Everybody knows that even if Blairstown is on the smaller side, there’s still plenty to do: from the twenty-five-minute drive to the Rockaway Mall and movie theater; the fine dining at the Blairstown Diner, Gourmet Gallery, and BTD; and the slew of shops over the hill and in the Acme plaza, our little corner of Northwestern New Jersey provides us just enough to keep us busy between weekend trips to the more populous areas of our state, San Gennaro feasts, and goat yoga. But the most overlooked, and maybe most alluring attraction of such a rural area, is the boundless historical landmarks hidden along back roads and in shuttered buildings, all of which deserve perhaps a little more love.
Exhibit A: did you know that Blairstown has its very own museum (or two)? Tucked next to the health food store on Main Street is a classy-looking pale blue building with a columned porch and ever-full book exchange shelf, housing a cycle of exhibits detailing various aspects of the history of Blairstown and the surrounding area, many of which center on John I. Blair, his contributions to the growth of what was once Butts Bridge (later to become Blairstown after its most famous resident railroad tycoon and philanthropist had made his mark) and the school he founded nearly two centuries ago. The museum has run exhibits including topics such as “Blair Academy: Hope on A Hill”; “Dining in Blairstown (1850-1950)”; “Friday the 13th: Blairstown’s Second Favorite Son”; “John Insley Blair: Poverty to Philanthropy”; and “Service Above Self (1927-2017)” (an always-relevant topic), among many others.
The museum also hosts a yearly memorial service in honor of another point of notoriety for our town, the case of Princess Doe, an unidentified murder victim discovered in Blairstown whose case was the first to be recorded in the FBI’s computerized National Crime Information Center, achieving national recognition. In addition, Blairstown has the unignorable honor of having had numerous areas (as well as Hardwick Township) used for the filming of Friday the 13th; Main Street, the Blairstown Diner, and nearby Boy Scout camp No-Be-Bo-Sco were all included. The Diner, apparently consistently popular for horror scenes, was also the site of filming for parts of the 2006 horror movie “Plasterhead.”
Nearby as well, and a location near and dear to my own heart, is Millbrook Village, a preserved historical community of the mid-20th century and part of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. The tiny community boasts several homes, a hotel, a general store, a church, a schoolhouse, a cemetery, a mill, a blacksmithy, and more. In addition, a collection of hard-working volunteers dedicate their all to keeping the garden blooming with edible and eye-catching goodies throughout the year, can slap together a fully-functioning bucket or an intricate bird, and make the best apple cider/butter you’ve ever tasted in your life.
The village hosts a few events throughout the year, all of which take place on weekends, when the village is most alive: Millbrook Days, a large celebration with live music, corn husk-doll-making, 10-cent stick candy, exhibits in every building, and demonstrations of every craft you can think of, from cording to candle-making to weaving to rope-making; Octivities, centered around kid-friendly crafts and games and including old-timey ghost stories and haunted tours; Victorian Christmas, with hymns sung in the church and holiday crafts with gingerbread and ornament-making; and Independence Day, at the beginning of the summer season, with a parade and the beauty of the village in full bloom around you (and, of course, more crafts).
Millbrook is an authentic piece of 19th century living in Warren County, where children completed lessons in arithmetic and writing in a one-room schoolhouse just a few miles away from the shiny new school on a hilltop next to the tiny, but growing Blairstown where boys and girls (interestingly, Blair was coeducational between 1848 and 1915, when it became an all-boys institution until 1970) began their educations at the Blair Presbyterial Academy.
Last, but certainly not least, is the Historic Blairstown Theater, established on Main Street in 1913; its charming exterior doesn’t quite betray its age. Lasting through 1961 in its original form, the theater underwent several changes (sometimes tragic) throughout its tenure. Between April 1913 and February 1917, the theater showed silent movies twice a week, until a destructive fire caused significant damage to the theater and the surrounding area. Between its reopening later that year and 1930, the theater continued to show silent films before switching to the growing collection of “talkies,” spoken films. Surviving for nearly 50 years in some form or another, the theater closed in 1961. Today, however, it features performances from local and national theater groups and musicians, and from artists familiar and unknown. Much like its glory days of offering Charlie Chaplin films for the public, the theater now boasts performances in a diverse range of genres, including jazz, bluegrass, and rock and roll. Additionally, the theater’s structure can be caught circa. 1980 in Blairstown’s favorite film, Friday the 13th (Part 1).
It is a relief that some of Blairstown and the surrounding area’s greatest historical treasures have continued to withstand weather, shutdowns, a lowering interest from the community in such aged remnants of the past, and now Covid-19 to be available to the public and share bits of a storied history with us. Knowing the past and the present of the place you live is rewarding and enriching for anyone, and it is no different for a place like Blairstown, regardless of how empty and secluded it can sometimes feel. If you have any interest at all in exploring the history of our area, I hope you find something interesting and inspiring in any of these undying preservations of our town’s, and school’s, past.
Blairstown Museum: https://blairstownmuseum.com/
Historical Blairstown Theater/Roy’s Hall: https://royshall.org/
Millbrook Village Society: https://www.facebook.com/Millbrook-Village-Society-413672305431861/
Image: Jan Swift, 1955
(Copyright Peyton Schreiber 2021)