A History of Voorhees

by Margo Harvey | Aug 29, 2005
A History of Voorhees The history of Voorhees is quite extensive and interesting. Voorhees is 11.6 square miles and was named in honor of Foster McGowan Voorhees, the governor of New Jersey who granted the petition for Voorhees to become a separate township on March 3, 1899. "Voor" is a Dutch prefix for "in front of." "Hees" was a village near Ruinen, Drenthe, Holland.

Governor Foster McGowan Voorhees gave permission for Voorhees to become a township separate from Waterford Township on March 3, 1899. The first residents however were the Lenni-Lenape. The Lenni-Lenape Nation of the Algonquian People migrated to New Jersey from the "North Country," crossing the Mississippi River. While the exact date of their arrival is unclear, it is known that humans inhabited New Jersey 10,000 years ago. The Lenni-Lenape Nation was known by the Algonquian tribes as the "Original People," "Grandfather," or "Men of Men." While only about 2000 Lenni-Lenape lived in this area, many neighboring tribes came to New Jersey to hunt, fish and cultivate the rich soil. Although basically nomadic, they raised crops of corn, pumpkin and beans. In warmer weather they walked to the Atlantic Ocean. There they often lived for the summer months, enjoying cool sea breezes, collecting shells, smoking fish for the winter, and eating crabs, oysters and clams. One path they made to the seacoast was so worn that it eventually became a stagecoach route, known as Long-A-Coming Road. Today it is known in Voorhees as Route 561, or Haddonfield-Berlin Road.

In the early 1600s, the Nanticoke People from southeastern Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland migrated north and united with the Lenni-Lenape already living in New Jersey. Between the areas of town still known as Ashland and Kirkwood, once lived a small Osage tribe. These people were actually part of the Sioux of the Midwest. An area of town and train station was named after them, as is the Osage School on Somerdale Road.

Also in the early 1600s, Swedes settled in the Delaware Valley, and for many years they fought with the Dutch over control of New Jersey. The Dutch took control in 1655. By 1664 England conquered the territory, and New Jersey was established as a British colony. Since early European settlers entered the area through the rivers, early settlements grew along the waterways during the 1600s. By 1695, what is now Voorhees was part of Waterford Woodlynne in the County of Gloucester.

As development of land along the Delaware River pushed clusters of homes and fingers of roads ever east into New Jersey, the forests, streams and lakes in Voorhees attracted both the wealthy and working class. Wealthy families bought thousands of acres of land in what became Voorhees. They built homes, sawmills and farms, attracting workers to the area. The family of Timothy Matlack, Jr., penman of the Declaration of Independence and Revolutionary War hero, purchased 1000 acres in 1701 in the Glendale section of Voorhees. He built a house and a sawmill on Coopers Creek, between Kirkwood and Gibbsboro.

The County of Camden was created in 1844. This included Waterford Township, of which Voorhees was a part. Before that, the area that became Camden County was part of Gloucester County.

From the beginning, transportation patterns drove development. The Voorhees area of the early 1800s was a sparsely populated farming community. With roads little more than sand paths, small neighborhood communities grew first along major roads traveled by horse and carriage - Milford Road (Route 73) and Long-A-Coming Road (Route 561).

With the arrival of the railroad, more communities grew around the three stations of Ashland, Osage and Kirkwood. A general store--which also served as post office and gathering spot--could be found near each train stop.

Over the years, six "neighborhood" communities took root; Ashland, Glendale, Kirkwood, Kresson, Osage and Gibbsboro. Residents held strong loyalties to these sections of town, rather than to the town itself. One result of this divisive attitude was Gibbsboro’s secession from Voorhees in 1924.

The arrival of the Camden and Atlantic Railroad in 1854 in the west side of Voorhees made a lasting impact on Voorhees history. Linking Philadelphia to the seashore, it carried visitors and workers to and from Voorhees. The train brought to market produce and cattle from Voorhees farms. It carried visitors and newspapers with world and national news to our once remote farm community.

The railroad shaped the town in a more directly when it bought 60 acres of land along Kirkwood Lake, adjacent to its Kirkwood Station. By building picnic areas and summer cottages along the lake, the railroad created a recreation destination, boosting travelers on its lines. Formed as a result of a 1933 rail merger, the Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Line stopped at three stations in Voorhees; Ashland, Osage and Kirkwood. These stood on the right-of-way that is now the PATCO high-speed line. Towards the end of the rail lines’ life some of the stations were no more than large three-sided wooden shelters, open to the tracks as the train pulled in.

The importance of mills to the area’s economy grew during the 1800s. Early settlers lived near streams, lakes and creeks before roads were built. Sawmills and gristmills were constructed on the banks of these waterways. Most land was forest with a scattering of houses. Lumber dominated the area’s economy in the early 1800s. The mill was the center of commerce, and a place for lumbermen and farmers to gather socially and exchange news.

As farming became more important and farms more numerous, lumber mills were converted into gristmills (flour mills). Matlacks or Hillards Sawmill on Coopers Creek between Kirkwood and Gibbsboro was one of the earliest, dating back to the early 1700s. Built before 1753 Borton Mill stood on the intersection of Route 73 and Haddonfield-Kresson Road. In operation throughout the 1800s, Stokes Sawmill near Kresson was also known as Milford Sawmill. With the invention of the steam engine in the mid-1800s, these mills, dependent on water flow, became obsolete.

During the Civil War Voorhees men served in the Union Army. Major Edward Winslow Coffin, who established the first field bakery, was from Voorhees. He developed an oven on wheels that provided soldiers with fresh bread. The Coffin family operated a farm for many years at the intersection of Evesham Road and Route 561, known as Coffin Corner. The Coffin house dates circa 1850 with one section built even earlier. Over the years the Coffin house has served as a residence, school, store, post office, stagecoach stop and commercial office.

At least 20 veterans of the first African-American regiment to fight in the Civil War are buried in the churchyard of the Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church on Route 73 in the Kresson section. Alonzo Small was one of these soldiers.

In 1884, the first public school--a one-room schoolhouse--was opened on Route 73 near the northern intersection of Dutchtown Road in the Kresson section. This is near the site of the planned Historic Society Museum in the two-room schoolhouse built in 1927.

Three residents of Waterford Township in 1899 petitioned the State Legislature to make the current boundaries of Voorhees a separate township. They were Ephraim Tomlinson of Glendale, Albert Sayers of Gibbsboro (at that time Gibbsboro was part of Voorhees) and J. Curtis Davis, of Kirkwood. Since Governor Foster McGowan Voorhees granted the request, the township was named in his honor. As Voorhees grew, even though it was governed as one town, many residents continued to hold loyalties to the section of town in which they lived (Ashland, Kirkwood, Kresson or Glendale), rather than to the town.

As the century opened, 969 people lived in 202 homes, in one-year old Voorhees Township. The first Voorhees census in 1900 included Gibbsboro, then a part of Voorhees. It revealed that, 171 (44%) of the 390 wage earners in town worked in farm related jobs. The Lucas Paint factory, then within the bounds of Voorhees employed 108 (28%), while the remaining 111 (28%), held other jobs. These included railroad jobs and individual occupations, such as grocer, dressmaker and house painter. For the first half of the 20th century Voorhees remained a quiet "country" town of mostly farmers.

With Voorhees providing a destination for jobs and area shopping as well as an easy commute to Philadelphia and other areas, housing boomed, replacing farms, fields and forests. Population rose from 3,784 residents in 1960, to 6,214 in 1970, to 12,919 in 1980. This was an increase of 9,135 people in 20 years for a 241% increase.

The growing family population brought a desire for programs for both children and adults. In the fall of 1974 the Board of Education, with support from the Township Committee created the Community Education and Recreation Program. In its first year CER offered 32 classes/activities. By 1999 that number has grown to over 150.

Reflecting a national trend, CER began offering soccer in Voorhees in 1978. Eventually the Voorhees Soccer Association became a sizeable independent organization. This joined a full compliment of sports programs including, midget football, softball, baseball and basketball.

Although Voorhees was founded in 1899, it took nearly 100 years to establish its identity. And the reason had much to do with who delivered the mail. In the early days, each section of Voorhees had a post office located in part of a local general store. All mail had to be picked up at the post office, with no home delivery. Until 1985 and the opening of the first Voorhees Post Office, Kirkwood residents still picked up their mail at the tiny Kirkwood Post Office on White Horse Road at the foot of the Kirkwood Bridge.

In fact, prior to the opening of the Voorhees Post Office in 1985, six different post offices served Voorhees. This made for much confusion, because instead of an address being "Voorhees, New Jersey," a Voorhees resident’s address might be Marlton, Gibbsboro, Somerdale, Cherry Hill, Berlin, West Berlin or Kirkwood. Some Voorhees residents actually believed they lived in the town whose post office delivered their mail.

According to the 1990 census, Voorhees population rose to 23,620, up by 10,701 residents from 1980, or 83%. By 1998 population reached 27,000. According to a brochure published by the Economic Development Committee, in 1996 the median family income was $76,394. Twenty-five percent of the population over 25 years old held bachelors degrees, with 14.8% holding masters degrees.

By 1998, besides West Jersey Health System, other major health systems located facilities in Voorhees; Cooper Hospital, Cooper Regional Pediatrics, Voorhees Pediatric Center, Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and John F. Kennedy Hospital. In addition, over 350 physicians, dentists, chiropractors and other health care professionals and organizations have offices in Voorhees.

While some things have changed since 1899, others remain the same. A century ago life in Voorhees generally revolved around family, work, neighbors, school and church. This is still true.

Information for this historic review came from numerous resources all of which are given recognition on the Voorhees website, www.voorhees-nj.com.

For more South Jersey History, visit our South Jersey History page.

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Author: Margo Harvey

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