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STIRLING, AN INDUSTRIAL VILLAGE

by Mary Prendergast
Morris County Heritage Commission
republished by permission from The County Circular, Winter 2000, Vol. 22, No. 1
Stirling, in Long Hill Township, was a planned community. Today's versions exclude the workplace, but this village was meant to have a factory at its heart. Laid out in rectangular blocks on open farmland in the Passaic Valley, the town gave employment and shelter to successive flocks of immigrants and their children. The factory that nurtured its growth was consumed in a spectacular fire twenty-five years ago and the area has become increasingly suburban. Yet the town's design and the character of its older houses still testify to its industrial history.



Long Hill is the new name for Passaic Township, which was created just after the Civil War when the southern part of Morris Township was split off in 1866. It was a quiet farming community. A hint of the changes to come appeared in the Morristown Jerseyman in 1868 with the announcement that the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York, "the wealthiest on this continent," was ready to invest its immense resources in Morris County. Residents were advised to direct loan applications to local attorney Frederick G. Burnham.

Shortly afterward the Passaic Valley and Peapack Railroad, created to extend rail service from Summit to Peapack, purchased a right of way across lands of Passaic Township farmer Joseph Blake. Burnham witnessed the contract, which designated the location of the station that would become Stirling. Days later, Frederick S. Winston, longtime president and a trustee of the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York, bought the land adjoining the proposed station.

In February 1869 he purchased as "trustee," a 500-acre tract assembled by Blake. It appears that the Mutual Life Insurance Company, now known as M.O.N.Y., was the investor in the development of Stirling.

By a new charter in 1870, the railroad's name was changed to the New Jersey West Line and its territory extended to the Delaware River. The expectation of coal shipments from Pennsylvania drew investors and construction began. Rural Passaic Township would get three stations. Millington was an old village, but Gillette and Stirling were new names for the designated stops.

In November 1870 when Winston hired a carpenter to put up a building near the depot his contract still referred to the site as "Long Hill." The name Stirling may have first appeared on a map in May 1871. It would honor the Revolutionary general William Alexander, known as Lord Stirling.

Winston hired builder Clarkson B. Moffett to put up eight houses in the new town. The contract, now in Morris County's archives, required the houses to be copies of certain dwellings built earlier in Plainfield. He felt the village needed a church, and made an agreement with minister Henry Grant to encourage the formation of a Presbyterian congregation. Winston wanted a sober village; a deed to Lucy Blake forbade the manufacture and sale of intoxicating drinks on her lot.

Regularly scheduled trains began to run through Stirling in early 1872. Within two years a small Presbyterian congregation occupied a new church on land essentially donated by Winston. Joseph Blake was a church trustee. Winston retained Blake to build the railway depot and to complete Central Avenue. A new town plan featuring a park, a lake, and curving drives on the hill was drawn. After three years of slow progress, Winston had to engage Herbert G. Torrey to finish the new buildings. Torrey, a geologist, would have a small metal factory in town. His drawing of the depot also in the county archives, shows horse posts, flower beds, and a greenhouse.

A factory was built on Railroad Avenue and leased to Joseph Naylor. By 1880 he employed 75 men and 50 women, most drawn from nearby farms, to make composition buttons. Subsequently the Jerseyman reported that the New York Mutual Life Insurance Company had built eleven new houses at Stirling for mechanics. During a minor economic depression Winston sold the entire village to a New York man who assumed the mortgage still held by Mutual Life. By late 1884 the factory was closed.

The town's renaissance came in 1885 when Claude Chaffanjon, a native of France who had a silk mill in Jersey City, purchased the entire tract. He converted the factory to a silk mill, installed electric lights and filled the company houses with skilled French and Italian weavers who were soon turning out 2,000 yards of silk a week. Chaffanjon put up a dozen more houses but when he tried to bring in 25 new weavers from Lyons, immigration authorities, anxious to protect American jobs, forbade their entry. The disappointed French workers would have been paid more than five times the wages received in Lyons. Chaffanjon leased the farmland around the village to farmer James Havy, who was to give half the crops to Chaffanjon and set out a vineyard for him. The silk manufacturer donated land for a new Catholic Church, St. Vincent de Paul, and a lot for the new public school. In addition to the 185 people employed in the factory, 50 others operated hand-looms in private houses in the village. By 1887 silk output had tripled. The new Stirling public school, District 108, opened in September, with a grand fund-raising fair and celebration. There was a special train from Hoboken, a brass band, and dancing. A night school for employees was planned.

Chaffanjon's success was brief In January 1889 he sold all his Stirling property to Julius Schlachter of Jersey City and returned to live there next to his first mill. Just over a year later, Chaffanjon committed suicide. Like many small manufacturers, he had found it relatively easy to enter the silk business, but extremely difficult to sustain profitability.

In Stirling, the new management replaced French employees with Germans and Swiss. They put an addition on the factory and the Jerseyman reported that the brilliantly illuminated mill was operating into the night. Production was far from steady, however, as the mill would be shut down whenever demand for broad silk fell. Misfortune struck in October 1896 when the mill burned down, throwing 250 people out of work.

Stirling Silk Mill, built 1897

They were back on the job a year later, thanks to good insurance. The silk company erected a new two-story brick mill (see illustration). By 1898 there were said to be 98 houses in the town, abundant work and good pay. New Jersey state law limited the work week, to 55 hours--7 a.m. to 6 p.m., less an hour for lunch, and 7 to noon on Saturday. Young people went to work in the mill after completing the eighth grade, often starting as silk spoolers. Besides the 380 millhands counted on the payroll at the turn of the century, the mill provided employment for others. Boys picked up wooden reels of woven silk after school to take to their mothers, who worked at home as pickers up to 12 hours a day, pulling off broken threads or knots from the finished fabric. Other women took employees in as boarders.

The silk mill workers seemed exotic in rural Passaic Township. In 1905 residents of Stirling employed in silk were Armenians, Italians and Germans, in that order, followed by the nativeborn and a few Hungarians, French, and Russians. Other employees came to work by train. Stirling Silk went bankrupt in 1908, but its assets were quickly sold to a very large manufacturer, the Swiss-owned Schwarzenbach-Huber Company, who continued to employ 141 people to make silk in Stirling during World War I. By this time Italians greatly outnumbered the Armenians and new Polish workers had arrived. The Ku Klux Klan resented all of them and staged at least one demonstration in Stirling during the 1920s.


Mary Kocisko, in her long while apron inside the silk mill in Stirling, c. 1920s.


In 1928 Schwarzenbach-Huber sold the plant and the company housing. During the Depression foreclosures put the factory into bank ownership and it was vacant for a time. A millwork company and other small operations leased space. The Harman brothers' Stirling Broad Silk Company and the Frank Marko Company continued to make silk and, later, rayon products in various locations in the village with 10 to 30 hands each, but by 1940 they were closed.

In 1938 the mill had been sold to Albert Wenzel, founder of the U.S. Hammered Piston Ring Company which manufactured airplane parts. During World War II a large workforce worked full time to fill the critical need for aircraft. The company stayed for twenty years until its place was taken by General Air Products. The factory's last owner was the Industrial Foam Corporation.


The original store on the corner of Elm Street and Central Avenue.
Dorsi's store is now located here

On May 2, 1974, a cutting machine exploded in the factory, touching off racing flames in the polyethylene and polyurethane foam manufactured there. The huge cloud of fire and smoke could be seen as far away as Westfield and, according to one observer, resembled a mushroom cloud. The efforts of nine fire companies could only prevent the fire's spread to nearby houses. Viewing the ashes, the fire chief recalled a "community workplace. It seems like just about everybody in the township worked there for one company or another."

Perhaps the best way to understand Stirling is to meet its people in the marvelous photographs in Mary Lou Weller's Long Hill Township (Arcadia, 1997). With the help of the Long Hill Township Historic Preservation Advisory Corrunittee, the Long Hill Township Historical Society and a contribution from the Stirling Elks Club, the Heritage Commission will place a marker in Stirling soon to ensure that their shared memories will have a place in history.


An annotated version of this article is available from the Heritage Commission.






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materials on this site may not be republished without the express permission of the Long Hill Township Historical Society

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