A Brief History of Franklin Township, Hunterdon County

The land that became Franklin Township was the home of Delaware Indians for some 5,000 years before Quaker settlers from Burlington arrived soon after 1700. Franklin was set off from Kingwood Township on April 7, 1845 and in turn lost part of its land in 1865, along with Clinton and Union townships, to form the Town of Clinton. Its borders have remained static since, embracing 23.3 square miles in the heart of Hunterdon County. Rhomboid-shaped, its longest diagonal is about nine miles; its shortest about six.

Villages and hamlets in Franklin are Cherryville (Dogtown until 1856), Quakertown (sometimes called Fairview between 1834 and 1856) and Pittstown (Hoffs until the late 1700s), which also is partly in Alexandria and Union Townships. In earlier years, Landsdown, Sidney, Kingtown (King's Mills) and Oak Grove also were busy settlements.

Commerce in Franklin was more active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries than today. Grist, fulling, oil and saw mills dotted the township, as did creameries, general stores, taverns, and blacksmith and carpentry shops. Pittstown boasted several businesses including a distillery, nail factory, and a foundry that produced stoves and significant farm equipment. Pump organs were crafted in Pittstown and grandfather clocks and hats were made in Quakertown. There was a hotel in Quakertown and Cherryville. Every village had a post office; now only Pittstown and Quakertown do. Of all the old establishments, only the churches remain in service: the 1862 Quakertown Meetinghouse (and last active Quaker establishment in Hunterdon; est. 1733), the 1850 Baptist Church in Cherryville, and the 1879 United Methodist Church in Quakertown (est. 1840). Three newer churches joined them: the 1967 South Ridge Community (formerly Clinton Baptist) Church, the 1992 St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church, and the 1993 Wesleyan Faith Chapel. The County cites 186 places of historic interest in Franklin, which has 99 Colonial Era stone structures and 183 frame houses built before 1900.

Franklin's first schools in the 1700s were small log cabins, which were replaced with stone structures in the early 1800s. In 1850, a two-story stone building was erected in Quakertown as a private academy but later became a public school. Cherryville, Pittstown, Quakertown and Sidney built their own schools, and by 1879, Franklin had five frame one-room schoolhouses for its 273 students. In 1837, all those structures were replaced with a new brick Franklin Township Consolidated School in Quakertown. Four of the early schoolhouses are now private residences; the other was dismantled.

The township has some of the most productive soils in the state and a bounty of streams. The northern Uplands, in the Raritan River watershed, give rise to the Capoolong Creek. The southern Plateau, in the Delaware River watershed, has the Croton Swamp and headwaters of both the Lockatong and Wickecheoke Creeks. The land, once well-timbered with oak, hickory, maple and chestnut forests now has only scattered groves.

From its beginning, Franklin was a center of agriculture, over time producing large quantities of flax, nuts, sorghum, wheat, maize, oats, peaches, tomatoes, milk and eggs. The last dairy farm, which reached a peak production of a ton of milk a day, ceased operations in 1998. Current major crops are soybeans, corn, hay, nursery products, and equestrian operations are multiplying. The township still maintains much of its rural character and boasts a wealth of scenic vistas with 3,226 acres preserved as farmland, open space or conservation easements.

A petition from Oak Grove Grange No. 119 put Franklin on the first rural free mail delivery route in Hunterdon, which began November 1, 1900. Grange associations provided social and civic benefits to residents and served as a cooperative buying alliance for farmers. Franklin had two: the Oak Grove Grange (1896-1987) and the Sidney Progressive Grange #215 (1930-1980). Both attracted large memberships that peaked in the 1950s at several hundreds. The township’s Municipal Building was purchased for $10,000 in 1969 from the Sidney Grange.

Franklin got passenger train service in 1875 with the Lehigh Valley Railroad. Residents traveled to Clinton, Flemington and New York City, but business faded and the line was abandoned in 1968. It is now a hiking trail. Automobiles arrived in Franklin around 1900.

Enterprising residents provided telephone service in Franklin in 1905 and in 1920 made the township one of the first rural communities to have electric service. The first television set appeared at the Chicken Coop Tavern in Sidney in 1946. Computers invaded in the 1980s.

Several notable personalities color Franklin’s history:  A sampling of them follows:

    • Charles Stewart (1729-1800) of Landsdown, appointed colonel of Hunterdon’s first regiment of minutemen in 1775, served as commissary general of issues from 1777 to 1783, and a member of the Continental Congress in 1784-85.
    • Moore Furman (1728-1808), deputy quartermaster general of New Jersey, owned much of Pittstown and in1778 built several businesses and dwellings, including a stone gristmill to supply flour and bread for Gen. George Washington’s army.
    • Hiram Deats (1810-1887), Hunterdon’s first millionaire, remembered for his lifelong dedication to active citizenship and for his manufacture of agricultural equipment that won national recognition for Pittstown and Quakertown, especially for the Deats plow patented by his father John in1828.
    • Theodore Probasco (1807-1896), a native of Franklin and cabinetmaker by trade, the first town clerk of the new township in 1845, school superintendent in 1857, a County Freeholder from 1867-1868, and a State Assemblyman from 1868-1870.
    • Willis W. Vail (1868-1951) grew up in the heart of Quakertown, educated as a civil engineer, served the township as treasurer, long-time member of the board of education; started Troop 108 as the first Boy Scout leader; accomplished photographer who documented life in Franklin through hundreds of glass-plate negatives, most of which are preserved, and daily diary entries over the 63 years from 1887 to 1950.
    • J. Edward Stout (1923-2001), Franklin native and long-time postmaster of Pittstown, was township historian for 19 years, authored Facts and Fantasies of Franklin, The Life & Times of a County Doctor & Dentist, and A Brief History of the Friends Meeting at Quakertown, N.J. from 1789-1976; served many years as Secretary of the board of education and the chair township’s Planning Board; Franklin Township School Library named in his honor.
    • August W. Knispel (1927-  ), Franklin native and dairy farmer, served on the Township Committee for 33 years, 11 of them as mayor; the only township resident ever to be named to the New Jersey Elected Officials Hall of Fame; elected or appointed to most of the governmental and civic organizations in the township, county and dairy business; honored with a monument in front of the township’s municipal building.

Other family names that also still resonate in Franklin include Case, Leaver, Little, McPherson, Trimmer, Volk and Willson.

The 1850 census, taken five years after Franklin's founding, listed 1,451 residents. Sperling, a data analysis firm, cites the 2009 population as 3,119, up 5.42 percent since the 2000 U.S. census, and 115 percent since its founding. The ancestral heritage of Franklin residents is largely German, Irish and Italian.

 

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