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Watermills of Camden County - by William Farr - Introduction



The use of a water wheel to produce power probably originated in the Middle East (where a few gigantic, creaking wheels are still in use), long before the birth of Christ. The use migrated by way of Greece and Rome to medieval Europe.

Distinguished historian Barbara W. Tuchman, in her work on the fourteenth century, A Distant Mirror, wrote (p. 55),

“Energy depended on human and animal muscle and on the gear shaft turned by wind or water. Their power drove mills for tanning and laundering, sawing wood, pressing olive oil, casting iron, mashing malt for beer and pulp for paper and pigment for paints, operating fullers’ vats for finishing woolen cloth, bellows for blast furnaces, hydraulic hammers for foundries, and wheels for grindstones used by armorers.”

As with other customs, devices, and folkways, the earliest immigrants to the east coast of America brought the use of mills with them from the homeland.

Harry Marvin wrote,

“concerning the American experience,
As mills increased—all operated by water power—the saw mill took a prominent place with the grist mill. These were constructed at places favorable for damming of streams, and in case of sawmills near to natural landings on tidal streams for shipping of lumber. The... settler...was careful not to raise the mill pond level so as to flood the fording places [of the Indians] above their normal level.” CCHS Bulletin, No. 7, May, 1947, p. 2.

John Harshberger also wrote about mills.

“The early sawmills... were driven by water power derived from the streams which were dammed at favorable localities accessible to the forest, where the trees were cut by the axe. As compared with modern logging operations in the west and south, the methods of cutting and handling the logs in the forest over one hundred years ago were of the simplest description. Horse and ox teams sufficed to transport the logs to the saw-mill, and the largest sizes were handled easily by one or two men. As the country is level and flat, no insuperable difficulties were presented in getting the logs out of the woods, especially if the lumbering was done in the winter, when the frozen ground was covered with snow. Sleds drawn by ox teams could easily remove the logs to the saw-mills driven by an overshot or an undershot waterwheel.” Harshberger’s Vegetation of the New Jersey Pine-Barrens, p. 18.

South Jersey is not the ideal location for the use of watermills in view of its flatness, when contrasted with the terrain, for example, of Pennsylvania. The power essentially results from the weight of the water so that the amount of the fall is significant. The mill owner in South Jersey usually had to store up his source of power by creating a millpond, many of which remain today to beautify our landscape and provide a habitat for fish and animals.

When the writer became interested in Place Names, more than thirty-five years ago, he anticipated producing a work which would encompass Old Gloucester County, i.e. present Camden and Atlantic Counties, as well as Gloucester County. It soon became evident that it was too grand a project, and, turning over to the Gloucester and Atlantic County historical societies the information gathered as to those counties, he thereafter limited himself to Camden County.

Since place names include physical features, and since various bodies and streams of waterways provide an extensive corpus of names, he decided to concentrate on them as a separate endeavor, and eventually, through the Camden County Historical Society, published Camden County Waterways. In the meantime the writer decided to stretch his place name concept to include the old water-driven mills of Camden County, resulting in the current work.

The late Charles S. Boyer, the principal benefactor of the Camden County Historical Society, was born in 1869, arrived in Camden when he was but three years of age, and spent most of his life there. He was not only a prominent and successful industrialist and civic leader, but also a main force in rejuvenating the Camden County Historical Society. He also published numerous books and articles about Camden County and South Jersey history. See his biography in Heston’s South Jersey A History, Vol. V. (p.23); and CCHS Bulletin, Vol. 5, No. 11 (September, 1970). He was still working on the research of water mills of Camden County at his death in 1936, leaving a partially completed preliminary manuscript. In accordance with the will of his widow, Anna DeRousse Boyer, it was published in 1962 by the Camden County Historical Society in its somewhat incomplete form as Old Mills of Camden County. It is still available from the Society.
Old Mills has been of inestimable help to the writer. While in a number of instances he viewed some of its information critically, it was done solely in the interest of greater accuracy which subsequent investigation provided. Doing research is somewhat easier now, with microfilm, the computer, the word processor, and the copying machine, than it was in Boyer’s day. Some other particularly helpful publications have been Weiss’s The Early Sawmills of New Jersey and The Early Grist and Flouring Mills of New Jersey.

While the “Waterways” research was a somewhat unsystematic checking of every source which came to mind and hand, the “Watermills” effort was more organized and more extensive, including the use of early surveys recorded at the Surveyor General’s Office, the early Colonial Deeds, (both on microfilm), the later eighteenth century and early nineteenth century deeds and mortgages, unrecorded deeds and other documents, a variety of old and recent maps and surveys, both counties’ Surrogates’ records, early tax assessments, as well as some genealogy. The resources of the Camden and Gloucester County historical societies, as well as the Historical Society of Haddonfield, were indispensable, as were the deed and mortgage records of both counties.

Camden County was set off from Gloucester County in 1844 so that the latter county’s records had to be consulted and used for persons and transactions prior to that year. In most New Jersey counties the County Clerk has had the responsibility for all real estate records. A few of the more populous (including Camden County) had both a County Clerk and a Register of Deeds, with various kinds of records split between them. But recently the county clerk’s responsibility for court records was eliminated by the Legislature, and the two offices in Camden County were merged into one, called the County Clerk.

Another significant source of information, occasionally put to use, was the record of divisions of lands in both counties. With the exception of a little-used Lines And Boundaries book in the Camden County Clerk’s Office, the sole depository of such records in Camden County is the Surrogate’s office, while in Gloucester County there are division records not only in the Surrogate’s office, but also in the County Clerk’s office. Such formal divisions were usually needed when a landowner, survived by several children or other heirs, died without a will, or failed to specify in his will how his devised lands were to be divided.

Until 1775 taxes were assessed, as needed, by an act of the Colonial Legislature. Such assessments will be found in Colonial Laws, New Jersey Archives, Third Series. But the grand jury and the Freeholders also assessed taxes, the records of which are shown in Transcriptions of First Quarter Century Documents, and Gloucester County Freeholders’ Minutes 1701-97. The several townships also assessed mills and other items on a fairly regular basis; one of the reliable sources of information about mills (although many are missing and some are difficult of decipherment) is the annually prepared township tax assessment duplicate (usually referred to in the text as “ratables”), of which quite a number are extant on microfilm. Also available are minutes of some of Gloucester, Newton and Centre townships for limited periods of time in which will be found occasional tax assessments.

Although the format varied slightly from year to year, and from township to township, the tax duplicates give quite a comprehensive picture of just about every item of significance, real and personal, owned by the residents. There were a few instances where a mill was assessed for one year only, probably to a lessee. And occasionally, half a mill only was assessed in a township, without the other half being assessed, which probably indicated a co-owner in another township, but neither the specific location of a mill in the township, nor other identifying feature would be shown.

Harry Marvin and John D. F. Morgan, both prominent in the early years of the Camden County Historical Society, have been referred to in the text. Marvin told the writer that his parents moved their belongings down the Old Egg Harbor Road (which went, by way of Longacoming and Blue Anchor, to the Shore) to settle in the vicinity of Cedar Brook, and he became well acquainted with the neighborhood’s physical features and residents as he grew up. He was a civil engineer and land surveyor, employed by the State Highway Department, and helped to lay out or modify many roads in South Jersey. His work sometimes required that he examine the title deeds and related documents of adjacent owners, so that he had an opportunity to examine many of them. He served the Society in a number of capacities and as President from 1937 to 1941. He was an excellent cartographer, and some of the finest and most interesting maps at the Society are his product. He worked with Charles Boyer, creating the maps while Boyer did the research. It is the writer’s pleasure to have known him and to mention him in appropriate situations.
John D. F. Morgan, of Haddonfield, served as President of the Camden County Historical Society 1945 to 1951, and as Secretary, Treasurer and Executive Director at other times. His first love was local history and he spent a great amount of time at it. He lived in Camden County for all of his 89 years, and shared with the writer some of his knowledge and memories of persons and places.

The writer has had the distinct advantage of access to copies of documents from the John Clement Collection at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia). One set of volumes is called Maps and Drafts; another, Warrants & Surveys; a third, Notes & Memoranda, and are cited as such. Clement was, among other things, a prominent land surveyor of Haddonfield in the nineteenth century, as was his father, of the same name, before him.

It may be of interest to note that John Clement’s will, dated 22 April 1892, proved 1894 (Camden County Surrogate Will Book Q-359), gave “all my manuscript books - papers - maps and memoranda that relate in any way to my business as surveyor, conveyancer or antiquary” to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania; and to the University of Pennsylvania, “all my printed books - pamphlets and scrap books - relating to historical research or in any way touching historical matter.” But in a codicil dated 3 January 1893, proved at the same time, he revoked that gift to the University of Pennsylvania, and gave those items also to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

So many references have been made in the text to John Clement’s Sketches of First Immigrant Settlers in Newton Township, and to George R. Prowell’s History of Camden County that it has been deemed expedient to refer simply to “Clement” and “Prowell.”

Most of the printed history available for Camden County is based, not on original sources, or even copies or transcriptions thereof, but on secondary or tertiary sources. And rarely does one see citation of a specific source for a stated fact. The most that is given is a sketchy bibliography. An index is a rarity and seldom extensive.

The significance of this is that we tend to accept as true what we see in print. But a reader or researcher who wants to verify the alleged facts, or use them as a starting point for further research, is at a loss since the specific source of the fact is not furnished. Some facts in published local history are simply not true, or at least not provable.

As in Waterways of Camden County, it has been a primary purpose of the writer to provide sources which might be helpful to later researchers, not only of water-powered mills, but to a lesser extent a little of the genealogy of the Old Gloucester County residents of the era during which such mills flourished. That is a particular reason for the extensive bibliography and index. It is also the reason for providing citations in the body of the text (rather than as footnotes or endnotes) so as to be more readily available to a researcher.

The work as presently published presumes a familiarity with (or a willingness to investigate and learn about) the political subdivisions of the county, its place names, as well as its highways and other geographical features. As to its streams, the reader is referred to the writer’s earlier work, Waterways of Camden County, published by the Camden County Historical Society. The writer hopes to complete his planned trilogy with a gazetteer, whose tentative name is Camden County Place Names.

Having set so high a standard for himself and others, the writer recognizes that errors will have crept into this work, for which he takes full responsibility. The writer readily acknowledges that the research of Camden County watermills remains unfinished. Unrecorded deeds and other documents will later yield to searchers and supply some of the deficiencies. There are numerous gaps in the information turned up by the writer, and they are particularly obvious with respect to the eventual termination of the operation of many mills. The vast amount of genealogical work now being done by many researchers will provide some of the missing information. Perhaps some other person will undertake to make the watermills record more complete.

The accounts of some of the mills contain records of multiple ownership, for example, CHEESMAN’S (Richard) SAWMILL, wherein a father gave his half interest in a sawmill to his six daughters. The writer has not found in Old Mills or Early Sawmills of New Jersey, nor in any other source he consulted, a discussion of how this multiple ownership worked in practice. It apparently functioned by agreement among the several owners, allocating days of the week, or weeks of the year, probably by lot. See THORN’S SAW MILL, where the allocation of use was determined by the commissioners appointed to divide the land; MARSHALL’S SAW MILL, where a lease is mentioned; and BATES SAW MILL, where multiple ownership was extensive. The only written maintenance agreement which has surfaced is the one mentioned in CORE’S SAWMILL, involving the Collins-Matlack-Hilliard partnership.

Wills are frequently mentioned in the text. The “Calendar of Wills,” printed as part of the First Series of New Jersey Archives, contains digests of wills and administrations, statewide, through 1817. Although rarely in error, the digests sometimes omit matters of interest to a particular researcher. The Gloucester County Historical Society, a few years ago, published two books containing transcriptions (digests) of Gloucester County wills proved 1818 through 1846. These volumes are limited to the wills, and do not include information about intestacies, although intestacies provide useful information and are indexed in the Index of Wills. Where there is a will, the microfilm of the original may be examined and copied. The identification numbers given in the text of Camden County Watermills will take the researcher to the correct location on the microfilm except for Camden County wills, for which the date of probate (listed in the New Jersey Index of Wills) will be needed to locate the appropriate will book in which the will is recorded.

Edward Gibbon wrote that history “undertakes to record the transactions of the past, for the instruction of the future ages.” Decline and Fall, Ch. XVI. The articles in this work may appear over-extensive in some instances, with seemingly surplus factual information included, but if the intent and purpose of assisting later researchers is borne in mind, perhaps the writer may be excused the excesses.

Many persons helped the writer in various ways and in varying degrees, in the research, in the writing, in the needed encouragement. He thanks them all, but especially David C. Munn and Paul W. Schopp, who provided varied assistance and expertise. He would be neglectful and seem unappreciative if he did not also record his indebtedness to a small group of young local historians, who include not only Messrs. Munn and Schopp, but also William (Bill) Leap, Dennis Raible (who read, and made suggestions for, the entire manuscript), Edward Fox and Peter Hamilton. Also, the librarians and other personnel at the Camden County Historical Society (CCHS), Gloucester County Historical Society (GCHS), and Historical Society of Haddonfield (HSH). Also, my friend Rudolph Salati.


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