Name five cities or landmarks that are quickly associated with the American Revolution. Your top five responses might include Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Yorktown, and Batsto. Batsto? Okay, Batsto, New Jersey, may not be on the top-five list of familiar Revolutionary era places, but it played an important role in supplying military hardware to the Continental Army, and all because of the bog iron ore along the Batsto River.
It was a comfortably warm Sunday morning when I finally decided it was time to visit Batsto. The mostly clear sky was decorated with evenly scattered white puffy clouds.
During the early 1700s, Batsto was an active iron smelting enterprise. Bog iron ore was collected from the swampy areas around Batsto River, and processed using charcoal-fired smelters. In the late 1800s, newer coal-fired iron smelters were more efficient than the charcoal, and Batsto’s iron business declined rapidly. Glass manufacturing took over and lasted another decade, but even that declined, and soon, Batsto Village as a business enterprise went bankrupt. In the early 1900s, Batsto was transformed with agricultural and lumber businesses that lasted into the 1950s when the State of New Jersey purchased the property. Today, the Batsto Village Historic Site is administered by the New Jersey State Park Service.
Historic Batsto Village—located on Rt 542 in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, about an hour-and-half east and south of Philadelphia—has recreated itself several times during the course of American history. It was founded in 1766 as the Batsto Iron Works to take advantage of the iron-rich bog ore mined from the banks of rivers and streams in the area. Additionally, local dense forests provided a plentiful source of wood to make charcoal to fuel the iron furnace. Batsto soon became an industry village and an important supplier of cannon balls and wartime hardware to the Continental Army during the American Revolution. After the revolution, the foundry produced heavy cookware, stoves and fireplace inserts.
My first stop was the Visitor’s Center and a walk through the museum diorama that details the area’s history with historic artifacts, photos, and informative text. This was followed by a short video on the site’s history and a chance to peruse the well-stocked gift shop. I also picked up several pamphlets that make a self-guided tour easy and informative.
My first impression, looking at the restored frame of an ore boat and a pile of bog ore located directly behind the Visitor’s Center, was that throughout its history, life in Batsto Village meant hard, hot, backbreaking work. Iron production from the bog ore collected from Batsto Lake evoked a vision of lean, sweat-drenched, muscled men shoveling the heavy water-logged ore onto boats on hot summer days, making charcoal, maintaining the fire in the iron smelting furnace, and casting red hot molten iron.
But the impression of village life quickly shifts to more agricultural pursuits. Most of the preserved history of Batsto dates from the late 1800s to the mid-1950s. There are more than 40 homes, barns, mills and other structures preserved at the historic site, including the impressive mansion. Many of the buildings are open and offer an intimate look into both work and life in the village. A tour of the mansion is available for a modest fee, and on weekends, there are scheduled demonstrations at some of the sites including the saw mill and blacksmith’s shop.
The hour-long self-guided tour includes the milk and ice house, carriage house, horse stable, the piggery, blacksmiths’ shop, mule barn, gristmill, general store, sawmill, and village houses. One feature I really like is the Cell Phone Audio Tour. Dial the number posted at a site on your personal phone and listen to a brief description of the building. Using the guide map, Cell Phone Audio Tour, and my imagination, I could envision life in Batsto as it must have been in the late 1800s.
The post office and the general store would have been the social center of the village. In the evenings after work or on Sunday afternoons, men, sitting in rockers or benches on the store’s long porch, would talk about work, hunting or the price of pork. Children sat on the edge of the porch listening or playing in the grassy area in front of the store. When the store was open, men and women would stock up on the essentials from flour to fabrics, spices, pork and coffee.
The post office, on the back side of the store, is one of only several post offices in the United States that do not have and assigned Zip® Code, but you can mail souvenir cards that will be postmarked “Batsto, New Jersey.”
The Batsto River neatly divides the village into two areas—the owner’s estate with most of the outbuildings on one side and the residential area for the workers on the other. A dam built across the Batsto River, creates Batsto Lake and serves a causeway to the residential area. The dam also provides water power to drive the saw mill and the grist mill.
Across the dam, beyond the saw mill, the sandy street that runs through the residences conjures visions of life in the village. Women, wearing long-sleeved blouses and long skirts, chat over picket fences as they hang laundry to dry while children play made-up games or busy themselves with assigned chores. Several of the homes, including the carpenter’s home—a museum of carpentry tools and hardware of the mid 1800s—are open to the public.
The adjoining Wharton State Forest offers access to a complete range of family activities: hiking and nature trails, canoeing, camping, biking, picnicking and fishing. Batsto Village grounds are open from sunrise to sunset. Buildings in the village, including the Visitor Center, open at 9:00 daily.
But mostly, Batsto is about generations of families who not only built lives for themselves but also helped build a new nation through dogged determination and hard work.
For more information on Batsto Village and Wharton State Forest visit:
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