Sunday, June 28, 2009

Stone House

(You should see Stone House II, III, and IV for factual corrections and further thoughts on this subject.)

O Stone House, how old are you?

Above: Typical sign posted on main roads at the township boundary, June 2009.

Settled in 1680

My town, South Orange, was "settled" in 1680. This year comes from an item in the Records of the Town of Newark, recording business of the town meeting of September 27, 1680, as follows:
Item— Nathaniel Wheeler, Edward Riggs, and Joseph Riggs, have a Grant to take up Land upon the upper Chesnut hill by Raway River near the Stone House ; provided they exceed not above fifty Acres a piece.
— Collections of the New Jersey Historical Society, volume VI, Newark: the society, 1864.
That's the whole item. That's the source of the claim to 1680. Historians have undertaken an almost biblical exegesis of its significance.

Newark and the Third Division

A bit of background. Newark was established by English colonists from Connecticut in 1666, two years after Britain acquired New York and New Jersey from the Dutch. The colonists at first kept together in a town near the Passaic River briefly called Milford and then Newark as it is still known today.

The Third Division was ordered at the town meeting of May 28, 1675. By the order, some of the town's common land was to be assigned to settlers. The area involved, known then as Newark Mountain, extended from the west edge of town, just beyond modern Martin Luther King Boulevard, to the top of First Mountain in the Watchun Ridge.

Charles T McGrath Jr self-published a book in 2005 called Newark Mountain / Third Division of Land / Circa 1696 A D.McGrath spent half of 2004 working out a map of the Third Division as of 1696 from available sources. It was not a simple task, because the oldest two books of Essex County deeds were lost in a fire more than a century ago. A version of McGrath's map can be seen here. Below is a segment of it showing central South Orange:

Above: Marked in red are the locations, left to right, of the Riggs House, Brown House, and Pierson House.

Stone House

Judging by the item in the town meeting, by September 1680 a stone house existed in the area.

But where was this stone house? The key phrase in the item is "near the Stone House". The word "the" appears to mean that there was only one such house in the vicinity. The word "near" appears to mean that the house was not on the land granted to the three.

The South Orange Historical and Preservation Society identifies the stone house as the one now called "The Stone House by the Stone House Brook", located just off South Orange Avenue, at Grove Park, behind the police station.

Beatrice Herman, in The Trail to Upland Plantations, 1976, wrote that the stone house was the joint residence of brothers Thomas and Joseph Brown, located at Tillou Road, just north of the crossing of Ridgewood Road and South Orange Avenue. This house is long gone. Herman was given access to papers belonging to the Tillou family, descendants of Joseph Brown, and from them she even dates the house to 1677.

John Whitehead, in The Passaic Valley, New Jersey, in Three Centuries, 1901, suggests that the stone house might be the one known then and now as "The Old Stone House", located just southwest of the crossing of Jefferson Avenue and the Morris and Essex Railroad, South Orange Township (later renamed Maplewood), but he admits, "whether this is the edifice referred to in the description just quoted can not be ascertained". This is not the house. It's worth knowing about because if you research this topic, you may run across pictures of it labelled as the Old Stone House in South Orange, or as the Durand House, since it was owned for a time by the Durand family.

Henry Whittemore, in The Founders and Builders of the Oranges, 1896, says that the "two oldest houses still standing in the Oranges are the stone house in South Orange and the Samuel Harrison place in Orange, near Tory Corners, in Washington Street". The reference to a stone house is clarified a page later as "the Stone House by Stone House Brook", where he also calls the Brown house "probably the second house built in South Orange".

Above: Drawing of the Stone House by the Stone House Brook, from Whittemore.

Daniel T Clark wrote about South Orange Township (the present South Orange and Maplewood) for William H Shaw's History of Essex and Hudson Counties, 1884. Clark quotes the 1680 town record and provides a great deal of information on early settlers. In referring to the Timothy Ball house on Ridgewood Road, dated 1743 on a stone built into the chimney, he asks, "Is not this house the oldest now standing in the village?". This house is at 425 Ridgewood Road, Maplewood, and is commonly known as a stopping place of George Washington, whose wife had Ball ancestors. It is two blocks outside the present boundary of South Orange Village. Clark knew about the Stone House on the Stone House Brook (see below), but evidently discounted it as being as old as the Ball house.

I wish Beatrice Herman had quoted and named the specific source that led to her conclusions. She clearly did a great deal of research, but was strangely reluctant to name sources. "An historian noted for his accuracy wrote in 1884", she says, introducing a sentence from Shaw's History. Nonetheless the claim for the Browns' house as the first stone house seems fairly convincing to me, because I have faith that the Tillou family documents gave her information the other writers did not have.

Stone House by the Stone House Brook

The claims for the Stone House by the Stone House Brook have some problems. The word "near" does not apply to it ; construction of a stone house or addition about a hundred years later is documented ; and the size seems large for a first house in the wilderness. All of these objections are a little slippery, so we need to look further.


The original (English) owner of the property on which it stands was Nathaniel Wheeler, one of the three grantees in the 1680 town record. Research done by David L Gassman for the Nomination Form for the National Register of Historic Places in 1987 traces the ownership, showing Nathaniel Wheeler to 1726, then Elisha Stansborough, Samuel Stansborough, Samuel Pierson, Bethuel Pierson. There is no disagreement about Wheeler being the original owner in any source I have seen.

But this is not where Wheeler lived. The first county road survey in 1705 places Nathaniel Wheeler's residence at the intersection of Main Street and Valley Road in West Orange (using modern names). Herman cites an unidentified source (as usual), a newspaper story from 1942, as dating Wheeler's house to 1684 ; since the source and reliability of this cannot be determined I can only suppose that it might be true. It was Wheeler who deeded the land for the Presbyterian Church graveyard at Main Street and Scotland Road.

James Hoyt, in Mountain Society / History of the First Presbyterian Church, 1860, reports that Wheeler obtained a "warrant" for three tracts on April 10, 1696, one of which clearly describes the site of the Stone House by the Stone House Brook and its surrounding property.

From this and other surveys and grants, it appears that the town meeting item of 1680 simply authorized the three men to survey property and make a claim. Wheeler seems to have finally made his claim sixteen years later. On one hand, this knocks out the problem with the word "near", but on the other, it makes it even more unlikely that Wheeler built a substantial house on the land before he had a secure claim to it. It also tends to show that the site of the house was still unclaimed, available land in 1696.

If we let go of the 1680 meeting item, the oldest documentation of a house of any kind on the Stone House Brook is a survey made in 1767 by Thomas Ball, when Joseph Gardner was selling property to Daniel Riggs that was adjacent to that of Samuel Pierson. In describing boundaries it happens to mention a point "near against said Pierson's house".


Clark and Gassman agree that Bethuel Pierson took ownership in January 1773 (probably an old style date, modern 1774) from the estate of his father Samuel. Clark (in Shaw) writes:
Deacon Bethuel Pierson had a stone addition added to his dwelling-house, which he caused to be dedicated by religious ceremonies, especially requesting that the following words should be sung on the occasion: "Be not too proud by any means, / Build not your house too high ; / But always have before your mind, / That you were born to die." Deacon Bethuel Pierson died in 1791, aged 90 years.
The source for the above information is, sadly, not stated. But it places a stone addition to his house somewhere in the range of 1774 to 1791. If the Stone House by the Stone House Brook dates from 1680, where is this addition to it?

I tend to think that the stone portion is the addition, and that the earlier house was not stone, because of the word "stone" being placed before the word "addition". The large size of the addition may well be what made Pierson nervous enough to want the deprecating words sung.


The dimensions of the stone part of Stone House on the Stone House Brook are about 50 feet by 30 feet. I can't quantify this without researching some other very early New Jersey houses, but that seems to me very large for a wilderness home. By circa 1780, not 1680, the size might make sense.

There is a theory that the stone part is a combination of Bethuel Pierson's addition and the original house. That would take care of the size problem, but raises some questions about construction that we can look at below.

Stone House Brook

But what about the name of the brook? As Clark writes,
Bethuel Pierson gave a mortgage upon one hundred acres, whereon he now lives at the mountain plantation by a certain brook called Stone House Brook. (A, m'tg'e Essex Co, p 250.)
The later portion of the sentence seems to be a quote from the Essex County A book of mortgages, but it is not written in quotation marks. At any rate it appears that the brook had the name Stone House Brook when Bethuel Pierson acquired the property.

The obvious question is why the brook would be called the Stone House Brook in 1773/74 if Bethuel's addition to his house was the first stone house there. And actually the name goes back even farther.

Stone House Brook appears in the Newark town records as early as 1686, cited by Clark (in Shaw). I quote the item here (a little more accurately than Clark) as printed in the Collections of the New Jersey Historical Society publication, where it appears under October 4, 1686:
Item— Joseph and Thomas Brown have Liberty granted, to exchange their Father's Third Division of Land lying beyond Elizabeth River, and to take up the Quantity thereof on this side Ruway River, below the Mouth of Stone House Brook.
This is the oldest reference to Stone House Brook. Another survey of 1694 also mentions Stone House Brook in describing lands of John Treat with a north boundary along the brook.

The solution proposed by Herman is that the brook flowed into the Rahway River almost opposite the Browns' stone house, and took its name from that. As a parallel example, notice on McGrath's map that Luddington Brook empties into the Rahway River opposite the land of Thomas Luddington.

Above: The last above-ground section of Stone House Brook, behind the parking lot of the Rite-Aid store on South Orange Avenue, June 2009.

The Brown House

The 1686 town record just quoted creates confusion about where the Browns first settled. John Brown, father of nine children, died in 1690, and in his will he granted land to his second and third sons:
To my two sons, Joseph Brown and Thomas Brown, their heirs, etc, forty acres beyond Elizabeth River as bounded in my Patent to be equally divided between them.
But as we see in the 1686 town record, four years earlier the two sons had already obtained permission to exchange this land for land nearer the mountain. They even had surveys run in 1686. Clark quotes from Joseph Brown's survey:
... a piece of upland granted by the Town vote, 30 acres on the mountain side down to Rahway River, bounded by the River East, John Treat South, Top of the Hill West, and Thomas Brown North ... note this Land hath a House on it, built by Joseph Brown and Thomas Brown, either of them having an equal share of it.
A similar survey for Thomas Brown shows his property to be immediately north. Clark adds also that the land of Joseph Brown had passed (by his publication date, 1884) to descendants in the Tillou family, just as Herman would report in 1976.

Joseph was born in 1652, and Thomas in 1655. They came with their father from Connecticut in 1666. At ages 22 and 25 they could have constructed a stone house in 1677 as Herman states. What the town record of 1686 is saying is that they wanted to exchange their inheritance from one part of their father's estate to another part of his estate—
to exchange their Father's Third Division of Land lying beyond Elizabeth River, and to take up the Quantity thereof on this side Ruway River
—that is, to take up the quantity of their Father's Third Division of Land at the Rahway River. This conclusion is forced by the fact stated in the survey that the two had already built a house on the land they would get by the exchange. From Herman's account it appears that they were living in the house on that land, and that is probably why they wanted to make the exchange.

The Riggs House

In the Newark Mountain book, McGrath also raises the spectre of another "old stone house", a house belonging to the Riggs family. The following is quoted from Hoyt:
By the will of Joseph Riggs, 1688, land at the mountain was given to his sons, Samuel and Zophar. The latter is supposed to have been the father of Joseph, who died 1744, aged 69. It embraced probably the farm a little west of South Orange, on which an old stone house yet remains, in which Elder Joseph Riggs was born, in 1720.
The Riggs family is confusing because of the then-common practice of reusing the same names in each generation. This Joseph Riggs (d.1689) is probably the same one named in the 1680 town grant, and he may be the brother of Edward Riggs, also named in the grant. Clark (in Shaw) disagrees with Hoyt's comment above, and "conjectures" that Joseph Riggs (1675-1744) is the son of Edward Riggs.

The Riggs house was at the present southwest corner of Ridgewood Road and South Orange Avenue, according to Clark (in Shaw). The survey made for Joseph Brown in 1686 has this land, neighboring his to the south, owned by John Treat. The transfer from Treat is not documented, but a survey for Treat made in 1694 covers only lands on the east side of the river, and in 1705 the road survey refers to a house at the intersection as owned by Joseph Riggs. On Joseph Riggs's death in 1744 it passed to his son Daniel.

Daniel "rebuilt" the stone house to some degree in 1774, and it had a stone over the entrance with a heart enclosing the letters "D S R 1774". This house still stood in 1860, but Clark (in Shaw), 1884, describes the site as occupied by the rectory of the Church of the Holy Communion. This in turn is now long gone. McGrath comments:
The Old Stone House and Joseph Riggs stone house were very similar. Both of them were one and a half story brown stone houses. They were also both built on South Orange Avenue around the same time frame and within a half mile of each other.
But if so, it only goes to suggest that neither is "the" one stone house that existed in 1680. The source of the brownstone is certainly not, as McGrath speculates, the trap rock (basalt) quarry that once existed on South Orange Avenue on the hilltop. Brownstone, also known as Newark sandstone, comes from the area east of the Rahway River.

I do not think the Riggs house was the stone house.

Above: Painting of the Riggs House, from History of the Oranges by Stephen Wickes, 1892.


The survey of the Stone House by the Stone House Brook made in 1999 for the Township provides some detail about the structure lacking in all previous accounts. This is important because of the theory that the stone portion is a combination of an old house and Bethuel Pierson's documented stone addition.
The original structure consisted of a 1-1/2 story house, parts of which may still be identified within the northern portion of the building. This section reportedly dates back to before 1680 during the Colonial era. It was presumed in Dr Gassman's application to have been a gabled structure measuring approximately one unit wide by one unit deep with an end chimney, although we have no basis to confirm or contradict this assertion based on what was observed at the site. Construction is primarily of rubble stone.
In 1773, upon acquisition by a new owner, Bethuel Pierson, a 1-1/2 story side-gabled hall and parlor addition are reported to have expanded the footprint of the building. As noted in Dr Gassman's application, this addition included a porch, a chimney, and presumably measured one unit deep by two units wide. Indeed, our investigation of exposed structure, revealed in part by extensive deterioration of building elements, indicates differences in floor framing for both the First Floor and Second Floor between the front and rear sections of the 17th/18th Century campaign. To illustrate, the spacing of the 5" by 7" beams above Room 110 is 39" to 40" o.c. whereas structure above the adjacent Room 107 appears to be 4-1/2" x 4-1/2" @ 16" o.c. The First Floor structure, seen in the basement spaces, also has slight variations. In Room B2, which is below Room 110 and portions of Rooms 109 and 103, 4" x 7-1/2" members spaced at 33" o.c. can be seen. The structure above the crawlspace, under Room 107 and the northern portions of Rooms 109 and 103, consists of 8" diameter timber spaced at 33" o.c.

Above: My sketch of the basement, based on the 1999 Preservation Plan by Abramson and Associates. It is not to scale. The distances are estimates measured on a drawing in the Plan and should be correct within a foot or so. North is to the right.

The foundation of the stone part of the house is divided almost evenly into two parts separated by a stone wall about two feet thick. The northern half has a crawlspace less than three feet high, of about 50 feet by 15 feet, external dimensions, with walls about two feet thick. The floor above is supported by timber of about 8 inches diameter (not milled into a rectangular cross section), set 33 inches apart measured center to center. The southern half is a full basement of about the same size externally, but it is much smaller internally, only about 32 by 12 feet, the east and west ends being apparently very thick masonry (or hollow?). Above it the floor supports are milled lumber about 4 inches by 7 and a half inches, also set 33 inches apart center to center. The joists therefore span a reasonable 12 feet or so in both parts of the basement.

Gassman proposed that the original house was roughly the northeast quarter of the structure, approximately square, and that Bethuel Pierson's addition, dwarfing it, makes up the rest. The old part would be what is called Room 107, or possibly a little more. It's not clear to me that the basement construction supports this. I have not seen it for myself, but it is described as being consistent all the way from one end to the other. An original house of 50 by 15 feet would be exceedingly peculiar.

The northeast corner is nearly inaccessible and I was not able to get a look at it. The photograph by McGrath, below, does not show any noticeable change in the stone wall along the east side of the house, as would be expected if addition had been made.

Limited archaeological digs conducted around the house have found the east side to be the only interesting area for artifacts. Items found there include clam shells, Staffordshire slip ware, and a wood shingle cutter. Part of another foundation wall, now under grass, was found running parallel to the house, but its extent is not known, and the experts called it "certainly later" than the stone part of the house. None of the items found can be dated earlier than about 1750.

Above: The west side of the house, June 2009. The eighteenth century house is the stone portion, center, with a bay window added later and extensive later wooden additions above and to the right.

Above: Detail of the northwest corner, June 2009.

Above: The east side of the house, 1987, from McGrath, Newark Mountain. The proposed original part is on the right side, but the large windows and door would be later changes to it.

Gassman writes,
Henry Whittemore identifies the Stone House by the Stone House Brook as the first house to have been built in South Orange (p 353). That contention is not in doubt.
Yet a quote from Beatrice Herman ten pages earlier shows that he was familiar with her book, in which she champions the Brown house. At any rate Gasman does admit that "the house itself has not been properly surveyed" (as of 1991) and that more research "might establish the exact nature of the additions made by Bethuel Pierson".


I think the best candidate for the stone house of 1680 is the Brown house. The name of the Stone House Brook could be derived from the Brown house opposite its mouth, just as the name of nearby Luddington Brook comes from the lands opposite its mouth, not the lands it runs through. I realize that I rely quite a bit on Beatrice Herman's unspecified sources from the Brown and Tillou family papers.

If I am right, the Stone House on the Stone House Brook need not have been there by the time the name of the brook was first documented in 1686. Evidence then falls through all the way to 1767, when a house on Samuel Pierson's land is mentioned in a description of neighboring
land. The house need not have been new at that time, but proof of it being any older is lacking.

My two paragraphs on the competing claims in Wikipedia have gone unchallenged longer than I expected.

But the evidence is so sketchy that I can't put this question away. Like Gassman I would like to see more evidence and apply it to the problem.

Next time: Dinosaur.


  1. Joe, I agree with most of your conclusions. The addition may have been to the Maplewood Old Stone House at 22 Jefferson (also owned by Bethuel Pierson) in 1774. Please email me (Maplewood resident)

  2. Joe,

    Thankyou for this series. I have been through the house on several occasions. Took a video and will be obtaining a disk of digital photography a friend took one of the times I was in it. I did go into the basement.

    Your arguments about location are well thought out and compelling, yet I'm not yet ready to write off the house as 18th Century rather than 17th. Given the things I saw in it I would say that the original structure is the entire East Stone portion and not a rear quarter as speculated by Dr. Gassman. The house seems to have been built as a "bank" house - i.e, with a partial ground floor (now basement) which at one time was at grade level may have been the main entrance area, then a full second floor (now the first floor). The current second floor is clearly a machined lumber add-on which was probably completely redone when the front Victorian portion was added, BUT the roof rafters appear to be reused from the earlier 18th Century house - they being tapered, hand cut and pinned together.

    I would be happy to share both the video and the digital photos with you and to discuss your thoughts further. Email below.

    Tom Vilardi