celebrating a sense of place

The English Farm, the French Army, and Succotash

By C.G. Wolfe

ding a Main Street with an array of local shops including a hometown hardware store, the local volunteer fire house, a fishing and tackle shop, and an old-fashioned butcher/general store that has been in operation since 1888. Kids can still be seen riding bicycles through town or fishing along the meandering river that’s spanned by a picturesque 19th century iron bridge. 

At the time of the American Revolution, there were only a few houses in the area of what is now Califon, the most notable being “The Mansion.” Aaron Sutton, a self-styled entrepreneur and land speculator, built the mansion and a nearby mill. Sutton spared no expense building and furnishing his stately home and probably had grandiose ideas of founding “Suttonville” or Suttontown,” but while villages like New Germantown (Oldwick) and German Valley (Long Valley) were already thriving in 1800, it would take Califon another 50 years and the return of a prodigal son before a real town began to emerge. 

Like many adventurous men of the time, Jacob Neighbor left the Califon area in the 1840s and headed west to strike it rich in the gold fields of California. But unlike most, who ended up poorer then when they arrived, Jacob Neighbor actually “found gold in them thar hills” and around 1849, he returned home a wealthy man. 

During the first half of the 19th century, growth was painfully slow in Califon. It wasn’t until 1849, that a cluster of houses resembling a village began to gradually take root. Consequently, the home that Jacob Neighbor returned to had probably looked almost the same as when he left. He was determined to change all that and was willing to invest a good deal of his newly found wealth to make it happen. He began by building something essential to the growth of an early community - a sawmill. Sawmills produced the lumber for new homes, businesses, churches, schools, etc., and in Califon’s case, even created a small logging industry. Next, he built a gristmill to compete with Aaron Sutton’s original mill, which was still in operation but under new ownership. (Sutton’s mill was built on the site of a pre-Revolutionary War mill, owned by a man named Scheiler. The mill later became known as “Cole’s Mill.”) 

Jacob Neighbor was eager to see his new mill finished and in operation, so he devised a clever way to motivate his workmen. When the mill race was being dug, Jacob, an otherwise frugal man, placed silver coins along the route of the raceway. The first digger to reach each coin got to keep it. 

As the mills and blossoming lumber business began bringing settlers and customers to the area, Jacob felt it was time to establish the village’s first general store, which he opened in the basement of his mill. Unfortunately, he forgot the first rule of business: location, location, location. Anyone familiar with operating grist mills knows that the basement is usually noisy, damp, dusty and often rat-infested. To add to these problems, the basement of Jacob Neighbor’s Mill was difficult to get to and involved squeezing through a narrow archway. Besides location, it also seems Jacob also forgot the second rule of business: good help is hard to find. Unable to manage both the store and mill, Jacob hired his nephew, David, who as legend has it, was somewhat unmotivated. The result was that any customer brave enough to enter the basement of the mill, also had the task of waking up its proprietor, who was usually sound asleep on the counter. 

Although Jacob Neighbor’s store did not prove successful, it did encourage others (including, ironically, his sleepy nephew David) to open stores in more suitable locations. Before 1900, Califon would have three more general stores. One of these stores, Rambo’s, was established in 1888, and is still in operation today. In the early days, the town hall was located on the store’s second floor, which was also rented out for shows and dances. The two other stores, George W. Beaty’s store (originally David Neighbor’s store) and Pete (Pete the Goat) Philhower’s store, are no longer in operation but the competition between the two is still the stuff of local lore. 

One story has it that two neighbors ran into each other on the street and were both carrying brand new shovels. Each man asked the other where he had bought his shovel and how much he had paid for it. The first man answered he had bought his at “Pete the Goats” and paid 75 cents. The second man informed him that he had bought his at George Beaty’s and only paid 50 cents! Incensed, the first man took his shovel back to Philhower’s and complained about the price. Philhower made good on the difference, and to teach Beaty a lesson, started advertising his shovels for 30 cents. Not to be outdone, Beaty retaliated by placing a sign in his store window that read, “Take home a shovel, it won’t cost you a cent.” Beaty was convinced that he had outdone his competitor until he saw a sign in Philhower’s store window the next day which read, “Twenty-five cents paid to anyone who will take home a shovel!" 

Anchored by Jacob Neighbor’s sawmill and gristmill, the town began to grow quickly, and within 50 years would see the establishment of two churches, a school, a post office, the coming of the railroad, and a variety of businesses. Included in these many endeavors were a dress shop, a tannery, a hotel, several blacksmiths, additional sawmills, and even a distillery. The distillery was believed to have been built by local distiller, Henry “Whiskey Hank” Fleming. It was operated by a man named “Uncle” Sam Willet. Uncle Sam, a powerfully-built man who brewed a potent brand of apple brandy known as “Jersey Lightning,” also doubled as a self-taught dentist and had a sideline job pulling teeth. 

Today, Califon is still a thriving little town, thanks in great part to the vision and good fortune of Jacob Neighbor, but Neighbor did more than just act as the catalyst for Califon’s growth - he literally put them on the map. 

In the early 1850s, the village that Neighbor helped build could not be found on any road map, mainly because no one had given it a name yet. Until then, folks found their way around by referring to familiar landmarks like, “Cole’s Mill” (Aaron Sutton’s original mill), “Frog Hollow” or “The Swamp House,” one of the town’s oldest homes. Another familiar landmark was “Peggy’s Puddle” or simply “The Puddle.” The Puddle was in the “Lower Valley” section of town, and was home to a locally famous tavern that once stood on the site of today’s Victorian Square Mall. The stone tavern was owned and operated by Wesley “Uncle Wes” Hahn, who was rumored to weigh over 500 pounds, and his wife Peggy or “Aunt Peggy,” who ruled with an iron fist. According to one account, two men had imbibed in a little too much “stone fence” (the tavern’s favorite spirit) and started brawling in the bar room. Aunt Peggy grabbed both men by the scruff of the neck and hurled them out the door. They landed squarely in a large, dirty pool of water that always sat outside the tavern door. No one knows why this muddy pool of water was always there. Some speculate that it was the spot Aunt Peggy used to dump her dirty dishwater, or where rain from the roof had a habit of gathering, but whatever the reason, it became forever known as “Peggy’s Puddle.”

Now, as colorful as that story is, you can understand why folks just wouldn’t want to keep referring to their community as “The Puddle.” So, it was decided that the town should be officially named. Many meetings were held for this purpose and many names were suggested. In the end, they decided to honor their greatest benefactor, Jacob Neighbor, and the place where he struck it rich – they named their new town “California.” But how did California get shortened to Califon? Well, there are two theories. One holds that some overly enthusiastic painters, hired to paint a sign for the new railroad depot (and who may have had a little too much applejack or stone fence), painted the letters too large and ran out of room by the time they got to the “O” in California. With only enough space for one more letter on the sign they chose an “N,” and the name Califon was born. Another theory suggests that having a town named California, New Jersey was just too confusing for the post office and the name was shortened to Califon to expedite the mail. Whatever the truth is, one thing is for certain: Jacob Neighbor’s greatest treasure was the quaint little town on the river that he helped found.

Look for a special Califon feature in the upcoming Summer Issue of The BRJ!

How Califon Got its Name

By C.G. Wolfe

Photos Courtesy of

Don Freiberg

Located along the South Branch of the Raritan River in the northeast corner of Hunterdon County, Califon is the epitome of small town America. There are tight rows of neatly manicured historical homes surroun-

The English Farm in Liberty Corner, NJ


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