Miriam Tyler’s Stories of Old Rancocas
For the benefit of the Westampton Historical Society, 1990
By Miriam E. Tyler
As visitors enter the Main Street or Bridge Street of little old Rancocas, they notice many red brick houses and tall green trees. These two streets have always been very busy in the past as well as in the present. This place was the center of a large farm area. It was surrounded by acres of farmland.
The farmers came into the village for various needs. On the corner of Main Street and Bridge Street was a general store. It was managed by Jacob Leeds. Men sat around a pot-bellied stove and played chess as well as checkers. They laid their chess and checker boards on a pickle barrel. Men leaned on the counters and swapped stories and news.
There was a library on the second floor of the general store. It cost $5.00 for a membership and had 127 volumes.
Diagonally across from the store was a little Quaker schoolhouse. Its date is 1822. There were eight grades taught in this one-room brick structure by one teacher. In the center of the room was a stove. A dog or two would also come to school with the children. Toilets were outside privies. Some students came to school driving horses and wagons which were sheltered under sheds bordering the lane and behind the Friends Meetinghouse. In winter, children brought their sleds and played on the hill behind the little school at recess time. Water was carried from Charlie Roberts’ house to the school in buckets steadied on a pole by two children. Inside the school at the front of the room were two large blackboards. The desks were rather crude and painted a dull red. Pupils raised the top of the desk to store books, apples and other things. When the teacher wasn’t looking, some children would sneak a bite of apple or cookie. Some desks smelled of rotten apples. Schoolmasters of the past were Charles Stokes, Frances Stokes, Katherine Liland and Lizzy Petit.
The teacher used a handbell for calling the children together outside. Every Friday morning assembly was held in the Friends Meetinghouse. Sometimes Alice Tomlinson would come to speak to the children about Quaker philosophy, as this was a Quaker school. There were about thirty-five students of various ages. At different hours of the day, little groups would come forward to work with the teacher. The children used slates and slate pencils. Small children, when writing on the blackboard, had to stand on a chair. Some pupils were the Ewan children, the Warwick girls, Ann Grovatt, Russell Grovatt, Eddie Grovatt, Joe Schumard, Russel Petit, Frances Stokes, Charles Roberts, Lawrence Johnson, David Walker, Johnny Griffith, Frances Griffith, the Cale children and Helen Smith. Quaker teachers at that time were called by their first names with teacher before it such as “Teacher Anna” or for a man teacher, “Master Walters.”
Next to the little schoolhouse is located the Friends Meetinghouse. On the side wall is the date 1774. There was once another Meetinghouse built near the Rancocas Creek. The Friends Meetinghouse now standing is made of bricks, Flemish Bond in design. This makes an attractive pattern in the brick walls. The two little roofs over the front door are different. About 1820, the Society of Friends had a split in ideas. One side of the Meetinghouse was used by the Orthodox while the other side housed the Hicksites. They wanted everyone to know that they though differently, therefore they made the front door roofs different. Years later they resolved their differences and met together. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries men wore their hats in the Meetinghouses. The women wore bonnets. Both men and women wore clothing of black, gray, beige and sometimes dark blue. White collars accented these clothes. Simple clothing and plain Meetinghouses were meant to show the King of England that Quakers in England would not follow his elaborate, expensive fashions which made their taxes very high. They believed that it was not necessary to worship God while wearing fancy clothes in an elaborate church which cost them so much money. During meetings, all was silent unless someone was moved by the Spirit to speak. Some window panes of hand-blown glass can still be found in the Meetinghouse windows.
Next to the Meetinghouse is the firehouse, which was once a hall. Lectures, graduations, plays and other social and cultural occasions were held here upstairs. Before the time of electricity, when a fire would break out, people of the town would come running and pound on a great iron ring to send out the alarm. At the scene of the fire, men would form a line and rapidly pass leather buckets of water toward the fire. This happened as late as 1944 when something happened to the pumping truck and hose. Even though some spectators did not think this would be effective, the men thus saved a barn from burning down by this bucket brigade.
The Lyceum was held on the second floor of the now firehall. People from Vincentown, Moorestown, Mt. Holly, Beverly, and Burlington were members.
To the left of the general store was a barbershop. Billy Bowker was the local barber at one time. The customers’ names were on Grandpa Bowker’s shaving mugs. Grandpa Bowker also had a high topped hack. He drove daily to Masonville, Mount Laurel Township, to get the mail for Rancocas village and also to take passengers who wished to take the train or trolley car from Masonville to Mt. Holly, Pemberton, Burlington, Moorestown and Camden.
Laura Lunday’s house directly across from the little Friends’ school is the oldest house in Rancocas Village. The back section of the house was built in the eighteenth century. Almost every year a maharanee would come from the country of India with her son to visit her relative Laura Lunday. The story is told that a Quaker girl went to George School in Pennsylvania, met a boy who was a Hindu prince and married. They went to live in India. It was an unexpected sight to see these two Hindus walking in this country town. The maharanee wore a long, beautifully draped gown.
The small building in back of Laura’s house was once a town library.
The Bakers’ house directly across from the firehall has an object like a big watermelon in the front yard. Amos Hansel found it one day in the field of his farm near Rancocas. He said he did not know how it got there. People always said it must be a meteorite that dropped from the sky. Quakers who once lived in this double house employed Indian servants. They slept up in the third floor of the house. There are little windows in the bedroom doors. No one is sure why this was built this way. This house, like many of the old houses had front and back stairways. Most of the back stairs were curved, which made them dangerous to use as people frequently fell on these stairs. All of the old houses had wells to supply the water for the house. The water in Rancocas was considered good tasting.
Florence Irwin’s house is next to the double house. It is located at 34 Main Street. Her property extended back to Second Street. In back of her house she took care of a very large vegetable garden. She cared for this garden until the age of ninety. Florence provided food for all of her relatives as well as herself.
Rachel Haines’ house is the three storied house across from the general store. It is built on a hillside. The kitchen was not on the level of the parlors or dining room. Food was brought up from the kitchen by a dumbwaiter. There is a cellar for wood and coal and one more level down is a root cellar. Up in the third floor was a big tank to provide water pressure.
Rachel Haines was the last of the Rancocas Orthodox Friends. Rather than sit by herself in the right-hand side of the Meetinghouse, she joined with the Hicksite Friends. During the New York World Fair, she told some of her friends that she could not go to the fair until she had washed all of her windows. This she did and had a good time at the fair at the age of eighty. It has often been said that the people of Rancocas do not die but dry up and blow away.
When the Bicentennial of the Rancocas Meeting has weld, the meeting wanted to make a special occasion of its two hundred years of existence. Plays were given about Quakers. A man by the name of Cooper was invited to speak. He told of inheriting a desk from England. In this desk were letters written by his ancestors and sent from America, Burlington County to England describing their life in this new world which was located at Rancocas.
His ancestor, Dr. Daniel Wills, told of his trip on the sailing vessel coming from England to Burlington, New Jersey. Burlington is an older city than Philadelphia. He told of five men with sons and servants Who had a long boat lowered off the sailing ship to take them up the Rancocas River, or creek as some people call it. In this open boat, much like a large rowboat, the men drew lots from a hat to decide which parcel of land each man would own. Dr. Wills’ tract of land was partly edging on the river and extended back quite a distance. His property began near what is all Bridge Street at the Centerton Bridge, on the left, coming up stream.
That night the weather tuned cold and snow fell. Dr. Wills’ sons and servant complained bitterly and begged to return to the sailing ship bound for England. They wanted none of this wilderness. The men had hoped to find some friendly Indians who would take them into their round houses until they could make their own shelter. This frequently happened to newcomers as the Lenni Lenape Indians were friendly, peaceful Indians. However, these Englishmen found no Indians. Dr. Wills chose a high piece of land for their camp. A fire was built and Dr. Wills stayed awake all night tending as his companions slept. In the morning everyone felt better after resting and decided to stay in the new world.
It happened many times that early settlers dug caves in high banks along the rivers when they first arrived. A blanket or later animal skins were hung at the entrance. As soon as possible a log house would be built as the early Swedish people in America had found log houses to be very satisfactory. Brick houses were built as time passed since New Jersey has good materials for bricks. One such cave was located on Walter Jessup’s farm. Walter said when he owned it, it was dangerous and therefore he would not let anyone near it.
Turning off Main Street at the general store, going toward the Centerton Bridge you are on Bridge Street. Behind the general store was where the busy blacksmith had his business. In by-gone days, before automobiles, people drove horses, mules, and ponies attached to wagons and carriages on the narrow roads and streets. The houses on this street once had bigger front yards before the time of blacktop. The blacksmith was an important person as farmers and others came to Rancocas for his service. The last blacksmith at this location was George Fish.
The house at 200 Bridge Street is where a doctor lived and had his practice. The rounded extension on one side of the house was the doctor’s office. Behind that was the room where pills were stored. At the back of the house were a number of small rooms built onto the main house. These rooms were used as pantry, kitchen, washhouse and tack or saddle room.
On the corner of Bridge and Second Street, or Mill Street as it was once called, was a grocery store. Ann Grovatt’s father, Herbert Grovatt, was a worker in this store. Ann remembers riding around the country with her father as he drove a horse and wagon to take food orders to farmers on near-by farms.
Diagonally from the store at 201 Bridge Street and Second Street stands a red brick home of the Federal Period in design. It resembles an English Georgian house only very much plainer. The house was built by James French in 1844 for a Quaker man by the name of James Hilyard. It has “H” shaped chimneys.
When the present owner bought the house, people of the Village told her about the bricks in front of the house having come from England. Since there was a brick kiln down the road at the time the house was built, it did not seem logical that bricks would be brought from England. However, years later when the house was being pointed, the brick mason told the owner that the bricks had come from England as ballast on sailing ships. The seams between the bricks were so fine that regular mortar could not be used. The mason had to use marble dust. Originally the house was heated with six fireplaces and lighted by candles, as there are holders above the fireplaces for hanging candles. Cooking was done in the kitchen fireplace. The crane is still there today. At Williamsbury, Virginia, the blacksmith identified the hardware on the doors as not later than circa 1790.
Stories have been told about Rachel Hilliard who wore black dresses and a little black Quaker bonnet. She wore many petticoats and high-buttoned shoes. A former store delivery boy told of this thrifty Quaker, that she would call him from her window, “Please lend me an egg from the store and I will pay thee back when hen lays one.” Rachel Hilliard also made her undergarments out of flour sacks. In those days flour manufacturers sold flour in strong cotton bags. Hanging on the clothes line her pants had printed across the seat, “Gold Metal.”
In this house at 201 Bridge Street old hand-blown glass, wide boards and stairway newel post made of three different kinds of wood, tiger, maple, mahogany and pine, can be found. People at this time used the wood they had on hand and did not concern themselves always about matching wood. In the brick cellar there is still a piece of wooden waterpipe.
Continuing down Bridge Street on the left is a Quaker graveyard. According to records, Indians were given a space to bury their dead. As was their custom they used no markers of any sort.
The house facing the river on the left side of Bridge Street behind the graveyard was originally a farmhouse. A former occupant told of many objects found in the cellar which included a bathtub made by hollowing out the trunk of a tree. There were also various wooden machines found in the cellar.
At the end of Bridge Street is the Centerton Bridge. Many people traveled this way. Charles Roberts tells that as a boy of about twelve, he was permitted to drive a horse and wagon when visiting his Haines relatives in Mt. Laurel Township at Larchmont Farm. On the way home he found the bridge closed for repair. It was late at night and Charlie did not want to go many miles out of his way to go home at Rancocas. If he did not use this bridge, he would have had to go to Mount Holly or Bridgeboro in order to cross the Rancocas Creek. He cautiously felt his way in the dark over loose boards on the floor of the bridge. He felt for open spaces as he pulled his unwilling horse after him. Fortunately he crossed the bridge safely with his horse and wagon. Charlie live at 18 Main Street.
In by-gone days farmers brought their produce down Bridge Street to the Rancocas River. A boat docked there took fresh vegetables and fruits, also passengers to Philadelphia. These passengers enjoyed the boat trip to Philadelphia and a day of shopping there. One pilot on the boat was called Johnny Armstrong.
In Armours’ yard can be seen a mill stone. The mill was once located on Mill Street, now Second Street, and owned by Sam Haines.
At the corner of Olive and Second Street there was located a butchershop with a bell used by customers to call the butcher. He was frequently in a back building doing the butchering. He kept his wagon and horse in a barn a little farther down the street. Customers would leave orders on paper and the butcher would deliver the ordered meat.
The Grange Hall located at the end of Second Street was once a public school. There were four classrooms downstairs and four rooms upstairs. Later the children went to Willingboro school and were driven by Grandpa Billy Bowker. Next his building became the Grange Hall. In recent years it has been bought to be converted into a private dwelling.
Betty Van Sciver lived at 128 West Second Street. Sometimes in the night she would hear a ticking sound from time to time. After telling her family about this they investigated. They opened up a closed chimney on the third floor and found a squirrel’s nest and an old clock with a pendulum. It wasn’t a time bomb or a ghost after all!
Today, in old Rancocas many of the original families are gone. However, as people choose to settle into this quaint village of red brick houses and tall green trees, they show an interest in the history of the Village and wish to preserve the Village as best they can. It seems to be their desire to cherish this unique old one-time Quaker town.