Jersey Reflections: Longer History

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Jersey Reflections


By Vince Farinaccio


A Columnist for the Grapevine


This year, Millville marks 150 years since its incorporation, yet the town has a history that dates back to the early 1700s.
Another local sesquicentennial is being celebrated by Millville this year to honor its incorporation as a city. But unlike Hammonton, also in its 150th year, Millville has a history that dates back much further—to the early 1700s. And while agriculture became a recognized achievement in Hammonton’s history, Millville would come to be known by another accomplishment.
Sources report that Millville’s origins can be traced to 1720 when a sawmill might have existed in the Leamings Mill area along with one public road, a boat landing and a “bridge-like structure.” William McMahon, author of South Jersey Towns, reports that over the next 35 years, a log cabin settlement appeared. But it would be another 31 years before Joseph Buck, recently discharged from the Continental Army, settled in Cumberland County.
According to McMahon, Buck took an interest in local politics, serving as sheriff from 1787 to 1790 and helping to shape the developing town.
Industry was essential to the success of a new town in the 18th century, and lumber mills along the Maurice River began springing up. In 1790, Henry Drinker and Joseph Smith arrived, forming Union Estates Company and providing a dam at the Union Mill Tract to power the mills. In the process, Union Lake was created.
The flourishing mills inspired Buck, who foresaw a successful industry flanked by manor houses like those on the western edge of the county in Greenwich.
In 1795 Buck became a real estate agent, buying up land, dividing it and selling it much as Richard J. Byrnes and Charles K. Landis would do in Hammonton over a half-century later. Buck also purchased a mill belonging to the Union Estates Company, according to the Cumberland County website. He then christened the town Millville.
But lumber mills would not prove to be Millville’s most renowned industry. As the city’s website points out, the abundance of fine white-grained silica sand, some of the finest in the world, made it a perfect location for glass manufacturing. Additionally, the wooded area provided enough trees for the lumber necessary to fuel the mills.
Originally, Millville was incorporated as a township on February 24, 1801, having been created from portions of Fairfield Township. Five years later, James Lee, an Irish immigrant from Port Elizabeth, established a window-glass factory. Lee’s glass factory, along with another run by Baltimore businessman Frank Schetter, was eventually purchased by the Whitall Tatum Company.
On February 26, 1866, some 65 years after it had been declared a township by legislation, Millville was incorporated as a city. The town’s population, which was a meager several hundred in the 1820s, was just under 5,000 at this time. It would grow significantly to 7,600 by 1880.
According to McMahon, the first election of the new municipality was held March 13 and James M. Wells was elected the city’s first mayor. In 1881, the first city hall was completed at a cost of $10,000, earning the disapproval of residents who found the price too expensive and threatened to run the city officials out of town. They soon witnessed how the facility could serve as headquarters for the police and fire departments as well as the politicians.
In 1885, physician Theodore C. Wheaton arrived in town, having attended Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. According to McMahon, he opened up a drugstore at 18 West Broad Street and soon added a second pharmacy at High and Sassafras streets.
McMahon reports that it wasn’t long before Wheaton developed a friendship with glass-factory owners William Shull and Eugene Goodwin, who probably manufactured the pharmaceutical bottles used at Wheaton’s drugstores. This became the turning point in Wheaton’s career as he became more interested in the glassworks, first loaning Shull and Goodwin several thousand dollars to keep them afloat and then, in 1888, overseeing the glassworks operation himself. Next, he purchased 25 square blocks in Millville’s third ward for the expansion of what he called T.C. Wheaton and Co. The business continued to grow over the course of the next hundred years.
In a town whose industry began with lumber mills, T.C. Wheaton and Co. became the city’s leading business in the 20th century.