Weekly Challenge-Focus (on Milltown’s Old Mill)

“Instead of focusing on how much you can accomplish, focus on how much you can absolutely love what you’re doing.”

Leo Babauta



This week Cheri has challenged us to focus on FOCUS – a wonderful topic for photographers.  Fortunately, my trip to a family wedding in New Jersey last weekend provided me with a perfect subject.

In the town where I grew up there is an old, abandoned mill, after which the town, Milltown, was named.  For the first time, after seeing it hundreds of times over the years, I decided finally to photograph some of the long-abandoned site.  In the opening shot above, I used Aperture f/2.8 to bring the iron post into focus, blurring the crumbling facade in the background.  The second shot above was  taken at f/11 to include the elements of the facade.  Clearly the effect is quite different between the two captures.



“There are an infinite number of reasons to say no. Instead, try to focus on one good reason to say yes. 

Jarod Kintz

So what is it about urban decay that is so interesting to photographers?  And not just photographers – my post back in July about the Michigan Asylum for the Insane (here) was one of my most-commented, second only to my post on Angkor Wat.



“Focus on remedies, not faults.”

Jack Nicklaus

Whatever the reason, I found the abandoned mill most interesting, especially when I researched its history.  The first record of its existence was an advertisement for its sale in 1769.  It was sold in 1777 and almost immediately raided by British troops who captured two local militiamen that later escaped.  Between 1789 and 1812 it changed hands no less than 6 times;  in 1812 an ad by the then-owner referred to the settlement around it as Milltown – the town’s name ever since.



“The more choices we have, the greater the need for focus.”

Tom Butler-Bowdon

Between 1812 and 1906, the mill burned down twice (once burning the owner’s home as well, thereby driving him into bankruptcy).  It was rebuilt each time until finally being taken over by the International Rubber Company around 1900.  Soon afterwards the Raritan River Railroad Company made its first run, including Milltown in its route. The biggest change occurred in 1907 when Michelin Tire acquired the company, and with it, the mill.  (Duh, it never occurred to me, growing up surrounded by ballgames at Michelin field, and driving along Michelin Avenue, that the names had an obvious heritage!)



Following Michelin’s acquisition of the Mill, streets were paved and  electric lights were installed. 200+ bungalows were built by the company to improve living conditions for their employees, which during peak years included almost 3,000 people.  Those homes for the most part still stand today and are actively occupied by members of the community.

In 1930, as a result of the Great Depression, Michelin closed their US operations and returned to France.  Several firms subsequently used the mill, including a large division of Johnson & Johnson (yep, makers of baby powder and Band-Aids!), a printing company, a knitting mill and a wire company.  Since it has fallen into disrepair, there have been attempts to demolish the remaining structures and create a residential and/or retail environment.  There is also a historical preservation society focused on saving and restoring the site.  Local rumors note the probable existence of toxicity as a complication affecting the potential cost of either effort.



 “When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.”

Ansel Adams

Whatever its future, I must admit that after years of ignoring the site, which is within easy walking distance of my parents’ home, I was thoroughly captivated by its forlorn appearance and quite impressed with its convoluted history – who knew?!   Better late than never though, don’t you think?



117 thoughts on “Weekly Challenge-Focus (on Milltown’s Old Mill)

  1. Wonderful post, Tina. How much beauty there is in forgotten places, in details that are usually passed by not even noticed or thought about. And a great choice of quotes. I am still working on saying “yes” more than “no” and hopefully getting there step by step 🙂

  2. Tina, I have so many mixed emotions when I observe abandoned buildings! As a photographer, it is such a delight to capture all the textures etc. but then I start getting emotional with how many life’s were affected there and the building not being in use anymore. Your processing is perfect for this post my friend.

    • Good point Laurie – in this case the impact was, for the most part, a very positive one – so that’s a good thing! Thanks for your comment and compliment; much appreciated!

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  4. Great Post Tina ! Your pictures demonstrate the focus in the photographic sense and also bringing the past into focus too .
    It’s true , there is something about decay and crumbling edifices which appeals to many of us . So much history has been lost by reckless redevelopment I appreciate the chance to see something with a ‘past’ and wonder at the changes which have been wrought by those very times, by different owners and changing uses.
    Interesting to hear how the Michelin Co looked after their workforce in much the same way as the Cadbury family who built the Bournville Village in Birmingham and Lord Leverhulme at Port Sunlight in the Wirral over here in the UK .

    • Thanks for the very thoughtful comment PT. In this case I found the history even more interesting since it was in my hometown and I’d never given it much thought. To think that it went all the way back to our Revolutionary War really amazed me, and then to learn it was in large part responsible for the town’s naming and establishment as an entity made it that much more incredible. Finally, to learn that one of my neighbors here in South Carolina was a previous owner really brought the concept of “small world” home to me. Quite a fun subject as it turned out!

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    • Sincere thanks SSM–love that you found them haunting! As it turns out, they do a haunted river walk every year around the site. If there are indeed such things as ghosts one has to believe there’d be some here, don’t you think? Love your thought about the reason behind the draw too!

      • Oooh, that sounds like a fun event. Although I’ve never participated in a haunted tour, I always imagine they’re less macabre and more historically educational than one might think. Great subject you captured!

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  7. Very interesting, Tina. The name is very appropriate considering how important the mill was for some many years. I also especially liked the Ferrous Focus.

    • Thanks Sue! Yes, and incredible that I never thought about it when I lived there. Amazing how much perspective a little hindsight gives us!

      Sent from my iPad

  8. wow, I am happy you decided to explore this mill. You should have done earlier, but then your focus ( 🙂 ) might not have created this portfolio. I really love the tones you use, that adds time in a gentle way to the subject. I would love to see more of this mill, more details. I love the watertower, that is iconic. Indeed, focus is a container with loads of meanings. You showed here that it is about seeing and then showing what you want people to see in their eyes through your eyes. Well done! So go back!

    • Thanks Chris. Love your comment about the tones adding time “in a gentle way”. Exactly my goal but you expressed it beautifully! And interesting that you say go back–I’ve been thinking I with I’d had more time with it. We visit again at Christmas, perhaps ill get a chance to shoot it in the snow!

      Sent from my iPad

  9. Once again with your photography challenges, you have captured interesting sights, but also introduced me to new spaces, and best of all with your comments, a depth of character and personality about you personally that I did not know. Also a motivation for me to challenge myself more.
    Thanks so much
    Ann S

    • Thanks so much Ann for the lovely comment. The challenges are a great way for me to focus (pun intended) and push me to be creative, which I love. Always good to push ourselves a bit right?!

  10. Great, great photos, colour treatment and focus! And a lovely informative post to go with them. You asked an interesting question as to why photographers love decay – my answer is that it provides unusual angles, textures and a sense of history I suppose as decaying places are usually old.
    Jude xx

    • Thanks Jude, for your lovely compliment and thoughtful comment. I agree, the textures that go with decay are fantastic as are the angles. In this case the history turned out to be wonderful as well!!

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  12. T, funny how we drive by or live with places and and scenery that we never really take note of until we focus. Hope the family reunion was fun at the wedding!
    Love your comment , Sharon!

  13. The things we never noticed growing up… Thanks for the interesting tour… That site employed a lot of folks though the years and was quite a myriad of successful companies. Hope the wedding was a great one! Linda

    • Yes, it really did shape the town although I never realized it. When we’re young we’re much more interested in ourselves I suppose 🙂 wedding was wonderful, thanks GF!!

  14. Tina, I love everything about this post! I think I may finally understand Fstops! :-)The quotes were wonderful. But the best, being a history wonk, was the amazing story of the mill itself – I loved the story – how the mill impacted both the town and the lives of the people who lived there! Great story and photos!

    • Why thanks Mary Lynn – what a lovely comment!! I was amazed by the history myself–about time I looked into it! BTW, there’s a Kiawah resident among the many previous owners of the mill (Trivia quiz!!) do you know who?!

      • Working most of the time. Nursing in a university clinic is timeconsuming. Tina. That’s why I have to rush off again. 🙂 Enjoy your Sunday. ♥

  15. These photos are perfect for the focus, they also tell the stories and part of mill history. Thank you for providing the background informations.

  16. I loved all these shots, Tina. Especially interesting since I lived in NJ a couple of times. Ridgewood in the north and Cherry Hill in the south. Some of those photos look very familiar.

    Also, you have validated something for me. I used to love taking those shots where you focus on the subject and blur the background. My step-father, who was an accomplished and published photographer, hated them and would get all over me about shooting that way. I argued with him constantly about it being personal preference and having it’s own sense of artistry. Pretty silly, huh?

    Nice post.

  17. WOW!!! Where to begin…..LOVE these photos …especially the FALLS with the water blurred in the background..as was in the first photo….very interesting!! The captions that accompany the shots are just exquisite….very thought provoking!! I too spent a lot of time in Milltown NJ growing up as my aunt lived there….who knew the mill was there…will have to look for it when I return!! Just great stuff..once again!!

  18. Love it Tina. Makes me think of focus for sure. In and out, right on, and how “lack of ….” would change the same composition or situation! SQ

  19. I love how you weave the history in with the photos (which tell a story by themselves).
    The closest town to us is home to a now abandoned decaying former cotton mill. It was built after the Civil War and once employed most of the town. It too has “seen better days.”
    Thanks for sharing this excellent photo-essay.

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    • Thank you Ilargia! Yes, our son has lived in NYC for 20 years. He just went to the top of the Empire State Bldg for the first time to share it with his daughter! Appreciate your comment!

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