Friday, October 30, 2009

Crill’s Log Cabin, Stokes State Forest

A small lot, comprising three-quarters of an acre on the southeast side of Flatbrook Road in Sandyston Township, was added to Stokes State Forest in February 1988. This property harbors an old log house, commonly known as the “Roper Cabin,” being identified with Roswell M. Roper, who purchased the property in 1946. His sons and heirs, Sherwood and Roswell Roper, Jr., sold the old cabin to the NJ DEP in 1988.

Despite the rarity of its survival, relatively intact and unaltered, this primitive log dwelling sits abandoned and largely ignored. In the twenty-one years since the state acquired it, its fieldstone foundation has crumbled and its sill logs rotted. Collapse into its cellar hole appears imminent. Without immediate appreciation and intervention, its survival is doubtful. If nothing else, this report at least documents this architectural landmark for posterity.

The Crill Cabin uniquely tells the story of Stokes State Forest, a recovering wilderness on the crest of the Blue or Kittatinny Mountains. Frederick Crill, an eccentric woodchopper and collier, built this log house in 1861. He transformed the surrounding woodland into earth-blanketed, smoldering domes of charcoal, making fuel to supply a burgeoning iron industry. Across the valley, Highland furnaces and forges worked overtime to meet wartime demands.

According to historical geographer Peter O. Wacker, log structures mark the initial stage of pioneer settlement, being generally “associated with minimal clearance and a general lack of improvements on the property that contained them.”[1] Following a centuries’ old tradition, Crill stacked interlocking squared logs to form his primitive dwelling. He used American chestnut, a wood known not only for its abundance, but also for its resistant qualities. Unfortunately, after a century of blight, dwindling stump sprouts are all that remain of this stately native species, which was once monarch of the surrounding forest. Crill remained on the land for only six years, abandoning his mortgage payments after either exhausting the local wood supply or confronting a postwar recession.

Stone hedges running through the forest tell the next chapter, testifying that even this glaciated mountain crest was formerly dedicated to agriculture. The extension of the Sussex Railroad to neighboring Branchville, begun in 1866 and completed in 1869, made dairy farming an economically viable pursuit. Beginning in 1867, Augustus Grau, a German immigrant from Saxony, who served with Company C, 173rd Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers, during the Civil War, converted this stump land into pasture and croplands, residing with his wife and son in the small log house along Flatbrook Road. He was severely injured in a fall from his wagon in August 1892 and died on April 9, 1894, aged 66 years. James M. Stoll, of Sandyston Township, took ownership after Grau’s death. Mark Utter resided in the cabin and farmed a portion of the former Grau farm from 1906 to 1924.

Farming persisted until around 1925. Frederick G. Handel, of East Orange, bought the old log house on 13.5 acres, adjacent to Stokes State Forest, in June 1931. The Handels used it for a hunting lodge and summer cabin. His heirs sold to Roswell M. Roper, of East Orange, in 1946. The Ropers added a small wing of log construction to the north gable end of the original house. Roswell Roper’s heirs sold 0.783 acres, situated at the intersection of Skellenger and Flatbrook Roads in Sandyston Township, to the State of New Jersey, DEP, on February 17, 1988, for $38,300.

Log Cabin: Symbol of the American Frontier

Swedish, Finnish, German and Swiss colonists introduced log dwellings to the lower Delaware Valley during the late seventeenth century, making New Jersey and southeastern Pennsylvania the primary hearth for a type of vernacular construction that would become forever associated with the westward expanding American frontier.[2] Log houses were widely seen on pioneer farmsteads in northwestern New Jersey. When John Iliff settled upon the Wilson Farm at Hall’s Pond (now Lake Iliff, Andover Township, Sussex County) in 1812, he occupied a “log house on the place that had been built by a tenant. There was not a framed house nearer than Andover, Sparta, or Newton.”

Untold Stories

While the great houses of the rich and famous are rightly preserved for public edification, simple dwellings representing the lifestyles of hardworking common folk often fade unnoticed, except in a few instances where company-built workers’ housing survives in association with industrial communities, such as at an ironworks. Crill’s Log Cabin in Stokes State Forest tells a story of the strenuous life and physical hardships, which defined the American Dream for most Americans throughout the nineteenth century, when an unprecedented industrial revolution propelled the United States into the foremost rank of world powers. Except for its decidedly American setting, the story of Frederick Crill reads like an excerpt from the character-rich imagination of Charles Dickens.

Frederick Crill

Frederick Crill was born on March 1, 1815, just across the line in Warren County, probably in Hardwick Township, a son of Joseph and Katie (Card) Crill. He removed to Vernon Township with this parents when four years of age and resided there most of his life. In his younger days, he was employed as a woodchopper and collier along the Vernon range of mountains, residing at “Canistear, Vernon, and other places” during his life. His companions considered him to be quite shrewd and a sort of leader among them. He reportedly lived and died in poor circumstances, despite his shrewdness.

Frederick Crill married three times. He married his first wife in the vicinity of Swartswood, but they separated after living together only two years, both signing a bond, which he authored. She removed to Warren County and remarried. The history of Crill’s second marriage is shrouded in mystery. It was said that he shot his second wife after they lived together but a short time, escaping punishment by claiming it was an accident. He always evaded all questions about the circumstances of this supposed accidental shooting. Shortly thereafter, he married his third wife, Elizabeth, in Paterson.

Frederick Crill was used to handling a gun and was known to shoot partridge. Stephen Smith, who owned the Vernon farm where Crill later resided with his married daughter Eliza, reported that Crill “could shoot well, saw him shoot a crow once flying, as far off as a cannon would shoot.”

Around 1859, he professed conversion at a Methodist revival in Vernon Township, and took to holding meetings at his home and in neighbors’ houses. He received a medical exemption from the draft during the Civil War.

On November 1, 1861, John Wilgus and his wife Eliza sold 54 acres of land and premises, being part of Lot #8 in the Sussex Allotments, situated in Sandyston Township to Frederick Crill, of Lafayette, New Jersey, for $324. Frederick Crill built the log house presently standing on the southeast side of Flatbrook Road in Stokes State Forest, northwest of Lake Ocquittunk.

The log house and premises were sold at Sheriff’s sale on April 1, 1867, to satisfy a debt amounting to $292.16, with interest; the sum secured by a mortgage given by Frederick Crill to John Wilgus in 1861. Augustus Grau, the highest bidder, purchased the property for $400.

Local folk began to notice Crill’s increasingly eccentric behavior. He appeared quite nervous and spasmodic, wearing an overcoat and hat, even in warm weather, and wrapping a tippet or muffler around his neck. He lived almost entirely on molasses, vinegar, sour milk, and bread. Doctors treated him for “dyspepsia, a stomach difficulty,” and some kind of “nervous affliction.” People who knew his family recalled that his mother, Katie Card, had suffered some kind of similar disorder. In 1879, Crill’s daughter, Hannah Crill, testified that he stopped doing any hard labor or working out doors around 1867, corresponding to the date that he lost his Sandyston property. He also reportedly abandoned the practice of religion at this same time, becoming a pettifogger, who tried lawsuits in local courts. He gleaned his legal knowledge from several unbound copies of the laws of New Jersey, which he kept in his room. Members of the bar gave him credit for displaying considerable skills in conducting minor lawsuits.

The Murder of Eliza Babcock

Frederick Crill gained notoriety for the murder of his own 24-year old daughter, Eliza Babcock, on June 5, 1879. Beginning April 1, 1879, Crill’s son-in-law, William Babcock, worked the Stephen Smith farm on Pochuck Mountain, located about two and a half miles from Hamburg, on shares. He had married Frederick Crill’s daughter, Eliza, around 1875. The extended family residing on the Smith farm included William and Eliza Babcock, their two young children, William’s brother, George Babcock, Frederick Crill and his wife Elizabeth.

After the noon meal on June 5, 1879, William Babcock cut some wood and then went to work in a field about 100 yards from his house. When he left, his wife was nursing the baby. Frederick’s wife, Elizabeth Crill, was the only eyewitness to what happened next. She said that Fred Crill entered the house with an old half-bushel measure and placed it in the room. He would later claim that the children were destroying this old measure by cracking nuts on it. His daughter Eliza complained that the house was not the place for it and to return it to the old woodhouse, a small building located about six feet from the kitchen door, which was also used for a summer kitchen. At this, Crill flew into a rage and commenced verbally abusing his daughter. He finally carried the old measure upstairs, where he left it. A short time later, Eliza Babcock went upstairs and brought it down. She then began wringing out a pail of wet clothes.

According to Crill’s own admission, “the trouble came about a half bushel measure which he had taken upstairs and Mrs. Babcock brought it down again; she was talking in her long tongue, and in a passion I shot her.” As Mrs. Crill, who was in the room, passed into a small pantry, just off the kitchen, Crill stepped to a door leading into the sitting room. He took down an old fashioned musket, which hung on two pegs over the door. This musket, which had been converted into a percussion lock, was heavily loaded with No. 3 shot. He then stepped to the center of the room and within a few feet of his daughter, who was stooping down over the wash, with her back partly turned toward him.

Frederick Crill shot Eliza in the temple at close range, while she stood wringing clothes in the kitchen. Crill later told Dr. J. B. Pellet that he did not take aim, saying, “Heavens, no, I just held it out and fired.” The charge entered the right side of her head, creating a triangular wound between the ear and eye, two inches long, blowing out two ounces of brain matter, and leaving powder burns on her face. The shot tore away the exterior portion of her ear, completely shattered her upper jaw, and broke her lower jaw in two places. The hole in the side of her head was reportedly “large enough to insert a hen’s egg.” Her brains oozed out onto the kitchen floor.

Immediately after the shooting, Crill made his way into Hamburg. He stopped to tell Caleb Scott that Eliza was dead and asked Scott to have his “women to go up there and lay her out.” Coe L. Smith, a Hamburg merchant, saw Crill at Smith’s Hotel “and heard him say that he had shot Eliza Babcock and killed her dead and that he wished a thousand times he had done it before.” Charles Woods also heard Crill say, while drinking a glass of liquor at the hotel, “that he had shot Eliza Babcock and was not sorry for it; that he was sorry for the children, but not for her.” Thomas Lawrence, who had known Crill for about 20 years, said that he noticed nothing unusual in Crill’s manner at the hotel that afternoon, but that “he is peculiar at all times.” Lawrence heard him say that “he was taking the gun down to go to the cornfield, after he had it in his hand he saw the half bushel measure out of its place, spoke to his daughter about it, became angered and shot her; he had lived in hell for years.”
Frederick Crill surrendered to Justice Jacob B. Hendershot in front of Smith’s Hotel in Hamburg.

During his trial, Frederick Crill sat beside his counsel, “closely enveloped in his overcoat, with his tippet drawn tightly about his neck and over his mouth.” The reporter for the Sussex Independent noted he was “allowed to keep his hat on and occasionally gets up and moves around within the bar.” The defense pleaded insanity. After deliberating for about seven and a half hours, the jury convicted him of first-degree murder. Crill’s counsel requested a new trial, claiming that one of the jurors was deaf and unable to hear the testimony; the appeal was denied. Governor George McClellan gave him a brief reprieve, but Crill was hung outside the Sussex County Court House in April 1880. At his request, he was buried in the cemetery of the Vernon Methodist Church, beside his son and daughter.

A Word About Stokes State Forest

Governor Edward C. Stokes established our system of state forest parks in 1905 to restore and protect watersheds, potable streams, woodlands and wildlife, while providing public parklands for nature outings, camping and picturesque drives. Fittingly, when the State Board of Forest Park Commissioners purchased 5,432 acres on Kittatinny Mountain, near Culvers Gap, in May 1907, it was named to honor the “Father of the Conservation Movement in New Jersey.”

Over the past century, Stokes State Forest has tripled to nearly 16,000 acres. Between 1933 and 1941, the Civilian Conservation Corps, housed there in two forest camps, undertook extensive reforestation and the construction of Lakes Ocquittunk and Wapalanne (now the NJ School of Conservation), beaches, bathhouses, hiking trails, scenic roads, bridges, benches, parking lots, picnic tables, fireplaces, cabins, and shelters. This rustic park architecture remains unexcelled in its quality of craftsmanship and scenic values.

[1] Peter O. Wacker, The Musconetcong Valley of New Jersey, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1968, 82

[2] Ibid., 76-77

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