OUR NEIGHBOR, MOUNT LAUREL
A VISIT to Mt. Laurel which was established at about the same time as Moorestown is well worthwhile especially in the spring and summer months when nature is at her best. The beautiful Mount which rises to the majestic height of 173 feet above sea level and the old Quaker Meeting House are the main objectives. In the record of the survey of land for William Evans, the first settler in the vicinity of Mount Laurel—formerly called Evesham—the Mount was referred to as Mount Pray. This may have been the Indian name for the Mount or possibly it was so called by the early hunters and forest rangers. In the early days it was known as Evans’ Mount and Evesham Mount. The name Mount Laurel was suggested by Miss Hannah Gillingham who taught in the Friends’ School and who greatly admired the laurel that grew in profusion on its sides. The name was so appropriate that it was adopted by the government for the village when the post office was established in 1849. The greater part of the Mount now belongs to the State and is part of the State forest reservation.
Prior to the establishment of telegraph lines between Philadelphia and New York, shortly after Professor Morse’s invention in 1844, there was a line of signal towers¹ across the state by which messages could be quickly sent from city to city. These were owned and controlled by Wm. C. Bridges & Co., stock brokers and merchants of Philadelphia, The first station was located on Mount Laurel, the second on Arney’s Mount which is located about three miles northeast of Mount Holly, but I am unable to state where the other stations were situated. Near the top of the tower
¹This story as well as the one following about the kidnappers is based on a very interesting pamphlet written by the late Wm. R. Ltppincott, entitled “Traditions of Old Evesham.”
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which extended above the highest trees there was a small room for the operators who controlled the signals at the top by a. system of ropes and pulleys. Quoting from the article referred to in the footnote “the signals consisted of a long finger much like the railroad signals now in use (1911). The raising of this finger to a certain position was one signal then it worked in conjunction with a signal board something on the order of a blind shutter. The finger and the signal board could be placed in many different positions and every position had its meaning.” The operators read the signals from the next station by means of powerful telescopes. The messages were in code and could not be read by the operators. It would be interesting to know how quickly messages could be sent by this route but doubtless the owners received market quotations from their New York agent many hours ahead of their competitors.
Another interesting story is told in “The Traditions” about a group of kidnappers who made the Mount their rendezvous a few years before the Civil War. A free colored man named Johnson, with his wife and three children, lived at that time on the farm on the northern side of the Mount. The mother and children who had not been freed were seized by the kidnappers and carried off to the South. The neighbors were indignant and a fund of $1,000. was quickly raised for their redemption. Thomas Haines Dudley, a young man living in the neighborhood, volunteered to follow them and attempt their recovery. He disguised himself as a southern slave trader and started at once on his dangerous mission. The fugitives were overtaken near the head of the Elk River in Maryland and in his assumed character of a dealer who was buying slaves to take South, he purchased the mother and sixteen months old baby for $150.00. He treated them so roughly and his disguise was so perfect that the terrified mother did not recognize him. He started South with his newly acquired property but soon made a sharp detour and traveled North
OUR NEIGHBOR, MOUNT LAUREL 91
as rapidly as possible. Of the other children the boy was purchased in Baltimore for $90.00 but as far as I can learn his sister was not recovered. Mr. Dudley did not make known his identity until they were safely on the boat at Wilmington bound for the North, when he said to her, “Don’t you remember Nancy Dudley’s little boy Tom, who used to play pranks upon the cows you milked at Evesham?” We can readily imagine the mother'’s joy when she learned she was homeward bound.
The Friends’ Meeting House is the most interesting building in or near Mount Laurel. The eastern end erected in 1760 is the oldest Friends’ Meeting House in the County with the exception of Upper Springfield, located about three miles east of Jobstown which was built in 1727. The Springfield Meeting House, unfortunately, was burned in 1909 and the building now standing, with the exception of the roof, was constructed from the old material. The Mount Laurel Meeting House is pleasantly located in a grove of trees at the intersection of the Moorestown and Hainesport Roads. It is built of Jersey sandstone which was quarried on the mount. Dr. W. W. Gardiner of Moorestown, who was born and raised on the farm on the northern side of the Mount, gave me a most interesting account of how ironstone somewhat similar in. appearance was quarried in the neighborhood. Ironstone is a stratified rock and is generally located about twelve inches below the surface. It was used a great deal in the construction of the earlier buildings of Burlington County, especially in the walls and foundations of houses and barns. If building material was needed firm rock would be located by means of a sharp pointed rod. The strata of rock would then be uncovered and stones of the required size cut out with pointed iron pins shaped somewhat like harrow teeth. It is a rather soft stone and oftentimes was not suitable for building purposes. Sandstone was quarried from the Mount or on the higher ridges.
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William and Elizabeth Evans were the first settlers in the vicinity of Mount Laurel. William Evans was the son of William Evans, the Welsh immigrant, who arrived in 1680 and settled on a 323-acre tract on the northern side of Northampton River, now known as Rancocas Creek. In 1687 William Evans, Sr., located 300 acres in Evesham Township near Mount Pray which is now known as Mount Laurel, on which his son, William, settled shortly after his marriage in 1693 to Elizabeth Hanke. This tract evidently included most of the land on which the village now stands and in all probability included the Mount. An old deed dated 1717 shows that William Evans transferred one acre and thirty-two perches to the Society of Friends for Meeting purposes and “for a place to bury their dead forever.” This interesting old graveyard which adjoins the Meeting House on the east has not been used for many years. According to family tradition, William and Elizabeth Evans lived for a while in a cave or dugout supposed to have been located at the foot of the Mount. Woodward’s “History of Burlington County” states that William Evans died in this cave in 1728 but this is undoubtedly an error as the Meeting Records show that Meetings were held in his house as early as 1694. These hardy pioneers evidently had no fear of the Indians as their home was located at the intersection of two trails, one of which led from the Delaware River near Riverton through the pines to the seashore. William Evans’ family Bible which he directed should be left to the oldest son of each generation is now in the possession of W. Henry Evans of Moorestown.
The Engles, Masons and Haskers had previously settled near Darnell’s Mills about three miles east of Mount Laurel and during the next few years the Eves, Haines and Darnell families located in the neighborhood. In 1695 the Friends living in that section petitioned Burlington Monthly Meeting for permission to “set up” a Meeting at Evesham. Permission, however, was not granted until 1698. A Meeting House, doubtless a small affair, was im-
mediately erected and is supposed to have stood very near the site of the present building. This first Meeting House at Mount Laurel was built a little before the erection of the first Meeting House in Moorestown and was undoubtedly the first place of public worship in this section of the County.
One wing of the British Army commanded by General Clinton passed over the “Great Road” leading from Haddonfleld to Mount Holly in June, 1778 and camped on the night of the 19th at Evesham (now Mount Laurel). This old road passed north of the present Meeting House and also north of the Mount. The building in which General Clinton made his headquarters is still standing on the north side of the road leading from Mount Laurel to Evesboro about one and one half mile west of the former village. The farm on which the old building now stands is owned by Aaron Collins. The eastern end of the present Meeting House was standing at that time and was occupied by the British soldiers on that historic night. The Meeting House is still in good condition and is a splendid example of the Jersey Meeting Houses of the Colonial period. Within the memory of men now living the House was filled to overflowing at the First-day morning services but now scarcely a half dozen gather within its walls on the Sabbath Day and perhaps less at the mid-week meetings.
John Darnell, now in his eighty-sixth year, who has been a faithful worshipper in the old building since his boyhood days now appropriately sits at the head of the Meeting. He is a direct descendant of John Darnell, who married Hannah Borton, daughter of John and Ann Borton in 1722 and settled on a large farm situated about one and one-half miles east of the Meeting House. The Darnell family has been prominent in the affairs of the community since the earliest days and it is especially fitting that the faithful group of worshippers that gathers from Sabbath to Sabbath in the old Meeting House should be a gathering of the Darnell clan.
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The first school in the neighborhood of Mount Laurel was established by the Friends in 1783 and was held in the original Meeting House. A brick school house was erected at the foot of the Mount nearly opposite the Meeting House during the later years of the Eighteenth Century and was used until about 1860 when it was torn down.
The farmers of Mount Laurel and. vicinity have been a progressive group from the earliest days. In 1865 “The Progressive Farmers Club” of Burlington County was organized with headquarters in Mount Laurel. During the first year or two the meetings were held at the homes of the various members but in 1867 a hail was erected in the village for the use of this organization. This hail is still standing near the intersection of the roads. The Association held two annual exhibitions, one in September and one in December. The records of the Association show that it had a membership of 110 in 1875.