Cooper Mill: Overlooked NJ Attraction

Waterwheel at the Cooper Mill in Chester, New Jersey

Waterwheel at the Cooper Mill

Cooper Mill, in Chester, NJ, is definitely an overlooked attraction.  Maybe it’s because the region is filled with so much history that people go to Washington’s Headquarters in Morristown or take in the sights of freedom in Philadelphia.  But whatever the reason, it’s a really cool piece of history, the interpreters are extremely knowledgeable, and while I’d recommend a donation, it doesn’t have to be all that expensive.  You could easily spend an hour on the tour, and if it’s not too busy, you might find yourself deep in conversation with the interpreters, learning things you never really thought about.

 


 

Our interpreter at the beginning of the tour at Cooper Mill in Chester, New Jersey

Our interpreter at the beginning of the tour

Like, did you know that the interpreters at these places often make their own period clothing, and they have to visit thrift shops and garage sales to get cloth that looks old enough to be legit?

Gears and the collection bin in the basement of the Cooper Mill in Chester, New Jersey

Gears and the collection bin in the basement of the mill

I first visited the mill on a 4th of July while on a bike ride along the West Morris Grade / Patriot’s Path 10 years ago.  We happened by the mill when the trail became so covered with fallen trees and roots that we could no longer ride our bikes, so we took to the road.  It was a phenomenal stop then, and it still is!

The interpreter, on our first visit, demonstrates how easy it is to lift the millstone - and himself - using a screw made for the purpose at the Cooper Mill in Chester, New Jersey

The interpreter, on our first visit, demonstrates how easy it is to lift the millstone – and himself – using a screw made for the purpose

The first gristmill was built on this sight in the early 1700s.  The property – we don’t really know what happened before, except that it was damaged in a fire – was purchased by Nathan Cooper in 1825.  He rebuilt the mill in 1826; the mill today is the same structure as what Nathan Cooper built.  The same year, Nathan passed away, and the mill was passed on to his nephew, also named Nathan Cooper.  This Nathan owned the mill property (and became quite wealthy by it and other business ventures) until his death in 1879.  However, he hired a resident miller to actually run the mill.  The miller’s house once stood across the road from the mill.

Diagram of how the Cooper Mill works in Chester, New Jersey

Diagram of how the mill works

Today tours are offered, free of charge, of all four stories of the Cooper Mill.  During these, visitors can try their hand at old methods of grinding grain, feel what the grain felt like and what the different grades of flours are like, learn how flour is bleached (they used to use plaster among other things), see the old millpond, watch the mill workings in use, and see the water wheel turning, and more.

Wheat berries - and a few pieces of corn - ready to be ground into flour at the Cooper Mill in Chester, New Jersey

Wheat berries – and a few pieces of corn – ready to be ground into flour

We arrived just as a tour was starting, so we joined them looking at what replaced the water wheel and then walked down to the mill proper.

The mill building at Cooper Mill in Chester, New Jersey

The mill building

The guide – it’s a pity that he’ll be retiring in a few weeks; he is a phenomenal interpreter and knows the mill inside and out since he did most of the restoration work – talked about how the grain used to be ground before mills came to the area.

One of the styles of old handmills that was used to grind grain before the mill was built at the Cooper Mill in Chester, New Jersey

One of the styles of old handmills that was used to grind grain before the mill was built

Then he took us under the road to see the millpond.  Actually, the road was once quite a bit lower, but when it was straightened in the 1970s, they kindly put in a path under the highway for hikers of Patriot’s Path.  The millpond is pretty much silted in (“some of those weeds are as tall as trees…”), but it’s pretty and the waterfall is nice.

Smaller weeds in the millpond at Cooper Mill near Chester, New Jersey

Smaller weeds in the millpond

He also explained about the millstones – French stones were made in many sections instead of one large stone with grooves.  This allowed the husks of the wheat berries to be in larger sections, therefore easier to strain out, therefore producing whiter, finer flour.

A French millstone at Cooper Mill, Chester, New Jersey

A French millstone

We explored the first floor…

Working the lever that opens the water gate to feed water to the wheel and run the Cooper Mill near Chester, New Jersey

Working the lever that opens the water gate to feed water to the wheel and run the mill

The second floor…

Demonstration on the second floor of the Cooper Mill in Chester, New Jersey

Demonstration on the second floor

And the third floor.

Gears on the third floor of the Cooper Mill in Chester, New Jersey

Gears on the third floor

All are fascinating.  You’ll have to visit to learn about them, though, because it’s all too complicated to explain except to say that it’s a lot of wooden gears and pulleys and leather belts, with a few ropes and levers put in for good measure.

Pulleys and ropes are part of the mill workings at the Cooper Mill in Chester, New Jersey

Pulleys and ropes are part of the mill workings

One interesting fact for you: People would go down to the millstream to fish.  The bran was often discarded into the stream by millers who didn’t want to sell it as animal food.  The fish loved it, and therefore, the fishing was good.

Looking down on the Black River below the mill through one of the mill's upper windows. Cooper Mill, Chester, New Jersey

Looking down on the Black River below the mill through one of the mill’s upper windows

Then we went down to the basement, where the flour finally comes out of the chute.

Flour comes out of the chute into the collection bin in the Cooper Mill in Chester, New Jersey

Flour comes out of the chute into the collection bin

From here, we went outside to see the water wheel.  It was originally made in 1927 for a mill in Pennsylvania.  Sadly, that mill burned down before the wheel could be put to use.  It was then used on another mill in New Jersey from 1935 to 1955.  In 1974 the wheel was donated to the Cooper Mill.

The waterwheel on our first visit to Cooper Mill in Chester, New Jersey

The waterwheel on our first visit

Afterward, the guide was happy to stick around and talk about all things historical, especially the mill and culture of the day.  I would have loved to have talked longer with him!

Our interpreter at Cooper Mill in Chester, New Jersey, was great!

Our interpreter was great!

Overall?  It’s fantastic!  Spend an hour, no more than two, but you’ll learn… well, a lot!

Walking under the road between Cooper Mill and the millpond, Chester, New Jersey

Walking under the road

Fees: None, but donations are encouraged.  Suggested donation is $3/adult, $2/senior (65+), $1/ child (4-16), those under 4 free

Facilities: A couple picnic tables by the parking area.  There may be restrooms in the visitor center on the opposite end of the parking area from the mill, but I’ve never been in it.  A restaurant is across the street, with many more options in nearby Chester (if you like shopping, check out Chester’s shops and boutiques)

Hours: April-June: Saturday only 10am-5pm.  July-Aug: Wednesday-Saturday 10am-5pm, Sunday 12 Noon-5pm.  September-October: Saturday 10am-5pm, Sunday 12 Noon-5pm.

Tour Times: Tours are continuous / on demand depending on current need.  If you go down to the mill and a tour is not in progress, a sign will direct you to the visitor center.  You can also join a tour half way through and then catch the first half of the tour at the end of the first one.  Last tour is at 3:30pm.

Sluice to carry water to the waterwheel at the Cooper Mill in Chester, New Jersey

Sluice to carry water to the waterwheel

Road ★★★★☆

Signs ★★★★☆

Interest ★★★★★

Fun Factor ★★★★☆

Exhibits ★★★★☆

Personnel ★★★★★

Cleanliness ★★★★☆

Ease of access / walking ★★★☆☆ (stairways)

Price for value ★★★★★

Would I go 100 miles out of my way for this? ★★★☆☆

Overall Rating: ★★★★☆

The hoist was powered by the waterwheel at the Cooper Mill in Chester, New Jersey

The hoist was powered by the waterwheel

Key GPS Coordinates

Cooper Mill: 40.7789900°N, -074.7211300°W (40°46.73940’N, -074°43.26780’W / 40°46’44.3640″N, -074°43’16.0680″W) (718ft.)

The hoist from outside. This was used to carry sacks of grain up to the third floor. Cooper Mill, Chester, New Jersey

The hoist from outside. This was used to carry sacks of grain up to the third floor.

Getting to the Cooper Gristmill

From I-78, take Exit 29 to I-287 North toward Morristown and Somerville, staying in the right lane to go North toward Morristown.  Less than a mile later, take Exit 22B toward US-202 and US-206 North, Bedminster, and Netcong (don’t you just love these 1700s town names?)  Drive north on US-206 8.8 miles.  After passing the ShopRite, turn left on Main Street (major intersection with a traffic light; turn right and you’ll see a lot of little boutiques and shops).  The parking area will be on left after 1.3 miles.

Sign for the Cooper Mill near Chester, New Jersey

Sign for the Cooper Mill

From I-80, take Exit 27A toward US-206 South and Somerville.  Stay on US-206 8.1 miles; turn right on Main Street.  The parking area will be on left after 1.3 miles

Waterfall from the millpond at the Cooper Mill in Chester, New Jersey

Waterfall from the millpond

(Note: You’ll pass Alstede (pronounced “All-sted”) Farm after turning onto Main Street.  I highly recommend their sweet corn, in season, and it’s also fun to look all the animals, climb the hay bales, etc.)

Readying the mill for action at the Cooper Mill in Chester, New Jersey

Readying the mill for action

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