By C.G. Wolfe
In the ebbing daylight of autumn or the early sunrise of spring, New Jersey’s lime burners stood their lonely vigils, stoking the hot coals and “burning the white marble”– limestone. Also known as calcium carbonate, limestone is a shale-like sedimentary rock that can be broken down at high temperatures and pulverized into a white powder. It was used in a host of products including cement and plaster, and according to a 1994 article by Art Charlton, in New Jersey Outdoors, it was even fed to chickens to thicken their shells. In northwest New Jersey it was mainly used to “sweeten” farmland by neutralizing acids in the soil. Northwest New Jersey, particularly the valleys of the highlands, is rich in limestone deposits and by the late 1700s farmers like James Parker, who resided near Clinton, in Hunterdon County, had turned to the ancient and widespread tradition of lime burning to replenish their hard worked farms and plantations.
By day smoke billowed from lime choked shafts and by night fires would have dotted the landscape as most farms with access to limestone were operating kilns by the mid eighteenth century. They varied in style, size and design but most kilns could fit easily into Hawthorne’s description of the “rude, round, tower-like structure”. They were usually built of field stone and set into a hill or embankment so that wagon loads of quarried limestone could be driven to the top of the shaft. The limestone was packed into the cylindrical interior in alternating layers of limestone and wood (later coal was used and one local history books even mentions corn cobs being layered with the stone). The top of the shaft was then covered in sod and the kiln was lit. The white hot fire (lime burns white) had to be kept burning until all the wood in the shaft was consumed and the lime was broken down, a process that could last days. The hot lime would then drop through a grate onto a hearth below where it was raked out, cooled and slaked with water. Bushels of it were then loaded onto farm wagons and hauled to the fields where it was spread by the shovel-full over acres of hungry, plowed up earth.
Many farmers, like James Parker, who produced thousands of bushels of lime on his farm, hired lime-burners to handle the tedious chore. A slave to the flames, they kept the fires burning continuously for days to produce the “sweet” powder. Stooping into the “eye of the kiln” and laboring before the white glow in the dark of midnight, they must have resembled devils toiling in the infernal regions. Maybe that’s why lime kilns and the men who tended them often fueled superstitious imaginations. In In Search of Lime Kilns in Warren County, a pamphlet published by the Warren County Historical and Genealogical Society, Gladys Harry Eggler writes that folks “would spin tales of Satan and evil spirits that dwelled in the fires of the lime kilns. In addition to emitting an eerie glow, explosive outbursts of crackling limestone would lend credence to many ghostly tales.” Hawthorne’s lime burner, Ethan Brand, was said to have “conversed with the devil himself in the lurid blaze of the kiln.”
Though demonic tales and local ghost stories found inspiration in the flames, some old-timers admit that the only real spirits dwelling near the kilns was the occasional jug of applejack, though there were a few gruesome scenes from time to time. In search of Lime Kilns in Warren County notes that in 1827, a burning kiln collapsed and buried the lime burner in “an avalanche of scorching lime.” Transients were also known to sleep on top of the kilns to keep warm and could be smothered in their slumber by the smoke from the shaft if the winds blew in the wrong direction.
Eventually chemical fertilizers and safer methods of mass producing lime drove the rural kilns into extinction. Today, they can still be seen by an observant eye while driving some of the back roads in places like Hunterdon and Warren Counties. Some, like the commercial kilns in Peapack, NJ are carefully preserved while others are crumbling ruins spilling from a hill or roadside embankment. Most have outlived the farms they once nourished. They stand as forgotten monuments to a bygone way of life, and as Hawthorne writes, they are “long deserted, with weeds growing in the vacant round of the interior, which is open to the sky, and grass and wild-flowers rooting themselves into the chinks of the stones.” But many of these rural landmarks have stoically weathered time thus far, and as he adds admiringly, they “may yet be overspread with the lichens of centuries to come.”
Commercial Quarries and Lime Kilns
Lime burning wasn’t confined to the family farm and commercial quarries became big business, shipping tons of lime by rail and via the Morris Canal. Some had six or seven kilns that could produce 100,000 bushels a year and one quarry near Philipsburg, had 15 kilns that burned continuously. Farmers that weren’t lucky enough to have access to limestone on their property took advantage of the commercial burners, gathering together to “make a day” out of their trip to the quarry during outings known as “lime frolics.”
flame issuing from the chinks and crevices of this door, which seemed to give admittance into the hill-side, it resembled nothing so much as the private entrance to the infernal regions.” (Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ethan Brand: A Chapter from an Abortive Romance)
The remains of a four-oven limestone kiln, recently uncovered during a historic home renovation on Vernoy Road, in Califon.
“It was a rude, round, tower-like structure about twenty feet high, heavily built of rough stones, and with a hillock of earth heaped about the larger part of its circumference; so that the blocks and fragments of marble might be drawn by cart-loads, and thrown in at the top. There was an opening at the bottom of the tower, like an over-mouth, but large enough to admit a man in a stooping posture, and provided with a massive iron door. With the smoke and jets of