The building looms over the bustling Route 24, once called Chester Pike, just east of Long Valley center. At once, upon seeing it, you know that the mill holds a thousand stories and probably a thousand more secrets in its ancient timbers. These tales, 250 years worth, were nearly lost to the South Branch of the Raritan River, when, instead of crumbling finally into dust, the mill was purchased in 1991 by the Washington Township Land Trust.
Philip Weise, one of the original settlers along the river which ran through the valley, built the mill around 1750. Grist ground by the huge waterwheel into flour helped to nourish the tiny village, soon known as Dutch Valley. One hundred years later, in the village whose name had changed to German Valley, the mill belonged to Obidiah La Tourette. It is by this man's name that the saw and grist mill is now known, since it was for that flourishing period of history for which German Valley was later designated as historical significant by the National Registry. One hundred years after that, milling having ceased with the onset of World War II, the building served as offices for the homeopathic therapist, Dr. Blass, of the Eastern American Oxygen Therapy Association, and about whom little is known except that which is remembered by Long Valley "old timers". When, in the winter of 1991, the Land Trust decided to purchase the oldest standing building in Long Valley, by then condemned by the town, eleven contiguous acres of riverfront property for future parkland sealed the deal.
For two years, the mill became subject for inspection and evaluation, as experts and volunteers began to sift through a giant jumble of historical fabric. Chambers piled high with junk hid the glint of the occasional jewel visible only to the practiced eye. Indeed, a cache of relics, tools and machinery emerged that, when disentangled and polished, would illustrate the mill's long dormant vitality as well as a history of milling in America from 1700-1900. Among the discoveries were four sets of French burr stones, produced with especially shallow cuts in their surface so that they could grind whiter flour; and the original bolters, in which flour sifted through a series of silk screens.
Downstairs, at the river's surface, the waterwheel had long ago been replaced with two turbines from the nearby Bartley Foundry. Although, most similar pieces disappeared during World War II for scrap metal, this one remained because the shaft which reaches to the top of the mill actually supported the building. This reality, among others, foretold the intricacies and pitfalls of renovation which began in 1993.
Saving the mill is an immense project, sustained by generous donations of money, material and time. Directed by a professional restoration contractor, most of the labor occurs on weekends by volunteers. Apprentices who begin sweeping up and polishing rusty tools end up building stone steps and cutting scarf joints. Some have peeked curiously through the door and have been hooked for years. The resident mason is a fabric designer who began jamming cement between the stones in the mill's foundation in hopes of learning a thing or two about pointing old stone at his own house.
Most of the mill's framework has been replaced, some original chestnut timbers joined with new studs, joists and beams. The New Jersey Historic Trust dictates that reconstruction must remain obvious. In order not to confuse future historical research on the site, no "found" timbers can be relocated. The roof, re-sheathed and shingled, remains suspended by jacks, under which huge columns wait to be replaced. The east and south sides of the mill are complete, aided by the use of a crane. Raising the columns on the remaining sides, inaccessible from the road, will be more difficult, dependent solely on age-old techniques of roller, block and tackle.
Workflow at the mill is adjusted by the availability of labor, changes in the season and, most of all, by the flow of financial grants and donations. The Washington Township Land Trust purchased the property and improvements along the South Branch with funds borrowed from the Washington Township Historical Society. To repay the purchase price and begin renovations, local benefactor Jack Borgenicht offered $50,000 each year for three years if matching funds were located. $98,000 of those have come from the New Jersey Historic Trust. There's a good chance that the west and north walls and the roof will be complete by spring. Even with donated labor and materials, two floors worth of joists and floor planks have cost $25,000 of the total $375,000 spent so far. $10,000 from the Morris County Community Development Office will build a staircase. Another $75,000 from the Historic Trust will pay for doors, windows and siding work to begin in the summer. A bridge has to be built across the river to provide access from the mill property and an eventual extension of Morris County's Patriots Path. Then there's work on the inside...
Rare in our modern landscape, mills are like temples to our American past. You can see rescued mills in working form at Chester, Waterloo, Clinton or Stockton. Or in splendid contemporary roles as homes, inns, restaurants or shops. But rarely is there an opportunity to walk through an ongoing restoration such as this. Jobs like this are usually bid out to private firms and reopened to the public upon completion. At Obadiah La Tourette, you can call 908/876-5986 for a tour or stop by between 10-2 on Saturday. But be careful; there may be a chore with your name on it.
For more information on the mill's progress, inquire at the Washington Township Land Trust.
During lunch and dinner cruises, spend the day or evening relaxing on beautiful Lake Hopatcong aboard Miss Lotta, a 57-foot SkipperLiner dinner cruise vessel with full dining room and bar.
The Raptor Trust is one of the premier wild bird rehabilitation centers in the United States.