Jersey Reflections: Woodbine, NJ

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By Vince Farinaccio


A Columnist for the Grapevine


Landis provided a blueprint to planners for the wide boulevards and building lots he had used in Vineland.
It wasn’t often that new southern New Jersey communities were given a helping hand by Charles K. Landis but, in the case of Woodbine, that’s exactly what happened. While Landis was known for establishing his own settlements like Hammonton, Vineland and Sea Isle City, he became involved early on in the development of this Cape May County community in 1891.
According to Jeffrey M. Dorwart in his book Cape May County New Jersey: The Making of an American Resort Community, “…a new community formed on the mainland at Woodbine, the wilderness stop on the West Jersey Railroad three miles north of Dennisville. Over six hundred Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe moved to Woodbine during the last decade of the nineteenth century. The founding in 1891 of the ‘Russian Jewish colony’ made Cape May County an integral part of the mass immigration movement to America. Driven out of eastern Europe by a combination of severe social and economic conditions and anti-Semitic pogroms, hundreds of thousands of Russian, Polish, Rumanian, Austro-Hungarian and German Jews emigrated to the United States during the late 19th century.”
Many Jewish immigrants settled in New York, Philadelphia and other urban areas and became, in Dorwart’s words “trapped in festering tenement districts.” Baron Maurice de Hirsch, “a wealthy Jewish industrialist and banker” and his foundation began to resettle the immigrants in rural locations, including southern New Jersey.
Cape May County New Jersey: The Making of an American Resort Community reports that Landis’ contribution to the new settlement was restricted to the planning stage, but it was significant nonetheless.  “Landis provided a blueprint to Woodbine’s planners for the wide boulevards and building lots that he had used earlier with success to lay out Vineland in Cumberland County,” Dorwart writes. “The original Woodbine town plan had been prepared by Jeremiah van Rensselaer and William S. Townshend for the Cape May and Millville Railroad, but the final design adopted by the Jewish-American leaders of the colony followed the plan that Landis gave in March 1891 to Mayer Sulzberger, a leading trustee of the Baron de Hirsch Fund and the Jewish Colonization Association, which financed the Woodbine settlement.”
In July 1891, the Baron de Hirsch Foundation purchased the Woodbine tract with the exception of property belonging to Nathaniel Holmes, which was located near the railroad station. Dorwart reports that Hirsh L. Sabsovich was then hired “to superintend the establishment of a Jewish colony in the northwestern corner of Cape May County.” The de Hirsch Fund subsidized the colony, allowing it to survive despite Dennis Township’s refusal to “use tax monies to improve roads or public schools.”
It didn’t take long for the new settlement to establish itself. Within several years, it had developed as a town and a manufacturing community and was poised for continued growth. In an appraisal by Russian-Jewish writer Vladimir Korolenko in 1893, Woodbine was called “the city of the future, an American embryo of the Jewish city” citing 30 houses, 66 farms, a coat factory, two schools, a post office and a hotel.
The Woodbine Manufacturing Company, established by a group of investors in the New York City textile industry, was added in 1894 along with the Baron de Hirsch Agricultural College, which according to online sources, was an institution of progressive education that garnered a series of prestigious awards. It closed during World War I, a frame of time during which Woodbine reshaped itself from an agricultural community to one of manufacturing.
Woodbine was incorporated March 3, 1903, and soon after would be called, according to The American Monthly Review of Reviews, "the first self-governing Jewish community since the fall of Jerusalem.” In yet another nod to Charles K. Landis, Cape May County New Jersey: The Making of an American Resort Community sums things up by declaring that “Woodbine became the most ambitious—and in the short run most successful—Jewish-American agricultural and industrial colony in the United States. It presented the same quasi-utopian vision that drove the [Lake family] in Ocean City and Charles K. Landis in Sea Isle City as they sought to provide an escape from industrial machines and urban decay by establishing planned, healthful communities in rural Cape May County.”