On White Pond

Reclaiming the Vass House in Hardwick

by Frank Dale

White Lake lies within the 665-acre White Lake Wildlife Management Area between Blairstown and Stillwater. The property, acquired through the state Green Acres Program is partly owned by Warren County, managed by the Division of Fish, Game and Wildlife, and enjoyed immensely by fishermen and outdoor enthusiasts. Beyond the crystal clear water and enchanting scenery, there is a story worth knowing.

White Lake reveals all the layers that make a place really interesting. The swans that grace the water's sparkling surface, the feisty fish beneath, and the surrounding fields and forest are immediately captivating to the casual observer. The white streaks on the lake's bottom consist of marl, prehistoric deposits of aquatic shells. Photo by Liv Rothfuss.

One of the early settlers in the Hardwick area of northern Warren County was a German immigrant named Johann Wass. Tradition tells us that he was born at sea, during his parent's immigration voyage. The year was 1764. Shortly thereafter, he Americanized his name to John Vass.

Off the water's north shore stands a 200 year old farmhouse made from cut limestone, headquarters to a farm full of history.

Vass started life in his adopted country with very limited means, and was, as a youth, indentured to a Hardwick citizen, Mr. Snover. He was later married... four times, which in those days didn't mean divorce, but rather indicates the short life expectancies for wives of child-bearing age. This was the case with John's choices, although they produced, for him, a total of 13 children. John Vass worked hard to overcome the adversity of his early years and finally succeeded. By the early years of the 19th Century he began to achieve financial success and status in his community.

In 1802, this 38-year-old immigrant farmer's family consisted of wife Hannah, who was number three, and many children, some from previous marriages. Vass purchased from the estate of another former wife's father, Martin Swartwelder, a large farm of 550 acres with a beautiful, natural lake to its front. A log cabin supplied the housing for the large family but only briefly. Young wife Hannah passed away in 1804, and a year later, John married Margaretta Flock. She added to the group, too, by producing, with John, six more children, including son, Isaac. This Mrs. Vass lived a long and prosperous life.

Left, author Frank Dale (r) and historian Len Frank stand at the marker for the rail spur which lead to the marl works at the lake. At the marl collecting and ice cutting factory remnants on the lake's south shore, imposing rock walls rise in the woods. Around arched brick window lintels, the wall's components, a jumble of sedimentary limestone and sandstone mixed with metamorphic gneiss indicate the glacial upheaval that occurred here.

In 1812, Vass built a new home for his new and enlarging family on his 550 acres of farmland, located between Blairstown and Stillwater on the road that is today labeled Route 521. This fine new residence was a two-storey stone structure with four large fireplaces. Adjoining the spacious center hall on the first floor there were, on the right, a living room and a formal dining room. To the left of this hallway were the kitchen, pantry, a smaller dining room, and storage rooms. Two 16 x 16 foot bedrooms were upstairs, off the center hall and three more bedrooms were over the kitchen area. The kitchen and pantry, with the additional bedrooms on its second floor, were in a separate but attached wing built shortly after the first section. There was a small wooden room built off the kitchen area as an auxilliary kitchen. The residence had a porch along its entire front.

The raised homesite overlooked the pond in the field in front. This body of water was early christened White Pond for the color that sparkeled up through its clear waters; the whiteness caused by white shells which covered the entire bottom of the lake to great depth. The lake discharged from its south side, and this stream made a brief trip down hill to the nearby Paulinskil River.

Farmer Vass grew oats, rye, corn, buckwheat, alfalfa, and flax. He also grew and sold apples from his sizeable orchard and raised and sold pigs, sheep, and poultry. Much of the labor was provided by his young sons. In his lifetime he purchased a number of other farms in the area and, when he died, left a good farm to each of his hardworking male heirs.

This mansion, lake, and land, made up the farmstead of the Vass family and was owned by three generations of them. In 1879, historian of the period, James Snell, praises the lovely edifice and lake, and tells us that, at that time, the property was owned by Isaac Vass, son of John and Margaretta. Snell describes White Pond as a "beautiful sheet of water".

Son, Isaac, inherited his father's farm upon his death in 1852, at age 88. The farm and accessory sidelines functioned well, and the family prosperity was maintained. In addition to farm labors, Isaac, of the first American-born Vass generation, also involved himself in local politics. He was a constable, beginning in 1848, and later served locally as tax collector, then as a Justice of the Peace. He even ran for the State Assembly in Trenton but wasn't elected. And for a number of years he was a member of the Township Committee.

At the marl collecting and ice cutting factory remnants on the lake's south shore, imposing rock walls rise in the woods. Around arched brick window lintels, the wall's components, a jumble of sedimentary limestone and sandstone mixed with metamorphic gneiss indicate the glacial upheaval that occurred here.
Below: The footings for the belts that brought the marl in summer and ice in winter from the lake to the works remain.

It was during Isaac's ownership that an attempt was made to start a major ice industry on the lake. The Knickerbocher Ice Company of Pennsylvania bought a small piece of lakefront property on the south shore of White Pond. They erected a formidable ice warehouse, 265 feet long, 100 feet wide, and 32 feet high. It was, by far, the largest and most outstanding structure in the area. In season, the warehouse would hold, at one time, 20,000 tons of ice. But ice production was a seasonal project, and the owners of the ice mill also processed marl, the white mineral product in the form of shells, located many feet deep, on the bottom of the lake. The shells were originally used as fertilizer, and also in big-city cesspools. And it soon became a vital additive to a new but wonderful product just coming into use, named "cement". And so the ice warehouse in winter and spring became a marl warehouse the rest of the year.

For a brief period, too, the Newark Sanitary and Manufacturing Company operated at the lake's shore mining marl. This operation was aided by the existence of the New York, Susquehanna & Western Railroad which passed through the valley just south of White Pond but ran a spur to the plant itself. This activity, as well as the agricultural business, lasted throughout Isaac's life and into the ownership and operation of Isaac's son, Frank, who purchased the farm, with its reduced acreage, from his mother after his father's death in 1893. Another son, Marcus, wanted the family farm also, but was outbid by Frank. Frank managed things into the 20th Century. And at about this time, local folks changed the name of White Pond to White Lake, perhaps to attract more tourists.

With the arrival of the 20th Century things began to decline. Agriculture in this hilly area of northwest Warren County could not compete with more level rich-soiled areas in the county, such as Great Meadows. And the prosperous ice production here was taken over by other, newer and larger, ice plants in the county, the Waterloo Ice Co. and the Brady Ice Company. Eventually they all gave way to the growth of ice production in the Pocono Mountains, where it was favored by the longer, colder winters.

Even business at the lake suffered a setback. John Brooke and his partners, of Massachusetts, planned to open the Warren Portland Cement Company on the shores of White Lake with a production of up to 1000 barrels of cement a day. The owners of the company planned to hire 150 local workers. In June of 1900 the partners signed a contract to erect a number of handsome, stone buildings. Then, in September of 1900, before this work began, one of the partners was arrested for stealing a diamond from a nearby Newton store. The embarrassed co-partners dropped their plans and left town.

The Vass House, from rear towards White Lake.

During the early years of the 20th Century, Frank Vass kept his farm active. He was optimistic and had a small house erected on the property for the future tenant farmer. Frank was also active in local politics and civil affairs and although he was not as wealthy as John or Isaac had been, he was respected and influential. But the farming business continued to decline and, in 1922, Frank Vass sold his property and home, now called "Old Vass Homestead", to local farmer George Van Riper, the first non-Vass owner of the property in 120 years.

Van Riper converted the farm to a dairy operation, and made a living for 20 years. When he died in 1941, his wife sold the farm to Edwin H. Smith, a gentleman farmer who enlarged it to 700 acres. In 1958, the farm was sold again, this time to two brothers, Peter and Nicholas Kero, quarry owners and paving contractors in the area. The beautiful farm and farmhouse were bought for investment by the brothers, their new company was named the Kero-Hardwick Corporation, but they also used it for summer vacations for their families, and deer and bear hunting in the fall, for the menfolk. They eventually sold their investment, but Nicholas Kero still lives close by. The new buyer was the Curtiss-Wright Corporation who had home development plans that never materialized. This company then sold the property to the Metal Improvement Company.

In 1997 the property was acquired by a combination of the Ridge and Valley Conservancy, Green Acres, Warren County, and foundation groups, deeding ownership to the Conservancy and the State of New Jersey. The property was accepted by the National Register of Historic Places in 1999. The lake site is currently used by the State Division of Fish and Wildlife for public fishing. And much of the historic, proud house, has been restored thanks to the efforts of the Hardwick Township Historical Society, Warren County Freeholders, the New Jersey Office of Historic Preservation, the League of Historic Societies of N.J., Hardwick Township, and last but by no means least, The Ridge and Valley Conservancy. The future looks good.

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Ed D
12 Apr 2017, 14:39
John Favat!!!
Great to hear that you have the same childhood memories that I do. I was there with you and the rest of troop 95. I would love to camp there again one day but I don't think that its allowed anymore.
Good to hear that your are still around!
Charles McConnell
16 Jan 2017, 06:36
My wife is a descendent of Adam Wass and this information is great. Where did you gather this information from? I am working on our Genealogy and would love more information on the brothers. Do you know who their father and mother was?
Susan Meagher
29 Apr 2015, 06:59
John Favat, sounds like you are describing Dennis Camp, which is 2-3 miles closer to Stillwater.
Great article here, thank you. Growing up I always heard this was a button factory, which was obviously false!
John Favat
01 Sep 2014, 09:38
Curious... is this the same White Lake that in the 30 - 50's had a polio outbreak at a girl's camp, and the buildings reminded as late as the 70"s? We were from a BSA Troop in Bergen County and used to camp on that land, but nowhere do I see mention of the girl's camp or camping, in general. Are there two White Lakes in the region? The one we camped at was a quarry (limestone, I believe), hit a spring and it filled up. I remember standing on the dock and seeing the bottom of the lake, crystal clear, 10 - 15 feet below. A great childhood memory.
18 May 2014, 19:32
Had a lovely time at White Lake Days last Saturday 17-May 2014. There were environmental groups on hand to speak about the Lake and surrounding area. It was great to hear about the Lake. There was also Kayaking. The Hardwick Historical Society and other groups which helped to restore the Vass House have done a wonderful job. It is beautiful. They have events throughout the year. Will definitely be back to see the progress on the house and enjoy the lake. Thank you Warren County, The Nature Conservancy, and other groups for such a nice treasure.
Sharon Powell
05 Nov 2013, 19:19
I have recently discovered that my 3x great grandfather's niece Eliza Wildrick was married to Martin Vass son of John Vass original owner of the Vass Homestead.\r\nDoes anyone know where John or any other family members are buried; is there a list of his children?\r\nWould appreciate any information about this family.
Charlene Christensen
01 Nov 2013, 19:04
My husband, myself and our then two teen daughters lived in the Vass house (rented from Curtis Wright) as a parsonage in 1987-88. We, with the church at that time, painted and scrubbed, and enjoyed decorating the home. It was absolutely beautiful. The four of us are traveling from PA to Blairstown next Wednesday, Nov. 6th, and we would be so appreciative to be able to see the house. Who should I contact regarding this?\r\nThank you for your timely response.\r\n
Miriam Dunne
23 Jul 2013, 07:23
Mike, White Lake is owned by Warren County and managed by The Nature Conservancy for the county. They recently replaced a gate that has been in place since they purchased the property. The lake is of exceptional resource value. Its high water quality is a product of its unique geological history which also results in a shoreline valuable for rare plants. Protecting the fragile shoreline is a primary goal of both the county and TNC.\r\n Constituents are welcome to back their vehicles to the gate and drop car top boats off there to be launched. When the gate was broken and not in place, too many people drove right to the edge of the lake, causing soil erosion and destroying plants along the edge.\r\n Questions about the gate or other issues associated with this property should be directed to Warren County. The state’s White Lake Wildlife Management Area is across the road from White Lake.\r\n I hope this answers your question and explains the situation.\r\nMiriam Dunne, Bureau of Land Management
Mike Tolosi
17 Jul 2013, 11:43
I used to fish this lake a few years ago. I never had a problem launching my roof top boat. I went there this week and two large gates were locked. Possibly only enough room to sneak a kayak through. When did the state decide to close this lake access, or if not what is the procedure for access. I've been a fisherman in NJ for years, paying my way and it seems more and more privilages and lakes have become un accessable or the local community thinks the lakes are private property.
steve schifani
29 Jul 2012, 11:08
am descended from Adam Wass Johns brother have been to Vass house . interested in any events happening there and also reconnecting with Roberta Dodd.
Sue Sigler
12 Jul 2012, 09:29
We are havign a fundraiser at the Vass Homestead. There will be an open house too! We recently resotred the barn last year and we are doing for a 2nd year ina row a large 2 story ban sale this weeknd July 14-15th from 9-5. Come visit the Vass Homestead to see what the historical society has done. Rooms have been updated with furniture and plans are in making to get grant to restore the kitchen1
Joe Gorski
26 Mar 2012, 08:31
Dated E Smith daughter Joan in 50. Spent many great times at the lake and the house
Joanne Vass
24 Mar 2012, 14:36
My name is Joanne Vass, sister of David Carl Vass, I remember meeting you Ted when I was a child.I would love to see any old photos of the Vass men and women.
Tim Smith
13 Jul 2011, 07:52
It most likely belonged to the West Family or Savacool Family. Vass was aided by said families.
Sue Sigler
13 Jul 2011, 07:19
Hi I have recently started to help the historical society that is trying to restore this wonderful home. Many updates have happened. They restored the barn in 2008 the origianal piece not the addition that was made years later. They have also updated one room to be a multipurpose room. The updates are wonderful and they are working on a grant to restore the upstairs. The society has done wonders and the garden club has planted many new plantsto bring the landscaping alive. I have seen many changesinteh las 2 years and they ahve been wonderful as i goto this almost evey week.\r\n
Roberta Dodd
27 Jun 2011, 11:14
Some restoration has been done but some of the historic elements have been removed especially in the barn. This is sad. Need help from historic knowlegable pros. HELP!\r\n
david carl vass
10 Jan 2011, 15:18
I am a direct decendant of the vass farmstead. my father is lawrence vass and grandfather raymond vass. have visited the homestead many times and love every bit of the property..my son jon vass has also visited of lehigh acres fl.im sure theodore vass would be a second cousin to me and visited his home when i was a boy
11 Dec 2010, 09:43
I frequently hike on the trail that is on the back side of the lake. Yesterday I was on a singletrack trail that runs closer to the lake that the blazed trail and was saddened to see that someone is obviously taking an ATV vehicle out there and seems to be accessing the trail from property that is on the road (Primrose) that is behind White Lake. The trail is now twice as wide and diverts from its original path. It seems this work was been done recentlu because there is still sawdust where numerous trees were cut. I am wondering if this is legal work that is being done by which ever party is maintaining those trails or is this some local resident who is making the trail wider so that access for hunting using an ATV is easier.
JoAnn Breagerner
20 Oct 2010, 13:53
I am the granddaughter of E. Smith. I have heard many wonderful stories from my mother about growing up on the farm.
Rhonda Allen
13 Aug 2010, 05:14
This looks like and awesome place to visit, I can't wait to go.
Nicholas Vass
15 Apr 2010, 04:20
I live in York,England my family name was origonally Germanic or Hungerian listed as De Wass.I wonder if we are related to your Vass family.
William G Malthaner
28 Sep 2009, 14:48
I am a decendant of the George Van Riper family. Emily, George Van Riper's\r\nwife, was an aunt to my father Willi\r\nMalthaner. As I remember our family spent many weekends at the farm during the 1930's and 1940's until George passed away. His wife Emily kept a 3 acre parcel of land not far from the main houseand built a small house for herself on it for herself which she lived in until her passing. I have many great memories and pictures of the time our family spent at the farm.\r\n\r\n\r\n
02 Sep 2009, 21:01
What a beautiful place. We visit often to kayak on the lake. I'm so glad to see the house being renovated.
Theodore John Vass
05 Dec 2008, 14:55
I am a decendant of the original owner of the Vass house. I have visited it and have pictures of it. My father, John Isaac Vass, had a PHD in mathematics and taught at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee Division. I am retired from a job as a\r\npilot for United Airlines and am now living in LAke City, Florida.\r\n
Ellen Wilson
16 Feb 2008, 14:30
I'm afraid I have no photographs of the Vass home, but for almost two decades I spent every August in a cottage on the other side of the lake. It was owned by family friends and located adjacent to the Fee farm. We generated our own electricity and pumped water from the lake. A long, winding, dirt path crossed by two farm gates led from the road past an abandoned clapboard house and the remains of the factory pictured above. Many of my fondest memories recall days spent in and around that incredible lake.
Richard & Kathleen Stephany
02 Feb 2008, 16:30
We have three 9.5 x 7.5 (without border) original photographs taken from a right front corner view of the Vass house. One photograph has Mr. Vass parked in front of the house in horse & buggy. Two others seem to be possibly ten to fifteen years later, one with Mr. Vass and wife in horse & buggy, and the other of a small girl with her horse.\r\nThere is also a fourth family protograph of a group of Vass women.
Al Carazzone
29 Dec 2007, 12:05
Would like to find picture of front of Vass house with its original federal porch for restoration purposes
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