Famed South Jersey Estate is a Romantic Area

Now that the vast Wharton estate, tri-county treasure trove of many of these stories, is back in the news, I feel impelled to refresh your memory concerning it. I do that knowing that there will be as many exaggerations as there may be fantastic tales concerning its places and people before, if enabling action follows Gov. Driscoll’s budgetary proposal, the area becomes a state park.

It was the governor’s idea that the tract variously estimated upward and downward of 100,000 acres be taken over as a park, water reservation, and wildlife preserve, with $2,000,000 set aside in the 1952 New Jersey budget for that purpose. However, the motive in giving you a clearer picture of what there is and what there was springs from current rumors of what there is to be. Beyond all that, I would eliminate, even before they are re-confected, those silly notions about the people called “Pineys.”

Perhaps it is that I am unduly alarmed by the reports that are already rampant among my Down Jersey friends, some of them those very people. It is common gossip that even before the Legislature can act to preserve this primitive woodland, with a colorful history reaching back to Colonial days, competitive bids are in from government agencies as well as from commercial organizations in search of additional sources of wood pulp. There can be little doubt but what government men are interested in at least an area bordering what always has been familiar to me as the old Washington Turnpike for here, as well as in adjacent lands, test borings and surveys have been made. I would not fear the invasion of these forces as much as I would the pulp people who, even now, on land outside the Wharton estate, have taken what they wanted and left many neighborhoods desolate.

The governor’s proposal seems to be a popular one and even the editorial writers who come equipped with scratchy pens have commended It. One of them waxed unusually poetic in recent days, ruminating with incredible accuracy In this strain:

‘Wild’ territory abounds in area

Those who know this territory can testify to its fascination. Take winding roads north either from Atco or Hammonton, turning off the White Horse Pikes and one soon enters what some would call ‘wild’ territory. For miles there will be only woodland and then, suddenly, lovely lakes and streams. In this region the Mullica begins as a tiny creek to become the broad river along which boats once traveled to Batsto and Pleasant Mills to get cannon bails, made of bog iron, for our Revolutionary armies.

Two other rivers – the Wading and Great Egg Harbor – run through the tract, and it was this broad watershed which led Joseph Wharton, founder of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, to begin buying up these tracts about 1876, with the idea of providing potable water for Philadelphia.

I think I know who it was who swerved from the main highway of ordinary commentary to the sequestered byways among some of my favorite forgotten towns. If I am correct in my conclusions, he once was a music critic and so it would be easy for him to drift off into these lyric cadences too often eliminated from pages assigned to commentators. Boiling down the chain of events from 1876 to the present, at least from his point of view, the writer went on:

“It was a great idea. There were two drawbacks: Philadelphia politicians preferred Delaware River water, and the New Jersey Legislature banned piping of water outside the state. The idea died. Before Wharton bought the properties they had known the feudal barony of Jesse Richards, who had mansions In Batsto and Atco and who operated two bog iron furnaces, a glassworks, a paper mill, farms, and minor industries. These had largely gone, leaving ghost towns behind them, by the time Wharton took over. Since then the great tract has known little activity save that of workers on cranberry bogs, cottages dotting the lake at Atsion, explorations of naturalists and historians, and the rustle and tempo of abundant wildlife.”

“It is a great preserve which the State of New Jersey would acquire, less some 10,000 acres which the Navy is reported to want for an air training field, and the cottage sites which would be sold to their occupants.”

The writer concluded by commending the purchase so that New Jersey might boast an area comparable to Fairmount Park, as meaningful in other ways to Philadelphia – but I must reassure you quickly, as one who picknicked as a boy in all sections of Fairmount Park, that the comparison is unfortunate. To transform the Wharton tract into another Fairmount Park would be a nightmare to those who love the wilds and, even if it were part of the plan, would require many more dollars than those set aside as presumably sufficient purchase price. However, it is at this point that I catch my breath a little for unless some provision is made for maintenance of the park in the years to come, with guards and caretakers and those who will tell its wonderful story, the dream will indeed be empty. I say this parenthetically with considerable concern in knowing what could have been done long ago in smaller state parks but, as you know, has not been for lack of funds.

Legacies often present problem

Too often an agency, be it, state or a diocese or even a family, accept as a gift or purchase reasonably an estate or a big house only to discover that moving in is one thing and staying on is something else. Even if no major improvements are undertaken for some time to come, guards and guides will have to be provided – guards to prevent ravishment of pulp lands such as has been experienced already even on private property adjacent to the Wharton tract, guides who will know and be able to tell the colorful story of the park in a way that will take history out of its moth balls.

Custodians of historic sites are in most instances earnest people but time and again they affect an air of boredom or show themselves to be annoyed by questions they cannot answer. All of It gets back to the same thing – funds were provided for acquisition of this site and that park but funds for maintenance with suitable personnel have not been forthcoming.

I say this almost in a whisper for I have long advocated the purchase of the Wharton lands by the state, if for no other reason than to preserve what remains as compared to what there used to be when I first began wandering across and through and around the Wharton lands more than 20 years ago. Some of my most memorable adventures have had their background there, along the little rivers – and there are more than the two named in the commendable editorial along the unsung roads that preceded ribbons of concrete in days when shovels and axes were taken along for safe passage, and along the swamps and cedar water that give a strange and clinging perfume to every season of the year.

It has been given to me to talk with men and women who knew Joe Wharton and I have written down recurrently what other men and women have told me about the forges and furnaces of the Richards empire which before that was the empire of Charles Read, intimate friend of Benjamin Franklin, collector of the Port of Burlington, secretary of the province, speaker of the Assembly, member of the council, justice of the Supreme Court, colonel of the militia and commissioner to treat with the Indians – Mrs. Read was a Creole, daughter of a planter in Antigua.

I have listened, time and again, beside the potbellied stoves of country stores where history is passed around verbally, generation to generation, and have heard of Joe Wharton’s fragrant “fish factories” along the coast. And so, in the land of Joe Mulliner, the Refugee who was hanged in Burlington and taken to property of his wife now in the Wharton holdings, I have been steeped in the atmosphere of Atsayunk of the Atsiyonks (now Atsion) and the Mordecai Swamp where a pile of cannon balls are said to have sunk to China by now.

One of the books that ought to be read for greater appreciation of the probable Wharton or Richards or Read state park is Carl Raymond Woodward’s “Ploughs and Politicks: Charles Read of New Jersey and His Notes on Agriculture,” published by the Rutgers University Press In 1941 and never fully appreciated. Charlie Boyer, to whom you have been introduced already, also gives many pages of his “New Jersey Forges and Furnaces,” published by the University of Pennsylvania Press 10 years before, to what he calls the Charles Read Enterprises. Carl Woodward’s book the by-product of a search for Benjamin Franklin’s New Jersey farm near Burlington where both Ben and Read experimented in agriculture and where Read may have taken for his studies in farming which were included in “Ploughs and Politics.”

Burlington had a customs man

The Wharton land, then, covers much of the territory where Charles Read, In the years from 1715 to 1774, spent his youth, became a customs collector when Burlington was a port, speculated in pinelands as did his successors, set up the operation of bog ore furnaces and forges on a chain-store basis, became a leading politician of the Jersey provinces and died in exile in North Carolina. And if you would like to compare what I have called the things that were with the things that are in the area of the proposed park, you have only a glance at some of the illustrations in Carl’s book, then those that appear in “Jersey Genesis and finally, what you will see with your own eyes today.

Reproductions of scenes in the Burlington of Charles Read’s day make me wonder why Burlington, celebrating its anniversary, made little effort to become another Williamsburg, unless It was that the foundations organized for such purposes let officials down. The magnificent old houses assigned to the forge masters at Taunton, Atsion and Batsto, as well as the old store, long closed among its Batsto memories of merchant craft that dared the river, have lost a little more than face. At Atsion the mansion whose portico is supported by pillars of Jersey iron is used for storing materials of the Wharton Estate, inasmuch as the estate manager lives nearby.

The mansion at Pleasant Mills, not far from the little Methodist Church dedicated by Francis Asbury, is maintained in good order inasmuch as the Lippincotts of Philadelphia publishing fame, use it as a sylvan retreat – they, you see, are descendants of the Whartons. If you would concentrate on forges and furnaces, Martha, Taunton, Etna, Batsto and all the rest, you had better pore over Charlie Bowyer’s notes.

The editorial used the word “fasting.” It is wholly accurate. No matter how many times you have wandered through the Wharton estate and it’s wonderful neighborhoods, and no matter how long you have been away, something calls you back to again look upon the unbroken expanse of scrub oak and stunted pines as they can be seen from Jemima Mount or Bear Swamp Hill; to dig into the ruins of a tavern at Washington Field, where Joe Mulliner was caught at a dance; to await the harbingers of spring, herring in the Mullica River whose story took a whole book to tell, and to listen for new stories at Aunt Hattie’s store at Green Bank, now ably carrying on its traditions under the direction of her nephew, Rod Koster. Aunt Hattie, God rest her sweet soul, taught school at Harrisville where there was a town, now recalled in broken walls and cellar holes on the road down from Chatsworth, a road I like to travel late in May or early in June when the Jersey cactus or prickly pear decks the Indian grass with yellow bell like flowers.

I was thinking of that in Aunt Hattie’ store the other day, just after the announcement had been made to buy the Wharton lands. I have thought aloud for Arthur Sooy of Green Bank, spoke up. “I remember Joe Wharton” he said. “I was here in the day he came down this way to buy Harrisville.” I told him that I was old enough to recall a time when the Wharton estate men had to employ a watchman to live beside the Harrisville ruins to prevent theft of the native stone from the crumbling walls.

Roasted oysters on store ledge

“Billy Sooy owned the store, then,” said Rod. ‘He used to roast oysters right there on the ledge that goes all the way around the stove. Once he fell asleep in the chair and some of those who were in the store pried the oyster shells and ate the oysters inside. When Billy woke up and reached for what he thought he was going to enjoy, he found the oyster shells empty. I’m getting worse,’ he said. ‘I open oysters in my sleep and can’t remember eating them.’”

“Jackie” Ford, who still lives up the road, not far from the banks of the Mullica, is one of many still living in the neighborhood who worked for Joe Wharton when Joe ran a fleet of boats that supplied “fish factories” with mossbunkers, sometimes called greentails as the mainstay of early glue and fertilizer. Jackie told me long ago that Joe, once a mayor of Philadelphia, operated boats that plied from the Virginia Capes to Rhode Island.

“Most people know mossbunkers as menhaden, minnies to you maybe” said Jackie. “Joe Wharton’s factories were at Lewes, Delaware; Tiverton, Rhode Island, and a place called Promised Land which was out at the mouth of the Mullica. Steamers loaded up and brought fish to the factories for whatever factory men were paying. We could bring in about a million in a load,” said Jackie Ford.

Leon Koster, Rod’s father, also worked at the fish factories. Now Leon Is part of the Green Bank tree farm of the state which, already state property, will concentrate its routines nearer Trenton. The nursery once was Sooy land and was taken over by the state in a mixup that involved debts and politics. Joe Wharton bought the vast estate in foreclosure proceedings and, writing “Jersey Genesis” almost 10 years ago, I said, “There are always recurrent expressions of belief that the dreads of the Wharton Estate as a watershed will come true.”

The land is as plentiful in water as it is in legend and history, with the most colorful legends centered at what used to be “The Forks” – now Batsto and Pleasant Mills. “It is surely ironical,” I wrote elsewhere, “that of all the landings up and down the Mullica, The Forks, signally celebrated in every record of the countryside, should have gone so fast asleep, its kings and captains departed for so long.”

Now, quite obviously, the glorious wilderness in which some of the richest lore of New Jersey is concentrated, will awaken and some of us must guard against a rude awakening.

There must be those who will guard the placid lives who always have lived in the woodlands – the mossies who gather sphagnum, the little mills that make shingles in old-fashioned ways, the berry pickers never at a loss to find ways to make a modest living at any season of the year, the men and women and children who gather and color pine-cones, and all the rest. New Jersey, buying a place, cannot, buy a people and beyond the people a way of life that is New Jersey’s own in what I have called a never-never land. Later on, when, more details of the prospective park purchase are more certain, I will tell you of the descendants of titans of early industries who, as resourceful giants of the forest themselves, will he memorialized in a new and seemingly limitless state park.

First published in the Newark Sunday Star Ledger, Feb. 24, 1952. Reprinted with permission. Transcribed by Ben Ruset. The Star Ledger requests that you do not copy, retransmit, or link directly to this article. Please link to our homepage at http://www.njpinebarrens.com

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