The Birth of the Howell Heritage and Historical Society
In February of 2019, word started to spread that the future of the MacKenzie Museum and Library on Lakewood-Farmingdale Road in Howell was in jeopardy of being torn down. A small group of historical enthusiasts knew the “MacKenzie House”, the home of the Museum and Library, had to be saved. They started attending Howell Township Council Meetings to gather information and plead the case of the MacKenzie House.
In order for the group to have any chance of owning the MacKenzie House, they would have to become incorporated and a 501 c 3 organization. They would also need to prove that they could financially support the MacKenzie Museum and Library and reopen it to the public.
On February 24, 2020 HHHS received the deed for the Mackenzie Museum and Library property from Howell Township.
Also, on that date, HHHS was awarded a grant for $6,412 from the Monmouth County Historical Commission at the Monmouth County Freeholders Meeting.
It was quite an exciting day!
The Historical Value of the MacKenzie Museum and Library Building and Occupants
In 2005, the Cultural Resources Digest, published by the NJ Dept. of Transportation, had a front-page article highlighting some of the history of the Lower Squankum Mill Site. This was the result of the area becoming part of the Interstate 195 interchange. There had been grave concern about how 195 would impact the Quaker Burial Ground and the area just north of the MacKenzie House where the Mill Site had been.
Originally constructed as a gristmill, farmers would bring their grain to be ground, paying a fee for the service or leaving a portion of their grain as payment. According to the Cultural Resource Digest, Solomon Wardell was the original owner. He was a Quaker who had settled at Lower Squankum, and in 1779 purchased a tract of land where he would build a gristmill and a tavern. Both were in use in 1803 according to Solomon Wardell’s will. Disposing of all of his property and providing a dowry for his widow, he left the mill and tavern to his son, Henry.
For the next hundred plus years, the Lower Squankum mills were always subject to instability. Substantial amounts of capital were necessary for the construction, maintenance and the operation of the mills. As a result, mill properties changed hands often as owners took on partners, took on mortgages and/or faced foreclosures. Sometimes, these plans didn’t work and it was necessary for Sheriff’s Sales. One thing that remained constant over the years was the miller’s house. Although some of the owners were millers, some weren’t, but either way, there had to be provisions of a home for the miller and his family.
Even before Lower Squankum was called Lower Squankum, at a place called Adamsburgh, the miller’s house was described as “The old house on the east side of the road, a few hundred feet south of the Manasquan River.”The miller’s house section is a 1 ½ story house with low ceilings in the loft area. The loft area is accessed by a tight-winder-stairs in the corner of the room, wrapping up around the hearth on the main floor, with the typical small storage cabinet between the stairs door and the brick hearth. The brick hearth would have been used for cooking and heating the house. The walls are lined with brick for insulation. There are wide planked floors. The exposed ceiling joists were likely cut with a pit saw. Some of the joists have bark on the edges. The trim moldings on the windows and doors have a single bead, common in the late 1700s and early 1800s. The loft, which originally was one room, at some point, was divided into two small bedrooms separated by a plain beaded-board door.
The Federal Census of 1850, says Isaac Nesbit was 29 years old and a miller living in Howell, NJ. Isaac acquired the 3 tracts that included the mill and dwelling property in 1854. According to the Asbury Park Press in 1984, it was supposed that Isaac was probably the one who made the many improvements over the next 16 years, and that he was probably the one who added the formal front section of the so-called MacKenzie House to the small miller’s house. The architectural style of the front section is Greek Revival. Those architectural features include: wide, decorative door and window moldings, well-lit foyer with Greek Revival front door, transom and side lights, as well as a formal open staircase, wide plank floors and large 6-over-6 windows.
During the years when Isaac and his brother, William were in business together, the Lower Squankum Mill was known as Nesbit Mills. The 1860 Census indicates that Isaac and William were neighbors. Isaac was a farmer and William was a miller. It is likely that Isaac and his family were living across the road on the farm and that William and his family were living in the previously extended miller’s house. Over the years, both Isaac and William were very active in the Township of Howell. During the Civil War, William was instrumental in raising troops to fill the quotas of his township, and after the war, he spent time and money bringing home, to family and friends, the bodies of those who had been killed and buried on distant battle-fields.
The Cultural Resources Digest of 2005 stated that “A sawmill was added to the Lower Squankum gristmill around 1866 by then owner, Charles Hulit, who also had rights to repair the dams, and a piece of land on the other side of the road.
There are many towns that have historical societies and even historic houses available for tours and visitation, but the thing that makes us unique is the historical significance of not only our buildings and millers, but also the historical contributions of the Prickitt family. They owned and operated the gristmill, sawmill, a dairy farm, a cannery where they canned and bottled their surplus crops, and lived on the Gilman Farm where the MacKenie Museum is located. In summer, they had an art school taught by renowned artist Corwin Knapp Linson. Capt. William A. Prickitt was attached to Co. G, 25th Regiment United States Colored Troops during the Civil War and credited his men with saving him during a life-threatening illness. He respected them so much that he carried a 2-inch, leather pocket photo album with photos of 17 men, identified by name.
Capt. Prickitt was mustered out December 1865, when he came home and engaged in the banking and insurance business in Trenton, NJ. Then, he went to New York and became a member of the Stock Exchange. In 1873, Capt. Prickitt obtained an interest in 3 tracts of land in Howell Township known as the Gilman Farm that included a gristmill and dwelling house (current MacKenzie Museum). In 1876, Capt. Prickitt retired to the farm. His dairy on Gilman Farm had a reputation of long-standing for the quality of its milk and for the extreme cleanliness which characterized its service to customers. In 1887, Capt. Prickitt invested in the facilities for canning. The care which was used in every branch of the business paid well, for Gilman Farm canned goods were quoted high in the wholesome catalogues. In November 1897, Capt. Prickitt of Lower Squankum received an appointment as United States Consul to Rheims, France where he represented the U.S. for many years. Then, he was promoted and transferred to Auckland, New Zealand, where he was located as Consul General. The two assignments lasted 20 years. During that time, Gilman Farm was operated by Prickitt’s daughter and son-in-law, Franklin and Jennie Patterson, and maintained the same quality and reputation as was set by Capt. Prickitt.