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The Rich History of Medford, New Jersey

In the 1870s, the township of Medford, New Jersey, was making a name for itself. The railroad had arrived in 1869, with sawmills, gristmills and a glass factory following suit. The railroad provided a way to ship products into New York and Philadelphia, bringing boom times for the people of Medford.

Within a few years, passenger rail service followed — until the introduction of the automobile. In the 1920s, the appearance of more cars resulted in a decline in passenger service. Meanwhile, labor troubles and automation costs closed the glass factory, and local sawmills were losing business to larger operations.

The rise of rail service is just one chapter in the multifaceted history of Medford. What are some of the other important events in the township’s history, and how can you experience Medford’s historic sites and attractions firsthand? 

Highlights of Medford History

Medford’s history began in 1670 when William Penn and several other landowners sold 900 acres to Samuel Coles. Over the next few years, additional landowners joined the area now known as Medford Township, and John Goslin began a sawmill, which David Oliphant later bought. The Oliphant Mill Site is located at Hartford and Taunton Roads, and portions of Christopher’s Mill remain as well.

As of 1767, the township now called Medford was known as Upper Evesham, and the little settlement had begun to grow into a village. Citizens now had access to a schoolhouse, also used as a site for the Friends Meeting. In addition, the Shamong Trail — now referred to as Stokes Road — had expanded from a Native American path to a sandy road running from Burlington to the port city of Clamtown.

Throughout the 1780s, the village continued to grow, in part thanks to the Etna and Taunton furnaces founded by Charles Read. The Etna furnace shut down in 1773, but the accompanying sawmill and gristmill continued operations into the 20th century. Meanwhile, the Taunton furnace served as a supplier of munitions to the Continental armies. 

Another local manufacturer made gunpowder supplying General Washington’s armies. In 1777, an explosion of drying gunpowder killed the manufacturer, Adonijah Peacock, at his Branin Road farm. Reports from the time indicated that the blast was heard 10 miles away and blew off the roof of the home.

Post-Revolution Medford

Just after the American Revolution, the village of Upper Evesham had failed to grow by leaps and bounds, with only a handful of homes along Main Street. One of the remaining historic homes, at 70 S. Main St., belonged to J. Stanley Braddock, and another at 53 S. Main St. was the John Reilly house.

In 1800, a manufacturer of cut nails arrived in the village, and owner Mark Reeve opened a store that also sold sundry goods at South Main Street and Friends Avenue. The machine that made the cut nails — the first in the nation at that time — is now located at a farm on Jennings Road. Local lore has it that, following a trip to Medford in Massachusetts, Reeve requested a town meeting where he proposed the new name of “Medford.” When a post office opened in 1820, the town had officially changed its name to Medford of Upper Evesham.

In 1847, Medford officially split from Evesham, and the township had its first meeting at Church Road and Route 541 — known as the Cross Roads — on March 9, 1847. The location also served as the seat of the township’s government for a number of years afterward.

The Railroad and Beyond

The railroad arrived in 1869, bringing with it the sawmills, gristmills and glass factory. By 1927, passenger rail service ended, and the former tracks became Route 70. Many years after all the other mills had ceased operations, Kirby’s Mill — previously called Haine’s Mill — remained open, running on water until conversion to electricity in 1961. The mill was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.

The Medford Historical Society agreed with the state in 2013 to use the medical office of Dr. James Still, along with a nearby farmhouse on Church Road; the site is on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, the Medford Historical Society works diligently to promote public awareness of the rich and diverse history of Medford.

How Can You Immerse Yourself in Medford History?

If you’re a history buff, you’ll find a variety of interesting sites to visit in Medford. Here are a few of our favorites.

The Dr. James Still Historic Site and Education Center educates the public about the work of Dr. Still. Referred to as the “Black Doctor of the Pines,” Dr. Still, who lived from 1812 to 1885, was a well-known homeopathic healer and herbalist. Born to a poor family and primarily self-educated, Dr. Still was one of the county’s wealthiest men, and he owned land on Medford’s Church Road, where he constructed a home and small office. He also built a hospital on Route 541 at the site of a former tavern.

In 2013, the Medford Historical Society leased the site — which served as Dr. Still’s medical office and stands as the first African-American site the state of New Jersey bought for purposes of historic preservation.

The site now known as Kirby’s Mill began operations in 1778, five years after Isaac Haines led a group to petition the General Assembly for permitting of a dam that would run a sawmill and gristmill. Around 1830, the mill was enlarged from the original single-story building to three stories, and a small barn and blacksmith shop were added nearby.

In 1877, William S. Kirby purchased the mill site and made additional changes; over the ensuing years, a fourth floor was added, and the water wheel was replaced by water turbines to improve efficiency. The site reached the height of its production during this period, with the sawmill cutting logs for local lumber dealers as well as buyers in Baltimore and Philadelphia. Meanwhile, the gristmill turned out rye and wheat flour, chicken feed, cornmeal and buckwheat; numerous East Coast bakeries sought the mill’s high-quality flours.

By the time of World War I, the millstones had been replaced by modern machines, and the mill ceased flour production to focus on livestock feed. In the 1970s, the mill — which had shut down years earlier — was designated as a State Historical Site and was added to the National Register. The Medford Historical Society maintains the complex, where it hosts a variety of events.

The historic Cross Keys School, built around 1857, served as one of a handful of one-room schoolhouses. After closing as a school in 1927, the land and building changed hands several times, until a restaurant chain purchased the lot in 1976; the land owner donated the school building to the Township of Medford, preserving a unique example of the one-room education prevalent in the 19th century. 

In addition, the Medford Historic Advisory Board has placed informational markers at more than 60 historic sites and buildings around Medford, and the group has published a guide book for visitors interested in viewing the markers.

If you enjoy history, you’ll also want to experience some of the many history-based events hosted in Medford throughout the year. From the Medford Historical Society Quilt Show in June to Country Day at Kirby’s Mill in July, the Art Show and Sale in August, the Annual Flea Market in September, the Apple Festival in October, and more, you can choose among a variety of events to attend.

Experience Life at Medford Leas

When you plan your trip to enjoy all the historical attractions in Medford, be sure to stop by for a visit at Medford Leas, our active living community that provides residents with enriching experiences across two campuses. Set on nearly 170 acres of The Barton Arboretum and Nature Preserve, our campuses feature beautiful and serene outdoor areas, including streams with canoe launches and kayaking, natural and paved trails, woodlands and wildflower meadows.

To learn more about all that Medford Leas and the entire Medford area have to offer, please contact us today.


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