On-line Book




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
National Park Service Arrowhead


Land reclamation historically has been deemed a community activity. Traditionally, no single person could afford the expense of draining the land, nor could an individual farmer afford to buy a waterway and the surrounding property. In many instances, land drainage could not be contained within one area. When a property owner upstream altered the water course, he affected neighbors downstream, and in many cases neighbors had to cut ditches through their land for the whole procedure to work correctly. Moreover, access to an adjacent property was needed to undertake necessary repairs on the banks or dikes. In 1860, land-reclamation advocate Henry French observed:

If we may lawfully compel a person to fence his land, to exclude the cattle of other persons, or, if he neglect to fence, subject him to their depredations, without indemnity, as is done in many States; or if we may compel him to contribute to the erection of division fences, of a given height, though he has no animal in the world to be shut in or out of his field, there would seem to be equal reason, in compelling him to dig half a division ditch for the benefit of himself and neighbor. [1]

During the late seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, farmers in Salem, Cumberland and Cape May counties financed their reclamation projects by joining local meadow companies. Memberships in these collectives eased such burdens as the high cost of building and maintaining the dikes, the lack of enough hired help to do the work, and the constant watch for breaches. With taxation proportional to the amount of marshland owned, members could rely upon managers and other elected officials to assist with these problems (Fig. 34).

Figure 34. Survey maps were one component of the meadow companies that existed in South Jersey. Salem County Historical Society.

In November 1788, the New Jersey state legislature established a law that allowed owners and/or renters, called possessors, of tidal marshes to improve their property through reclamation or maintain land that had already been reclaimed. [2] This regulation appears to have been an extension of a similar law that was enacted by the colonial legislature in the early eighteenth century, permitting area farmers to incorporate as meadow companies. The law required meadow company members to meet annually to discuss business and elect officers. Additionally, it defined the duties of the officers as well as the rights of the members. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, several amendments were made to the 1788 law, but the officers' duties and members' rights remained virtually unaltered. These amendments were enacted in 1806, 1829, 1839, 1849, 1878, 1903, 1926, and 1957.

The officers of a meadow company consisted of managers, clerks, and assessors. The number of managers varied according to the legislation of each company; as many as three could be elected. Charged with overseeing the construction and maintenance of the dike, the members allowed managers to employ and at times pay workers. They were also given specific instructions that earth used to repair the banks was to come from the end of the bank in an area least detrimental to the owner or possessor of that particular tract of marsh.

Additionally, managers checked the banks for negligence, oversaw the immediate restoration of any banks, billed negligent owners for extra expenses, and sued the owners if the bills and taxes were not paid. In order to recover any unpaid monies, the managers occasionally worked in conjunction with the treasurer to rent the property. At every annual meeting the managers had to turn their records over to the incoming managers as well as give financial and status reports.

The assessors acted as a check on the managers' power, allowing him to assess the amount of money needed to complete the bank construction and maintenance; by the nineteenth century, the office of assessor had been virtually eliminated with the duties divided among other officers and commissioners.

Working with the other officers, the collector or treasurer collected funds from the company members to pay for the expense of building and maintaining the bank; the amount was proportional to the acreage each member owned, as determined by the assessor. The collector also paid workmen hired by the manager, and co-authored an annual financial report. The act of incorporation also gave instructions as to the replacement of officers and length of terms.

To ensure that the officers—especially the managers—did not overstep their authority, almost all meadow-company legislation included a clause that allowed members to choose two or three outsiders to act as arbitrators. Most early legislation insisted that arbitrators or commissioners settle disputes such as those dealing with bank maintenance. If a marsh owner believed that he donated too much mud or soil without proper compensation, he could ask the commissioners to speak to the assessor on his behalf. If the assessor agreed, the treasurer paid the plaintiff for damages. Additionally, the commissioners, working with the mangers who hired surveyors to assess the amount of land owned by each member, assessed the properties to make sure the owners paid an equal share. [3]

The power of the meadow companies, however, did not lay just with its officers. Every meadow company member had the right to call meetings, elect officers, challenge decisions, and make sure all work and debts were distributed fairly. Not only did all members pay taxes based on the amount of land they owned, they were allotted a number of votes accordingly. One vote was given for every so many acres owned; the set number depended upon the meadow company by-laws.

Under the 1788 law meadow companies flourished in South Jersey, especially during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Salem County, with the largest amount of reclaimed marshland in the area, also had the most and oldest meadow companies. In 1883, seventy-one meadow companies existed as follows: Mannington Township, 18; Lower Penns Neck Township, 17; Lower Alloways Creek Township, 14; Elsinboro Township, 8; Upper Penns Neck (Carney's Point) Township, 8; Salem City, 5; and Upper Alloways Creek Township, 1. [4]

Jonathan Goodwin Woodnutt, a prominent Quaker farmer and resident of Mannington Township in Salem County, participated in several meadow companies either as a member or an officer. His dealings with these companies, as well as his efforts to maintain his banks, are recorded in a diary which he kept from 1848 until 1871 when he turned the property over to his son, Joseph. Woodnutt's farm was in the southwestern part of Mannington Township just below the farm of another wealthy Quaker, George Abbott. The interaction between Woodnutt and Abbott, as well as neighboring farmers, exemplifies the need for collective land-reclamation projects. Moreover, Woodnutt's diary indicates the intensive labor required to keep the land in good working order.

In March 1849, Woodnutt began embanking a portion of his property. In reference to this project, he remarked that George Abbott walked with him around the meadows and agreed that the banks should be built as soon as possible. Woodnutt then made appointments with Robert Newell and John Sinnickson to visit the meadows so they could assess the situation (Fig. 35). Rain canceled Sinnickson's visit, but Newell, along with Woodnutt and his father, proceeded in laying out the position of the bank. By the middle of April Woodnutt had hired a full force of men to construct it. His diary entries illustrate the process:

April 14, 1849 . . . Seventeen men on bank. George Abbott let me have $50 on account expenses of bank and gave me authority to pay the hands. He is to advance 1/3 of the cost as it may be necessary. Paid away to the men about $80. Very low water.

April 17. . . Twenty-one men on bank. Boys hauling up bottoms of rush heaps from meadow, making compost. Self went to Salem in afternoon, engaged McCulloch to write advertisements for taking in meadows.

April 30 . . . Went to Salem to get Anna and Rebecca Denn's names to the paper to take in meadow. Paid the men on bank about $125 this week. Hired Jeddy Butcher to cut down trees for the stopping [sluice gate], also for 1/2 month at $10 per month with privilege of going sooner if he wishes.

May 4 . . . Turned cattle on meadow for first. Boys finished balks by noon. Succeeded in raising one end of sluice by heavy crew.

May 14 . . . Four gangs on the bank. George Abbott brought home some more barrows and sent more plank down for the purpose of driving two more sluices.

June 5 . . . Six gangs on bank. Part of stopping blew out last night but we succeeded in mending it. Stopped off the water today but did not get the bank finished, several places not high enough. Self went to Salem to engage commissioners for bank.

June 27 . . . Paid away up to this time for work done on bank $1,424.

July 18 . . . Self went to Salem in afternoon, received $1,000 of Garrison, Rumsey and Wistar for note against them, paid B. Griscom and John Sinnickson commissioners. [5]

Figure 35. The proximity of the Woodnutt, Abbott, and Newell farms to each other just north of Clayville is illustrated on this 1876 map of Mannington Township. Combination Atlas.

It appears from Woodnutt's descriptions that he was, perhaps, the manager of a meadow company, possibly the Salem Fork Meadow Company. Many of his activities verify this. Not only did Woodnutt employ the men needed to build the bank, he also received money from George Abbott, perhaps the treasurer, to pay the men. He made sure the local newspapers advertised the reclamation project and he sought out the commissioners to check on the work being done. Finally, he described all the maintenance to be done.

The diary entries reveal the nature of the work. Natural elements—in the form of muskrats, high tides, violent winds or erosion—kept Woodnutt and his men busy. In February 1850, he wrote, "Brother Thomas and self took walk around the bank with our guns but did not see a muskrat. Boys digging out muskrat holes on the bank." In November 1861 he described, perhaps, one of the worst natural failures of the banks.

November 2 . . . Edward Hays and self on Fork bank, a/c very full tide so high we did but little good. Our bank broke and the meadow soon became filled with water. We brought the cattle off the meadow. Wind east, very high and may be said the fullest tide for 15 years.

Entries such as that of November 2 were always followed by a description of the many necessary repairs. Two days later, Woodnutt wrote that a work force was sent down to the bank and took mud and lumber to repair the sluice gate via a scow. By the following day, the men had plugged many of the small breaches. Two days later, however, Woodnutt felt that the repairs had not been entirely completed to his satisfaction. He wrote:

Force on bank and succeeded in stopping the water off but not withstanding some danger of blowing out should the tide run full.

Repairing the banks was so critical that Woodnutt enlisted all farm hands to help. As a result, the men did not complete the everyday chores; however, to Woodnutt and others like him, maintenance of the banks was the priority. Without secure banks, the tide would destroy more than a day's worth of farm work. Woodnutt's main interest remained with the Salem Fork Meadow Company, but he also served as treasurer for the Wyatt Meadow Company, and aided George Abbott with the business of the Denn's Island Company.

In 1845, George Abbott built a brick Federal-style house on land in Mannington Township that he purchased from John Denn (Fig. 36). Located near Salem Creek, Abbott, like his neighbor Jonathan Goodwin Woodnutt, participated in several meadow companies. This tradition was carried on by his son, also named George Abbott. [6] In a letter to the director of the Census dated 1920, another son, Henry Abbott, described the origins of the family meadow company. [7]

Abbott house
Figure 36. Woodnutt's neighbor George Abbott built this Federal-style house in 1845.

The younger George founded the Abbott Meadow Company in 1895 under the state law of 1788 (Fig. 37). He consolidated the Old Causeway Meadow Company, Wyatt Meadow Company, and Denn's Island Meadow Company to form his own. Abbott's interest in this and all previous companies stemmed from the fact that a large portion of his Mannington Township farm was reclaimed land. Abbott, Woodnutt, and others raised herd grass on their meadows; this grass, also called red top, adapted well to wet areas and rarely grew upland. To keep the grass flourishing, farmers opened sluice gates and flooded the meadows during the winter. Woodnutt talked of cutting the herd, threshing the seed out, then riddling it. The latter process separated the seed from the stem, weeds, and other trash.

Figure 37. Abbott's son, George, formed the Abbott Meadow Company in the late nineteenth century. Salem County Historical Society.

Workers then placed the seed into bags to be sold locally or shipped to Philadelphia; the seed was used for cattle feed. [8]

One motive behind Abbott's creation of the Abbott Meadow Company was to give the farm extra acreage to grow crops and the dairy cattle more pasture to graze. By the time he consolidated the surrounding companies, he had already been in the dairy business for nineteen years. Abbott experimented with ways to ship milk, and devised a means of keeping the milk cooler longer, thus allowing it to travel to farther markets. His method consisted of cooling the milk in long concrete troughs fitted with paddles that stirred and aerated it. When the milk's temperature decreased, Abbott placed it in milk cans that were insulated with wool Army blankets. Vacationers in Atlantic City and Cape May considered Abbott's milk a treat because of its fresh quality. Orders from the resort towns grew so large that he had to add his neighbors' milk supply to his own, and thus Abbott's Dairy was founded in 1876. [9]

In 1876, Abbott's business boomed after he supplied milk to the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Its unsurpassed quality was noted at the fair, according to large sales. As a result, Abbott moved the business there, and by the turn of the century had established corporate offices in Philadelphia with branch offices in Delaware, Maryland. and New Jersey. [10]

Abbott's Dairy thrived in the mid-Atlantic United States well into the twentieth century; in 1960 it merged with Fairmount Foods of Omaha, Nebraska. Today, Tide Mill Farm, where the dairy first started, remains the property of the founder's great great grandson, George Abbott and his son, James E. Abbott. [11]

Like much of the marsh in Salem County, that surrounding Tide Mill Farm has returned to wetlands. Many of the farms along the Salem Creek lost their battle against nature during World War I. At the time, muskrat pelts were more valuable than the herd seed, salt hay, and other crops grown there. As a result, some of the farmers broke their banks and allowed the meadows to flood. [12]

For the farmers who wanted to preserve their reclaimed land, it was only a matter of time before they could no longer afford to do so. When some of the banks broke, the path of the water changed and eroded those that were left. This, along with the construction by DuPont, Inc., of a dam and canal between the Delaware and Salem rivers in the northern portion of Lower Penn's Neck Township to power their powder works, ended the meadow companies on both sides of the Salem River; the watershed from the commercial projects was too much for the banks to withstand. [13]

The demise of other meadow companies in Salem, Cumberland, and Cape May counties came from the lack of cooperation among the farmers as well as a lack of funds. During their time, however, meadow companies were numerous. In Salem County, meadow companies reclaimed marshland along the Salem River, Oldman's Creek, Stow Creek, Baulger Creek, Alloways Creek, Mad Horse Creek, Hope Creek, and Fenwick Creek. Some of the old banks that protected the City of Salem from the tides can still be seen in Fenwick Creek.

In Cumberland County meadow companies utilized land along the Cohansey and Maurice rivers, Oronocon Creek, Ogdens Creek, Cedar Creek, Stow Creek, and Nantuxent Creek. Similarly, in Cape May County they improved land along Will's Creek, East Creek, Dennis Creek, Cedar Swamp Creek, West Creek, Goshen Creek and Sluice Creek. Today only a handful of active meadow companies exist. In Salem County there is the West Branch of Stow Creek Meadow Company, Silver Lake Meadow Company, and the Town Bank Meadow Company. In Cumberland County there is the Greenwich Bank Company. Established in 1806, the banks of this company, when intact, protected the meadows on the northwest side of Greenwich from inundation by the tidal waters of the Cohansey River. Unfortunately, the bank broke in 1989, flooding the meadows and, on occasional high tides, the adjoining roads. Repairs will be made, however, with funding by the state and local governments. [14]

Like so many nineteenth-century institutions, meadow companies could not compete with the industrialization and mechanization of the twentieth century. With the increased use of gas-powered vehicles and farming equipment, the need for horses and cattle diminished. As a result, crops harvested from the marshlands were no longer needed. In rare instances where the meadow banks protected roads as well as farmland, the meadow companies have continued to exist. More often, the state or county will maintain banks that protect roadways while ignoring the adjacent farmland.

Notes >>>

top of page Top

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

National Park Service's ParkNet Home