The Melicks of Oldwick - Tewksbury's first family of farming
by Maude Kenyon
as printed in General Store magazine, Autumn 2001
How many of us can say we are tenth generation Americans, and that we live in the same town and farm the same land that our ancestors settled nearly three hundred years ago? The children of George and Norma Melick can, and they're rightfully proud of it.
At a time when high land prices, low profits, drought and crop devastation by deer have led so many farmers to sell their land to developers, George and his family consistently turn profits. What's their secret? They have always kept up with the times, and still do.
You've no doubt seen their name spelled many different ways, but no matter how you spell it, it is a name that is a part of local history. According to George, "all of my ancestors in this country were born, baptized, married, and buried within five miles of Oldwick."
His first direct ancestor to reside in this country was Johan Peter Moelich, who arrived with his brothers Johannes and Gottfried sometime between 1725 and 1735 and settled in Hunterdon County. The son of Wilhelm Moelich, Johan and his brothers came to America with the German Palatines - German Protestants who were persecuted because of their religious beliefs. One group fled to Holland. Well treated there, they decided to go to the Dutch settlement in the new world, New Amsterdam (now New York City). Their ship foundered near Philadelphia and they set out for New Amsterdam on foot. When they saw the rolling hills of Bedminster and Tewksbury, many decided to settle. The Moelich brothers were among them.
The boys followed their father's way and were farmers and tanners. Gottfried went on to settle in Warren County. Johannes, who arrived here with wife Mariah, and children Aaron, Andrew, Fanny, and Maria Catherine had a tannery north of Far Hills. By 1751 he had saved enough to buy 367 acres of forest at $6.45 an acre. The property, which stretched from the North Branch of the Raritan River to Peapack Brook, included all of what was known as Lesser Crossroads, today Bedminster Village.
Many years later in 1889, descendent Andrew Mellick, Jr., in his book, The Story of an Old Farm, wrote that while building their stone house in 1752, "Mariah carried mortar balanced on her head to the masons at work on the walls." And he added, "137 years later the mortar is as solid and impervious as the stones between which it lies. They used lime in the mortar and, even today, in tearing down old stonework, the stones are apt to break before the mortar." The house on Old Dutch Road in Bedminster Township became well known through the book.
In 1786, Johannes Moelich's son, Aaron, built the Bedminster Tavern, now Willie's Taverne, for his son John, who had recently returned from serving in the Revolutionary War. The tavern remained in the family for more than a century, and was sold in 1889 to Willie Howard. Local Celebrities made it their gathering place, and even held cockfights there.
The name acquired three different spellings. In those days the people in charge of registering land titles and other legal documents spelled names as they sounded. The Bedminster branch became Mellick, the Tewksbury branch Melick, and a few spelled it Malick. George Melick quips, "Drew Mellick and his son Roger live in Tewksbury and are descendants of Johannes. There's a standing joke in the Melick family that the Mellicks had enough money to afford 2 'l's' in their name."
Johan Peter's son, Tunis Melick, had a mill in Whitehouse and later moved to New Germantown (now Oldwick), where he built a mill east of town. He served as Hunterdon County Freeholder for eighteen years from 1776 to 1794. "Tunis' son, Peter Melick, had five sons," George explains. "John V. Melick is one of them. He, too, had five sons including my ancestor, John V. Melick, Jr., who worked for farmer John Craig on Oldwick's King Street. He later married Craig's only child, Margaretta. When Mr. Craig died, the young couple inherited the farm. They had a daughter and two sons, including Walter, my grandfather.
After his father died, Walter bought out his brother and sister and became owner of family farm of 165 acres. He married Mary Van Sickle of Lebanon and had three sons, and served as Republican Committeeman of Tewksbury Township.
One of his sons was George B. Melick, George's father, who married Florence Rinehart. In 1938 they bought the present family home, and later the adjoining Martens farm. In the family tradition of community service, George, Sr. served as a volunteer fireman with the Oldwick Fire Company, and was president when he died. He was also a member of the Tewksbury Township School Board and of the first North Hunterdon Regional High School Board of Education.
A Melick relative was the engineer for the fabled, but ill-fated Rockaway Valley Railroad. Known locally as the "Rock-a-bye Baby" because of rickety tracks that rocked the train as it made its way from Whitehouse Station to Morristown, the line was built to carry peaches from local orchards to the marketplace. The company was formed in 1849, but the railroad wasn't built until 1887.
Fate was not kind to the fledgling railroad, or to the peach growers. In 1900 San Jose Scale hit the area, and it devastated the peach drop. Although a spray had been developed to protect the peaches, it was very expensive. Walter Melick had too many acres of peaches to take a chance. He sprayed, whereas those who didn't lost their orchards.
After the railroad went bankrupt in 1913, George recalls, "Peach auctions were held on the side porch of the Tewksbury Inn. Farmers would line up their wagonloads of fruit along King Street. As each wagonload was sold, the next farmer would pull up. The auction went on until the early 1930's". Having grown up on the farm, George was destined to follow in the family farming tradition. Speaking of his father, he recalls, "he wanted me, an only child, to go to college, but I wanted to be a farmer right away. He died a month after I graduated from high school in 1954. He had given me his pocket watch and penknife, symbols of his passing on of the farm to me."
Though his father had added chickens following the peach blight, "I saw no future in chickens and eggs, so gradually I got out of that business and planted more fruit trees." George recalls in 1963, while delivering eggs, "I met Norma Pedersen of South Plainfield, who was visiting a fellow teacher in Plainfield. Two years later we were married." Inside Norma's wedding ring is inscribed, WCM to MLVS, June 3, 1894. It was the ring worm by George''s grandmother, Mary Van Sickle, when she married Walter Melick.
George served eighteen years on the Tewksbury Township Committee, and was mayor five times. He is now in his 24th year as a Hunterdon County Freeholder. A fiscal conservative, he doesn't like spending taxpayer money. In one campaign he was dubbed "Melick the Miserly Maverick", but that's why he has been elected so many times.
George and Norma's three children, Peter, John, and Rebecca, are all involved in the family farm. According to George, " I always had someone to help me. My mother deeded me the farm. Norma has worked hard in the business all these years. Now our three kids are part of the business. I can't say I put them through college. They each worked for me and earned their own way."
Peter, now 34, began life without a name - his birth certificated listed him as "unnamed". There were too many family names to choose from, so the late township historian and close friend, Norman Wittwer, came over and suggested they "name him for Peter Melick." And they did. "I graduated from Albright College with degrees in business and political science," Peter says, and laughs as he adds, "I really use those five years of Latin all the time as a farmer." He and his wife, Denise, were married June 11, 1999. "I used a recycled engagement ring," he says. "My grandfather gave it to my grandmother." Their son, William Blackstone Melick, was born January 9, 2001.
In addition to farming, the children of George and Norma Melick are active in their communities. Peter has served as chief of the Oldwick Fire Company for three years. He is also active with the Agricultural Development Board of Hunterdon County and the County Board of Agriculture, and is past president of the New Jersey Horticultural Society.
John, 30, was named for John V. Melick. He graduated from Bucknell with a degree in Civil Engineering, and is a licensed professional engineer. He worked full-time for an engineering firm after college, but farming was in his blood. "Now I work part-time as an engineer in the off-season," he says. "When crops are ripe, I work seven days a week as a farmer." He is also starting his second term as president of the Oldwick Fire Company.
After graduating from Fordham University, Rebecca, 32 took a job with AT&T and went on to earn her MBA at NYU's Stern School of Business. Rebecca takes her vacation on Fridays during the fall, working at the Oldwick stand three days a week.
George says, "We're a family corporation. Each has an equal vote. When someone wants to spend money, we all vote on it."
Leroy Sutton farmed and also sold produce from George's farm from his truck at the Route 512 and 517 intersection. At his suggestion, George bought the 30- acre parcel and put up an impressive looking stand, which he leases out.
George's next purchase was unplanned. "I never read the real estate ads," he says. "One day something made me read them. I saw an ad for 200 acres on Route 513 in Lebanon Township. The back part was a limestone quarry. I looked and realized it would make a good orchard, so we bought it.
"We planted dwarf apple and peach trees. Just as the first peach crop was in bud, we had a freeze. We realized that that section was low. Peter did some research and came up with the idea of a wind machine to blow away the frost. It protects about ten acres of lowland."
The Melicks know to change with the times. George started with large trees and then went to semi-dwarf. Now they grow dwarf trees. They're better for pick-your-own customers.
According to Peter, "The big trees take fifteen years to get a full crop. The dwarfs bear in three or four years and are in full production in five. We replanted all the time, updating varieties and strains as tastes change. The worst thing for a farmer is if he and his trees grow old together."
Three years ago the Melicks built a farm market on Route 523 in Oldwick. For years they had sold from the garage behind their home. They also have the stand on Route 513 in Lebanon Township. Rebecca started them growing vegetables when she planted ten tomato plants. Today the Melicks grow four acres of tomatoes and twenty-five acres of sweet corn, as well as pumpkins, summer and winter squash, string beans, cucumbers, eggplant, broccoli, cauliflower and cantaloupes. The farm has forty acres of apples, forty acres of peaches, two acres of cherries, pears, plums, nectarines, and Asian pears.
Norma tells of their latest marketing project. "we sell at tailgate markets in Madison, Milburn, and Hoboken. With the two farm markets and the tailgate markets we are stretched thin. We lean on friends, neighbors, and family."
Deer are a serious problem for farmers. While fruit and vegetables are cash crops, they cost more to grow. George tells us, "We put in four miles of eight-foot high tensile fencing to protect all three locations. When three- quarters of it was up, the state offered free fencing to farmers if they would provide poles and labor."
According to Peter, "We take part in IPM - Integrated Pest Management. People don't want heavy spraying and neither do we. IPM advises us what to spray, where, and how much. We do only what's necessary. Their scouts check it out weekly and leave us notes on how we're doing. Through IPM and other agricultural services we are alerted at once about problems.
"Through e-mail we were warned about plum pox on peaches in Adams County, Pennsylvania. This is the first it's been found in this continent. There's no preventative or cure. Infected trees must be destroyed. They're working hard to stop it."
Back in 1962, Leroy Sutton told George of complaints about local cider, and suggested he buy a cider press. Today the cider mill in the big barn on King Street, behind the Tewksbury Inn, also offers pick-your-own apples. Through their own stands and markets, they sell 70,000 gallons of cider each year.
In recent years there have been reports of e-coli in unpasteurized cider. The heating of pasteurizing changes the flavor, and not for the better. So they invested in a state of the art ultra-violet light system that doesn't change the flavor. "There are very few cider mills left in New Jersey," says George. "The new system cost a lot but we are committed to remain in cider." Another advantage to staying in cider, John adds, is that "when buyers come for cider, they usually also buy apples, pumpkins, gourds, and Jack-Be-Littles, those tiny little pumpkins."
For ten generations the Melicks have kept up with the times and understood what people wanted. Norma and George are rightfully proud of their children. Not only are Peter, John, and Rebecca sticking with farming, but they are using modern technology to stay ahead. "My early ancestors were tanning hides," says George, "with no e-mail for them to learn of new methods. Today we get faxes at eleven at night and satellite forecasts about possible problems."
Nearly three hundred years have passed since Johan Peter Moelich first set foot in Tewksbury. Remarkably nine generation of Melicks later, in spite of so many changes in the world around them, some things are still pretty much the same. Come sunrise, it's business as usual out on the farm.