There was a time when the very pulse of North Brunswick revolved around the Lawrence Brook. A popular fishing site now, the banks of the Lawrence Brook were once an industrial powerhouse occupied by various mills over the course of time. As early as 1750, records show that inhabitants of the future suburbia harnessed water power for the Lawrence Brook for various means of production.
In 1812, Jacob Bergen built his own grist mill on its banks. It would go on to serve local farmers, and the area it occupied would come to be known as Bergen’s Mills. Bergen’s Mills claimed residency of roughly 25, and their community was supplied by the mill, one tavern and several homes. A small dam was built across the Lawrence Brook to accompany the property. The mill at Bergen’s Mills changed ownership various times over the first half of the nineteenth century, but by 1851, a fire destroyed the entire mill and the land awaited a new owner.
PARSONS STEPS IN
The biggest impact on the property came in 1856 when William G. Parsons took over the estate and changed mill production solely to snuff (snorted tobacco). Parsons rid the mill of Bergen’s name and renamed the facility the Parsons Brookford Snuff Mill. The mill produced Scotch snuff, Maccaboy snuff, Lundy Foot snuff and French Rappee snuff. Products like these gave North Brunswick an industrial boom. Parsons also added new buildings made out of Sayre & Fisher bricks that would serve to ramp up production.
Brookford was the name Parsons gave to the entire hill along the Lawrence Brook where he claimed residency. Atop this hill overlooking the mills was Parson’s Victorian mansion where he raised a family while operating the mill. Parallel to the Lawrence Brook, Parsons had over 100 Osage Orange trees planted in a row to beautify the property. A dirt road was cleared out on the side of these trees closest to the water. A stone bridge going over Milltown’s narrow Sucker Brook lay at the beginning of this road. Workers used this road to go to and from the mill each day. By 1870, Parson’s son, James, would own the estate and run the mill. He continued to run operations until his death a few decades later.
Interestingly enough, history has a way of repeating itself. In the case of the estate of the mill, this is no exception. Milltown Fire Department records show that in 1914 the snuff mill had a monumental fire, much like it had 63 years earlier. When firemen came to put out the blaze, one fireman, Elwood Boyce, went to the nearby Lawrence Brook. Having no canteen with him, he needed to quench his thirst with the Brook’s water. He quickly caught Typhoid Fever and died a few days later. To date, he is one of the only men to die on the job in the Milltown Fire Department.
THE END OF AN ERA
Before the roaring twenties had come, the Parsons Brookford Snuff Mill ceased operation and became a thing of the past. Modern means of production that had come in the Second Industrial Revolution had turned Parsons’ facilities obsolete. The 1917 fire did not help any of this; soon enough, many of his buildings were demolished, while others were left to the elements. The cleared out landscape of that hill became a thick forest.
In 1927, construction began on the dam that would separate the Lawrence Brook from the man-made body of water that came to be known as Farrington Lake. The lake and dam were named after North Brunswick mayor (1915-1918) Edward Farrington who wanted the construction of a dam to bring water to the city. This dam, which stretched from the edge of East Brunswick’s Foerter Farm to North Brunswick’s open space, drastically changed the landscape of the surrounding area. Now the process of harnessing water from the area was impossible and thus, never again practiced. The Parsons mansion was torn down sometime before the 1950’s and a gas pipeline was dug dug atop the hill. In the 1970’s, the Hoover Drive neighborhood of North Brunswick was built at the hill’s plateau.
The remaining walls hidden in the woods off the Lawrence Brook stood for decades until succumbing to nature sometime in the late twentieth century. The modern visitor will find them toppled where they once stood. Today, the remnants of the estate known as Brookford lay in scattered ruins for explorers to find.
HOW DO I GET HERE?
Take a trip down Route 130 North in North Brunswick and turn right onto Franklin Road. Drive through the residential neighborhood and turn right onto Farrington Boulevard. The road turns into gravel after passing a natural gas pump on the left. Follow the curve right until you reach a gravel parking lot with a sign reading “Open Space. Hours, Sunrise to Sunset”.
As previously mentioned, this area is now a popular fishing spot for North Brunswick locals. Walk down the steep dirt path going towards the Lawrence Brook. Walk on some rocks through a tiny stream and go past the wooden bench. Follow the small dirt path going through the brush and look towards the water.
The foundation walls for most of the snuff mill stand as they did 150 years ago, built into the banks. If you have brought wadersfor fishing, take a walk into the Brook (it’s shallow) and look outward. The foundation walls are clearly visible from the water. If you choose to cross over the Brook to the other side of the woods, you can see the original dam that kept water in for the mill.
Continuing down the dirt path will lead you to a muddy fishing spot with at the bottom of a hill. Further up this hill is where the mansion once stood. Due to the modern pipeline’s placement, there is no trace of the house left. However, if you venture into the deep woods, the mill ruins lay not far from the open fishing spot. Follow the dirt path up the slight incline and make a left. Soon enough you should see bricks everywhere and the walls will be all around you. Some remnants of graffiti from when the walls stood seep though the moss. But from being on the ground for the past few decades, the graffiti has since faded. Metal spikes stick out of the bottom of the brick walls as well as some original wood which (for some reason) has not rotted.
Parts of pipes are scattered throughout the site. Further up the hill near the downed walls lies a filled in square which was most likely a cellar or the underground foundation for a small shed. Walking further into the woods parallel to the Lawrence Brook will eventually take you to multiple trees that are toppled on top of another. The remnants of a treehouse lie on top of this pile and create a canopy. Past this is the line of Osage Orange trees that were once some of the only trees that lined the Brookford estate. Most are still standing, but some have curved over making for some eerie photos. In between some of the trees are rusted metal wires which were most likely parts of a fence that separated the estate from the dirt road.
There are about five or six abandoned telegraph lines that stretch through these woods all in a straight line from one to the next. Two of them still have their original metal stamps that indicate they were North Brunswick poles. You have to keep your eyes peeled for them since they can be so easily mistaken for trees. If you veer off from the line of Osage Orange trees after a while and go towards the water, you will encounter the ruined wreck of a 1947 Plymouth. After coming here dozens of times and doing research into the parts of this practically unrecognizable mesh of rusted metal, I have determined that it is in fact a 1947 Plymouth. Assuming this was driven into this area before trees were everywhere and that it was not dropped from the sky, my guess is that this car has been here since the 1960s.
If you go back to the distinctive line of Osage Orange trees and follow them until their end, you will come upon the Sucker Brook and the remnants of the stone bridge which led workers across it over a century ago. All you have to do is stay in direct line with the trees and where they would end at the water. The foundation wall still stands on the woods side of the Brook. Across the Brook is the North Brook Drive neighborhood in Milltown. I would recommend not crossing it anywhere where you would be led into a person’s backyard. Go further up the hill past the pipeline if you wish to scale down the steep incline. Over here, a park is across the brook, and passing is 100% legal.
A LIVING LEGACY
One of my favorite aspects of these woods are the history they have left behind which can still be found to this day. I have been coming to these woods for over three years now and it was not until last summer when I found out just how much was left behind here. It all started with a late 1800’s green glass medicine bottle that I found half submerged in the dirt on a hill in the woods. A few minutes later, I saw more glass scattered throughout as well as pottery and china. Most of the items were broken, but they all told a story of how life was lived in the 1800’s.
The legacy of people like Jacob Bergen and William G. Parsons live on today in the estate they formerly occupied and the ruins left there. In Mr. Parsons’ case, North Brunswick’s Parsons Elementary School is named after him, the esteemed tobacco manufacturer that he was. Hidden in plain sight as well is a painting of the site in its heyday which is on every “LEAVING” or “WELCOME TO” sign for North Brunswick.
I always find more fascination in sites that were left to the elements instead of having been converted and renovated. Perhaps if the snuff mill operated in the 1950’s, the buildings would still stand today as converted luxury apartments. The beauty of these woods comes in the changing of the seasons showing different faces of the landscape. But what really makes this wooded hill off the Lawrence Brook stand out from many other NJ ruins is that going here is completely legal. The space is public and open from sunrise to sunset. So, if you’re ever looking for an easily accessible historic spot in Middlesex County, look no further than the Farrington Dam and the woods accompanying it. History awaits you.