ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF HISTORY OF The Old Malaga Road
BY WILSON J. PURVIS
ROSENHAYN, NEW JERSEY
The people who filled my mind with a love for personal history fifty years ago are all gathered to their fathers. Among the best informed was John Cawman and his wife Hester Seeds Cawman. He at that time, (1865) was about fifty years of age, and a wonderful man he was. He was famous as a mathematician. You could stand up and call off a string of figures as fast as they could be written and when you stopped he would give the amount at once, without pencil or paper. He would subtract even more rapidly. He could recite from memory a verse from every chapter in the Bible.
John Cawman was the right hand man of that trio along Malaga Road, who held mighty revivals among the lumber and cattle men, and with Ackley, Stewart and Garrison was a power for good.
John Cawman and his wife lived in the old Gregory place from 1858 to 1860. Hester Cawman was not a singer, but a genealogist and could give the family name and connection from the first generation of those who lived and died along the old road, and the new road also. It was from them that I obtained the history of the Gregory place, they knew its history and that of the people who had lived around the old cedar log house, logs a foot square, notched and dove-tailed at the corners, which some thought stood by the old road, the Cawman's however, thought it had been taken down and the timbers moved across the road, just back of an oak tree which is still standing. There was a large barn with shelter for the many cattle, hogs and sheep that ran at large. If a farmer wanted to raise crops he was obliged to build a six or eight rail cedar fence to protect them, as wheat and rye were of secondary consideration, cattle, sheep and hogs being raised on a large scale. The cattle ranged from Maurice River to Willow Grove on the North, Millville on the South and East to Main Road. They were branded and at the "round up" the old place was lively for a week, the apple jack flowed freely and pigs, sheep, and sometimes beeves were roasted. South of the house were two living springs, one on the Col. Pearson place and the other where the Central Railroad crosses the road. It was at this place the stage passengers were served with a gourd of water, from a cedar bucket in the hands of a Revolutionary soldier's widow, whose name is not remembered by the writer. Her fate was a sad one and it was through the Widow Gregory that her murderers were captured.
Four Russian sailors from a whaling ship came ashore in a skiff at Cold Spring Inlet, near Cape May, and walked up Malaga Road until they reached the springs, there they noticed the widow as she offered water to the passengers of the stage and saw them drop the big copper cents into her hand while she held her knitting needles and blue yarn stocking. The sailors lingered about the spring until the road was clear, when they followed the widow into her little log cabin and there strangled her to death. They took her little store of old coppers and ran up the road until they reached the Gregory place, when they went in and by the usual signs called for drinks. Mrs. Gregory gave them New England rum. In paying, each put down one copper, not understanding the Russian tongue Mrs. Gregory took two and showed them the price was two coppers. One of the sailors pulled out a half knit blue stocking and gave her another copper. She noticed the needles and color of the stocking and recognized it as the work of her friend at the spring and at once thought they had stolen it from her.
After they went out they loafed around awhile, then made steps as though they were coming back, Mrs. Gregory pulled out the big deer gun from under the counter and they backed out and ran up the road.
As soon as possible she sent a message to the widow asking if the sailors had stolen her half-knit stocking, but before the messenger reached the spring word came that the widow was dead. Mrs. Gregory jumped upon a horse and like a wild woman rode after the sailors, overtaking and passing them as they were riding on a lumber wagon. When they reached Malaga she had men in readiness who arrested and searched them, finding the money and stocking too. They were taken to Camden, it is said, and the neighbors lost sight of them. The widow was very popular and was called aunt by everyone. She had many friends and some thought the sailors never reached Camden but were hung in the woods.
The historical facts and traditions that centre about the Gregory place, commonly called Coney's Tavern or Relay House on Malaga Road, covers over one hundred years of white man's ownership, and was the main line of travel of the Red Man for a much longer period.
Malaga Road as we now know it is not the original trail, but is of more recent date, the survey having been made in 1814 from Millville to Malaga. The new road entered the old at, or near Franklinville, thence on to Gloucester, the former a great Indian fishing village on the Delaware. From Millville it ran south to the mouth of Maurice River Cove, one branch going south-east to Dennisville and from there to Cape May.
This old road in its north and south course was the Red Man's trail for centuries and crossed the Vineland tract one hundred and forty rods from the present road and was in use for some 3 r ears after Vineland came into existence. It was a favorite driving place through its woody lane for many of the early pioneers. When the Red Men migrated they refused to follow the new route, taking the old road by nature and instinct, crossing the beaver dam on the small branch of Maurice River, a succession of crossings like stations on the West Jersey Railroad which parallels the Red Man's route. The same can be said of that road which once crossed the Vineland tract between Almond and Oak Roads, a fairly straight line from Red Bank to Fairton, now also paralleled by a railroad, so that these two main arteries of Indian life crossed not far from Maurice River.
Around this crossing is the history, tradition and romance of one hundred and fifty years. The first house butlt before the Revolution was of cedar logs, with a large fireplace, into which a huge log could be rolled, furnishing when once afire, light and heat for the hardy pioneers during the long winter evenings. The Gregorys, who lived in this log house were Scotch Irish. Mr. Gregory took part in the Revolutionary War.
There is a tradition that Benjamin Franklin stayed in this old house one night when on a trip to Cape May. He had relatives at the terminal of the New England Town road as it was called, by the name of Downs, who came from New England. Finding he could not reach them he branched off at right angles, and made his way, probably over the Burlington road to Bridgeton crossing the river at Union Pond on his way to Cape May.
Previous to 1815 the mail route from Millville was by way of Bridgeton. When the new survey was made the stage line was established over Malaga Road, making a more direct route from Cape May, which was a place of some importance, before Philadelphia was dreamed of. A number of Post Offices were established, eight at least, when the late Jedediah Mahew was mail and express agent in 1850, as follows: Cape May, Dennisville, Dorchester, Port Elizabeth, Millville, Malaga, Glassborough and Woodbury. There was no Post Office at the Gregory Tavern, but it was the center of the cattle region and the hunting ground of the White Man. Gregory was a host of no mean consequence, he sold a barrel of apple jack made from Indian Apple tree cider every day of the gunning season. The river and streams were banked by dense cedar forests that the ax of the White Man had never marked, and the bear and deer were as plentiful as the hunter could wish.
The Gregorys kept both bear and deer hounds for the hunters who came in companies, on horse and by stage coach. They were accustomed to leave their watches, money and other valuables with Mrs. Gregory before departing on their hunting expeditions, as she had acquired a wide reputation as a banker to the hunters of that region. She was a tall angular woman of about fifty years of age, with but one eye. Her husband was a Revolutionary pensioner, a confirmed cripple, whose life was, embittered by the drink habit, which did not brighten that of his wife. They had one son whose death, like that of his father's was under tragic conditions. About these people and especially about the life of Mrs. Gregory, there lingers the fragrance of those long forgotten incidents illustrative of human life at that period. So many hundred hunters had come and gone from the new and old house that there was much reality about the traditions that yet cling to them. Among those which survive is one to the effect that a company of six men disappeared and never returned to claim their treasures left in the keeping of Mrs. Gregory, their banker.
In 1845 a Jew peddler from New York started West from this point over the old New England Town road and nothing but the iron of the wagon was found in Maurice River cedars some fifty years after. Another story is that of a gentleman gambler who had won the money, watches and horses of the company he came with, dropped out of sight and was supposed to have been buried in the cellar of the old house, but as there was no cellar under the old house, the new generation of fifty years ago, placed the burial in the cellar of the new house, which was a stone cellar. The boys and girls of 1864-5 heard of the stories and one stormy winter's night in 1869 a company of us gathered in this house, made a rousing fire in the big open fireplace, and with our sweethearts gave a farewell party to one of the company. We danced the Virginia Reel and Money Musk until we were tired. Then gathering about the fireplace told stories of the haunted cellar. Some one proposed we all go down at midnight and see the ghost of the missing gambler and dig for his money and watch supposed to have been buried there.
This was agreed upon and some of the boys went out for candles and each with one in his and his sweetheart's hand went down into the cellar and stood huddled up in a bunch waiting for the gambler's ghost to come out of his grave and scare us into a run. Some one said, "let us put out our lights as the ghost will not come in the light," so out they went, and the ghost of fright gripped us as someone shouted, "there he is digging up his own grave;" and we ran pell mell to the cellar steps, everyone for his or herself, until we had all reached the fading light of the open fire-place.
The girls thought it was a plan of the boys to get them down in the cellar and shut them in. Having so decided one of the girls jumped up and caught the originator of the ghost hunt and took him to the dungeon keep, an oaken closet where things had been kept in the hunting days of long ago, which had a big strap iron fastening and the ghost hunter was pushed in and the door locked. When this was accomplished, the entire company put on their coats and wraps and getting into their sleighs drove off in a big snow storm. One girl, who was the sweetheart of the victim in the closet, relented and went back, unlocked the door and took him home with her; the next morning he took his departure for the far west, as the ghost party was a farewell party to him and Gus.