Visiting the Combs Hollow Historic District 

By Henry M. Holden    

     

The Combs Hollow Historic District consists of properties located along the “T-shaped” route traced by Combs Hollow Road, India Brook, and Combs Avenue, in southern Randolph Township.

The under-developed area was rich in natural resources and attracted the Louis brothers, Levi, Aaron and Elephalet, the first to settle in the district. 

Combs Hollow is the site of the first industrial center in Randolph Township, in 1735. The Lewis family sold land to Moses Combs, in 1807, but continued to own property there until 1927.

Combs Hollow takes its name from a prominent 19th century resident, Moses Combs who moved to the area and began to purchase land in what later would be called Combs Hollow, in August 1816, several months after the death of his first wife, Mary Haynes. 

According to Dr. Janet W. Foster, contributor to A History of Randolph Township, and Preservation New Jersey member, and Board of Trustees member, “Combs arrived in Randolph at the age of 63. He had lived in Newark since the end of the Revolutionary War. In Newark he established a reputation as a successful but eccentric tanner and shoemaker, who had abandoned the Presbyterian ministry to devote himself to his shoe making business and philanthropic projects.” 

A biographical sketch appeared in Joseph Atkinson’s, “The History of Newark, New Jersey,” offers a glimpse into Combs’ personality.

“During the first quarter of our existence as a republic, Moses Newel Combs was a noted Newarker in every sense of the term. He was a strong churchman, a temperance advocate, and an ardent friend of education. He had instituted many apprenticeships and educational programs in Newark. He rebelled against a Presbyterian church discipline which he considered arbitrary and tyrannous.” 

According to Professor Foster, “Further research may be necessary to establish whether Moses Combs had instituted any apprenticeships or educational programs in Randolph, similar to those he had organized in Newark. The tan yard which he established on India Brook may have been an attempt to educate a new group of youth in this trade.”

Shortly after moving to Randolph, Combs married for a second time. Some of the nine daughters and four sons he fathered by his first wife followed him and settled in Randolph.

Aside from the announcements of this marriage and his death in 1834, deed transactions provide the only documentation of Combs’ activities during the time he was in Morris County. Records show that he and the children who joined him eventually owned a large portion of the land along Combs Hollow Road, south of Doby Road.

Combs Hollow was the first water-powered industrial site in Randolph, established along the India Brook in the early 1700s. Until the late 1800s, waterpower was used to manufacture and process goods such as grain, lumber, and textiles, prior to the introduction of electricity. 

The Louis brothers planted hay, grain, and grew apple and peach orchards. The early families in the hollow mined iron from the surrounding hills and operated distilleries that supplied cider products to the residents. They set up a tannery to produce leather goods for local farmers. The tannery, which included a bark house and bark mill, were situated close to the gristmill, and used the water from the mill ponds in the processing of hides. Combs Hollow quickly became a self-sustaining industrial community. The area was also home to farmers, a blacksmith, and a lime kiln.

Most of the industrial structures in Combs Hollow are long gone; but some of the artifacts remain hidden among the trees and bushes on the farmer’s landscape. Still visible, although now on private lands are the 19th century dwellings of mill owners, laborers and farmers and the remnants of the mill pond and dams.

Throughout the 1800s lots in the district changed owners many times. The mills were run by succession of families, Louis, Briant, Wolfe, Combs, Hughson, Aerosmith, Styles, Wyckoff and Lorey – up until the late 1800s, when they were permanently closed. 

There are 31 Combs Hollow sites listed in the National Register of Historic Places. As of 2011, ten markers cannot be found and at least four are overgrown.

Combs Hollow was also home to three iron mines. In the second half of the 19th century, the Skellinger, Lewis and Combs mines together produced over 16,000 tons of ore. 

The mining boom in Combs Hollow and throughout New Jersey 

ended with the discovery of ore more easily extracted, and a higher quality ore in the Great Lakes region.

All of this was possible after a millrace was constructed. A millrace is a linear hydraulic system that captures water from a brook and channels it to a mill, where it is then transformed into mechanical energy through a water wheel. Modification of the landscape, such as construction of dams, is often necessary to achieve an efficient use of the water if there was insufficient natural elevation. 

The activity in the hollow lasted about 150 years. Water, the resource that powered the early mills and later attracted generations of farmers, finally attracted the towns of Mendham and Morristown. 

In 1927, a consortium of these two water companies condemned a large section of land by means of eminent domain for the area for a planned reservoir and watershed. While the creation of this watershed reserve ended a way of life in Combs Hollow, the area was isolated and protected from development. The decision of the two towns not to build a reservoir and the sale of the watershed lands at public auction ended the protected isolation of Combs Hollow.

Today, Combs Hollow is not the quiet, pastoral farmland of the 18th century. But it is still not the fast-moving suburban neighborhood we’ve come to accept. It is absent of the piquant smell coming from the tannery, and the sounds of work horses as they struggle up a hill, hauling stones cleared from a near-by farm. 

In 2011, there are 31 National and Municipal designated landmarks. At ten of those landmarks the marker is “undetectable” and four are “overgrown.” Among the missing are the locations of the three iron mines, and a 1700 Surveyor’s Stone. We hope the missing markers are a product of nature’s never-ending clean up. 

 Today, what remains pays tribute to the hardworking families and a culture of physical risk they took to establish independence and hope, in an unfamiliar land.

Captions 

  1. The marker designates Combs Hollow as a Historic District. Credit: Randolph Museum) 
  2. This bridge over India Brook dates from 1901. The bridge has a stone foundation and low railings decorated with a succession of interlocking Gothic arches and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (Credit Randolph Museum)

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