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Chapter 1

Chapter 2
The Biology of Salt Marshes

Chapter 3
Banking/Diking Procedures

Chapter 4
Economics of Land Reclamation

Chapter 5
Salt-Hay Farming

Chapter 6
Meadow Companies

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Sources Consulted

The Landscape Transformation of Coastal New Jersey
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Since the seventeenth century, farmers have depended on the various resources of the salt marshes for sustenance. The marshes provided numerous economic opportunities that included trapping muskrats and selling their skin and meat. Shellfish and fish are still harvested from there; and many species of birds that travel in the flyway over the marshes are hunted either independently or with a sporting club. Perhaps the most important resource of the marsh is the land itself, once reclaimed.

Surveyor Thomas Budd recognized the agricultural potential of the marshes along the Delaware Bay as early as 1685. He described the land along the bay as "big rich fat marsh land" that could be banked and drained to allow sowing with corn and hay seed. The mosquito-infested marshes could then be turned into pasture for cattle and meadow as rich as that along the Thames River. [1]

In 1789, Jedediah Morse's American Universal Geography also illustrated the value of the marshes along the Delaware Bay. Morse expounded:

There are large bodies of salt marsh along the lower part of the Delaware river and bay, which afford a plentiful pasture for cattle in summer, and hay in winter. Along the sea coast the inhabitants subsist principally by feeding cattle on the salt meadows, and by the fish of various kinds. [2]

Nineteenth-century authors continued the tradition set by Budd and Morse. In the Gazetteer of the State of New Jersey, published in 1834, Thomas Gordon wrote:

Adjacent to the Delaware Bay and sea coast, are wide tracts of salt meadow, some of which have been reclaimed by embankment; and the rest afford abundance of coarse hay, free in many places to all who seek it, and valuable in the maintenance of stock and making manures. The climate is so mild, near the coast, that herds of cattle subsist, through the winter, upon these meadows, and in neighboring thickets, without expense to the proprietors. [3]

Economic Reports

By the middle of the nineteenth century, with the increase in the population and agricultural technology and the decrease in available land, agricultural reformers realized the benefits of land reclamation. State geologists, farmers, and later agents for the U.S. Department of Agriculture wrote extensive articles and reports on the economic aspects of land reclamation along New Jersey's Delaware Bay and its tributaries. [4]

One of the first reports on New Jersey appeared in 1857 when the state geologist's office published the Geology of the County of Cape May, State of New Jersey, which described the marshland along the Delaware Bay. The county had 58,824 acres of marsh, of which 1,918 acres were improved through reclamation and 17,223 acres were used as meadow. The report encouraged reclamation because once landowners shut off the tidal waters using banks and sluices, the marshes would become fresh and capable of improvement for cultivation. The state geologist asserted that unimproved salt marsh could be made profitable by improving it just enough to grow salt hay; all one had to do was dig ditches and open salt holes to allow the flow of the tide to escape. Moreover, buyers in the cities used salt hay as litter and packing material. [5]

By 1857, land reclamation was well known throughout Salem and Cumberland counties. The state geologist detailed its benefits to these two jurisdictions as a means of encouraging farmers in Cape May County. The report continued as follows:

In Salem County great value is attached to such meadows, on account of their heavy crops of hay and grass seed; in the latter article of which, the Census Report of 1850, under the head of clover and other grass seeds, sets down to this county 53,875 bushels—a quantity greater than any of the other states produced, except New York and Pennsylvania. In Cumberland County, enormous crops have been raised on some of the banked meadows of Maurice River: 100 bushels of oats, ninety of corn, forty-five of wheat and 3 or 4 tons of hay to the acre are reported. [6]

Almost a decade later, state geologist George Cook in his annual report acknowledged that banking and draining the tidal marshes in southern New Jersey had become quite a venture and should be expanded. Cook explained that salt-marsh farmers improved their property by ditching, clearing off coarse hassocks, and opening ponds and salt holes to tidal action; landowners shut out the tides by building embankments and draining the land via sluices. Once drained to the low-water mark, the agricultural and general value of the land increased. Cook asserted that meadows throughout West Jersey had been reclaimed since early settlement, citing Alloways Creek in Salem County which had been banked since 1700 as the earliest example. Because of their cooperative nature, landowners in Salem County continued to successfully drain tracts of marshlands.

The general size of the banks in Salem County were approximately 4' above the meadow surface, 8' wide at the bottom, and 3' across the top. Farmers made the banks larger and stronger in areas where the wind and tide posed a threat. Cook used the banks at Finn's Point as a model of an extra strong barrier because it was 10' high, 12' wide across the top, 30' wide at the bottom and extended for two to three miles along the shoreline. A stone facing protected the bank, and together they contain ca. 1,200 acres. Cook says that the size of the banks in Cumberland County differed. Along Cohansey Creek they ranged from 3' to 7' high, built directly on the surface of the meadow (Fig. 20). Many farmers left one rod, or 16-1/2' of meadow between the Waterway and the bank to act as a guard or shore, which protected the banks from extremely high tides and gave the workers an area to make repairs. [7]

Figure 20. Today, the Greenwich Meadow Company still maintains banks along the Cohansey River. Historical Atlas. (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

The cost of building such banks varied according to location. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, banks built of mud from a ditch 12' wide and 3' deep cost $1 per linear rod, but by 1866 the cost had risen to $3 per linear rod. [8] The cutting of drains and watercourses along with the building of banks at Fishing Island Meadow in Lower Penn's Neck, Salem County, cost $10 per acre when first done, but Cook estimated the work, if done in 1866, cost close to $15 per acre. [9]

Farmers paid $2 a linear rod to reclaim the area along the Maurice River; this included construction of the banks as well as the cutting of drains and water courses. Along this particular waterway the ditches were cut to be 7' wide and 2' deep; if they were boundary ditches they were 9' across. Cook reiterated the fact that the best way to keep areas clear was by using wide drains with sloping sides. [10]

The New Jersey Legislature and various agriculturalists, including Cook, discussed the costs of reclaiming land. These costs did not end with the completion of the banks and ditches, but included constant repairs and maintenance. In 1866, the annual expenses charged by the various meadows companies to their members ranged from 50 cents to $1 per acre. At Finn's Point the average cost was $2 an acre per year. Storms, winds, high tides, muskrats, fiddler crabs, and other natural elements regularly damaged the banks. As a result, many meadow companies employed one man to spend one day a week checking the banks at low tide. If he found a breach, he repaired it. In addition, landowners paid to have mud added to the top of the banks to keep them at their proper height; banks always settled, especially those built on the meadow or an old water course. [11]

The meadows themselves also shrunk once they were drained. When the meadows settled below the low-water mark, natural drainage became difficult; farmers dealt with this problem by cutting breaches in the banks at several points, allowing the water to enter and deposit sediment onto the meadows. The amount of sediment deposited and the length of time allowed for inundation depended upon the waterway. Both the Maurice River and Salem Creek carried large amounts of sediment, while Alloways Creek waters left only a mere film each season; thus, some farmers left their banks open for five to ten years in order to refurbish the soil on the meadows. The meadows near the city of Salem were left open and accumulated a 2' deposit of mud on average over a ten-year span. [12]

Despite the fact that farmers increased the fertility of the meadows by leaving the gates open for long periods of time, many did not like the idea of losing the profits from crops. One way to maintain profits and still increase the fertility of the land was to open the sluice gates during the winter months when farmers planted fewer crops; the amount of mud deposited again depended on the stream and ranged from a slight coating to 12". This practice was practical and economical, however, some fields could not refurbish themselves enough with just one winter's flooding. Farmers who shunned the idea of flooding tried fertilizing their meadows with lime and superphosphate. Cook, however, was convinced that flooding was the best way to keep the meadows fertile and at their proper level.

By this covering with mud the meadows are raised so as to be drained with more ease, and their character is much improved; the grasses also are much more nutritious. [13]

The improvements on these lands by the various farmers working together increased the value of the land immensely. The value of Salem County's reclaimed marshland averaged $100 per acre, whereas prior to improvements landowners valued the marshes along Alloways Creek in Lower Alloways Township between $1 and $5 per acre. In Cumberland County, farmers purchased tracts of marsh along the Maurice and Cohansey rivers for anywhere between $50 and $200 per acre (Fig. 21). Most reclaimed marshland brought more per acre than the nearby upland. [14]

Figure 21. Map of Maurice River Township. Historical Atlas. (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

Despite the fact that reclaiming the marshes could increase a farmer's acreage and his profits, the benefits could not be reaped immediately. Salt marshes took several years to mellow, to grow anything but salt-marsh grasses. [15] After such time, herd grass and eventually timothy, clover, and grain crops could be cultivated there. Once mellowed, farmers hoped that the harvest per acre exceeded the cost of reclamation per acre.

The common opinion among the best meadow men is, that all marsh which can be made to grow herd grass can be profitably banked where the cost of banking does not exceed $15 per acre. In short, all meadow or salt marsh that can be drained by open drains may be reclaimed with profit. [16]

In addition, profits depended upon building the banks high enough to keep the tides out and making sure that the meadow did not sink below the low-water mark. Natural drainage could not occur in the latter case and draining land via a steam engine or windmill was rarely profitable; neither technique was widely utilized along the Delaware Bay and its tributaries. [17]

Cook summed up his 1866 report with statistics concerning the New Jersey marshes, estimated to total 274,000 acres. The quantity of tide meadows—both fresh and salt—was calculated for each county: Cape May, 58,000 acres; Cumberland, 48,000 acres; Atlantic, 43,000 acres; Ocean 33,000 acres; Salem, 30,000 acres; Burlington, 24,000 acres; Bergen and Hudson, 23,000 acres; Essex and Union, 9,000 acres; Middlesex, 4,000 acres; and Monmouth, 2,000 acres. Cook further explained that only 20,000 acres had been reclaimed land, and the majority was located in Cumberland and Salem counties. [18]

In the following year's report, the state geologist surmised there were 295,476 acres of tidal marsh in New Jersey. Out of that figure, 20,000 acres that had been deemed relatively worthless—at $1 to $20 per acre—in their natural condition, were reclaimed at a cost of $5 to $20 an acre, increasing their value to between $100 and $300 per acre. [19]

In 1882 the benefits of reclaiming salt marsh in Southern New Jersey was noted again in the Annual Report of the State Geologist. Cook discussed the increase in truck farming as well as the increasing amount of black grass on the marshes. Black grass took the place of much of the salt-meadow grass because it was so rich in nutrients.

It is propagated by seeds, or by transplanting small sods from which the roots and seeds spread rapidly, crowding out other grasses. The hay made from this grass is a satisfactory substitute for clover or timothy and can be grown from year to year without cultivation or manuring. [20]

In 1892 Cook set a broader background for his promotion of land reclamation in New Jersey upon reporting from a visit to the Netherlands. Cook concluded that New Jersey did not need to take such extreme reclamation measures as this small nation, since New Jersey marshlands did not need protection from the sea except where its erosive effects were extreme. The use of jetties and wood bulkheads, however, could be as beneficial to New Jerseyans as it was to the Dutch. Again, Cook reiterated the increased value of the marshes if farmers would reclaim it: the value of farm land would rise 10 percent, and crop yields would increase 20 percent.

The development of the natural resources of the state should include the marshes as a leading element in the production of wealth and the attention of capitalists and of the citizens of the state should be directed to them by the survey. [21]

In 1894 Cornelius Clarkson Vermeule, assistant state geologist, submitted a report on the water supply, water power, flow of streams, and attendant phenomena in New Jersey. According to Vermeule, much of the tidal marsh along Salem Creek had been embanked and cultivated since 1700. Of the 31,780 acres of marsh in Salem County, about one-half or 15,225 acres had been drained; most of it was located along Salem Creek. The meadows were only slightly above the level of high tide, he continued, and the tide rose and fell 6'. A sluice gate drained the meadow and no pumping was necessary. [22]

Vermeule went on to describe reclamation projects on the Maurice River; the tidal portion of the river flowed through a belt of tide marsh about a mile wide, and considerable areas had been embanked and cultivated.

We are informed that this improvement was very profitable, and that the possession of a proper amount of improved meadow would add from 50 percent to 100 percent to the value of neighboring farms, as they afford excellent grazing, enabling the farmers to keep cattle, which it is almost impossible to do profitably on the uplands. [23]

This land produced an average of fifty-five bushels of wheat per acre. Corn, hay, oats, strawberries, late potatoes, and tomatoes grew on a few of the more mellow meadows. Moreover, the reclaimed land yielded 3 tons or more of hay and 100 bushels of corn a year. By the end of the nineteenth century, the value of these meadows in good condition ranged from $100 and $150 per acre. In addition to producing substantial grain and hay crops, reclaimed farmland along a seventeen-mile stretch on the Maurice River that began below Millville and continued to Port Norris was the site of some of the most productive dairy farms in the area. [24]

Between 1880 and 1910 a gradual shift occurred in southern New Jersey, especially in Cape May and Cumberland counties. The production of general farm crops such as corn, wheat, and other grains declined and were replaced with truck crops like vegetables and fruits. In Cape May the acreage devoted to corn production decreased from 4,996 to 4,090, hay acreage decreased from 4,302 to 3,587, and wheat from 1,543 acres to none. In contrast, the acreage devoted to Irish potatoes increased from 442 acres to 847 acres, and sweet potatoes from 301 acres to 445 acres. By 1909 grains and hay made up only 22.6 percent of the value of agricultural products; vegetables, 29.4 percent; dairy and animal products, 14.6 percent; poultry and eggs, 18.8 percent; and fruits, nuts and other crops, 14.5 percent. [25]

During the last decade of the nineteenth century, Cook and others remarked on the effects of the Depression on local farmers, who no longer had the money to maintain their fragile mud banks. Moreover, some speculative projects that did not yield the anticipated incomes led to the neglect of some South Jersey reclamation projects. By the middle of the twentieth century, most of the farms along the Maurice River had returned to their natural state. Several factors contributed to the decline: the lack of cooperation among the farmers to maintain the banks, the expense of maintenance, the failure of individual farmers, the nationwide poverty introduced by the Great Depression followed by the upheaval of World War II, and the conservationists' efforts to preserve marshland.

Ultimately the Depression and World War II marked the end of land reclamation practices along the Maurice River. Children left the farms looking for a better future. Additionally, the cost of maintaining dikes became an expense that most could not afford. Moreover, with the increasing need for factory workers, a larger number of people relocated from rural to urban settings. Today one dike farm remains on the Maurice River, the Burcham Farm. [26]

Burcham Farm

In 1869 Amaziah Burcham, a Civil War veteran from East Lyme, Connecticut, bought a triangular-shaped thirty-five-acre tract of reclaimed marshland along the Maurice River. On the southeastern corner of the land Burcham built either a frame house or moved into an already existing structure. This location, being the highest point on the property, ensured that if breaches ever occurred in the dike the house would remain dry.

Burcham house
Figure 22. Front view of Burcham House with dike in the foreground. Sebold.

The floor plan of the original house is unknown due to a number of changes that occurred throughout the nineteenth century. [27] By the mid 1920s when Burcham's granddaughters, Janice and Jeanette Burcham, were born this arrangement had changed; the frame house was no longer the main block, for in 1907 Burcham built the existing brick house as the central block for his newlywed son, Frank and his wife, Maud (Fig. 22). The house was constructed from bricks fired on the premises, adding on to the original structure. The bricks are laid in a seven-course common bond. Some of the other features of the house include a high pitched roof with a cross gable that faces the Maurice River, an L-shaped porch that wraps around the front, supported by turned supports, and three exterior chimneys, one on the east gable and two on each side of the north gable.

The landscape consists, however, of more than just a 10'-high, mile-long dike and the vernacular Gothic Revival Burcham house (Fig. 23). Located on the west side of the house is a windmill and a two-story bank barn constructed of modern concrete block. The original brick barn burned in 1940. Frank Burcham replaced it with another brick barn, which Hurricane Hazel destroyed in 1954. A modern pigpen and chicken coop are located to the north of the house along with a small pigeon shed made of brickbats or broken bricks fired on the premises. Like the house, these buildings are located on the raised knoll. [28]

Burcham's dike
Figure 23. Top and side view of the Burcham's dike. Leach.

Despite its picturesque location, Burcham was attracted to this tract for economic reasons. The land, which lies just north of Menatico Creek, contained deposits of Cape May clay, a gritty, loamy and sandy clay type which was ideal for making bricks and drain tiles. As a result, Burcham established his South Jersey Brick and Drain Tile Works on the property. Besides using the bricks for building the 1907 house, Burcham also took advantage of his factory by laying drain tiles in the fields to direct the flow of runoff to the holding pond and drainage ditch at the center of the property, and then out the sluice gate. [29]

Until its demise during World War II, the brick and tile works was the main economic thrust of the family enterprise; farming was a secondary venture that supplied Burcham's family, employees, and animals with food. Periodically, Burcham relieved a man of his brickyard duties to work in the garden and care for the animals. [30]

Burcham sold his bricks mostly to customers who lived in the Millville area. He and his men loaded them onto barges that were pulled by horses walking along the dikes on the Maurice River. At the time, all marshland from the Burcham farm north to Millville was reclaimed. In 1913 when Burcham's son, Frank, took over the business, he transported the bricks to Millville via truck. Frank Burcham continued to run the brick factory, along with five employees, until World War II when the government declared the business non-essential to the war effort. The younger Burcham and his employees went to work in defense plants, and the factory closed. [31]

Frank Burcham continued to raise crops to provide for his family after World War II. In 1948 he died, followed by his wife, Maud, three years later. In 1951 their twin daughters, Janice and Jeanette Burcham, inherited the farm. Jeanette, a school teacher and transportation lawyer, returned to the farm and with her uncle, George Haesler, continued to maintain the dike and work the land. Janice, a U.S. Navy nurse, also helped on the farm whenever her leave permitted; in 1975 she retired from the navy and returned to the farm permanently. [32]

Prior to the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Burchams used mud from the river as well as broken brickbats, when the brick factory operated, to maintain the dike. The Burchams, as well as other farmers in the area, hired a muddigger, usually a man who owned a barge equipped with a crane that had a clam scoop on it, to retrieve the mud and repair the dikes. All the farmers along the river were notified when the muddigger would arrive, so he could complete repairs to everyone's banks at the same time. The farmers shared the cost as well as helped one another make repairs during emergencies. The dikes connected these people not only by land but also by the need to survive. [33]

In 1972, while repairing breaches made by Hurricane Agnes, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection notified the Burcham sisters that they were no longer able to use the mud from the river to repair their banks as it was considered state property. As a result, the twins had to look for other material to maintain the dike. Today they use concrete without reinforcement rods, and crushed oyster and clam shells. With the change in materials, the sisters built the first road, the present-day loop, on top of the dike to allow repairs to be made from the land. Previously, the dike had been repaired from the river side and no road was required. [34]

By the 1950s, when Janice and Jeanette took over the property, all the farmers along the Maurice River—except the neighboring farmer—had allowed their dikes to fall into disrepair. The farm to the east of the Burchams existed until the middle of the 1950s when its owner allowed the dike to fail, fearing that the Burchams would do the same: he would have been unable to afford to maintain his dike independently. As a result, the sisters had to raise their access road 3' and extend their dike eastward to act as a barrier between their dry land and the renewed marshland. With the resubmergence of that site, the Burchams became the only extant dike farm on the Maurice River. [35]

The Burchams have strong reasons for maintaining their dike. If the dike were to fail, the house would sit on an island. For other farm families like the Griccos, the Ores, the Mellors, the Kings, and the Clunns (Amaziah Burcham's in-laws), all of whom farmed reclaimed land along the Maurice River, maintaining the dikes was not essential; only farm land was lost because their dwelling and access to it sat upland. For the Burcham sisters, however, maintaining their dikes is essential for preserving the entire homestead. [36]

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Last Modified: Mon, Jan 31 2005 10:00:00 pm PDT

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