Monroe Township is in fact a Bicentennial Community. It’s first residents predate 1776. The township of Monroe was formed in March of 1859 at which time Williamstown was designated as a place of elections and town meetings.
Monroe Township is located in the northeast corner of Gloucester County. Early history refers to this as one of the “pine townships” because of the abundance of pine timber in the area. The area is drained on the east by Four Mile Branch and Squankum Branch of the Great Egg Harbor River, on the south by Whitehall and Hospitality Branches and Scotland Run.
Williamstown is surrounded by Cecil, Cross Keys, Downer, New Brooklyn, Robanna and Victory Lakes. Present population is approximately 36,129.
The Lenni-Lenape Indians, a member of the Delaware Tribe, hunted the woods and fished the streams in early times. Little opposition was given the white man when he settled here. The first settlement now known as Williamstown was called “Squankum”, an Indian name meaning, “Place of Evil Ghosts”. It is thought that the “Evil Ghosts” referred to the numerous mosquitoes found in the area.
Somewhere between 1726 and 1742 Richard Penn recorded a deed covering what is now Williamstown. This tract was later transferred to Israel Williams. His son, John, later divided this land into lots and farms and sold it.
For a more complete account of the history surrounding Monroe Township to the present, consult “A History of Monroe Township” published by the Historic Society of Monroe Township.
WILLIAMSTOWN – Squankum was first settled in 1737 at which time the settlement consisted of a few houses. It was connected to Whitehall Mill by road constructed about 1758. The main occupation to the residents during this period was hunting and logging. By 1839, Squankum had grown to include 10 businesses and 40 dwellings, a few farms, and a church.
A stage coach route from Camden to Cape May passed through Cross Keys. The site of the first post office was located at Cross Keys. By 1842 an increase in population caused a new post office to be established. The name of Squankum had already been designated to a settlement further north so the name Williamstown was selected for the post office and subsequently the town.
Good sand was plentiful and invited the glass industry to become a major aspect in the growth of the town. The Free Will Glass Manufacturer was the first plant in the area. It was located in part at what is now the West Jersey Mfg. Co. dating from 1837 the Bodine names was connected with the glass industry. Later purchased by Walter Thomas, it flourished as the Williamstown Glass Mfg. Co. until 1917.
About this time a second industry started to grow, that of canning fruit and produce. This gave rise to the present name by which New Jersey is known, “The Garden State”. The John Sharp Canning Co. was started in a small kitchen around 1870.
In 1906 George Pfeiffer purchased the company and continued operation until 1943. Today, the firm is a leading packer of produce under the Violet Brand. A second plant was later built and packed under the Blue Ribbon Brand.
The Monroe Building & Loan Association, the first of its kind, is now located on Main St. It’s operation was to a great extent responsible for the growth of the town.
In 1919 a new industry rose in Monroe Township, the Williamstown Foundry. It produced iron products of a wide variety over the years. It has changed ownership many times until it went out of existence in about 1969. In 1973 the location was occupied by Accurate Industries, Inc. who deals in solid waste disposal material.
Banking in the town started in 1904 with the establishment of a bank on Main St. opposite the Washington Hotel. This was later replaced with one at the corner of Main St. and Blue Bell Roads.
Religion was a basic part of the early settlers. Quakers were the first to establish a church as such in the area. The earliest faith to be established, which still remains today, was the Methodist denomination. After a number of moves a church was erected at the present location of the First United Methodist Church on Church St. and a Town Clock was placed in it’s tower.
In 1840 the Williamstown Presbyterian Church had organized. It’s cornerstone was laid in 1841. After years of growth and many changes in pastorates a new church was erected in 1912 and dedicated in 1913 on the spot now occupied by the First United Presbyterian Church.
The Roman Catholic Church too had an early beginning and in 1903 the first Mass was celebrated in the old Town Hall. St. Mary’s of the Assumption was originally located at the corner of Washington Avenue and New Brooklyn Road. It occupied this site until 1923. Father McCue, the first American born priest to head St. Mary’s, secured its present location on Main St. Rev. Francis J. Cosgrove was named pastor of St. Mary’s in 1935 and headed it during it’s darkest hours. In 1949 a property on Library Street was bought for a parochial school.
St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church was organized in October of 1897 by a group of German settlers. The first church was located on what is now the Black Horse Pike at Corkery Lane. St. John’s cemetery remains at the site. In 1928 the New Jersey State Highway Department surveyed what is now the Black Horse Pike as a result of which the church had to be moved. In 1929 the cornerstone was laid for the present church on south Main St.
In 1955 an educational building was erected due to the increased Sunday school attendance. It was not until 1959 that St. John’s had its second full time pastor Rev. Elwood K. Healey, the first one being Rev. Robert Oswald who was installed in 1951 more than 50 years after its organization. The present rector is Pastor Stanley Philips.
School existed in the township long before it was created. In Squankum a school was located where the Washington Hotel now stands. It was a log cabin one room school dating to about 1750. Major John Tice, who served with General George Washington at Valley Forge, was the first school master. These were the days of the three L’s not R’s – Licker, Lickens and Larnin.
When appointed the school master took the school trustees to the local tavern and treated them to their satisfaction. In addition if you didn’t Larn you got a Licken.
Most of the spelling and reading, however, was learned in the Sunday schools. It started with the alphabet and ended with four syllable words.
In 1844 the log cabin school was moved to the corner of the Methodist’s grave yard. Here the pupils watched funerals for pass time. During this period the schools were not free. In fact they did not become entirely free until 1854. Private schools were operated by the Presbyterian Church and other religious groups. Large land owners had their children taught at home.
The first frame school house was built in 1849.
In about 1870 the town was honored with the presence of the great orator Horace Greeley who was the main speaker when a new fence was put around the Methodist Cemetery to replace the old wooden one.
In 1872 a new school was built where the Maple Grove School now stands. By 1874 there were 6 schools in the township.
Oak Knoll school was built in 1927 but it was not until 1958 that the township had a high school.
CECIL – The earliest known settler of Cecil was Thomas Coles who moved here in 1750 and lived in what was known as Coles Mills. He lived in the woodland along the Hospitality Branch of the Great Egg Harbor River and manufactured charcoal. He also set-up water mills to grind grain and saw wood. From this came the names of Coles Mills. A road in the vicinity still bears that name.
The Chew family, an early name in the area, arrived about 1862 and was known to have operated a saw mill where Coles Mill stood. The Chew family were the first to engage in the cranberry industry and were quite successful. In 1883 a Post Office was set-up at which time the named was changed to Cecil to honor Lord Cecil, a respected Commissioner of the Exeter in England from whence the Coles originated.
CROSS KEYS – This community was the center of business and political activity until Monroe Township was formed. Six roads intersected here and aided in township divisions. One of the earliest surveys in the area was made in 1716 along the present Hurffville Road. One sixth of the area stayed in Monroe Township and the rest went to Washington Township. Farming was the principal occupation at that time. Few, if any of these original farms still exist. Its location on the stage route between Camden and Cape May added to its importance. A tavern at the intersection of the main roads still stands today as a private residence. A pioneer general store was operated in the “Keys” as was a blacksmith shop which employed a tinsmith and a wheelwright. A saw mill in the area sold lumber for building.
Close family relations in the community was the strongest unifying factor. These ties still exist today. Today church and grange have, to some extent aided this unification.
As in Williamstown, the Friends were the first to set up religious meetings. Methodists followed close behind occupying the same building vacated by the Friends which they used as a church and as a school. The Chestnut Ridge site was served by preachers also serving Squankum. In 1844 a Sunday school was formed. In 1875 a new frame building was erected as a church. In 1904 a tower and bell were dedicated during the pastorate of Rev. Fisler. Many improvements have been made since those early days to make way for growth and Christian education.
NEW BROOKLYN – This community was settled in 1803 by John Marshalls from Blackwood. He established a saw mill in the area. Marshalls also owned saw mills in Blackwood and near Coles Mills. Located at the mouth of the Four Mile Branch of the Great Egg Harbor River it was an ideal site for the mill. Marshall became one of the most prominent men in the area because of his business holdings which consisted of thousands of acres of timberland. Following his success in the timber business, he ventured to build a grist mill. The mill ground bolted flour and feed. This venture proved a mistake as there was not enough grain in the area to make it profitable.
New Brooklyn was formerly known as Seven Causeways. Only Indian trails traversed the area. No roads existed so Marshall being a practical surveyor laid out roads in the area.
Although he appeared to be set in life, at the age of 63 he entered a new business. He became the owner of a glass factory following the death of his second father-in-law who started the business in 1831. He operated it for 8 years after which he retired at the age of 71.
New Brooklyn Glass Works used seven pots, with twelve rings using clay molds. The employed 100 hands. Although a factory store was built in connection with the glass works, many of their needs were supplied by Squankum or Blue Anchor, especially their whiskey. “Squire Marshall” as he was called, built a school for his employees’ children. Although the Methodists who also used the building, gave him some trouble when he was persuaded to allow them to continue their meetings.
Marshall died at the age of 84 after a walk in some of the roads he had previously laid in the area.
The original New Brooklyn Glass Works was replaced by another after it burned down. The new operation failed and was later reopened by Clayton Tice who operated it for 10 years. In 1859 the Methodist Church was erected there and the school was replaced by a new building. The old school was used as a community building. Later when the children commuted to Williamstown for school, the school building became the new community building. It was also used as the Sunday school.
ROBANNA – Little is known of that part of Monroe Township once called Robanna. There are no well-defined boundaries or markers showing its existence and probably many citizens living there today are completely unaware of the fact that they live in Robanna.
Basically the area called Robanna centered about a small railroad flag station near the intersection of Tuckahoe Road and the old railroad. This site is about a quarter mile south of the present intersection of the Tuckahoe and Glassboro Roads. Robanna could probably be considered as the area presently located on the Tuckahoe Road from just north of Clayton Road almost up to the hamlet of Cross Keys.
For many years Robanna served as a stop on the railroad from which goods and produce could be shipped; also, passenger service was available to Williamstown and Glassboro. This service was discontinued in the late 1920’s or early 1930’s. A large home owned by George Ware was located near the railroad station and, at times, the Ware’s kitchen served as a “coffee break” stop for both train crews and passengers.
According to local legend Robanna was named after the wife of a Mr. J. Robb. Mrs. Robb’s first name was Anna. Most probably some local wit reversed the two names and the crossroads village of Robanna suddenly had a name.
The Robb house was located on the northwest corner of the Glassboro Tuckahoe Road intersection. Presently, a service station is located at about the site of the old Robb homestead.
Some old family names connected with Robanna are Robb, Sykes, Ware, Carvin, Klett, Roun, Pierce, Johnson, Campbell, Vodges and Bateman. Many of these names are still well known in Monroe Township; some still in Robanna.
DOWNER – For a comprehensive picture of it’s early settlement and development, we are indebted to John Rulon Downer who wrote, “I recognize the propriety of setting forth facts and descriptions of my people and the hamlet named after them in a manner I am quite sure shall not fail to edify, please and instruct them-those generations that shall follow.” Although Arthur Downer and his wife arrived in 1858, signs were evident of previous occupancy.
An Indian burying ground was present as was an indication of cultivation of the fields. Crops were grown next to the public road. Peach trees were also raised and although they bore rather feebly, on one occasion it is said the crop of peaches was so large they resembled cantaloupes. Apple trees could also be found in the area.
In 1864 residents of Downer voted for Abraham Lincoln and were driven to the polls by Arthur Downer himself.
The Downer house was a typical house of the times consisting of two rooms downstairs and three rooms upstairs. They were used for many reasons in addition to living quarters some of which were granary, storage, etc. Hams were stored in the fireplace.
By 1871 the population had grown sufficiently large to require the need of a school. As in other hamlets in the area, the school initially was built for children and later became the property of the church. Part of the Downer Methodist’s church is the original school.
In 1875 the potato bug infested their crops and left them in serious difficulty. They had to turn to new fields of endeavor.
John, the son, had discovered yellow sand in the area but his father paid little attention to this. Later the burial of a valuable colt in the sand proved to be eventful because it was tested and found to be good for the glass industry.
Delivery of the sand was first made by horse drawn wagon and later by rail delivery on the Williamstown and Delaware River Railroad. A siding was placed at the Fries Mill Road to take advantage of the cheap rail rates. The name formerly used by this area was Whitneyville and was shortened to Whitney. When the post office was built, the name was changed to Downer.
Mixed with the white sand suitable for glass manufacture was yellow sand not suitable. After some searching it was found that this sand was good for use in the rapidly growing steel industry something new for this area.
As in all the surrounding areas, the Methodist Church played an important part. It began with the efforts of Mary and Arthur Downer who after attending a camp meeting, felt the need to have their neighbors experience “Sanctification” as they called it. Revivals were started at the “Corner House.” Sunday school was conducted in the Downer homestead while church services were attended in Williamstown. However, realizing that with growth a new permanent church would be needed, one was built. It was later destroyed by fire and quickly rebuilt.
John Downer himself died in 1928 and as he requested, was buried in the Williamstown Methodist Cemetery. His tombstone bears the simple words “Historian” which he truly was.
Much has happened in the first hundred years in the life of Monroe Township and much more will happen in the years to come. Within the past seventeen years alone since the Centennial celebration more schools have been built. A new library replaced the old one now used as a home for the Monroe Township Historical Society. A new fire station and police headquarters have been built. Churches have been enlarged and the population is ever increasing. Who knows what is in store for us in the years to come!
This information was provided by the Monroe Township Historical Society