Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Industry in the Pines: The Story of Batsto Village

Industry in the Pines: The Story of Batsto Village
Written by NJ Historian

Deep in the Pinelands National Reserve is a curious village located near a lake. At the center of the village rises a tower from atop an austere mansion, offering its owner a clear view for miles of pine trees, bogs, lakes, and streams. These resources, renewable and abundant, provided the fuel for industry in the pine barrens of Burlington County. Over the course of 100 years beginning in the mid-eighteenth century, the site developed from a small iron forge into an entire village, employing hundreds and producing products that were commonly used in households all over the State of New Jersey and beyond. Long since abandoned, this restored historic site offers a rare glimpse into the life of the iron masters, their employees, and the evolution of this company town, which has not been altered by progress, a testament to its unique setting among New Jersey's last uncharted wilderness.

Worker's Cottages at Batsto Village.
Batsto or Batstow Furance, is located on the Batsto Creek. Native Americans originally had a settlement near present-day Batsto called Nescochague. The property was owned by Israel Pemberton and was known as Whitcomb Manor. Pemberton sold it to Charles Read, a nephew by marriage. Read began buying
and selling properties around Batsto as early as 1754 and by 1766 he had accumulated a large estate; he had a quarter interest in Batsto. In 1766, Read built the first iron furnace on a site now covered by an artificial pond.

The fertile land surrounding Batsto made it perfect for producing iron and the pine barrens contained an almost unending supply of raw materials needed for the process. Bog ore was mined from the banks of nearby lakes, rivers, and streams once it was thick enough. After being mined, it was taken to the iron furnace for processing. The plentiful waters surrounding Batsto provided power for the machinery required to make the iron and the charcoal from the forest was used as fuel. The early iron works mainly produced household items like cooking pots and kettles. When the Revolutionary War broke out, the iron works provided supplies such as cannons and munitions for the Continental Army.

Joseph Ball became involved with Batsto as early as 1776, if not earlier. He became the chief proprietor of the furnace In 1778 and became the sole owner in 1781. After 1784, Ball's uncle, William Richards, took an interest in Batsto. Richards had been employed by several large Pennsylvania furnaces and served as Ball's manager. According to the New Jersey Archives, Charles Pettit was one of the owners in 1781.

1828 grist mill at Batsto Village
The Batsto Forge was built between 1781 and 1784 along what had been called "The Forge Pond," about a half mile south of Batsto Village. In 1784, an advertisement stated, "A new Forge with four fires and two about a half mile distant from the furnace, on another stream, capable of making 200 tons of bar iron per annum." The advertisement also mentions a slitting and rolling mill at the site. The mills enabled the site to produce items such as sheet iron, nails, and wheel tires. By 1784, Ball had lost interest in the forge as the iron business was in a slump. A 1784 advertisement for Batsto noted that the site was ideal for grist mills and the furnace could be fired up once again. By an agreement of June 5, 1784 William Richards purchased the Batsto Iron works from his nephew Joseph Ball. However, Joseph Ball and Charles Pettit each agreed to retain one-third of the property. Richards was the manager and held the principal interest between 1785 and 1790. Richards remained ironmaster until he retired in 1809.

For almost ninety years, Batsto remained in the Richards family and the site underwent periods of expansion. In the early nineteenth century, new tenant housing was constructed for employees. The set-up at Batsto represented a kind of feudal relationship between the owner and his workmen and tenants. However, Batsto differed from many furnaces; there was no slave labor used, but the Richards lived as a kind of feudal lord, settling disputes among their people, purchasing their supplies for them, and in general administering to their welfare. The furnace was rebuilt in 1829 for the third time (the first was in 1726, second in 1786). A grist mill was constructed in 1828 and numerous barns and outbuildings were built in the 1830s. In 1852, the construction of a post office was authorized by President Millard Fillmore. Jesse Richards was named the first postmaster. The post office, still in operation, is one of four in the country that, because of their historic significance, cancel by hand.

Batsto Post Office and General Store, 1936. Source: HABS
During the War of 1812, the community once again became a manufacturer of implements of war, including cannon balls. Batsto Village stayed in the Richards' family until the mid-1800s when their iron sales began decreasing due to over exploitation of the bog iron deposits and the competition from large Pennsylvania furnaces. After the death of William Richards in 1823, the estate was sold to various members of the Richards family and Batsto went by deed to Thomas S. Richards. The property consisted of about fifty thousand acres. At that time Batsto Furnace and farms were appraised at fifty-five thousand two hundred dollars. Five years later, in 1829, Thomas Richards deeded a half interest to Jesse Richards.

Jesse Richards, who had become the manager as early as 1807, after his father's death, started a glass factory and a paper mill. These two industries were unable to remain successful enterprises. Soon after the death of Jesse Richards in 1854, fifty-five thousand acres out of the total of eighty thousand were sold to pay debts. The industries were closed and a sheriff's sale finally cleared up the interest of the Richards family in the Batsto property. A fire on February 23, 1874 destroyed the old iron works and seventeen homes in the most historic section of the village.

In 1876 Batsto, totaling about 100 square miles, was purchased by Joseph Wharton at a Masters sale following foreclosure proceedings for the sum of $14,000. Wharton made many improvements to the property, including an expansion to the iron master's home. Over $40,000 was spent expanding the home's original footprint and constructing the iconic 116 foot tower. The tower served a practical purpose, as brush fires were and still are common in the scrubby pines. The tower served as a lookout during the dry season, enabling fires to be spotted early on and hopefully extinguished before too much land was destroyed. Once the renovations were completed in May 1880, Wharton's new mansion contained thirty-six rooms. Despite the amount of money invested in its upgrades, Wharton and his family spent little time there. His daughter Mary spent a short stint at the home recovering from a nervous breakdown in 1880, finding the clear air, quiet, and restful surroundings comforting.

Batsto Mansion
As early as the 1850s, the City of Philadelphia began to experience fresh water shortages because the rivers surrounding the city had become heavily polluted. Wharton, hoping to solve the city's problem while taking financial advantage of the situation, began purchasing thousands of acres in the Pinelands and brokered a deal to supply fresh water from the Pinelands to the City of Philadelphia. The plan however, was immediately met with opposition from New Jersey. The legislature passed a law prohibiting the sale of New Jersey water outside of its borders, which remains on the books today.

Around Batsto, Wharton tried growing peanuts and sugar beets in the sandy soil, without much success. Eventually he grew cranberries, utilizing an old cotton mill at Atsion as a cranberry production facility, dabbled in iron production, and built Batsto's current sawmill in 1882. Wharton's death 1909 forced residents to find work in the surrounding area.

The Wharton family continued to hold gatherings at the family mansion at Batsto until the 1920s. Through the 1950s, the property was maintained by the Girard Trust Company. In 1954, the State of New Jersey purchased vast amounts of the Wharton Estate to create 100,000 acre Wharton State Forest. The forest includes the Villages of Batsto and Atsion. Batsto Village was added to the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places in 1970 and 1971, respectively. 

The village's buildings are in various states of preservation. Just a few years ago, the mansion was completely restored. Other buildings throughout the property have been stabilized and regularly receive routine maintenance to their exteriors as funding permits. Despite some losses due to fire, neglect, and the passing of time, the buildings that survive enable visitors to understand the dynamics and legacy of this unique industrial "city" in the pines.

Additional photos of my trip to Batsto Village on Pinterest

Batsto Village Podcast (right click and choose "save target/link as" to save to your hard drive)

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That's awesome can't wait until I have time to come check it out. Love history.

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