In Jersey's Pines...Long Ago's Not Far Away

by Eric Curtis
(Ghost written by Carl L. Biemiller)

Holiday Magazine
March 1946, Vol. 1, No. 1

The Curtis Publishing Company
Independence Square, Philadelphia 5, PA

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For an adventure into the romantic past, explore that near-by ghost town

As it is now it was then by the lake. Cedar-water drowses in the pale lemon light of early spring, and the heady musk of wet pine forest scents the breeze. When the birches and oaks dress for summer and the noonday sun spills gold in the road dust, there are sudden jets of coolness from the brush. When the moon sails high over the Barrens, making a silver ribbon of the old Mullica, the people come home again.

They come here to Southern New Jersey just as they return to many “forgotten” byways throughout America. A little ghost hunting can revive the past and provide a day of unique outdoor fun. For this is storied country, right in the back yard of the metropolis. It isn’t necessary to go to Bali to find romance. You may find it close to your own home….

They guessed and they gossiped in Sweetwater. Tongues wagged and rumors sped up the road to Batsto where the forges winked fiery eyes at the wilderness, turning bog ore into cannon for Washington’s army. They guessed and gossiped, wives of woodcutters, foundry men and pineland patriots, but only the deep woods and the swamp hemlocks really knew. Some of the facts the village had. Joe Mulliner kidnapped Honoré Read because she hadn’t asked him to her party. Joe Mulliner, bandit of the pine woods, and Honoré Read, daughter of the ironmaster! It almost had to happen that way, they said.

She was young and darkly slim, with the bubble of laughter in her throat and a dancing gleam in her dark eyes. She moved with the grace of the doe that drank from the mill stream at dawn. She was loved, this daughter of the pine belt, by the villagers who worked for her father, by a gallant of the Continental forces, by a reckless, roaring, laughing, fighting thief. How could she ask a thief to a party among the very people he robbed? How could she more than glance at a man hunted by patriots and enemy alike? But then again, they asked that summer in 1781, how else would she expect a bandit to behave?

He took her back to her father’s house late the night of the same day he abducted her. But what of those hours between? Honoré, later to marry her soldier, never talked. They hanged Joe Mulliner that autumn—in the fall of the year when the pinelands were ablaze with crazy crimsons and yellows and mottled greens, when the color of the land he roamed matched his riotous soul.

It’s all there today—all but the people.

Many are sleeping in the churchyard at Pleasant Mills. Others like them—rest in other wilderness obscured spots throughout the Barrens.

You pack a picnic lunch to enjoy at a rustic table on the pine-carpeted shore of Nescochaque Lake, or by the deep green bank of a little roadside river. In old clothes you clamber over stone heaps or into dusty ruins, pursuing the thrills of discovery. Best and most enduring pleasure, you feed your imagination a few historical scraps of information and turn it loose.

Less than fifty miles from Philadelphia, ninety from New York on good roads, you’ll find the deserted village of Sweetwater. The Pine Barrens lie between the Delaware River and the Jersey shore (from Trenton, south on state route 39 to Red Lion, then east on any road; or from Camden to Hammonton on U. S. route 30).

Honoré Read’s classic house, erected in 1762, still stands by the shores of Nescochaque Lake; two and a half stories with double-end chimneys and dormer windows. Its location is marked by a sign at the road bend, Kate Aylesford House, 1762. “Kate Aylesford” was the heroine of a novel by Charles Peterson; Honoré Read was her prototype.

The grave of Joe Mulliner is set back in the woods about two miles up the road. The marker has been knocked down and weathered. Bandit Joe doesn’t need it. At night by the fires of the deer camps they say that Mulliner’s ghost still storms the woods, seeking the gold he buried long ago.

Books say that Mulliner’s band was one of many that harassed the Revolutionary villages of South Jersey.

His men were called Refugees because they swore allegiance to the king. There is ample ground for suspicion, however, that Mulliner never paid allegiance to anything but his own adventurous soul. He had his fun holding up local dances to drink and revel with the comeliest belles. When that palled he helled down the stage roads to rob the coach travelers.

But Mulliner swapped his luck for love that day with Honoré. A company of local rangers took him—at a dance hall—and they hanged him for giving aid to the enemy.

Sweetwater, or Pleasant Mills, as you’ll find it today, consists of four or five buildings at a turn in the road by Nescochaque Lake. It was once a bustling place. Founded by Covenanters who wanted the right to pray in a manner at considerable variance with that of a Stuart king, the village came into being around 1707. The first structure was a chapel. The first commerce, rude necessities of woodland living—chiefly cloth and gunpowder—moved over the Indian trails.

As the years went by, the old trails gave way to a stagecoach road, and the pastoral culture acquired the comparative richness of bog-iron manufacture. Builder Read erected the “Aylesford” house. A new chapel replaced the old log church, grew old in turn and vanished, and in 1808 the trim little “Batsto-Pleasant Mills M. E. Church” came into being.

As the iron economy faltered on diminishing supplies of swamp ore, textiles moved into the pinelands. In 1821 a cotton mill went up across the road from the Read mansion, built by William Lippincott, brother-in-law to Jesse Richards, the baron of near-by Batsto. They called the factory the “Pleasant Mills of Sweetwater.”

Fire gutted it and consumed two more mills on the same site, one a paper-works. The structure that remains, forlorn with Apply to Owner and No Trespassing signs, was erected in 1880. The swirling waters turn no busy shafts. The mill floors sag wearily, and a gap of broken planking runs its length. Near by, however, the original mill house, part of the 1821 plant, stands as an antique shop.

Some of its contents might have belonged to the sleepers down the road in the Pleasant Mills churchyard. Bric-a-brac, perhaps, of those whose efforts have been swallowed in Time.

Wescoats, Sooys, Doughtys, Abbotts, Isaacs, Lucases, … the dwellers of Sweetwater and Batsto up the road. Over some of them are the original wooden memorial slabs, the once deep-carved letters now split and splintered into runic daubs on crumbling timber. Jersey sandstone, red and gritty, marks the final home of others.

Alongside the tiny church with its stiff benches and broad board floors, is a triangular vault, the grave of Jess Richards. Near it, under a brown veil of pine needles, lie his children and grandchildren. Richards, tycoon of charcoal and iron…the fabulous family of Batsto, arsenal of the War for Independence.

The town doesn’t look much like a thriving industrial center today; just a bend in the road to Wading River, a quiet cluster of drab houses with curling shingles and lean-to-kitchens. The hundred yards of Main Street are hard-surfaced, but there are no sidewalks. There is a mute sadness where the town once was.

It wasn’t so long ago when the forges of Batsto and the gristmills and saws of the Revolution meant the difference between victory and defeat—perhaps the difference between a nation and a dominion, when the ultimate records are all in. Cannon balls were going down the Mullica River to the ocean, up to New York and around the Cape to Philadelphia, until the redcoats closed the ports. Ironware—pots and kettles for Colonial kitchens—was lugged across the trails by wagons.

The British knew it, knew also that the Continental forces had made Great Bay a shipping center to replace blockaded New York and occupied Philadelphia. One autumn day some twenty English sails poked from the Atlantic mists into the bay. Transports unloaded men for amphibious assault. The attack came at Chestnut Neck. Patriot musketry banged from the fort at Fox Burrows, rattled from the trees and from defense centers at the landing. But Chestnut Neck was taken and the shipping in the harbor went up in flames, most of the fires kindled by patriot hands to keep the prizes from falling to the invading forces.

Farther up the Mullica lay Batsto, and the English commander wanted it. Batsto Furnace out of commission would be the equivalent of four new divisions of men, and a death stroke to the supply-hungry rebel cause. So up the road echoed the tramp of marching feet. As the British moved, the pine woods stirred. Word ran through the underbrush like a blaze in September. By midnight a citizen army assembled in ambush along the road.

As dawn broke through the fog veils of the deep woods, the farmers, ironworkers and woodsmen sprung their trap. A massed volley from two sides of the road crashed through the British ranks with lethal effect. The precise formations split, wavered and broke in retreat under a withering fire.

At the close of the Revolution Batsto Estate came into the hands of Col. William Richards, a warm personal friend of Washington’s. The town expanded. The forges blazed bright during the War of 1812, as once again a new nation crossed swords with an old. In 1822 Batsto management passed to the Colonel’s son—the Jesse Richards of the Pleasant Mills churchyard.

His home still overlooks Batsto Lake, a great square rambling edifice with an L porch across the front and one side, a manorial house as impressive as any of the ante-bellum deep South. Its observatory tower soars above the treetops revealing stretches of woodland dappled with cleared fields. Boxwood, forsythia and laurel stud the sweeping lawn. Sycamores, cedar and spruce trees line the winding gravel drive.

Outbuildings surround the manor house. At the foot of its sloping lawn, by a curved road, you’ll see the old Batsto hotel and the company store. On the roof peak is a muted bell once used by the estate lords and factory supervisors to summon the help.

Only crumbled walls and leaf-covered piles of gray-green slag remain of the old foundry and the old ore diggings; only ruin and the endless, timeless chuckle of the creek’s dark-brown eddies bubbling to meet the river.

Where did the people go? What happened to the men and women of the glass, iron and woodworking industries? Why are places like Hog Wallow, Batsto, Pleasant Mills, Weymouth, Mt. Misery, Ong’s Hat and hundreds of other ghost villages mere place names on a map?

Well, these were gentle, humble places. For that matter, what happened to Nineveh, Tyre or the Garden of Eden?

When the iron ore dwindled in the bogs, and better roads and easier living pointed to other localities, when all the first-growth timber was cut and poverty proved the essential sterility of the soil, the inhabitants moved. But not all of them.

There are people in the pines today—the “pineys.” They are the bearers of some once-proud names, descendants of the restless who preferred to vanish into the undisciplined barrens rather than live with too much law and too many neighbors. Some of their moral standards are on a wilderness basis today. A woman may be known as John 1, 2, 3, or 4, according to what period in John’s life she chose to live with him.

Nobody knows exactly how many people inhabit the pine belt, how many lonely, uneducated, lizard-poor souls span the years in shacks in the brush. They eke out an existence gathering sphagnum moss for florists, cutting cordwood, berrying, or farming minute patches in the sandy loam. They are pot hunters, taking game out of legal season for food. They are the creators of an alcoholic product based on apple cider that is known as applejack, Jersey lightning, or orchard dew.

They are a shy people. Many of them, given an education, do well in the world outside the woods. Certainly no casual visitor can judge them hastily, for when acquaintance ripens, sympathy and friendliness grow. Gather with them, if you are lucky, in some deer camp or village bar and listen to an index of pine-barren life larded with a humor as broad as Bunyan, blood brother to John Henry and Mike Fink.

“I wouldn’t say he was lazy, just smart. Leaves the top off’n his freeze-apple barrels and the skeeters move in to breed. When they git full growed and fulla apple he follows ‘em into the woods. Just picks up the deer they bite.”

“He don’t know nothin’ about the Navy, but if that big balloon spy sails over his still once more, he’ll shoot.” (Blimps from the Lakehurst Naval Station often return with bullet holes.)

“Gimme five dollars and six shells and I’ll live in these woods a year.”

“Braddock’s got a Springer Spaniel that’ll fetch rocks from the pond. Got it for duck fetchin’, but his old lady can cook rocks so they taste like ducks. Can’t hurt his teeth. He ain’t any.”

Back of the banter, off the concrete highways to the lavish seashore resorts, the Past still lives. Only the people have changed or gone away and the buildings have merged with tangled vine and holly bushes. The winding rivers move to the ocean and the deer still drink from them.

At dusk, when the trees gather close around the little churchyards, and questing bats wing from the crumpled eaves of the old houses and ruined mills, the ghost towns come alive. Mulliners, Reads, Sooys, Richardses, Birdsalls…. The sleepers in the pines awake and wonder what that muffled noise is on the near-by highways, that faintly echoing racket made by hurried urban moderns who don’t dream of romance in their own back yards as they speed along.

Eric’s note: I stumbled across this article in Holiday’s first edition. The author, Eric Curtis, is I; Eric Curtis Biemiller, who was barely four months old at the time the piece, was published. This is the work of Carl L. Biemiller, my Dad, who was an associate editor of Holiday at the time and, according to my mother's sister, was not permitted to have two articles under his name in this first Holiday edition. Fittingly, the article was “ghost” written.

Batsto Village is now a New Jersey Historical Site with restoration on-going. Please visit the highlighted link. They are worthy of the visit.

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