Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Building a Model 'Industrial Village' in Smithville

Building a Model 'Industrial Village' in Smithville
Written by NJ Historian

During the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, company towns, mill towns, and industrial villages existed throughout New Jersey. Some of the more notable communities include Roebling, Batsto Village, and Allaire Village. One community which is not often on most historian's lists is the Industrial Village of Smithville in present-day Eastampton, Burlington County. Settled in 1776 and reaching its height in the mid-nineteenth century, many buildings and structures associated with this town, known for its high-quality woodworking machinery, the Smithville-Mt. Holly Bicycle Railroad, and the Star high-wheeled bicycle, still exist, in whole, in ruins, some partially restored, and some fully restored, echoing its once-glorious past as an industrial center of Burlington County.

The Mansion at Smithville.
In October of 1776, Jacob Parker bought thirty-seven acres of property in what is now known as Smithville. Prior to his ownership, seven others owned this particular plot of land. The first owner, Henry Stacy of England purchased the land one hundred years prior. However, he never traveled to the New World to see his land. After his death, the land passed hands several times before finally being sold to Parker. Parker's goal was to build a dam on his new property. Unfortunately, he was not legally able to build one due to rules set by West Jersey Proprietors to control the building of mill dams, which included a stipulation that landowners could not own the land on both sides of a river or creek. Thus, when Parker petitioned to build a dam, it was not approved by his neighbor, Thomas Merrit. Undeterred, Parker decided to proceed with his plans of building a dam. For building the dam, Parker faced twelve years of unrelenting litigation and other troubles. By 1830, he was bankrupt. However, in those years before his bankruptcy, he managed to build a grist mill, saw mill, and a residence.

Two brothers, Jonathan and Samuel Shreve, purchased the property from Jacob Parker for $14,000 in July 1831 for the purposes of building a calico printing factory. The brothers enlarged the mill pond, built two large industrial complexes, several outbuildings, and a canal to Mount Holly. They named their village "Shreveville." Due to the growing village, the brothers needed more power. They altered the height of the dam in an attempt to alter the flow of the Rancocas River. Their changes resulted in legal issues for them as well (lasting until 1845), since the dam had never been legally approved.

The remains of the industrial factory complex at Smithville.
In 1840, a number of new buildings were constructed in Shreveville. A large brick manor house built in the Greek Revival style and three rows of worker's homes were built. As operations were expanding, in 1846, Samuel Semple was brought from Scotland to introduce spool cotton manufacturing at the facility. A factor for weaving cotton was also built. Ten years later, in 1850, the village reached its peak of operation with over 400 residents; of which approximately half were workers. They were housed in sixty residences in the community. Just a few years after the height of the village, the Shreve brothers faced surmounting debt. Just as rapidly as it emerged, the village declined. Samuel Shreve died July 13, 1856 of apoplexy and was followed by his brother Jacob less than a year later on May 13, 1857 of a hear attack.

The year following Jacob's death, the property was sold to Benjamin Shreve and his ownership fared no better. Continued debts related to the decline of the cotton industry drove him out of business and the entire property fell into disrepair. The property was practically abandoned for the next seven years.

In 1865, businessman Hezekiah Bradley Smith and his wife Agnes Gilkerson purchased the former Shreve property, totaling forty-five acres and containing all its buildings, for $20,000. Smith had patented woodworking machinery and believed that this area along the Rancocas Creek was ideal with its supply of water power, abundant natural resources, and rural setting. He renamed the village "Smithville" and immediately began to transform the property over the next several years. He demolished many of the old homes and built larger ones in their place. He created a public park with a gazebo at the center of the village, a school house, opera house, and a dormitory for unmarried factory mechanics. All of these improvements were finance by Smith for the betterment of his worker's well-being.

Restored worker's homes at Smithville.
In addition to the physical improvements to the property, Smithville was poised to be a model industrial village mentally as well. Smith instituted a shorter workday (nine hours), top wages, a fresh, affordable supply of food from the village farm, and many intellectual and recreational events throughout the year. Smith's factories were safe and he encouraged children to receive an education rather than work in his factory buildings.

Smith, being an enterprising businessman, purchased the surrounding farmland to the south and east, combining them into one large operation in the 1870s. The main barn, granary, and other farm buildings, many of them brick, were built across the main road from the mansion. Most noteworthy was the 110 foot brick and iron observation tower constructed in 1878. More than 300 acres was under cultivation.

One of the remaining buildings at H.B. Smith's Farm complex
Smith also made numerous changes to the original mansion. He built additional servants' quarters, and annexed a service wing which included a game room, an immense billiard room with a vaulted ceiling, and a bowling alley. New stables and carriage houses were built. He surrounded the mansion with a high brick and stone wall. Inside the walls, he had an extensive boxwood garden laid out and a caretaker's house and glass conservatory were built.

In 1878, Smith incorporated the H.B. Smith Machine Company. Under this name, he would eventually manufacture 150 different styles of machines, hold patents for over thirty inventions, and produce 25% of the nation's woodworking machinery.

In 1880, J.J. White of Whitesbog introduced George W. Pressey of Hammonton, New Jersey to Smith. Pressey is known for inventing the "Star" bicycle. The "Star", which differed from all previous high wheelers in that the larger wheel was in back with a smaller, guiding wheel in front, was created to ensure greater stability. H.B. Smith produced the first "Star" in 1881 and following an popular ad campaign, the bicycle became one of the Smith's most lucrative products.

Advertisement for H.B. Smith bicycles, circa 1880s.
Smith also saw success in political circles. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1878 and was elected to the New Jersey State Senate in from 1882 to 1885. He remained active in politics until his death on November 3, 1887 at the age of 71. After Smith's death, the company continued under the direction of William Kelley, a long-time Smith associate. Smith's son, Captain Elton A. Smith, eventually regain control of the property and the company in 1897. It was successful through the 1920s until the Great Depression, when the company's annual production plummeted from $30 million to $8,000.

Descendents of the Smith family continued to occupy the mansion until 1962 when it was acquired by Louis and Grace Thomas, who refurbished the mansion and grounds. In 1975, the now-dilapidated, former Village of Smithville was purchased by Burlington County to become the county's first public park.

In recent years, a number of the former worker's cottages have been rehabilitated and the oldest cottage, which dates to 1840, has been transformed into a welcome center and temporary exhibit space on slavery in Burlington County. The Park Avenue streetscape and surrounding landscape has been refurbished and a new gazebo, modeled after the original, has been erected. As funding permits, more cottages will be refurbished. Fifteen historic markers dot different areas of the property, relaying the significance of the buildings or features nearby. Although the industrial area sits in ruins, one can only imagine the sound of machinery and men working. Now passive recreation, we must not forget our industrious beginnings in Smithville and in small towns and cities throughout the United States.

The Smithville Bicycle Railway Company
One peculiar method of transportation employed at Smithville was the "Bicycle Railway" developed by Arthur E., Hotchkiss. Opened in 1892, the purpose of the railway was to transport Smith Company employees from Mount Holly via bicycles specifically designed to glide, similar to a monorail. The rider sat between two wheels working the pedals up and down, rather than in a rotary motion. A third wheel, pressing against the bottom rail kept the bike in balance. Travelling at a top speed of 18 mph, the rider could reach his destination in a matter of minutes. The railway ran 1.8 miles from near the Smith Company Store, in an almost straight line, to Pine Street in Mount Holly, in a lot on the north side of the Relief Fire Company. This unique transportation company only lasted until July 1898, when the Mount Holly and Smithville Bicycle Railway Company declared bankruptcy.The company never built a second track, so that when those traveling in the opposite direction met, one had to pull off. Similarly, faster peddlers could not pass slower ones, and the fact that the system only went from Mount Holly to Smithville meant it would not last.

Additional photos of my trip to Historic Smithville on Pinterest

For More Information
Smithville Conservancy
Historic Smithville Park

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