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The History of 

Ringwood

Welcome to Ringwood! Whether it's the town's natural beauty, abundant open space, our multiple lake communities, an extensive network of hiking and biking trails, our excellent school system, or Ringwood's small-town feel, each aspect of what makes Ringwood a special place to live has its roots in the town's long history that dates back to the mid-18th century. As a new or existing resident, here's a brief history of the place you now call home.

            Ringwood was incorporated as a Borough on February 23, 1918. The Borough's first organization meeting took place on May 6, 1918 in the present-day Borough Hall. Prior to its incorporation, it had been a “portion of the Township of Pompton.” Had things worked out differently, Ringwood would have been incorporated much earlier. 122 years earlier to be exact. In 1796, a petition containing the names of nearly every man from Paterson to Mahwah, 183 in total, asked the legislature to split the “upper part of Saddle River and Franklin Township into a new Township in the County of Bergen to be called by the name of Windom.” 46 men disagreed. They proposed to have the town lines changed and proposed a name change. The name for their proposed town? Ringwood. Everything was in place for Ringwood's incorporation, but for unknown reasons, the legislature never acted on the bill.

            As you settle in and begin exploring your new home, you may find yourself wondering a few things about Ringwood. For instance, where does the name “Ringwood” come from? Assuming you've already found your way to Ringwood Manor, maybe you're wondering what makes the house so important aside from its obviously impressive size. What about one of Ringwood's other mansions, Skylands Manor? As you drive around the Wanaque Reservoir, perhaps you'll find yourself wanting to know how and when it was made. Each of these things will be discussed briefly in the short history to follow, but the story of Ringwood begins with its long history in the production of iron.

            Although the Leni-Lenape and a sub-tribe, the Minsi Indians, were known to hunt and fish in the area prior to the arrival of European settlers, we will focus on the period that saw the arrival of these first permanent settlers. Around 1740, a Welsh miner by the name of Cornelius Board came to the area in search of precious metals. He did not find any precious metals, but he did discover large outcroppings of iron ore. Additionally, the area had ample supplies of both water and trees. Two resources essential for the production of iron. Board purchased land from the East Jersey Proprietors in 1740 and established a forge in the area. Shortly thereafter, the Ogden family of Newark purchased land from Board. The Ogdens built a blast furnace in 1742 in the vicinity of the present-day Ringwood Manor, making them the area's first volume producer of iron. The Ogdens named their operation the Ringwood Company. Now, it's not known if the Ogdens chose the name Ringwood because the spot was “ringed about with a series of wooded hills” or if they named it after Ringwood, Hampshire, England, a place known to the Ogdens. Whatever the reason, the name stuck. The Ogdens continued to produce iron at Ringwood for the next two decades before selling the Ringwood works to Peter Hasenclever and the American Company in 1764.      

            Hasenclever, a German promoter, had moved to England in 1763 and promptly formed the American Company. He and his partners sought to exploit colonial America's rich resources and purchased the Ringwood property to serve as the headquarters for his vast iron empire in America. In addition to the Ringwood property, Hasenclever established iron works at numerous other locations in New Jersey and New York, including the Long Pond Ironworks in nearby West Milford, NJ. Ringwood was the most developed of Hasenclever's enterprises. In a relatively short time, he established a self-sufficient mining town at Ringwood and imported over 500 Germans to work at his operation. Due to financial difficulties, the American Company decided to replace Hasenclever in 1769.

            In 1771, the American Company hired Robert Erskine, a Scottish engineer, to manage its operations in America. When hostilities broke out between the colonies and England, Erskine, still an agent of the American Company, decided to aid the colonies. Throughout the war effort, Erskine supplied iron to colonial troops. In order to protect the iron works, Erskine formed a militia in June of 1775. Perhaps Erskine's greatest contribution to the colonial cause was his role as George Washington's mapmaker. After meeting Erskine in 1776, Washington was so impressed by him that he appointed Erskine Geographer and Surveyor General in 1777. Erskine made upwards of 200 maps to aid the Continental Army. It's possible that a borough resident will tell you that George Washington slept at Ringwood Manor. Although it is known that George Washington visited Erskine at Ringwood on several occasions, there is no evidence to support the claim that Washington ever stayed at Ringwood. Also, the present-day Manor house did not exist during this period. Erskine lived in a house built by Hasenclever that stood near where the current house sits. Unfortunately, Robert Erskine died before the conclusion of the war in 1780 as the result of complications from a cold. Erskine is buried on the grounds of Ringwood Manor and legend has it that Washington attended his funeral.

            Over the next 25 years, the property passed through several hands. In 1807, the property was purchased by Martin J. Ryerson. The Ryerson family had established iron operations in nearby Pompton Lakes, Bloomingdale, and Wanaque and purchased the property to expand their operation. Just like Erskine before them, the Ryersons aided America's military by supplying shot to American troops in the War of 1812. The beginning of the present-day Ringwood Manor can be traced to the Ryerson family. The oldest portion of Ringwood Manor was built around 1810 by the Ryersons. The Ryersons operated at Ringwood for nearly 50 years before selling their property to Peter Cooper in 1853.

            Peter Cooper, the founder of New York City's Cooper Union and perhaps the most well-known of the property's proprietors, purchased the approximately 20,000 acre Ringwood property mainly for its supply of iron ore. This iron was to be used at his Trenton Iron Works operation. Married to Peter Cooper's daughter and business partners with his son, Abram Hewitt was responsible for managing Cooper's business and would be the last ironmaster associated with the Ringwood property. The mines in Ringwood would continue to be worked, albeit intermittently, until 1931. Much like the ironmasters who came before him at Ringwood, Hewitt would also contribute to an American military cause by supplying iron to the Union cause during the Civil War. Abram's wife, Sarah Amelia Hewitt, first came to the Ringwood property in 1857 and fell in love almost immediately. She was determined to transform the property from iron production site into her family's summer estate. Over the next 80 years, the Hewitt family, Abram, Sarah, and their six children, would spend their summers at Ringwood Manor. The Ryersons may have started building Ringwood Manor, but the Hewitts would make it the 51-room mansion it is today by adding multiple additions to the house between 1864 and 1910. In 1938, Erskine Hewitt, the youngest Hewitt child, donated much of the family's land and Ringwood Manor to the state of New Jersey. His nephew and heir, Norvin Green, would continue this philanthropy in the form of future land gifts to the state. Ringwood State Park, Norvin Green State Forest, and Abram S. Hewitt State Forest were all started with this land and guaranteed the preservation of the land's natural beauty.

            If you don't live in one, surely you've noticed Ringwood's three large lake communities, Erskine, Cupsaw, and Skyline. Would it surprise you to learn that not one of these lakes is a “natural” lake? Would it surprise you even more to learn that the Hewitt family had a role in developing not one, but two of these lake communities? In the late 1920s and early 1930s, under the direction of Erskine Hewitt, the Ringwood Company was reorganized into a real estate development company and began advertising lake front properties for vacation homes. In 1927, the Ringwood Company dammed up the overflow at Tice's Pond near the location of what is now Little Beach Clubhouse and thus the 90-acre Erskine Lake was formed. Yes, both Erskine Hewitt and Erskine Lake were named after Robert Erskine. Shortly thereafter, in 1932, the Ringwood Company built two more dams forming the 65-acre lake at Cupsaw and the 33-acre Upper Erskine Lake. The Ringwood Company deeded all three lakes to the Erskine Lakes Property Owners Association in 1938 with the stipulation that ELPOA maintain the beaches, clubhouses, and recreational facilities. The Cupsaw Lakes Improvement Association split off in 1945 and was deeded Cupsaw Lake with similar stipulations. Although Skyline Lakes was not developed by the Ringwood Company, its story is no less interesting. Originally farmland, much of the land that comprises Skyline Lakes was purchased in 1918 by a Japanese national named Heitaro Fujita. Before he had a chance to develop the land, it was seized by the Alien Property Custodian during World War II. The property was later offered up for sale and eventually purchased by Winston-Holzer Associates, also known as the Skyline Lakes Corporation, for the development of a summer and year-round community. The two dams, one located across from the baseball field and the other near the Skyline Lake Clubhouse, were built between 1947 and 1949. After a couple of class-action lawsuits against the Skyline Lakes Corporation for failing to maintain the facilities, the properties were sold to the Skyline Lakes Property Owner's Association around 1970.

            What it lacks in lake communities, the Stonetown area of Ringwood makes up for with its long history. Home to some of the oldest properties in Ringwood, Stonetown was also home to the town's first school and first churches, none of which are currently standing. Before the construction of the Wanaque Reservoir, Stonetown also included the Boardville and Monksville sections of Ringwood.

            Before the reservoir, you ask? Yes, construction of the Wanaque Reservoir (2/3 of which actually exists in Ringwood) began in 1920 and was finished in 1928. By damming the Wanaque River, the North Jersey District Water Supply Commission flooded the Wanaque River Valley creating the 29 billion gallon capacity reservoir that exists today. If you think the valley was empty land, think again. The site was home to small farms, four cemeteries, the Erskine Railroad Depot, and many of the area's roads and railways. When the water level is low, you can still see some signs of what lies beneath.

            Have you ever met anyone that attended college in Ringwood? As improbable as that sounds, Ringwood was once home to a college campus. In 1953, the National Bible Institute purchased the “Skylands” estate from Clarence McKenzie Lewis as the ideal location for its Shelton College campus. Shelton College, “a Christian College in the true American tradition,” called Skylands home from 1953 until 1966. The current manor house was mainly used for administrative offices, while the carriage house served as a gymnasium and cafeteria. Various outbuildings, some still standing, were used for classes and dormitories. Although Shelton College had big plans for its Skylands Campus, the small school found it difficult to bear the costs for maintaining the property and decided to sell the property in 1966. The approximately 1,100 acre property was purchased by the state of New Jersey for slightly over $2 million and was the first acquisition under the state's Green Acres program. Nearly 20 years later, Governor Thomas Kean dedicated Skylands as the state's official botanical garden in 1984.

            What about Ringwood's other mansion? The current site of a drug & alcohol rehabilitation center, the Miller / Green estate sits upon the hill across from the Ringwood Manor property. That mansion couldn't also be connected to the Hewitts, could it? It could. Built by Abram Hewitt's business partner, Edmund Miller, in 1864 as a summer house, the Miller estate passed back to the Hewitt family upon Miller's death. The Hewitts gave the Miller estate to their eldest daughter, Amy, and her husband James O. Green as a wedding gift to serve as their summer house.

            Speaking of houses connected to the Hewitts, at some point, you will invariably find yourself at the Ringwood Borough Hall. This building was built for P.R. George, the superintendent of the Hewitts' operations at Ringwood, and has served as the Borough Hall since the town's incorporation in 1918 and donated to the town in 1938.         

            Given how important the early iron business was to the history of Ringwood, it should come as no surprise that each of the borough's public schools is named after someone connected with that industry. Ringwood's middle school is named after Martin J. Ryerson while the borough's three grammar schools are named after Peter Cooper, his granddaughter Eleanor G. Hewitt, and Robert Erskine.

            Besides having a school and a lake named after him, Robert Erskine's influence can be seen in another place in Ringwood. Have you noticed that strange wooden sculpture outside of the borough hall building? Easily mistaken for nothing more than a work of art, this “sculpture” is actually a marine chaveux-de-frise. A what? The marine chaveux-de-frise was invented by Erskine and proposed as a possible obstruction to be used in the Hudson River to prevent British troops from sailing up river.

            Even though Ringwood has a long and interesting history, many of its residents are largely unaware of its important place in the early American iron industry and how that helped to shape the future of the Borough. Even as the “new kid on the block,” perhaps you can enlighten one of your new neighbors as to something you learned here. Hopefully, having read this, you will see your new home in a different light. Perhaps you'll think about two centuries of iron production the next time you drive by Ringwood Manor. Maybe you'll envision a young college student running late to class the next time you take a stroll around Skylands Manor and the Botanical Gardens. When the waters of the reservoir are low, perhaps you'll take a second look to see if you can spot an old road bed.

Here's to hoping you make Ringwood a part of your story and your story a part of Ringwood...welcome home.       

           

submitted by Brennan Gray