Retrospective: Franklin Corners Historic District and William Childs Willmere Farm Williamsburg-esqe Village

Franklin Corners District Art Brooks Betz

As with all Mr. Local History retrospectives, we often update the post when we learn stories and are sent photos from our internet community. We will continue to grow this piece as information becomes available. If you have a comment or photo, feel free to post at the bottom of this page or drop us a note.

Mr. Local History Project

Tucked in at the northernmost section of Bernards Township, New Jersey along the Passiac River lies a small historic district that if you drive through it you’ll notice the history of the area with its grist mill and restored barns. But what many don’t know is how the area almost became a living history village similar to Williamsburg, Virginia. It was the dream of an interesting local entrepreneur and founder of the famed Childs Restaurant chain. The Mr. Local History Project introduces the Franklin Corners Historic District and William Child’s Willmere Farm village.

Franklin Corners Historic District

The hamlet of the Franklin Corners Historic District with their 18th and 19th century traditional and high‐style
buildings, and the pre‐war subdivisions of small‐scale houses in a variety of historical revival styles. Bernards Township’s historic landmarks and streetscapes of historic buildings contribute greatly to the beauty of the township. Named after the statesman Benjamin Franklin, the area was home to some of the founding families to Bernards Township with names like Brees, Johnson, Lewis, and Southard.

The Franklin Corners Historic District in northern Bernards Township was added to the state (1974) and national historic registries (1975). See interactive map below.
In 1873 you can see that Franklin Corners District 15 was everything north of Madisonville Road.

What many people don’t know is that Franklin Corners was Bernards Township’s first historic district representing a way of life before the industrial area of the early 19th century. Before the Liberty Corner, Basking Ridge Village or Madisonville Historic Districts, the Franklin Corners Historic District was approved by the New Jersey Historic Preservation office back in 1974. It was then listed to the National Register of Historic Places a year later thanks to the efforts of Mrs. Richard Sanford, Mrs. Charles Allen and Mrs. Susan Ottinger, Chairman of Old House Study Group in Basking Ridge. Citizens privately financed the Franklin Corners application for the NJ State Register of Historic Places. On Dec. 12, 1974, it was placed on the State Register and on June 9, 1975, on the National Register of Historic Places Bernards Township’s first historic district. The only historic icon nominated before Franklin Corners was the Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church in the center of the village.

Early History

The district consists of 50 acres including 11 structures, and its focal point, the Van Dorn Mill, c.1843, one of the finest examples of stonework in New Jersey.  First residents were farmers and millers, settled in mid-1700s.  Present mill replaced original one of 1768 which supplied Washington’s troops with grain.

The Mill

Franklin Corner’s first village structures included farms, a grist mill, a blacksmith shop, and a school. The land was part of the original William Penn tract just north of the Harrison Tract which included Basking Ridge. A saw and plaster mill were along with a general store were added in the early 1800s. The Samuel Johnson House (c. 1770) is the oldest structure in the district. However, the most iconic structure in the village is the Van Dorn Mill.

The Van Dorn Mill painted in the hallway of Oak Street Elementary School in Basking Ridge back in 2010

Samuel Lewis, a miller from the Franklin District in Bernards Township, built a water-powered grist mill and a barn on the Passaic River on land originally acquired from William Penn.. His grandson, Richard Southard purchased the Mill property in 1777. His small wooden mill supplied desperately needed flour, meal, and feed to the Continental Army encampment at Jockey Hollow, Morristown, during the bitter winter of 1779-80. The mill was also used for making land plaster, a type of fertilizer.


Samuel Woodward was the next owner, upon his death in 1841 the farm was sold to Ferdinand Van Dorn, who married Woodward’s daughter Phoebe in 1831. Van Dorn was a miller from Peapack. Ferdinand Van Dorn bought the Southard place in 1842 and proceeded to build the present mill. This new grist mill was said to have been the finest flouring-mill in Somerset County and from its size and appearance the statement was probably not far from the truth. Van Dorn apparently designed the mill himself and selected a location which would provide the most efficient water power. In 1880 mechanical improvement were added to the Mill. The mill originally was fitted with three runs of stone which were replaced in 1893 by roller-type equipment.

A FARMING AND MILLING HAMLET FROM 1770 TO 1850; VAN DORN’S MILL BUILT IN 1842 AS A REPLACEMENT, IS AN OUTSTANDING EXAMPLE OF MID 19TH CENTURY STONE MASONRY.
IT HAS NOW BEEN CONVERTED INTO AN OFFICE WITH EVERYTHING FROM THE GRIST MILL RESTORED.

New Jersey Historic Preservation Office
An early advertisement for the products made at the Van Dorn Mill in Franklin Corners
An early advertisement for the products made at the Van Dorn Mill. Source: Bernardsville News

This modernization coupled with the installation of 3 turbines in the late 1880’s laid the basis for a more productive mill operation. The mill was purchased by Ingersoll & Eames, and later made its way to William Childs in 1929 where the mill operated until 1941. Much of the 19th century mill equipment is still intact today.

The “Grain House”

The Grain House Restaurant in the heart of Franklin Corners was moved from across Route 202 to its current location. After leaving the Child’s Chain, William’s passion was to create a great local restaurant experience. It’s still going today!

Since the barn was used to store the army’s grain during the Revolutionary War, it is still known today as “The Grain House.” As the war moved south, quiet once again settled over the mill. Samuel Woodward, another family member, owned it into the early 19th century. His daughter, Phebe, married a Peapack miller, Frederick Van Dorn where the name changed and is known today as the Van Dorn Mill.

Click to enlarge. A fun rendition of the area that's painted on the walls of the Grain House.
A fun rendition of the area that’s painted on the walls of the Grain House.
Click image to enlarge.

William focused on the grain house and his Revolutionary era hamlet because it was noted William almost bankrupt the corporate restaurant business by introducing a vegan menu to the restaurant chain. The board decided Childs was not fit to run the company and was forced out. So, William turned his focus on his Franklin Corners project, restoring the Grain House barn and converting it to an inn and restaurant. Rather than gut the inside, however, Childs chose to preserve the classic old structure’s unique spirit through a painstaking restoration. Not a beam was touched in the barn’s solid frame, and it remains to this day as it was more than two centuries ago. Only the functions of the subdivisions have changed.

Franklin Corners / Willmere Farm Project

The Franklin Corners properties passed through several hands in the ensuing years and gradually fell into disrepair, but in 1928 it received a surprising new lease on life. Famous restaurateur William Childs saw intriguing possibilities in the barn standing near the old mill. Accordingly the estate devolved to Marguerite J McMurtry and the two sons of her sister Anna D. Childs, three heirs to the family willed the 100 acre farm to William Childs (a brother of Luther Childs) of Bernards Township by their deed on September 19,1927, reciting the deed of 1st April 1867, to Willmere Farm Inc., of Jersey City, by deed of 27 January 1928. This corporation remained as owner up until December 1958 and would amass over 3,300 acres along Morristown Road (Route 202).

William Childs (1865 – 1938) and his wife, Victoria, resided at “Willmere Court”, off Old Army Road in Basking Ridge. William’s older brother Heman Childs (1859 – 1920), a gentleman farmer and real estate and insurance broker lived nearby at “Broad Acres,” a dairy farm .

“Williamsburg-Like” Ambitions

William Childs started a project in 1930 to restore Franklin Corners, envisioning a small scale version of John D. Rockefeller’s “Williamsburg, VA” preserved hamlet and called it Willmere Farms. He was also inspired by Longfellow’s Wayside Inn in South Sudbury, MA that was noted in his book “Tales of a Wayside Inn.”

Click the interactive map to see the individual properties of what was Willmere Farms back in the 1930s


William was unable to complete it before he died on May 22, 1938 after a stroke. The area served as Childs’ ambition to create a “Williamsburg-like” active historic community as a real working old time town that people could visit and enjoy. With up to 14 buildings including homes, mills (grist and saw), a blacksmith, barns, schoolhouse, general store, rug maker, guest houses, and yes a restaurant which was first called the Old Mill Inn. None of the lines of the original barn structure have been changed. The upstairs had seven bedrooms. The wagon and machinery room is now the Childs Dining Room. The stable is now the grill.

Willmere Farm Project Properties

11 buildings across 50 acres in what is now the Franklin Corners Historic District in the northern section of Bernards Township. Click any image to begin a slideshow of the properties.

“Childs-Land”

The Childs property started at 50 acres and grew to over 550, comprising the present day Grain House all the way down to North Finley Avenue in Basking Ridge. Since Childs was a devoted member of the Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church, the property you would think would be Bernardsville, was made part of Basking Ridge Many in the area were thankful because the project took place during the Great Depression.

Childs was responsible for employing, housing and feeding 50 workers throughout the Willmere project. In 1938 alone, over 100,000 people visited the restored mill.

MR Local history

William died in 1938 before his Willmere Farm was completed. His heirs broke up the farm over later years. On January 15, 1945 it was reported that Stanley Teskey purchased 3,372 acres east of Old Farm Road adjoining the land of Elizabeth M. Scott from Willmere Farms Inc.

All of the structures in Franklin Corners are now privately owned.

Side Story #1:
Childs Restaurant Chain

William started the first Childs’ restaurant with his brother Samuel (later a NJ State Senator) in 1889 on New York City’s Cortland Street. These country boys from the Somerset Hills envisioned a grand, cross-country chain, and the Childs’ name eventually graced 107 establishments in North America. They ran one of the largest chains of any kind in the world and served over 50,000,000 meals a year. The Childs’ restaurants were renowned for their large glass fronts and sparkling white walls and tables, and the brothers proved to be not only astute businessmen but progressive employers as well.

Rendering: Childs’ Coney Island boardwalk.
Click to Enlarge. The Childs Restaurant on the boardwalk in Coney Island, New York.
The Childs Restaurant on the boardwalk in Coney Island, New York.

The Childs Restaurants were the first in the United States to hire women waitresses to wait tables. In William’s words, the Childs’ outstanding success was based on “food as close as possible to that served in the best homes, family recipes and absolute cleanliness.”

The Childs Brothers

Their concept of moderately priced meals, freshly prepared in a pristine atmosphere in convenient locations. This sounds simple enough today – but in the late 19th century, it truly revolutionized the industry.

Side Story#2:
Samuel Childs Shannon Lodge

William’s other older brother “Samuel S. Childs (1863 – 1925) and his wife, Emma Alward Childs, lived on their estate, “Shannon Lodge”, on Old Army Road, Bernardsville just to the northwest of Franklin Corners. This is also the former site of the Fellowship Deaconry Nursing Home. But, before that, it was the famed Shannon Lodge, built to be one of the tri-state areas most elegant destinations (a story for another day).

Shannon Lodge c.1933
The only thing that remains from Shannon Lodge is the rock wall that used to surround the entrance area just along Old Arm Road. Just drive up Van Cortland Way in Bernardsville and imagine what used to be.
The area became a major destination after Shannon Lodge opened.

Additional Information

  • The 250th anniversary of William Childs’ Grain House
  • Franklin Corners Historic District was entered in New Jersey State Register December 12, 1974 (ID #2472)
  • Franklin Corners Historic District was entered in National Register May 12, 1975 (NR Reference #75001159)
  • In the 1980s the Franklin Corners Neighborhood Association was formed and sponsored a tour of the homes in the district. Six homes were open for the tour.

3 Thoughts to “Retrospective: Franklin Corners Historic District and William Childs Willmere Farm Williamsburg-esqe Village”

  1. Kate Cowing

    I don’t think the quote from the Childs Brothers that The Childs Restaurants were the first to hire women is correct. Fred Harvey hired the legendary Harvey Girls to wait tables in the 19th century.

  2. Local History

    In 1889, two brothers in New York City opened a restaurant that was a direct response to concerns about food safety. Samuel S. Childs and William Childs opened the first Childs Restaurant on Cortlandt Street in Manhattan’s Financial District, focusing on affordable meals for the working class coupled with extremely high standards (historically speaking, at least) for hygiene, cleanliness, and food safety. In the same vein, the restaurant’s waitresses were clad in pristine, starched white uniforms—reminiscent of those worn by nurses—and made a point of having janitorial staff visibly cleaning in front of customers at all times. If they weren’t the first, they were certainly credited as one of the first with the model.

    https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-02-03/how-the-pioneering-childs-restaurant-chain-built-an-empire-based-on-food-safety-and-hygiene

  3. duncan knobloch

    My 3rd Gr Grandfather Frederick Childs, b. 1796. and connection to the Van Doren family;
    September 8th 1829 Frederick bought 3 acres of land in Chester, Morris County NJ, the whole of the saw mill from Elias Hight and his wife Sally. June 28th, 1836 he purchase an additional acre adjacent to the mill $27.75.

    January 24th, 1843 Frederick and Amy sold the Stephen Baker three pieces of land in Chester for $4,500.

    April 8th, 1843 sold to James Emaus of Readington for $1,200 the undivided half tract in Washington Township, Morris County New Jersey, with mills and building conveyed to John Van Doren (famous for Van Doren Mill Franklin Corners Childs Rd./ 202) and Susan his wife. March 27th 1841.

    1843. 3rdGr Grandfather Frederick, age 47, bought 19 acre “Childs Rd.” farm from Susan Adamson for $1218.12.

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