South Jersey Heritage: A Social, Economic and Cultural History - R. Craig Koedel

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A Home for the Homeless

      The masses of the "homeless, tempest-tost" who sailed in steerage beneath Miss Liberty’s welcoming torch in New York harbor shunned the fields and woodlands of South Jersey. The eyes of most were set on the bustling streets and noisy factories of the industrial North where, it was hoped, if not a fortune at least a comfortable living could be made. As late as 1900, of the southern counties only Atlantic and Camden had sizeable foreign-born minorities. Nonetheless, before and after the famous statue took up residence on the New Jersey (not New York) island, in 1886, new immigrants from Europe modified the old ethnic configuration of South Jersey. Thousands helped to swell the urban society of Camden; hundreds of others peopled the planned communities of South Jersey which aimed at attracting Europeans of a specific national or cultural background.

      Irish and German laborers and artisans migrated to South Jersey in the early flush of colonial industry. New generations came to give their brawn and skill to ironmaking and glass blowing, as these industries burgeoned during the first several decades of the 19th century. Other Irishmen bent to the labors of a field hand, or joined the construction gangs that laid the area’s turnpikes and railroads. Like the Germans, immigrants from England, France, and Belgium were brought in under contract to work in the glass factories. At the same time, the English were attracted also to the textile industry. A few Scandinavians found the South Jersey life as sailors, fishermen, and shipbuilders to their liking. Few immigrants from eastern and southern Europe settled in South Jersey before 1870. In fact, as late as 1900 among the foreign-born of Camden, South Jersey’s most polyglot town, the Irish, English, and Germans predominated.

      Although most of the first generation of Irish-Americans did not reach positions of wealth or rank, by 1890 a few of them and their children were emerging as leaders, especially in government, law enforcement, and the legal profession. True nationwide, this was the case also in Camden County. William J. Sewell, of Irish birth, moved to Camden from Chicago in 1860. After the Civil War, in which he distinguished himself at Chancellorsville, Sewell was named to the personal staff of the governor, a position from which he was catapulted into a political career that took him to the United States Senate. For years, he controlled the Republican Party in New Jersey. At one time or another, he held high office in every major New Jersey railroad company, including director of the Pennsylvania Railroad branches in the Garden State. 4

      Sewell’s political champion, the Camden businessman and banker, David Baird, was also an Irish immigrant. His forte, unlike Sewell’s, was ward politics, an activity in which he mixed with the voters, visited them in their habitats and drummed up support for Sewell and the party.

      John J. Burleigh and Edward Ambler Armstrong were second-generation Irish-Americans of South Jersey birth who rose to wealth and top managerial positions in finance, utilities, communications, and transportation in Atlantic, Camden, and Cape May Counties around the turn of the century. Innkeeper, race track operator, and iceman, among other things, William J. Thompson was an Irishman from County Derry who became leader of the Democratic Party in Camden County in the 1890’s.

      Since the days of Caspar Wistar, wherever glass-houses were to be found in South Jersey German glassworkers were to be found inside them, and in the homes, churches, stores, and schools of the glass towns. By 1840, possibly one-tenth of the state’s 10,000 Germans were employed in the glassmaking establishments of the southern counties. Statewide, the number of German-born had tripled by 1860; the 1860 figure had doubled by 1880; and in 1900, New Jersey’s German-born population stood at 119,598.

      Apart from the glassworkers, few of these thousands migrated to the southern counties. However, some resided in Camden, where they perpetuated their German customs with social clubs, folk festivals, singing groups, and gymnastics. Others, leaving their first American homes in New England, settled in Vineland. A number of Germans went to Bridgeton.

      The most thoroughly German of South Jersey communities was Egg Harbor City, a planned settlement in Atlantic County designed to attract Germans from the large American cities, where they were undergoing the persecution and resentment of the anti-immigrant, nativistic Know-Nothing Party. The new home for Germans, a "refuge" where they could "combine and enjoy American freedom with German Gemutlichkeit," as the advertisements read, was conceived by a group of prominent Philadelphia German-Americans who sat on the Board of Directors of the Camden and Atlantic Railroad. On November 24, 1854, less than five months after the trains began running between Camden and Atlantic City, these men organized the Gloucester Farm and Town Association, and bought up 38,000 acres of pine land midway between Hammonton and Absecon. Much of it was the abandoned Gloucester Furnace Tract.

      Grandiose plans for a great commercial metropolis, serviced by the railroad at one end and a deep-water harbor on the Mullica River at the other, were drawn up. The proposed city was advertised as "a place. . . to develop German folk life, German arts and sciences, especially music. A place around which we can build German industry and commerce." The east-west avenues were named for German philosophers, scientists, artists, and musicians; the north-south arteries were given the names of the great sea-, lake-, and riverport cities of Europe and America. Any purchaser of stock was promised, for each share, a twenty-acre farm and a claim for a building lot in town. Tree-lined streets, a huge municipal park, and public schools were envisioned. By 1860, the Association had agents stationed in twenty-nine American cities, from Boston to Washington to St. Louis, extolling the wonders of Egg Harbor City.

      The great port on the Mullica River never materialized, nor did Egg Harbor City ever attain to the status of a great commercial metropolis, but much of the dream did become reality for a time. German-Americans began to arrive in 1855; in 1858, the city was granted a charter and a municipal election was held; a citizen’s handbook, written in German, was compiled, and a German-language weekly newspaper (multiplied to four by 1900) began rolling from the presses. A public school was established almost immediately, although classes met in the community hall until 1876. By 1863, four German churches had been organized.

      No fewer than six musical organizations, the first pre-dating the churches, and two dramatic societies were soon offering a variety of entertainment from Mozart to melodrama. Two gymnastic societies provided training and cultural expression of an athletic nature. An agricultural society dispensed seeds and plants, and grew a model garden outside town. The latest thinking in philosophy and science was presented in lectures by an adult education group.

      Wine quickly became the staple product of Egg Harbor City industry. Made at first for home consumption, the fermented juice from the grapes of the Egg Harbor vineyards was a beverage of national reputation well before 1870. Afterward, it was known internationally, taking prizes at Philadelphia in 1876 and at the Paris Wine Exhibition in 1878. The industry caused Egg Harbor City to glow with a special fame (to some of the clergy, it was more like notoriety), especially when its round of summer and autumn wine festivals was noised abroad, drawing tourists and tasters from far and wide.

      For more than half a century, Egg Harbor City was a German town. However, it was recognized as early as 1868 that the settlement could not maintain for long its purely German character. Blacks moved into the area before the end of the century, their children learning to speak fluent German. Italians were attracted by the wine industry, by Egg Harbor City’s second-most prominent enterprise, tailoring, and by the railroad’s need for cheap labor. The railroad imported as many as eighty Italian immigrants to the town in a single month in 1890. The gradual disappearance of the German flavor of the community was evident in the churches, which changed from German to bilingual services, then finally to English. The minutes of the City Council were recorded in German for the last time in 1916. When the First World War ended, Egg Harbor City had become as American as any other town in South Jersey.

      The immigration pattern in South Jersey changed in the closing decades of the 19th century as southern and eastern Europeans streamed to America in greater numbers. After 1900, south Italian and Sicilian immigration was particularly intense. Although most of them sought out the urban centers for settlement, enough of them going to Camden, for example, to justify the creation of an Italian parish in that city in 1903, efforts were made to interest them in locating in South Jersey’s agricultural areas, where farmers were in dire need of laborers. As a result, Hammonton and Vineland developed large Italian enclaves.

      A few Italians settled in Hammonton before the Civil War, but the Italian colony in this Atlantic County community began in earnest when a Sicilian, Matteo Campanello, arrived. Most of his relatives and half of his former townsmen in Sicily followed shortly. They were joined by immigrants from the Province of Salerno. By 1905, the Italian-born residents of Hammonton had passed the 1000 mark.

      Some of the first to arrive rented or purchased their own farms and hired their fellow immigrants to work them. Later, others used the money they had saved from their earnings as farm laborers or on railroad gangs to buy small, often poor, tracts of their own which they cultivated successfully with close tending and hard work.

      Like Atlantic City and Egg Harbor City, Vineland existed on paper before it was a living fact. It was the brainchild of a 28-year-old Philadelphia lawyer, Charles K. Landis, who proposed, as he said, "to build a city, which would be filled with manufactories, shops and stores for mercantile purposes, schools and halls for public recreation, and private residences, and surround this mile square of city, as far as the boundaries of the land would reach, with farms, gardens, orchards, and vineyards." Fruit instead of grain, he intended, would be the economic staple, because "fruit culture. . .would give more opportunity to people of small means." The city would be called Vineland. In 1861, Landis himself began construction of the town’s grand avenue in a wilderness inhabited by wood choppers and charcoal burners when he cut down the first tree. He named the thoroughfare for himself.

      Five years after Landis laid his ax to the tree, Horace Greeley was the featured speaker at the annual fair held by Vineland’s Agricultural and Horticultural Societies.

      Those who came to scoff at the idea of planting a farming community in a place of such worthless soil remained to hear Greeley say of Vineland’s founders, "It was the greatest concentration of intelligence upon the subject of Horticulture and Agriculture that he had seen anywhere in the country: Truly they could claim the motto hung over the stage ‘The wilderness has blossomed like a rose.’" President Ulysses S. Grant dedicated a new high school in 1874. By 1886, from Landis’ prayers, as he claimed, and from his ingenuity there had arisen a city that boasted eleven churches, three newspapers, a bank, a high school, a fire department, a Roman Catholic seminary, and a population within the borough limits approaching 3000.

      At the invitation of Landis, Italian immigrants headed for Vineland and the adjacent Landis Township in the 1870’s. They cleared the land, planted crops, and many became prosperous fruit growers and truck farmers. Landis was both realtor and friend to the Italians. He secured an educated Italian, Carlo Quairoli, to assist his countrymen with the problems of settling in a new land. From Quairoli’s pen came a written record of Vineland’s Italian colony.

      Immigrants from all parts of Italy, pleased with their new homes, made up 1400 families of Vineland’s population in 1911. Many were farmers, but Quairoli’s record shows that the Vineland Italian-Americans put their hands to a diversity of occupations. More than a score were merchants and carpenters; others were contractors, shoemakers, tailors, masons, druggists, painters, jewelers, mechanics, foundry workers, barbers, teachers, policemen, and public officials. Their children and grandchildren contributed to all professions and vocations.

      With the immigrants to South Jersey came the ancient customs of old Italy, reproduced in a modern American setting. Barefoot devotees of the Holy Virgin processed with lighted candles through the streets of South Jersey towns.

      Eventually, electric lights illuminated the exuberant throngs who gathered to worship -- and to play on instruments, sing, dance, eat, drink, and shoot off fireworks. Not all residents approved of these celebrations; even some Italian-Americans disdained them, seeing in them a demeaning of Italians as a whole. The festivals died slowly, but never altogether, for each July the statue of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel is still paraded through the streets of Hammonton in a spirit of piety and carnival.

      A short distance from Vineland, in Salem County, a tract was selected by the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society of New York as a home for persecuted east European Jews. Twenty-five Russian Jewish families were settled in Alliance, a planned agricultural village founded by the Society in 1882. Manufacturing was introduced on a small scale. The success of the Alliance settlement prompted the establishment of the nearby towns of Norma, Brotmanville, Rosenhayn, and Carmel for Russian and Polish Jews.

      The Jewish colonies looked to Vineland for a market for their produce, engendering a trade that increased Vineland’s volume of business. Soon, a number from the Jewish communities moved to Vineland to open stores and a variety of other commercial establishments. As industry advanced, the farms were deserted. Factories in Alliance and Rosenhayn were transferred to Vineland, where there was a larger labor supply. By the end of the 19th century, the Cumberland County city had a sizeable Jewish population which, at mid-20th century, had expanded to 1200 families and included persons engaged in nearly every occupation and profession.

      The most ambitious of the Jewish colonies was founded at Woodbine in 1891. Income from a fund set up by the Baron de Hirsch for the relocation of European Jews upon their arrival in America provided monies for the land and the building of the settlement. Annual allotments from the fund subsidized the colony. Twelve miles of farm roads and twenty miles of streets, lit by electricity, were laid across 2000 improved acres in the midst of the scrub pine and oak of upper Cape May County. Intended for both agriculture and small industry, at Woodbine the factory eventually outdistanced the farm in the preferences of the Jewish immigrants. However, Woodbine’s most dramatic accomplishment was the Baron de Hirsch Agricultural School, where nearly 100 students every year were instructed in scientific farming. Among the Woodbine school’s most illustrious graduates was Jacob G. Lipman, who became a director of the Rutgers Experiment Station and, in 1915, was named the first dean of the state university’s College of Agriculture.

      Russian and Slavic Christians migrated to South Jersey following the Communist Revolution in 1917. Some of them settled in Camden and Millville, while others established a small village in Hamilton Township (Atlantic County) which they called New Kuban, after the Kuban River in the upper Caucasus. Their numbers were multiplied by the coming of the East European refugees in the 1950’s. The people of New Kuban retain their old style of dress even today, the women affecting the traditional calf-length skirt, with blouse or sweater, and a babushka around their heads. The men commonly wear overalls, or loose-fitting trousers with suspenders, a cotton shirt, and usually a hat. Their diet consists mostly of cabbage, potatoes, beets, bread, and buttermilk, along with vodka and homemade wine, the preferred alcoholic beverages. More Russian than English is spoken. 5

      The ethnic pattern of South Jersey was further altered in the 20th century by a large influx of Southern blacks during the two World Wars. Negroes were not newcomers to the region. As has been shown, a sizeable population of freed and escaped slaves lived in South Jersey before the Civil War. An extensive migration of blacks to Atlantic City occurred about 1870. In that year, blacks in Camden County accounted for ten percent of the county’s population, and by 1880 the county had a larger concentration of blacks than any other place in New Jersey. They attended segregated schools and churches, sat separate from the whites at public events, and on occasion were the object of white resentment and acts of violence. Nonetheless, blacks occupied respected positions in Camden civic, business, and professional circles during the 1880’s and 1890’s.

      These facts notwithstanding, a larger potential black migration to the urban areas of South Jersey at the turn of the century was blocked by a vastly greater influx of southern Europeans, who competed for jobs, worked for lower wages, and moved into established black neighborhoods. When the First World War cut off the supply of immigrant labor from Europe, employment was opened to blacks, who were recruited in the South by manufacturers gearing to wartime production. This migration continued undiminished until the depression of the 1930’s, to be renewed with vigor at the outbreak of the Second World War. A case in point was Camden County’s increase in black population at a rate greater than that of any other group between 1940 and 1950, when a gain of nearly 5000, a 26%, increase, was recorded. The total county population increased by 17.6%, during the same decade. Black increase during the depression decade was only 1000.

      The Puerto Rican inflow to South Jersey began toward the end of the Second World War. The larger towns of the southern counties, and the two largest cities, Camden and Atlantic City, developed large Spanish-speaking enclaves at mid-20th century, while hundreds from the Caribbean Islands settled in smaller communities in the farming areas. Most of the migrant labor employed in present-day South Jersey agriculture is from this group.

4 For many of the facts and statistics on Camden City and County in this and following chapters, the author is indebted to Jeffery M. Dorwart and Philip English Mackey, Camden County, New Jersey, 1616-1976: A Narrative History.

5 The author wishes to thank his student, Mrs. Jane Woodard, for her research on New Kuban, which provided him with this information.

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