Public Info

Guillermo Thorn and the Mills of the Watchungs: A Photographic Journey into the Past

Union County, NJ — If you were living in the Plainfield area in the late 1800s and wanted a family portrait, it’s quite possible you found your way to the studio of Guillermo Thorn.

And if one of these days you find yourself wandering along the Green Brook in the Watchung Reservation and come across some ruins, there are old Thorn photographs revealing what once stood there.

Should any of this history fascinate you — the beginnings of commercial photography in America or the 19th century mills that once powered industries along the brooks in the Watchung Mountains, then there is only one place you want to be this Sunday: Masker’s Barn, 13 Cataract Hollow Road, Berkeley Heights, in the Deserted Village of Feltville.

As part of the spring celebration at Union County’s Watchung Reservation, which includes Wild Earth Fest and Touch A Truck, the Deserted Village will host free hayrides through the village, along with history tours.

Part of that history will be told by Scotch Plains resident Rich Palmatier, an amateur historian who has made Thorn and the mills along the Green and Blue Brooks the focus of hundreds of hours of research.

Reproductions of Thorn’s work will be on display in Masker’s Barn, with Palmatier explaining Thorn’s adventures through the area and the photographic legacy he left behind, including a series of stereographs — precursors to Viewmasters (if you’re old enough to remember them) and today’s virtual reality headsets.

“This Sunday is going to be quite a day up in the Watchung Reservation,” said Freeholder Chair Bette Jane Kowalski.  “While Wild Earth Fest and Touch A Truck are returning to mark our annual Spring kick off in County Parks, there will be even more to do.”

“The Watchung Stable will be hosting free pony rides and barn tours, while the Deserted Village will be hosting a mini-Four Centuries,” Kowalski said.

All activities will run from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., with main parking at the Stable and Deserted Village. Shuttle buses will get visitors around the Reservation.

As part of the special focus on Guillermo Thorn, several Thorn-related Union County History Cards will be available for youngsters to collect at Masker’s Barn. To learn more about collecting Union County History Cards, visit

Guillermo Thorn Born was born in 1837, two years before the invention of the photograph. He would grow up to see photography infiltrate every aspect of 19th-century life. 

Thorn gave up a brief career as a drawing and painting teacher and opened his first studio in Saugerties, NY, before moving to Plainfield in 1864. 

While he quickly established himself as a professional photographer, taking portraits and scenics of the area, his personal life was marred by tragedy. By 1870, disease claimed the lives of his wife, Alice, and their five children. He eventually remarried, with his later children becoming muses for his pictorial work.  

As part of Palmatier’s presentations on Sunday, he will share old photographs of the long forgotten mills along the Green and Blue Brooks. During the 18th and early 19th centuries, these waterways were the industrial hub for this area, producing everything from lumber to paper to gunpowder, grist, material for hats and crushed stone. 

There were upwards of 12 mills along these two brooks. In some spots, you can still see remnants of the dams, sluices, and spillways that provided the water power to drive the machinery. 

For those who participate in the National Parks Passport Program, the Deserted Village Church and General Store will be open to stamp Parks passports. The site, originally settled in the 1700s, is included in the National Parks Service Crossroads of the American Revolution National Heritage Area, along with a number of other Revolutionary War era sites in Union County. 

To learn more about the Passport to Your National Parks program and the locations of Parks Stamps in Union County, visit

For information on all Union County parks and activities visit

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