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Stories from the Past : Hopewell Valley

                      Early Harbourton
                      1768-1837


                                        David Blackwell























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Detail from Otley & Kiely's Map of Mercer County, 1849
Harbourton Baptist Church, c 1900  Collection of HVHS
Harbourton Panorama, 2007, David Blackwell
Indeed, it is noticeable that the three approaches to Harbourton are all uphill, making this a logical resting place for nearly two centuries of hard- working horses. It was here at this intersection that John Harbourt (probably Herbert) acquired three lots from John Cornell, and built the beautiful stone building we know today as the Harbourton Store. In the gable end he took care to memorialize his accomplishment by leaving the date "1768" and his initials "JH." (see photo)

In 1777, John Harbourt, school master and wife Mary gave a mortgage on their three lots, perhaps to get funds for additional construction or to weather the economic storms of the War for Independence. The mortgage deed gives metes and bounds for two one acre lots that face each other across the road (Rt. 579), and a third lot down the road leading to the Elsockin Meeting House. This document confirms Harbourt as a teacher, and the position of the lot on the south side of the road notes the presence of the adjacent school where the church is now. We don't know how long he continued in teaching or business, or when he died.
Harbourton began with the best of resources - a fork in the road! Historians of native peoples believe that Rt. 579 was an ancient pathway in the forest before the Europeans began to use it in their settlement of the country into family farms. Pushing ever farther into the forest with supplies gathered at the "falls of Trent's town, and returning there with grain to be ground into flour, the enterprising colonial farmers were soon adding to the road system and taking annual turns as overseers of roads to maintain them for the growing traffic. In 1729, Abraham LaRue whose land lay on the south side of the future village of Harbourton, served as the overseer for upper river road. This was the colonial name of Rt. 579 since there was no road closer to the river. As early as 1740, the Mt. Airy Road was also in service, coming into the north-south road at a ridge in the Sourland chain.
The next events in the development of the village involve John McKinstry, who had married in 1775, and served under Captain Henry Phillips of Pleasant Valley in the War for Independence. In 1778, he was taxed for a 1 3/4 acre lot, which from his 1782 mortgage we know to be the barn lot next to Harbourt's stone building lot on the north side of the road. In 1780, McKinstry was taxed for an additional acre, which was Harbourt's former lot on the south side of the road, and then called the red house lot.

At the May term of the Court of Quarter Sessions in 1785, McKinstry applied to the justices for permission to operate a Publick House, being much Called on by Travelers. This was apparently the beginning of the tavern business in Harbourton. He provided 20 signatures of his neighbors, including Henry Phillips, his former Captain, to attest to his good character. He applied annually in the years through 1789, and was succeeded by John Jones and John Roberts thereafter until at least 1797, as shown by the applications for license. In 1802, Sarah McKinstry sold the tavern to Daniel Rafferty. Apparently her husband had died, and she had leased the tavern for several years. In 1803, the county Sheriff sold the tavern and its barn lot across the road, from the estate of Daniel Rafferty, deceased, to John P. Gallagher of Philadelphia, the chief creditor.

The year 1803 brought a major event in the history of Harbourton: the arrival of the Baptists. Members of the Baptist faith had come to Hopewell Valley in the earliest years of settlement. They had established a congregation and in 1747 built a church in the northeastern section of the township. By 1803, a segment of the membership lived a great distance to the west, and they determined to establish the Second Baptist Church of Hopewell at Harbourton. Twenty four people made a respectful application to the parent church, and they were dismissed from their membership with good wishes.
Minutes of the Second Baptist Church at Her- berton from its Church Covenant list  29 members subscribed on August 13, 1803. The last of its records detail the selling of the church and the cemetery to the Harbourton Cemetery Association in 1932. A photocopy of this book is in the archives of the Historical Society.

Apparently the new congregation took over the existing school building on Adam Ege's land, immediately adjacent to the tavern. On December 1, 1805, following Ege's death, the congregation purchased the lot and building from George Ege, the heir. Now, on each Sabbath day, the wagons and gigs of the adult congregants arrived, carrying with them the older children who were ap- proaching the day of declaring their faith and requesting baptism. By 1806, the membership had risen to 54.
Meanwhile, changes were occurring elsewhere in Harbourton. It appears that Joseph Burroughs had operated the store on Harbourt's site since the early 1790's. In 1792, he was present to vouch for the good character of tavern applicant John Jones, and signed several taverns application thereafter. On June 9, 1812, Joseph Burroughs sold three lots, including the store lot, to Benjamin Hoff. Benjamin Hoff sold the store lots the following June to Joseph Hoff, Jr. of Trenton Township, and the second Hoff sold the same store properties the following year, on March 8, 1814, to Henry Rosco, a teacher and merchant from Pennington. Another lot had been sold by the Eges in Harbourton before the Baptists made their purchase in 1805. "Black Tom" was the purchaser of the south corner lot at Mt. Airy Road. He may have been a general laborer, or conducted a trade. In November of 1804, the church met and agreed that Thomas would take charge of the meeting house, to make fires in the stove, to sweep and keep the house decent for the sum of six dollars for the year. In 1816, Thomas Wilson, now free, was still on the site.

Following the death of tavern keeper Daniel Rafferty, his creditor sold the tavern and barn lots to investors Stephen Blackwell and Moses Quick in 1804. Quick was a leading member of the church. In 1806, these two sold to James Hill, also a leading member of the church. Hill retained the property until 1813. Isaac Williamson was the next owner and probably the operator as well. In 1816, Williamson purchased a small lot south and east of the church lot and cemetery. The congregation had engaged him for the care of the church.

The tavern business passed to Isaac's son Ira Williamson, and in 1836, the assignees of Ira, George W. Smith and William Rosco, son of the store owner, sold the barn lot indirectly to Henry Rosco. Jacob Hoff was briefly the tavern keeper, and was followed by Samuel C. Cornell, who soon gave it up, according to local historian Alice B. Lewis. The house currently on this site is at least as old as this last date.

With the death of Henry Rosco in 1837, his son William Rosco continued as the village merchant and owner of the two north side lots. The church had flourished at first, but struggled through the 1820's under the pressure of the times". It appears they had purchased a house and lot from William Houghton for a parsonage. Elder Hastings was engaged from 1816 through 1821 for $150. per year, which included firewood and the use of the parsonage lot. In 1821, the subscriptions for his salary fell behind, and he left. Pastoral services were inconsistent for a decade thereafter. In 1829, Brother Samuel Hill, who had been so active in the tasks of church governance, was nevertheless censured for Conduct unbecoming a professor of Religion. It seems he had been seen frequently driving his team on Sabbath days. In 1834, Gordon's Gazeteer appeared and described Herberton as containing "some half dozen dwellings, a Baptist church, store, and tavern. The country around it is hilly, with soil of red shale, well cultivated." Even in this brief description the village and countryside were connected. What the description can't convey is the human tapestry of the first fifty years of a crossroads village.

David Blackwell, 2007
​This story originally appeared in HVHS Newsletter  Vol. XXV, No. 4, Spring 2007