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River flows through Stockton history
By John Monteith   - 10/29/2008

Hunterdon County Democrat

Writer and actor Keith Strunk, a founder of the River Union Stage professional theater company, lives within shouting distance of the Delaware River in Frenchtown. The son of a water safety instructor, he was born in Easton, moved to Perkasie, Pa. at 12 and went to high school in New Hope. Young Keith spent many hours traveling the river and exploring its mysteries. "The river has always been a home, a sort of anchor," he said.

He focuses on part of the river's history in his new book, Prallsville Mills and Stockton, part of the popular Arcadia Publishing Images of America series celebrating communities large and small. Mr. Strunk will be signing copies of the book on Saturday, Nov. 8, 11 a.m.-1 p.m. at Frenchtown's Book Garden, 28 Bridge St.

He characterized the people who live beside the river as tenacious and generous, at least in part because "they live with the knowledge that on any given day the river may overflow." They endure disasters aplenty, learning the value of community support, and then they rebound and rebuild.

A chapter in Prallsville Mills and Stockton is devoted to the calamities Stockton has weathered. "The people of Stockton are not resilient by accident -- they have earned it," he wrote. He followed with one of those poignant bits of history for which the Arcadia series is noted. On a day in 1888, quarry foreman James Wafer, wearing the ring he intended to give to his fiancee, entered a powder magazine to fetch a can of black powder. Two minutes later the magazine disappeared in an explosion that left a hole in the ground 12 feet square and 10 feet deep. Virtually all that was ever found of James Wafer, who may have trod on some spilled powder and ignited it, was his bereaved fiancee's ring.

One of the Stockton stories that stood out in his researches was that of Joseph "Chicky Joe" Wilson, a true commercial innovator. Building upon the common knowledge that chicks do not eat for the first 40 hours after hatching, "Chicky Joe" developed reliable incubators and began selling live chicks around the country for eight cents apiece, saving farmers the effort and expense of the incubation process. One of the first shipments, to Chicago, "arrived healthy, safe, and clamoring to be fed."

The town's most famous resident, however, was undoubtedly Anne Matthews, who played the title role in radio's Stella Dallas Show, for 18 years one of the country's most popular soap operas. She commuted to New York by car and train, missing only two performances in all that time.
Mr. Strunk spent three months developing Prallsville Mills and Stockton, and the book contains about 200 photographs of village life and artifacts. He carried a laptop computer and flat-top scanner in a backpack on his research trips that allowed him to scan photos immediately from beloved family collections.

He credits elderly Carl Cathers, whom he described as the "de facto historian of Stockton," as a primary source of information. Carl, he said, lives in the house he was born in and owns a barn filled with memorabilia. He and others like him, whose memories span generations and eras, provide "texture" and the "perspective of a documentary" to the narrative. Important assistance was also provided by Edie Sharp, executive director of the Delaware River Mill Society, Pieter Prall for the Prall family history, and Edith McCloughan, grand-daughter of "Chicky Joe."

Prallsville Mills and Stockton, with a cover price of $19.99, is available at local retailers, online bookstores, or through Arcadia Publishing at arcadiapublishing.com or (888) 313-2665.

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