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Ghosts of By-Gone Glories Haunt Quiet Lanes and the Memories of Batsto’s Old-Timers

I could lead you down ordinary ways to Taunton, Etna, Atsion and Batsto, without more to-do. I could tell how that old sailor with the Creole wife, Charles Read, listed Taunton as Tanton when he advertised its sale in 1773, or how, three years after, Tom Maybury moved there to make cannon and shot under the noses of British and Hessian soldiers in Mount Holly.

I could take you to Etna, called Aetna by the third Charles Read who inherited its headaches, and there we might dig up, if our luck held, some pig iron, a stray cannon ball or, more, surely, some buried slag near the dam where those who live in Medford Lakes stroll by unwary every day, we could follow modern concrete down to Atsion, the Atsyunk of the Atsiyonk Indians, once owned on shares by David Ogden, Lawrence Salter, and the man who fell in love and married in Antigua. There, beside a little church and some never-painted houses, an old store and the empty manorial retreat of the forge managers of long ago, we might talk of iron that was sent to equip what in those days was renowned as the Pennsylvania Navy.

Or we could go the long way to Batsto by the Nesco road from Hammonton down through Pleasant Mills, old Nescochague – Sweetwater now, a trail which for a long time was the shortest and surest route to Tuckerton and Long Beach, known well by rustic patriots who fashioned stoves, salt pans, fire-backs, Dutch ovens and even ordinary skillets, turning quickly to vital munitions for Valley Forge when the emergency came.

But I would rather follow the low roads, if you don’t mind-the Jackson road that comes over from Berlin, old Long-a-Coming, to join the Tuckerton road at what as Delilett’s, the road through Piper’s Corner and Indian Mills, once the first and New Jersey’s own Indian reservation I prefer and I know you will like the road that parallels the Mullica river and then twists through rutted sand to the Batsto river until it emerges in the back yards of Batsto, the old furnace town.

Here we can take note of the red and white signs that post the land telling us that this is the estate of Joseph Wharton and that there are rules and regulations we must observe, now that we are on what was his property.

Joseph is dead but in the days when he was Philadelphia’s mayor, even as was the first Charles Read of Batsto, he had notions of piping water from the tract-It now measures 95,000 acres-to the fair city which, from all accounts, has had need of it., The project failed by a few votes in the State Legislature and so the wilderness and water have returned, for the most part, to the condition in which God gave them-except that men have taken most of their feudal ways to the cities and numerous birds and beasts have vanished together.

You should remember, however, when you read these warnings against trespassing, that somehow from the very beginning, one dynasty has given way successively to another-first came the Reads, then the Richards, and then the Whartons whose heirs now employ men who chop wood, build cabins, lease shooting rights, and tack up more signs. So let us see now if we can bring to life a few lost lords of the wildwood, in words of these who recall some of them, in phrases of old friends who say they do, and in what remains of a New Jersey industrial empire that has vanished away.

Ghostly Region on First Visit

When first I went to Atsion it was a far more ghostly place than you will find now. The road from Berlin, Camden county, ran through the brushy clearing that was Jackson Glassworks, and the Wharton heirs had built no cabins along Burlington county’s widened Atsion lake. The dam was old, nothing at all like the modern replacement crossed today by the wide highway that cuts directly down through Columbus and Red Lion over the flats and bogs and cedar swamps.

Jim Armstrong was living then, still a tax collector of Shamong Township as he had been more than 30 years, and at 70-plus he smiled when I told him that he was, from all that his neighbors said of him, man who held the keys to all Atsion’s secrets.

“Don’t even have a key to this house,” he said, outside the place which he lived, up toward Indian Mills, “and I’ve lived in it 67 years.”

From, the way in which his choice Indian relics had a habit of disappearing, especially after the visits of collectors, I can now reflect that a lock or two would have served him well.

So, after displaying his mortars and pestles Jim Armstrong took me to the pipe that served an alien capacity under his barn. “See the letter ‘A’ at the bottom?” he asked, with quiet delight.

“Know what that means? Made at Atsion Furnace, it was, just like those pipes that people take for pillars on the porch of the old Sam Richards house at Atsion. That ‘A’ is the official stamp, yes sir!”

It is probable that Jim was one of the first who confused me, in those days, on the essential differences between forges and furnaces, an uncertainty that earned me many a dark look from the late Charles Boyer (no relation to the Hollywood Frenchman who at last report was still alive) when he used to come in to see Ben Courter. I was always saying “forge” when I meant “furnace” or “furnace” when I meant “forge” and it was not until long after, when Nat Ewan took time to set me right, that I realized how important the distinction is. I note the variance well, for there will be other furnaces and forges beyond these feudal lands:

Furnaces, you see, converted the native Jersey bog ore into pig iron and then the forges hammered the pigs into wagon tires, sheet iron, gratings and bars, or smithy and household equipment. Some New Jersey ironworks combined forges and furnaces, it is true, but usually there were separate water wheels and tilt-hammers erected in other buildings.

“Might as well begin your looking at Atsion,” Jim Armstrong advised me. “There ain’t much to show as Taunton or Etna to remind you of the old days.” He was almost right although I took occasion to remind him of the boast that Taunton was better than some of the other neighborhood furnaces because, a boast in the ancient advertisements never lacked for water power, was so accessible that a good team could haul three loads a day, or was so close to the woods that the wagons could get six loads of cut fuel.

I pointed out that old Taunton’s iron, rolled up to wharves long removed at Lumberton, went down Rancosas creek to the Delaware River for as little as 12 shillings ton. The reference made little impression, however: Jim said that 12 shillings was alot of money. “Any how, you history birds won’t like what’s at Taunton now, with picnic and new names and all-and I’ll bet you the Sunday Schools that come down for, outings to Taunton. don’t know we used to call the place Whiskey Hollow!”

Shop Remembered by Folks in 80’s

They didn’t know, either that although historians as doughty as Woodward an Hagaman passed up tracing owner of Taunton furnace or forge up to 1800, there were Medford folk of the 1880’s who remembered Richard Edwards running the iron-work there, wanderers who used to go down the low roads to see the abandoned trip-hammer and anvil-block which presumably joined a junk dealer’s collection, the blackened ground of the clearing that was Thackera’s Coal-Mill where charcoal was pulverized at another Fairview which had been another Cross Keys, or even the seldom remembered mills of the Branms, the Oliphants, or the Haineses.

I asked Jim Armstrong about Mark Reeve who was said to have made the first cut nails with heads that ever were fashioned in America but Jim said that every trace of Mark’s inventive genius was gone, along with his cumbersome horse-power machinery in Medford or the strong “pigtail” tobacco he sold at one cent per yard. Mark, the stories go, forgot to protect his system of making nails until a Yankee tin-peddler wandered in to watch the process all one day and then beat Mark to the patent by a week.

It was on the day when I first saw Jim Armstrong that I first heard of Frank Peck – and I was all ears because the Pecks had been among the first residents of Batsto. Down-country folk who didn’t always remember his name called him “the Water Wizard.” I was told first that he lived in Indian Mills and later that it I would be more likely to find him at Tabernacle or even close by Batsto itself.

Batsto’s the village that was built on the site of Batstoo, which to the Indians meant “a bathing place” and Tabernacle’s a crossroads with a church, a school and an impressive cemetery where they buried Indian Ann who returned to sell her woven baskets up and down the country roads long after her companions had been taken to Oneida, NY.

Charlie Remine, in Wrightstown, said that Frank liked wandering but that I’d probably find him closer to Red Lion than anywhere else. That was how I found “the Water Wizard” in the small weather-black house that appeared permanent enough, basking in the dubious glory of being Burlington county’s last “water-finder.”

‘Miracle Man’ located water

For years uncounted Frank had been the Pineys’ own Miracle Man, the fellow who walked across fields with a pointed stick, telling professionals where to drill for water that they always found. Out in the country Charlie said, you got water, usually from a spring, a pond, or even a creek. But sometimes, he explained, you liked a piece of land where none of these was available. That was when, unless you didn’t mind wasting days that could be used more profitably otherwise, you called on Uncle Frank.

What was more, according to the story that was being passed around even then, a legend that still bobs up in a Medford Lakes and other pinelands hideaways that have been modernized, newcomers enlisted Frank’s help to find water for lakeside cabins. Frank told me that he got $5 every time he found water and that the routine made more sense than blacksmithing, his old trade.

Frank was 77 when I talked to him. Except for a rheumy limp, he seemed younger by ten years. His frame was gaunt and his face as lean but his eyes were of that particular shade of blue which, when focused, bores through you and beyond. They were, I think, the more penetrating because they were set off by Frank’s full gray beard. And If you doubted his powers by either expression or implication, Frank, gave you one of his looks and then remembering that he was “the Water Wizard” of whom you had been told, the gushing of water from your vest pockets would have caused no surprise.

I found Frank at the back-door of the hideaway he shared with Mrs. Peck who betrayed her whereabouts occasionally furtive glances between a torn blind and the frame of a window. Frank, who said he had sons who had “moved away somewheres,” wore no coat and his shirt was wide-open even though the false spring day was damp and chill. “They told me,” I said, after some preliminary skirmishing “that you were the Water Wizard.” He stood silent, watching me for a moment, so that I concluded that he was deaf and had not heard. I repeated my words and this time, without any reply at all, he began to perform, as if his moment of concentration was a necessary part of his act. If you have never seen a “water-diviner” in action, you’ve missed something.

Prongs Twisted Despite Grasp

Uncle Frank unsheathed a murderous-looking knife and began looking for a stick which, he mumbled indistinctly, must be forked and green, must have a six-inch “handle” and must be equipped with prongs 18 inches long, with a size equal to one’s little finger. Grasping a stick be had thus prepared, he started walking over his land, first straightening himself upward to added dignity and striding forward like a man in a trance.

The first stick broke in a way that still mystifies me but a second was quickly provided. Then the walk began all over again, with Frank’s jaw set, eyes fixed on space, and long gray Whitmanesque wisps of hair flying in the cold wind. Suddenly, with the so-called handle pointed away from him, the prongs began to twist, apparently in spite of Frank’s firm grasp, so that the handle turned toward the ground.

“There’s water!” Frank Peck exclaimed, relaxing and tossing the divining rod away. I had to take for granted that water was where he said It was and the spell, obviously, was over. I spoke no word but Uncle Frank must have included mind-reading among his talents for, without explanation, he began his routine all over again.

This time he explained that the rod must be Hazelwood, although I could have sworn he cut it from a peach tree. As the second part of the double feature came to an end, Frank turned, showing me his hands as a kind of clincher: Fragments of bark clung to the skin. The old man wanted to prove that although his grip had been one like steel, nothing natural could have kept the handle from turning toward water, deep down.

“How do you do it?” I remember asking, speaking quietly because I wondered if words would cause trouble.

“Don’t know,” Frank answered. “Was getting old when I found out I could. Not anybody can. But this here way’s the trick the Indians used when they found water for the Reads and Richards down Batsto way.” I wanted to ask why the Indians were employed to find water in a place the Lenne Lenapes called “bathing pool” but I held my tongue. And so, scanning my notes, I can tell you that this was my first and last experience with a New Jersey “water wizard” although I know full well that back in the open country up in northern New Jersey and off hidden paths to the south others are still operating.

Famed Old Towns Went Fast Asleep

So, then, we go to Batsto and Atsion. Somewhere I have remarked how ironical it is that of all the landings up and down the Mullica, “The Forks” – Batsto and Pleasant Mills, so signally celebrated in every record of the countryside, should have gone so fast asleep. Here at the head of Mullica river navigation, five or six miles from Elwood, once Sailor Boy, there is a kind of island formed by the meeting of the Batsto river, Nescochague and Meschescatauxen creeks, and the Atsion or main branch of the Mullica itself.

Pleasant Mills, once Sweetwater, is on the island and Batsto, separated by the bridge, is just beyond. In Revolutionary days there were houses and barns and wharves along the shore, and in the river were hundreds of ships, privateers, and their prizes. Now there is an old church, an empty paper mill, some old houses and the mansion of Kate Aylesford.

Batsto was the objective, you remember, when the British fleet anchored at the river mouth and, frustrated in its plan to get up that far, resorted to burning Chestnut Neck and whatever else came handy. An iron furnace had been established in Batsto ten years before independence was declared, and then with the coming of war the output became exclusively cannon, shot, and shell.

Israel Pemberton, first owner of the furnace, called the place Whitcomb Manor, the second establishment of its kind in the state. Later it was sold to Charles Read and still later to Col. John Cox and Thomas Maybury. Joseph Ball, a wealthy Philadelphia Quaker, was there when peacetime manufacture gave way to wartime munitions, sending the first of the Batsto giants, Willliam Richards, to become the manager in 1784. By this time “The Forks” was well populated and a mecca for those who wanted to dodge the draft by working in the early wartime industry.

Much that was Batsto, sometimes spelled Batstow, apart from the village of the workmen, is as it always was, except for the unnatural but delightful quiet. No one goes to the old store for there is nothing to buy. The old Richards manor house, with Its 36 rooms and a tower that once was used as a forest fire lookout, remains high on the shaded knoll, restored and maintained by Joseph Wharton, who bought the vast estate in 1876, and now kept up by his descendants, the Lippincotts of Philadelphia.

The store, the manor and some of the old barns went unscathed Jan. 23, 1874 when a spark from the chimney of Robert Stewart’s house set fire to the dwelling and, before the flames were checked, laid mots of the village in ashes.

The first villagers were fisher folk and lumbermen. The cost of transportation on cedar boards and shingles taken to Philadelphia was high and although people of Batsto and its neighbor across the Batsto river, Pleasant Mills, required and still ask little from life that they themselves can’t supply and build, the going at the beginning was hard.

Perhaps Charles Read knew that he would have little trouble in gaining cheap labor from natives so content with what they had but, whether be knew it or not, Batsto gave little resistance to the coming of a new industry, the “mining” of Jersey bog ore. Charles Read, a nephew of Israel Pemberton, began buying and selling land the vicinity as early as 1754 but, although he is sometimes given credit for building the Batsto Works, actually he owned but a quarter interest, later selling out to such notables as Col. Cox, Tom Maybury and Joseph Ball, the rich Philadelphian who paid $275,000 for Batsto just like that.

Col. Cox was no small fry – a merchant who had taken an active part in the proceedings that led to the Declaration of Independence, he was a member of the first General Committee or Correspondence as well as one of the Council of Safety. An intimate of Generals Knox and Greene, his appointment as Assistant Quartermaster General in 1778 should serve as an index to a man who was more than a staunch patriot, but there are few in Batsto or Pleasant Mills who will tell you much about the Reads or Col. Cox or even Col. William Richards, who came there in 1784 to manage the iron-works for his nephew, young Mr. Ball.

Old Tory Legend Caused Reticence

The reticence of the few who know is something I have learned to share-and there is a reason. On recent journeys to the twin villages I have avoided the full measure of my usual enthusiasm. I say merely that Col. Richards, the man who was caught while wandering and who was suspected of Tory sympathies, an accusation which well may have been the price of expediency, was a good humored gentleman who, judging from, his portraits, was usually in need of a haircut.

He was fellow of “wonderful energy and enterprise” according to the records, the sole owner who “lived like a prince” when, as one of six uncles and aunts, he inherited Mr. Ball’s estate. I concern myself, usually, with the grave of Jesse Richards, his son. In the shadow of the lovely old Methodist church, built in 1808, remarking that the huge stone, the largest In the Pleasant Mills graveyard, is adequate really because Jesse “was very large and powerful, weighing close to three hundred pounds.”

Even before the death of the Colonel In 1823 Jesse had succeeded his father as master of the manor and from the house on the hill “he ruled Batsto as his father had done with great energy and success for thirty years.” This was the period when the estate was enlarged and made more prosperous, with the manufacture of glass, pottery, and iron adding companion ventures in lumber, faming, and shipbuilding. Then, to those who will listen I quote records to prove that all was well in Batsto until somebody thought of the railroads, and steam power, and better iron closer to where it was in demand by a more concentrated population in Philadelphia.

I remember sentimentally that the fires at Batsto went out in 1848 and that the heart of Jesse Richards died with them, that Jesse’s sons – Thomas, Samuel, and the second Jesse-tried valiantly to carry on against new inventions and greater competition. Sometimes I recall such stories as the one about the Quaker captain, David Mapps, who sailed away with an empty boat rather than carry as cargo a load of , Col. Richards’ best munitions which, he said loudly, “were the devil’s own pills.” But to tell you the truth, I am always a little fearful of a newer invasion, not by an overseas enemy but by people like the bus driver who, one day recently, asked me who owned Pleasant Mills corner and what I thought it could be bought for.

“I’ve got an idea,” he said earnestly, “a swell idea. I don’t want to drive a bus all my life. Give me that corner and a big hot-dog stand and I’ll clean up. It’s a natural with a great future.”

Refuse to Worry About Newcomers

Then I fly for refuge to old Bob Ford, 78, the oldest man in Batsto, who has lived in the village all his life – first in the house that Bob Stewart’s father – Bob still lives up the road toward Hammonton – set on fire. Or I seek out old Joshua Brown, who looks like Carl Sandburg at 65 and is a brother of Mrs. Bozarth with whom I used to talk in the evening on the steps of the Richards manor house. Bob and Josh assure me that there’s nothing to worry about, that they haven’t worried all their lives, and there have been and always be ways of taking care of those who have notions about importing noises and smells and carnival trinkets.

Josh and Bob sometimes wander up the road together, telling their tall tales to Batsto children of today, among them Elaine and Nancy Adams. Even so, I don’t think children of New Jersey anywhere are sufficiently aware that Batsto and Pleasant Mills was a refuge for those who fled the persecutions of the Stuart kings and that these villages must always be a sanctuary from cluttered-up living.

Unless Bob and Josh and many more speak up, no one will recall that Baxters, MacGillans, Campbells’ and Pecks, members of an exiled company maintained their own church standards, followed their own precepts and worked shoulder to shoulder every day.

No one will recall that Charles M. Peterson wrote the earliest American novel of New Jersey around the Kate Aylsford house in Pleasant Mills.

No one will remember that the little Pleasant Mills church was dedicated by Francis Asbury, first Methodist bishop in America, a guest of Jesse Richards, a Church of England man who liked Presbyterians, employed Quakers and Methodists, and built the Church of St. Mary of the Assumption for his Roman Catholic employees down the road.

Ghost Might Walk to Still Old Tales

Perhaps I had better conjure up a ghost to frighten the disrespectful. If so, I can think of no better a phantom than the Charles Read who turned up In Philadelphia in 1739 with a cargo of rum and a Creole bride. This was the Charles who was to become “the Hon. Charles Read, Esq.” and who, described In Aaron Learning’s caustic diary of Colonial days as “whimsical to the borders of insanity,” disappeared and then, long later, died as the keeper of a dirty little shop in Martinburg, NC.

“Charles sold out,” Aaron wrote, “and married the daughter of a rich planter on Antigua. She was very much of a Creole, no hansom, nor genteel but talked after the Creole accent…” For all that dusky Alice Thibou was “decently interred in the Burying Ground of St. Mary’s Church” in Burlington. So I know where Alice, the Creole, lies but-watch out for Charles.

Any man who had so many nasty things said about him when he couldn’t defend himself is likely to be back, in one shape or another, puttering about the familiar paths that lade the vicinity of a fading feudal dynasty.

First published in the Newark Sunday Star Ledger, June. 22, 1947. 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 https://www.njpinebarrens.com