Smithville Historic District
The Smithville Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2013, The Gombach Group.
The Smithville Historic District constitutes an intact, surviving company town of the mid-19th century. As such it demonstrates, by its placement of the manor house in the midst of the factory and workers housing cluster, a relationship between management and labor which was no longer possible with the advent of big business. In addition, it was a fertile ground of engineering innovation which produced one of the world's only bicycle railroad, and developed a prototype of the modern bicycle.
The mansion is a large, imposing, and unusually is a fine example of Greek Revival architecture in New Jersey. In addition, there are a number of Italianate workers houses which constitute a period dormitory complex.
The first settlers in the vicinity were mainly Dutch and English Quakers seeking refuge from persecution in Europe. The first known settler on the Rancocas Creek at Smithville was Jacob Parker, who built a dam in the vicinity in 1789 for a mill. During the American War of Independence, entrenchments were dug in the Smithville Woods by the men of General Philemon Dickenson's Brigade to forestall General Clinton's retreat from Philadelphia. Traces of these works were still visible on the landscape in 1936. In 1828, Jonathan and Samuel Shreve, who kept a store in Columbus, moved to the Parker location and established a calico factory. They built a town here and called it Shreveville. In 1848, a Mr. Samuel Semple was brought over from Scotland to be in charge of the factory, and shortly thereafter, another factory was built to manufacture spool cotton thread. It is said that the first spool cotton in the United States was made at Shreveville.
The Shreve family built the present mansion in 1842. Disaster struck in 1856, however, when the factory burned, the Shreves went bankrupt, and Samuel Semple moved to Mount Holly. In 1865, Hezekiah Smith came upon the scene and purchased the manor and factory for $23,000. Shortly thereafter, the name of the town changed to Smithville.
Hezekiah B. Smith was born in Bridgewater, Vermont, where his family had been neighbors of the Coolidges of nearby Plymouth. At age 14 he found a job with a cabinetmaker in Woodstock and was soon given charge of all the shop machinery.
Within five years Hezekiah had his own furniture factory in an abandoned blacksmith's shack and was soon shipping furniture to Boston, Lowell and Springfield. He saved his money and by early manhood had become prosperous and respected.
Smith eventually became a leading manufacturer of window blinds. By the end of the Civil War he had outgrown his plant. Determined to move, he visited the village of Shreveport (also called Shreveville), New Jersey. He wished to buy a plant with unlimited opportunity for expansion in a rural area where he would not compete for labor. Nestling along Rancocas Creek, the village consisted of several serviceable large buildings, a tavern, about 35 homes for employees and a dilapidated manor house. A millpond provided water power, a single-track railroad connected with the main line at Mount Holly, three miles away.
Smith bought the whole community, including 2,000 acres of land, and had the name changed to Smithville. His machinery was installed, the millpond enlarged and extensive additions made to the factory buildings.
Smith extensively altered the mansion, adding a billiard room and bowling alley, a stable, coach house, conservatory and greenhouse. Formal gardens were planted, and around the whole a tall brick fence was constructed with large eagles above the main gate. A barn with a tower that could be seen for miles was constructed. Smith claimed that he spent altogether over a half-million dollars on his town.
Then Agnes Gilkinson arrived. Introduced as Mrs. Smith, she was a charming hostess and beautiful. As a girl she had been one of Smith's employees. He sent her to finishing school and later to the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, the only one in the country at that time. In Smithville, Agnes acted as company physician and edited the Smithville Mechanic, a weekly magazine.
The H. B. Smith Machine Company became the largest woodworking machinery plant in the country. It filed about 65 patents, some quite startling. Experiments were made "with a mechanism applied to the center of a long-line shafting which would under sudden stress allow either section of the revolve independently of the other." Perfected, this later became the automobile differential.
In 1879, one of the nation's first horseless carriages was constructed at Smithville. Using a kerosene-burning steam engine with a fire-tube boiler and three-speed gear, the vehicle operated successfully on a number of trial runs but, since it frightened both horses and people, Smith concluded it was too dangerous. "Put it away, Fritz," he said to his helper. "We're 20 years ahead of time."
Smith had high hopes for an experimental tricycle, but it never caught on. He also built a steam-driven bicycle, one of the first motorcycles. The engine was on the steering column, and power was applied to the rear wheel by a leather belt. Later he used steam to drive a tricycle.
Bicycles were growing in popularity in the 1870's. It was in 1879 that George W. Pressey came to see Smith. The inventor impressed Smith and, after successful tests, Smith agreed to make the safety bicycle, paying Pressey a royalty on each one sold. Thus the Star bicycle was born, hitting the market in 1881. Although some objections were raised that, with its small wheel in front, it didn't look much like a bike, the Star's speed and safety made it an almost immediate success.
Early Stars were driven by straps that wound around the rear wheel hub. Chain drives were introduced in the Eighties, and by the middle of that decade the newest bicycles looked much like today's. Smith pushed his models hard in the face of competition. He employed Tom Finley, a noted athlete, to tour the country on a Star. In Washington, D.C., Finley announced that he would ride down the Capitol steps. The police arrested him, but then relented and let him accomplish the feat. He also rode down Mount Washington and, it is said, did bike tricks in the Philadelphia Academy of Music.
Finley won the world bicycle record for the mile: two minutes, 34.4 seconds. Star records ranged from the half mile to the 100 mile and included the "hands-off" half-mile and mile.
Smith correctly concluded that the bicycle craze would slowly die down and, although gross Star sales became several times larger than those of woodworking machinery, he refused to allow his original product to be neglected. He did, however, inspire the use of the bicycle to solve a major problem. Smithville did not have enough houses for all of Smith's employees, so almost half of them lived in Mount Holly. The connecting railroad was principally used for freight, and the railroad company refused to add passenger runs. So Smith put an employee, Arthur E. Hotchkiss, to work planning the world's first bicycle railroad.
Although it wasn't finished until after Smith's death, the Hotchkiss Bicycle Railroad remains a testament to his foresight. It was essentially a grooved metal monorail, held up by a trestle, from which the cycles hung. They held one to four passengers, who did the work, pedaling from the outskirts of Mount Holly to the center of Smithville, crossing the Rancocas Creek seven times, all in from eight to ten minutes. It lasted from 1892 to 1898, and a ride on it became a popular Sunday diversion for young couples. They would line up outside the Pine Street terminal in Mount Holly and wait for hours to take turns. Gradually, most of the employees got their own bikes and the novelty of the railroad wore off.
Smith also used his considerable talent as a promoter to pursue a brief political career.
On a bright day in 1878 a processing marched toward the courthouse square of Toms River, New Jersey. The band, resplendent in gold-braided uniforms, struck up "Hail the Conquering Hero Comes."
Several carriages followed the band. In the first, an open landau, sat two men. One was large and middle-aged, thickly bearded, continuously waving to the crowd. The other was old and wizened, a silent figure huddling under a paisley shawl. Behind them came a one-man sulky pulled by a harnessed moose!
Thus did Hezekiah Bradley Smith run for Congress on the Democratic and Greenback ticket. He had decided that the only way he could lure his rural backers to his meetings was by arousing curiosity. Hence the moose and the presence of Alexander Hamilton Stephens, former vice president of the Confederacy. South Jersey had been pro-South during the Civil War: "a nest of Copperheads."
The farmers flocked to the rallies, drawn either by the moose or the former rebel, and Smith was elected. Two years later, the farmers failed to attend either the rallies or the polls. Stephens was running for governor of Georgia and was no longer available. Smith lost and later served a term as a state senator.
Smith died in 1887, leaving the bulk of his estate to establish a mechanic school for boys. But his son, Captain Elton A. Smith, succeeded in breaking the will, and eventually became president of the H.B. Smith Machine Co.
The Star bicycles were produced until 1910. By then bikes looked much as they do today, with wheels of equal size. But the bicycle boom, which had begun in the 1880's was petering out because all popular attention was fixed on automobiles.
As in many towns of that era, the company ran all aspects of life in the town. Smith was progressive in his dealings with the workers. He built a school, opera house, zoo, church, ballroom and other facilities for the town. He paid top wages, held to a nine hour day and closed his plants Saturday afternoons. He footed the bill for the Smithville Silver Coronet Band and paid its members for their services when he ran successfully for the U.S. House of Representatives.
In 19th century New Jersey there were a number of industrial towns which were owned or dominated by one concern. But few survive as well as Smithville. Other period examples, notably Allaire, Batsto and Atsion, lost considerably more of their original fabric. Batsto, for example, has no surviving industrial buildings, few surviving worker's houses. Oxford, in Warren County, is probably the only period New Jersey company town which is clearly more intact than Smithville.
New History Atlas of Burlington County New Jersey, J. D. Scott, 1876, pages 81, xxl.
The Historic Rancocas, George DeCou, pages 69, 84, 133, 148.
History of Burlington County and Mercer County, Woodward and Hageman, 1883, pages 313-315.
Courier Post, Camden, New Jersey, Nov. 18, 1970, page 62.
"Hezekiah Smith, Builder of Safety Bicycle," George Walton Smithsonian Magazine, pages 70-74, 1971.
† New Jersey Historic Sites Staff, Trenton, NJ, Smithville Historic District, Burlington County, NJ, nomination document, 1970, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.