clustered at the foot of Hell Mountain. The thermals carry the resident turkey vultures; the soft breezes carry our stories through screen doors in a bygone style. They whisper of trips to Rambo’s for winter breakfast-sausage supplies, rousing parcheesi games, rock-hopping down streams on a summer’s day, and impromptu moonlit skating on the ponds.

I pause to look out my cottage window today. Two deer dare me to disrupt their grazing in my garden. Seven Canadian geese “fertilize” my lawn, and a large frog hops under the black pine. The yellow swallowtail and orange fritillary butterflies will return next summer, but I’m not sure about that dragonfly who somehow traded his lily pad for my hearth. The gnarly lilacs and bending birches need fall pruning, as does the honeysuckle and the Rose of Sharon. But my old furnace is grumbling over the first hint of winter, so instead I’ll bring in some firewood.

Growing up in Mountainville, I learned the rewards of respecting nature. I now travel the world photographing cultures shaped by their environment. I’ve witnessed the “watery roots” of the Portuguese, the nomadic ways of East African tribes, the high Andes ruggedness of Peruvian alpaca farmers, and the weathered crustiness of coastal new England fishermen. The land shaped these people’s lives as Mountainville shaped mine.

“Civilization is a stream with banks,” Will Durant wrote. “The stream is filled with people doing the things historians usually record – while, on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry, and whittle statues. The story of civilization is the story of what happens on the banks.”

As our civilization enters this new millennium, life along the banks of Mountianville’s stream corridors is rich. But there is a strange and disturbing unease. What will life here be like 100 years from now? Will a llama still lead our Fourth of July parade? Will the Labor Day Soapbox Derby still roll down Main Street? Will the all-town “capture the flag” game still be one of summer’s highlights? Will mittened neighbors still gather for winter solstice cheer and hot cider at the “T” in front of the General Store?

Such peaceful, unspoiled places are not inherited from our parents so much as they are borrowed from our children. Tomorrow’s children deserve to know the mist of a Mountainville autumn morning, a sandwich shared with a friend on the general store’s porch, and a Main Street of white picket fences that punctuate heavy stone hitching posts.

A friend shared with me some unpublished words written by Earnest Hemingway 33 years after his marriage to Hadley in Horton Bay:

“They say that you can never go back, but nearly everything they say is wrong. Probably they mean you cannot go back to the same place because the place will be gone or it will be changed. If not, you will be changed or you will be gone. If you are both changed and gone, you might as well go back as go anywhere else. There might always be an accident.”

Over the last 33 years I have changed significantly and I have come back. Fortunately, Mountainville has hardly changed. The accident Hemingway refers to might be – and I hope will be – that residents, voters, planners, and legislators will all agree that the peace of Mountainville is worth preserving.

Alison, a photographer from Mountainville NJ with a studio in New York City, works with nature consrvancies and non-profits supporting rural third-world development. Her images of landscapes, cultures, and wildlife appear in magazines, books and electronic media, and are featured in her photo essays, slide shows, workshops, and fine-arts exhibits. For more information, visit alisonjonesphoto.com.

This article first appeared in The Black River Journal, winter 2002/2003. — Posted by NWNL on July 18, 2008.