This month marks the reopening of the restored Old Snuff Mill (now called the Lillian and Amy Goldman Stone Mill) by the Bronx River in the New York Botanical Garden.
This picturesque, though humble building was the foundation of one of New York City’s great manufacturing fortunes. In 1790 the Lorillard family came up from lower Manhattan and purchased lands along the Bronx River in what was then Westchester County. Of French Huguenot origin, the Lorillards had long been in the tobacco business, but came to the Bronx River with two innovations for manufacturing snuff, the then-popular dried, fine-ground tobacco snorted up the nose for a quick nicotine hit. One was to use water-powered stone mill wheels to grind the tobacco in much greater quantities than the old-fashioned way with a mortar and pestle. The other was to make the snuff more palatable by mixing it with dried, fine-ground rose petals.
Soon finding themselves the nation’s predominant snuff manufacturers, the Lorillards built a palatial mansion on the hill overlooking the river, where from the front windows could be viewed their famous “acre of roses” that supplied petals to the mills. (Though the mansion is long vanished, the acre of roses was on the site of the present-day Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden.)
Drawing its water power from the dam shortly upstream, the Stone Mill you see today is actually the third one on the site, built in 1840 just as dry snuff was beginning to go out of fashion. The Lorillards were already moving with the times, though, and had branched out into chewing tobacco, prompting a quip from the diarist Philip Hone that Pierre Lorillard “lead people by the nose, and got them to chew what they couldn’t swallow.”
In 1870 the Snuff Mill was shut down, and the Lorillards moved their operations to Jersey City, to branch out once again, this time manufacturing the newfangled cigarettes. (Their popular “Old Gold” brand was reputedly inspired by the legendary treasure of the British warship Hussar, said to lie in waters off the Bronx’s East River coast.) Their Jersey City factory is still standing, too, at 111 Washington Street, and is now artists’ studios.
The Lorillards left the Bronx when the city purchased their estate in 1888 for the new Bronx Park, but they continued to be innovators. Pierre Lorillard IV went on to found Tuxedo Park, the nation’s first, and still exclusive, gated community, where his son Griswold “Grizzy” Lorillard was said to have invented the men’s formal wear known as the tuxedo. Reputed at one time to be haunted, the Old Snuff Mill survived, first as the carpentry shop for the New York Botanical Garden, then in 1954 as the Snuff Mill Tea Room, and today as a romantic Bronx River venue for wedding receptions.
Stephen Paul DeVillo