Sussex County History Today: Wheatsworth Mills

| 19 Feb 2024 | 03:25

The Grinding Down of Wheatsworth Mills

By Ron Dupont

From Franklin Pond to Hamburg, the Wallkill River runs 4½ miles and drops 110 feet.

Historically, falling water meant water wheels, water power and manufacturing of iron, flour, grain, paper, lumber, cement and more.

And few places in Sussex County pack in more manufacturing history than this stretch of river.

A highlight is Wheatsworth Mills on Gingerbread Castle Road just off Route 23 in Hamburg.

This made recent headlines for a sad reason: demolition.

The property’s history goes back to 1768, when Joseph Sharp built an iron forge, furnace and gristmill on the Wallkill. Sharp’s Iron Works were a sufficiently big deal that soon the town was called Sharpsboro.

But the business wasn’t a financial success, and the Sharp finally abandoned it.

In 1790, Sharp’s sons reclaimed and reopened the works. Joseph Sharp Jr. built a big mansion in 1800, later owned by Gov. Daniel Haines, and built a new three-story stone mill in 1808.

Early accounts note the mill was a big success with area farmers, who needed their grain milled for flour and feed.

But like his father, Sharp couldn’t make the numbers work, and he sold his Hamburg properties.

About 1835, the mill was gutted by fire, then rebuilt with two stories.

Col. Joseph E. Edsall owned the stone mill in the 1840s along with Hamburg Iron Furnace, where the paper mill ruins are now. By 1850, it was owned by Thomas D. Edsall, whose big house is just across the Wallkill.

In 1860, Edsall added a large wood frame mill next to the stone mill for use as a distillery (flour ain’t the only good thing you can make from rye).

The mill was bought by John H. Brown in 1867. He was an experienced businessman who had worked in iron, limestone, milling and railroads.

Brown closed the distillery, later selling the mill to the Wallkill Cement & Lime Co., which added a lime kiln and converted the distillery building to a cement-grinding mill.

This operation, too, did not last, and in the 1870s, it was leased, and later sold, to a young go-getter named Worthington H. Ingersoll. He had been a clerk, bookkeeper and manager for a number of industrial firms and was going out on his own.

In the early 1870s, the Lehigh and Hudson Railroad and the New Jersey Midland Railroad both came through Hamburg, within feet of the mill. Such excellent rail access almost guaranteed its future success.

Ingersoll ground flour, feed and cement at the mill and sold coal. He installed the newest type of roller mill, processing both local grain and imported wheat.

His “Wallkill Roller Mills” were successful for 40 years. When Ingersoll died in 1920, the mill was sold to a New York businessman with a penchant for health food. In an age when white flour reigned supreme, he touted the virtues of the unrefined whole grain flour of the pioneers.

His name was Fred H. Bennett, and he started his firm in 1907. Its first profitable product was not, ironically, for human consumption. It was the Milk-Bone dog biscuit.

To mill his whole grain flour, he bought the Hamburg stone mill and in 1924 built a huge concrete addition where the old wood mill had stood. This resulted in the massive complex of somewhat fanciful, now ruinous industrial buildings beside the Wallkill today.

He named the mills after his brand of flour: Wheatsworth.

To publicize his products, he needed a gimmick. The old lime kiln near the mill, left from the 1870s, reminded him of a castle. Something folks could visit?

He had just seen “Hansel and Gretel” at the Metropolitan Opera so he hired its designer, Joseph Urban, to use the kiln as the base for a baker’s fantasy castle: the Gingerbread Castle. (Another story for another column.)

He also bought the Governor Haines mansion, turned it into a museum and restaurant, and offered tours of Wheatsworth Mills. The whole complex was a showplace.

But his big plans all ran smack into the Great Depression. In 1931, the National Biscuit Co. (Nabisco to you and me) offered $5.5 million for the F.H. Bennett Biscuit Co. He took the money.

Nabisco operated the Hamburg mill for a few years, leased it to Canterbury Mills for a few more, then sold it in 1943 to the Danenburg family. Their business was not flour. It was the Synkote brand of insulated industrial wire. The name of the firm was Plastoid.

Using the old stone mill as offices, Plastoid added large manufacturing buildings. With important contracts with the military and later NASA, the firm operated successfully until the 1980s, giving employment to many area residents who recall the operation fondly.

Plastoid closed in the late 1980s and the equipment was sold. The Gingerbread Castle was sold and remains separately owned.

The Wheatsworth/Plastoid property went through a variety of ownerships, with nothing happening - remaining mostly vacant, mostly deteriorating, a magnet for juvenile delinquents, vandals and thrill-seekers.

It was declared eligible for listing on the State and National Registers of Historic Places in 2003 and is listed as a Hamburg historic site. In 2004, it was acquired by Grey Elephant, a firm affiliated with the late Vernon developer Eugene Mulvihill. Still nothing happened.

In 2021, it was bought by Daoftre Capital Group, a manufacturing company owned by Joseph Park of Wayne, which plans to use the buildings for a warehouse.

These plans were reviewed by the Hamburg Historic Preservation Commission, committed to preserving the site’s history. They involved demolishing part of the 1924 concrete mill, including the 90-foot tower/grain silo, now a deteriorating hazard.

Unfortunately, the owner also began demolition of the shorter office tower - without permission. A stop-work order was issued until further determinations on what can be saved, stabilized and how.

The Governor Haines Mansion had a fire and was demolished decades ago. The 1808 stone mill is allegedly safe from demolition but is now roofless and ruinous.

The fate of the rest of the 1924 section of Wheatsworth Mills, also supposed to be protected, remains an open question.

The nearby Gingerbread Castle struggles for survival. Despite having official historic status in a borough with historic preservation laws, Fred H. Bennett’s long-ago dream is not looking like it will get a fairy tale ending any time soon. If at all.

For information, check out Marion Wood’s excellent 1999 history of the borough, “All About Hamburg.”

Contact Bill Truran, Sussex County’s historian, at