The Blackwater Boys

By Wilson J. Purvis Author of The Old Malaga Road

Few persons now living have any knowledge of the small settlements that were on what is now the Vineland tract before its settlement in 1861.

Just north of the Blackwater on Malaga road was a saw mill and half a dozen houses from which came a group of lusty boys and girls. The saw mill gave work to these muscular boys chopping logs in winter and following the plow in summer. Both the boys and girls attended the Blackwater school the three or four months it was in session. When the boys grew big and strong and wanted to run the school, Billy Taylor, the school master, pushed them out and gave others a chance to study reading, writing and the multiplication table to the single rule of three.

When these boys were not at work, which was seldom, they congregated about the mill, much to the benefit of the sawyer, who had them roll the big two-foot logs on the saw bed. One of the winter sports was skating on the Blackwater, between banks lined with cedars, forming battlements of green, through which the light barely penetrated. In the winter of 1854-55 there was a smooth glare of ice and the Blackwater boys were out every night with their wooden running skates tied on with deer hide thongs, the same kind the Dutch used in Holland, and the boy who could not make a good pair of wooden skates was behind the age.

Every boy had a sweetheart in those days and he could not hold her long, if he did not make a pair of skates, highly polished by the application of bear's grease. When the first ice came the boys and girls were all out. It was an interesting sight to see thirty or forty join hands and start up the stream, then turning, race back to the starting place, where resting on log benches before a blazing bonfire, Esther Seeds would bring out a basket of sweet potatoes and a jar of apple butter for them to eat. It was a fixed rule no one should out race his girl, no matter how fast he was, he must cling to her or forfeit her and his apple butter, too.

After the first race, the young men would line up and the girls in a body would follow, and on reaching the halfway house would stop and wait the return of the boys until within two or three hundred yards, when they started, the boys overtaking them and hook on the arm of his chosen girl and carry her through to victory, the old folks staying around the bonfire whooping and yelling. Billy Taylor, the schoolmaster, was judge, and gave the winner a big copper penny.

The year of the deer hunt race, 1854-55, Mary Bridgeman, of Boston, was visiting the neighborhood. She had a veneer of scholarship and was proud of her accomplishments acquired at a Boston school. She recited from Lord Byron and Shakespeare and did not hesitate to urge the Irish schoolmaster to give the boys and girls more of a classical curriculum. He asked her some simple questions in mathematics. How many feet of boards in a log two feet in diameter, a question most any of the boys and girls could answer offhand. The classics, he considered mush and milk, for the lazy idle class, but not for the Blackwater boys, who needed practical lessons. He told them of his professor in the Belfast University, who urged him to read the classics and when he was leaving for America asked him if he was carrying any with him. He replied, ' ' No, my lord, I am taking away with me my arithmetic and geography."

When the great deer hound hunt came off Mary Bridgeman was the favorite. She had learned how a tree should be cut to fall right, and with her thick leather shoes would run through the snow with the girls and when milking time came she could have the pick of the cows. When the race on the ice with the deer hound came off, the big Cossaboon boy with his dog, trained to herd cattle, for it was a cattle country, and the cows went miles from home and had to be hunted, would go with the entire company a long mile, holding the dog until the crowd had returned half way to the bonfire, when with a yell he and the hound would start in pursuit. As soon as the boys and girls heard the cry of the hound they would race for the dam. The ice was smooth as glass and the dog took to the woods and on reaching the skaters ran among them slipping and sliding until he had thrown them all in a bunch down on the ice. Every fellow had to help his girl on her feet and follow himself, the big hound barking and barking, like a wolf. When Cossaboon reached the sprawling mass he called the hound and held him until the boys and girls regained their position on the ice. Mary Bridgeman was indignant, so were the other girls and gave Cossaboon a tongue-lashing, but he hedged off by saying, "The hound and me were making it a real wolf hunt." Mary Bridgeman replied, "Yes, entirely too realistic." That word caught and was ever after "hitched" on whenever it could be used.

That was the last of the wolf hunt and boy and girl skaters took partners for life and one by one left the Blackwater and now but one or two are left to tell the story.

When the war for the Union awakened the nation these boys joined the ranks of the boys in blue.

The names of the Blackwater boys are Frank Ackley and his older brother, William Ackley, who became a lieutenant in a Jersey regiment and was the very last man or boy killed in that long four years struggle. It was three months after the army disbanded that his father, William Ackley, father of Frank and John, received any tidings of him. Among the others were David P. Cawman, Nathan Coomes, who was badly wounded at Fredericksburg; Wesley Cawman, who returned and settled in Virginia, his children and grandchildren living in one community on the Mt. Vernon estate ; Wesley Stewart, J. Q. Adams, Sammy Wolford, Gill Richmond, Bert Ackley, who died before the war ; Elias Dougherty, Isaac Hand, Lem Coney, Jos. Cossaboon, who ran the mill in 1864, when Porcius Gage, a round face boy, came along with two horses and stopped to inquire of him where Vineland was. Cossaboon said, "Ah! Wineland, that's the place where a lot of Yankee foreigners are building.