A Bridge Too Far
What Do You Think You're Looking At? #76
Many tiny towns in Hunterdon County, New Jersey have a little store or café on a corner. Aside from that, and maybe a church and a few other old buildings, there sometimes isn’t much of a town at all. One of these is Three Bridges, a suburban area and small Main Street not far from Flemington, which I’ve written much about.
Three Bridges doesn’t have a whole lot, but it does have this old structure which currently houses a little restaurant.
A member of an area Facebook group posted this now-and-then photo of it (which is why I drove there and got the photos above):
That Facebook post also included a neat piece of trivia: it turns out this was Hunterdon County’s first establishment to be raided after the passing of Prohibition! It’s that old, and it still looks almost the same as it did back then. That’s quality construction.
If you can read the signage in the old photo, it advertises beer. But it’s far too large for a bar or roadhouse; what it looks like, actually, is a hotel or a boarding house.
Which, it turns out, is what it was. One commenter, with the sort of local knowledge, history, and connection to a place that I love to see, had the story:
My grandmother Sophia Chilmonik was the proprietor of the Three Bridges Hotel when it was raided for prohibition violations about 1930.
Grandma raised 10 kids while my grandfather lived in the VA hospital in Lyons from wounds suffered in the Spanish-American War. She ran the hotel as a means of income and a place to house all those kids.
My mother Frances was the youngest of 10 and was 5 at the time, she was born in 1925.
When they busted grandma my mother refused to leave her side so the police put them both in jail for the night.
The Democrat’s column “50 years ago” in 1980 ran an article about the raid.
Once again, a plain, ordinary building in what is now a pretty nondescript place (the town’s own little Facebook group is called “Where the heck is Three Bridges?”) turns out to tell a whole fascinating story about how we used to do business, house people, and build settlements.
Do you think grandma had to get a raft of permits to open up a small hotel? Do you think community input meetings and rezoning hearings and overbearing environmental regulations got in her way? No. Mostly not at all.
Large developers have no problem with that—they like it, because it means nobody but them can get anything done. This old wooden building, full of what are now probably empty rooms as the hotel business and the preferences of customers have evolved, is a snapshot of how ordinary Americans were far freer, in many ways, to do business and make a living a century ago.
Sad, but hopeful. Hopeful because if it existed, it can be done. And because the evidence for that possibility is still standing there on Main Street a century later.
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