Correcting the bible

The First National Bank building, left, at 501 West Water Street was the third building to occupy the east half of Water Lot 29. The first, built in 1849-50, burned a few years later. The second, built in 1855, housed a cigar factory and millinery shop for a time. The brick bank building was built in 1901. First National Bank later reorganized as Famers-Merchants National Bank.

I have corrected factual, historic errors in 13 of the 23 City of Princeton Historic Walking Tour plaques in the three-block Water Street business district.

I’ve documented numerous errors in the Princeton quas qui centennial booklet, many of which can be traced to errors in the 1948 special edition published by the Princeton Times-Republic honoring the centennial of Princeton’s founding.

I’ve also corrected a few errors in the writings of area historian Elaine Reetz regarding early Princeton and its pioneers. Again, some of those go back to that 1948 PTR anniversary edition.

And I’ve corrected the age of one of our buildings that is part of the National Register of Historic Places.

All of those corrections are included in the appendix of “Bartel’s History of Princeton, Volume I: From the New World to the New Deal.”

But now I’ve waded into the most sacred waters of local history: the “Bird’s-Eye View of the History of Princeton as Detailed by Old Settlers,” published in 1869 by the Princeton Republic and its founding editor Thomas McConnell.

I have considered the history, initially published in three parts and republished in the 1890s, 1920s and 1940s, the bible or gold standard of Princeton history, trumping the 1860 county history written by John Gillespy of Berlin and the others that followed because of McConnell’s access to Princeton founder Royal Treat and other early settlers who arrived in the 1840s and 1850s.

And then last week, while reviewing the 1869 history of the first buildings to dot the Water Street lots, I found contradictory information about Princeton’s second building. I had read that history numerous times in the past and had not noticed the problem.

We first learn: “The next and second storeroom was put up on the southwest corner of Water and Pearl streets, now the site of A.G. Hopkins & Son’s hardware store. The building was erected by Byron Chute only a few weeks later than Durand’s store (527 West Water), for a Dr. Sargent, who rented it to A. Randall & Bro., who occupied it with a stock similar to Durand’s. This firm continued in business some years, when the building, stock and all, was consumed by fire. The town records were also destroyed at the same time, being in the same building.” No other information is given about the lot or occupants.

But in a later part we learn: “The twelfth building that loomed up to the view of the astonished Princetonites of other days was built by Davis H. Waite (who seemed to have considerable weight in building up Princeton) and Orin Parsons, in the fall of 1855, for a warehouse and is now owned by A.G. Hopkins and occupied by Hopkins & Son as a hardware store, tin shop, residence, ware rooms, etc. It was first occupied by Waite as a dry goods store, having abandoned his warehouse ideas. We next find A.C. Nye with a small stock of groceries. …”

The building stood at the southwest corner of Water and Washington streets. The history then goes on to list occupants such as Thompson & Carman, Gottlieb Liek and finally A.G. Hopkins.

So … the history lists the Hopkins & Son hardware store in two locations in 1869 – the southwest corner of the intersection of Water and Pearl streets and the southwest corner of Water and Washington streets. That’s a problem.

Fortunately, information such as this can usually be resolved through public records; in this case property records at the county register of deeds office.

I compared the deeds of the properties at 501 West Water (Renard’s European Bake Shop in 2021), southwest corner of Water and Pearl, and 603 West Water (River Bank Dry Goods), southwest corner of Water and Washington, with the owners/occupants of the properties listed in the 1869 history.

The result is we learn the second building in Princeton was built on the southwest corner of Water and Washington streets not Water and Pearl as stated in the 1869 history. That means the brick building erected at 501 in 1901 for First National Bank of Princeton (later Farmers-Merchants National Bank) was the third building on the site, the one built by Chute in 1849 that burned was the first, the one erected by Waite in 1855 the second and finally the brick building in 1901 the third.

I was saddened by the 1869 error, but I am confident McConnell would thank me. It apparently was simply a brain hiccup by the writer or typesetter. Journalists aspire to find the truth. They deal with facts. They know mistakes happen and the best course of action is to admit it, correct it and not repeat it.

Plus, I am heartened by the possibility that this correction will hopefully save time for Princeton historians yet to come.

The blog has really evolved from a vehicle to point out the plaque errors when no one was listening to a well-rounded resource for future historians. It includes key documents, history corrections, early Princeton timeline, old photos, corporate reports and more – resources that were not available to me when I began researching my book. I don’t want future historians to face the same roadblocks I did.

Unlike a printed book, the blog is evolutionary, meaning that many of the posts will continue to be updated as my research climbs toward the 1950s and beyond. My Princeton research extends from pre-settlement to about 1945. Information on local businesses after the 1940s comes from the walking tour, old newspapers, online comments, etc., but I have not verified any of that more recent info. I try to mention that caveat each time.

I also invite readers to submit corrections and additions, helping ensure that the blog posts tracing the lot and building lineages continue to evolve as the information-gathering expands.

It’s fun to listen to a good storyteller spin a tale, but that is not history. History relies on facts. Storytellers share folk tales of the past; historians tell us whether they’re true.

Thanks for caring and reading about local history.

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