By Douglas Kiovsky
Unlike its neighbor Lambertville to the south, Stockton has remained a small, seemingly forgotten 19th century town located along the Delaware River. Not unlike Lambertville, it had all the ingredients in place by the late 18th century to become a thriving, productive industrial enclave surrounded by a farming population. However, it was Coryell's Ferry crossing to the south that steadily became the more desirable path across the River for travelers taking the Old York Road between Philadelphia and New York. The continuous volume of traffic passing through Lambertville contributed to the growth of the town throughout the 18th and into the early part of the 19th century.
Stockton may be still be a small river town but it has a long history and several notable local figures. Among them was John Deats who invented the iron plow in 1828 near the town on his farm. Before this, moldboard plows were made of wood. In 1831, his son Hiram started an iron furnace and factory in Quakertown (Hunterdon County) that manufactured plows, corn shellers, reapers, mowers, stoves, kettles, threshers and school desks. A branch factory was established in Stockton in 1852 and Hiram Deats ran it until his death in 1887. Deats was the first millionaire in the county thanks to his father. Deats' nephew took over after that until 1904 when the Deats era ended after 70 years.
Another Hunterdon county moment in agriculture was the egg and poultry production which was a success in large part due to the Bel-Del Railroad. (The rail line was built along the Delaware River in 1851 and later taken over by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1871. It provided transport between Trenton to Philipsburg with connection lines reaching further north and east.) In 1892, a Stockton hatcheryman by the name of Joseph Wilson became the first person in the US to ship his day-old chicks by railroad to another city market. Destination: Chicago. Success in the poultry business thrived for several generations. The late former NBC News Anchor, Chet Huntley even bought a chicken farm near Stockton in the 1960s.
Another person who brought his interest in agriculture to New Jersey was Lloyd Wescott. Originally from Wisconsin, Wescott and his bride Barbara bought a farm along the Mulhocaway Creek in Union Township in 1936 and called it "Mulhocaway Farm." By 1937 the farm became the headquarters for the Artificial Breeding Association, a pioneering organization that developed the first artificial insemination program for dairy cows in the country. Mulhocaway Farm was lost however, when the State of New Jersey acquired it as part of the Spruce Run Reservoir in the 1950s. Undaunted, Wescott and his family moved to a beautiful 147 acre farm near Stockton in 1959 where he continued breeding Guernsey and Holstein cows. The previous owner of the Stockton area farm was the famous 1930s band leader, Paul Whiteman also known as "The King of Jazz" who lived there for 21 years before selling it to the Wescotts. Mr. Whiteman is credited with launching the singing career of Bing Crosby in 1926, paying the young crooner $150 a week.
Another important industry for Stockton was quarrying. The town had two quarries within its boundaries and a 3rd one north of town in Raven Rock which was called Bull's Island Station after 1850. Before that it was known as Saxtonville, whose oldest structure, a tavern, was built in 1782. It was always known as an early industrial town whose "trap-rock" or diabase industry took off after the advent of the canal and railroad. A dozen buildings survive today.
The most well-known structure in town is The Stockton Inn. The core of the building began its life as a private residence constructed from local quarry stone in 1710. By the early 19th century it was operating as a tavern and in the early 1830s extensive renovations by owner Asher Johnson included the addition of "The Farmer's Bar" which coincided with the construction of the D&R Canal. It operated successfully as a hotel throughout the 19th century. By the 1920s the building was in the hands of the Weiss/Colligan family who renovated the aging hotel yet again and added a garden restaurant with a waterfall and wishing well. The period from the 1920s - 1950s was the height of the Inn's "glamour years" as it became a mecca for writers, artists and thespians of all kinds. Songwriters Richard Rogers and Lorenzo Hart were among the famous guests and wrote a song about the inn and its wishing well for their 1936 Broadway show "On Your Toes" and the 1953 movie "Pal Joey". Band leader Paul Whiteman was a regular at "Colligan's." Other celebrities included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and friends of their famous Algonquin Roundtable Literary Group. The Inn was also utilized as an overflow hotel for reporters during the Lindbergh Kidnapping Trial in Flemington (Jan-Feb. 1935). Damon Runyon wrote his columns on the trial from Flemington's Union Hotel and The Stockton Inn. Lorenzo and Hart are not the only songwriters to grace Stockton. Songwriter and singer Robert Hazzard owns property in the area south of town. In the early 1980s the Inn acquired a new owner - Frank Smeal - who also applied more renovations to the now famous Inn and renamed it "The Stockton Inn". It has continued to thrive, profit and prosper into the twenty-first century.