Jersey Reflections: Old Hammonton


Jersey Reflections

By Vince Farinaccio

A Columnist for the Grapevine

Factory and mill workers subsisted on products from Coffin’s company store, an arrangement that returned a portion of an employee’s pay to the company.
In its first incarnation as what has been dubbed “Old Hammonton,” the town developed from the business enterprises of William Coffin and his sons who operated a sawmill and a glass factory. But Hammonton’s development would only last six years after Coffin’s death in 1844, most likely due to the lack of self-sufficiency and the inability to expand and generate new businesses.
The 1889 text Illustrated History of the Town of Hammonton with an Account of its Soil, Climate and Industries, declares that “Old Hammonton” existed as “a business and social oasis in the wilderness.” But it relied on other towns to provide necessary services. Through the efforts of Coffin, it had constructed a schoolhouse, which also served as a church, but it needed to recruit a preacher from another municipality whose schedule only allowed him to conduct services every two weeks. In the case of medical issues, a physician from Haddonfield was summoned.
Because the Camden and Atlantic Railroad had not yet been built, travel remained limited. According to Illustrated History of the Town of Hammonton, “communication with the outside world was by stage, which ran from Camden to Leeds' Point every Wednesday and Saturday, and made the return trips Thursdays and Mondays. This was the ‘fast’ mail route of the primitive days. Richard Cake was the first stage driver, and after him came William Satt. He was succeeded by Captain Kimble who pulled the ‘ribbons’ over the stage coach team, until the building of the railroad caused the stage and the stage driver to move on to a wilder country.” It is reported that when Kimble was unable to make the run, his wife would travel the route for him.
The arrival of the railroad, however, would usher in a “New Hammonton,” which would be founded on an agricultural rather than industrial plan and give settlers more autonomy. In “Old Hammonton,” factory and mill workers subsisted on products from Coffin’s company store, an arrangement that returned a portion of an employee’s pay to the company. Illustrated History of the Town of Hammonton offers a glimpse into an entry in Coffin’s day book that recorded a standard purchase by one of his employees: “1 quarter of flour; 5 pounds of pork, 1 pound of sugar; 1 plug of tobacco; 1 quart of molasses; 1 quart of rum; and it is averred that this individual entry was duplicated by nearly every head of a family who worked in the factory.”
In 1840, Coffin’s glass factory burned down and arson was suspected. The owner wasted no time in rebuilding his facility but, suspicious that his workers had inflicted the damage on the original building, dismissed them outright. To replace them, he recruited workers from Massachusetts.
Soon after, Coffin established the first post office in Hammonton and was appointed postmaster, enjoying several years in that position.
But with Coffin’s death, “Old Hammonton” would begin its decline, reaching its end in six years. As William McMahon, in his book South Jersey Towns, puts it, “by 1850, the wheels of the old mill had ceased to turn and the glassworks had fallen into decay.” With both businesses gone, there was no security for the town and this “business and social oasis in the wilderness” was left staring at its own demise.
Illustrated History of the Town of Hammonton recognizes the significance of the town’s later history but takes a moment to eulogize Hammonton’s first incarnation: “while we may flatter ourselves that a decade of our time is worth a cycle of that of the older time, still an honorable fortune was made in those days, and happiness and good fellowship abounded ‘at the lake’ in those antebellum times.”
Several factors, however, hinted at a rebirth for Hammonton in the 1850s. In the early years of that decade, towns like Egg Harbor City and Elwood would spring up a relatively short distance away from Hammonton. The Camden and Atlantic Railroad would organize, lay its tracks and begin a successful run that connected the western and eastern edges of southern New Jersey, facilitating travel to and from Philadelphia, where two promising businessmen were about to meet and form a partnership that would irrevocably change the future of Hammonton.
Next Week: “New Hammonton”