Sussex County History Today: Keen’s Mill

| 06 Aug 2023 | 09:35

In the next several weeks, we will cover awards presented at the New Jersey State Fair.

The first is the Sussex County Historical Marker awarded to Stillwater for Keen’s Mill. Thanks go to Andy Martin for his work on this application.

I am also very happy to say that Jennie Sweetman will be contributing to this column, helping to provide the readers with the best of historical references of our county.

Please accept her valuable work here this week. Her “voice” brings back memories of “the old days” of her columns.

County officials recently approved the installation of a county historical marker to be placed at the site of the 185-year-old Keen’s Grist Mill, located on a portion of Swartswood Lake property on Route 521 in Stillwater Township.

The stone mill dates to 1838, when it was built by George Keen. He is guessed to have worked at a Springdale mill before acquiring the earlier wooden mill from the Rhodes family in 1824 for $3,500.

Just when the earlier mill was built remains uncertain. Charles Edgar Stickney, in his book, “Old Families of Sussex County,” wrote that Charles Rhodes was one of the very earliest settlers in Stillwater Township. He deserted from a British man-of-war near New York and found his way into Sussex, where he settled as stated.

He had been inveigled into the man-of-war in England by a press gang and consequently came some distance inland after escaping to prevent detection and recapture.

His descendants say he built the first mill in the settlement, but Casper Shafer is a competitor for that honor and presents strong proof of his claim. Rhodes, however, was a miller, and the date of his milling may have been previous to Shafer’s because so little is known of it.

The late Kevin Wright wrote that “about 1790, Charles Rhodes Sr. selected a rocky hollow, where the outlet stream of Swartswood Lake makes a rapid descent, and erected his gristmill on land purchased from John Reading.” “The mill dam raised the lake’s level between 4 and 5.5 feet, creating a 16-foot head to operate three run of millstones.”

Continuing, Wright wrote, “Charles Rhodes Sr. died in February 1800 without leaving a will. Else Rhodes, Joseph Rhodes and Charles Rhodes Jr. were named the administrators of his estate. When his real estate was divided in 1802, the mill lot went to son Charles. Charles Rhodes, of Vernon Township, died in 1818, devising the 18-acre Mill Lot to his son John. He sold 81 acres, including the mill, to George Keen in April 1824 for $3,200.

“Following the demise of George Keen, who passed away on Feb. 28, 1866, the mill was operated by his son, John W., who operated the mill until his death in December 1898. The children and heirs of John W. sold the mill to Dr. William H. Vail of Blairstown in March 1901 for $3,500. It appears this purchase on behalf of the Blairstown Electric Light Company may have been to provided water for electric power rather than to operate the grist mill.

“Dr. Vail sold the property to the trustees of the Blairstown Presbyterial Academy in May 1904 for $4,000. Keen’s Mill was acquired by the NJ DEP in July 1976.”

The old grist mill almost faced a sad ending in 1983. It was as a result of an October 1983 engineer’s plan to demolish the stone structure and replace the dam on which the mill was located.

The Keen’s Mill Committee, a grassroots preservation program of the Historical Society of Stillwater Township, quickly formed with Wayne T. McCabe serving as its chairman.

As a means of creating awareness of the mill’s history and securing help to prevent the state from demolishing it, a preservation picnic was held at the mill in June 1984. Phase One of the restoration project commenced in April 1997, when fumigation of powder post beetles commenced.

Time marches on. The mill’s equipment, belonging to another day, has been removed and for so many years the mill has been silent and still.

But now, thanks to county officials, an historical marker will be placed at the site as a reminder of the time when the mill played an integral part of the Stillwater community.

I want to correct an error in last week’s column. The eight-grade recipient of the award is Tara Anderson. Thanks also, Tara, for your work with the oak tree care.

Bill Truran, Sussex County historian, may be reached at