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Quaker Acres Turned Toward War

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Jun 12, 2017

In June 1917, the United States had officially been at war for just over two months. President Woodrow Wilson had called for a 1-million-man army, and as men registered for the draft, New Jersey was in the forefront of preparing to equip and train those who would fight. Since the war had begun in Europe in 1914, the state’s factories had been one of the leaders in turning out war materials for the Allies; now it was for America.

The Camp Dix News would later tell how the training effort began when orders were sent to the New Jersey National Guard Armory in Trenton.

“On the evening of May 31, 1917 19 non-commissioned officers and privates of the company received a 10 hour notice to leave for Wrightstown to layout the big camp, and on the morning of June 1 they arrived at Lewistown during a driving rainstorm. Late that afternoon the first military camp of the future Camp Dix was pitched along the Lewistown Wrightstown Road, and on the following morning the camp was moved to its present site, a large meadow on the Platt farm on the road to Pointville.”

On June 1, the New Egypt Press carried the official announcement that “There is no guess so, or maybe so, but it is so, that the government has chosen 4000 acres of land in Burlington County in the vicinity of Cookstown, Wrightstown, Browns Mills, Pemberton and Columbus for the mobilization grounds for this section. The camp will contain quarters for 33,000 men together with the accommodations for 7000 horses, and it has been understood that the government will require it for the duration of the present war, at least. It has also been intimated from civilian sources that the government might purchase the site for permanent use for military purposes because of its exceedingly favorable situation.”

There wasn’t time to haggle over the sale of farms or to conduct environmental impact studies – we were at war. The Trenton Times of June 5 reported, “Line fences will disappear from the farms included in the site for the great Army Cantonment here and the land will take on the appearance of the rolling prairie, dotted here and there with small wooded areas.

“The Vanguard of the Army engineers who reached here yesterday plan for the immediate removal of the fences and farms (and) were told they could burn them or sell them for kindling. Many of the outbuildings about the farmhouses also will be torn down. Sketches will be made of these as well as the fences as the government in its lease has agreed to replace them when it evacuates the ground.”

The New Jersey Courier three days later pointed out the irony of where the government had chosen to erect a giant military complex “On the fertile acres for generations tilled by the Shreves and Haines etc. Quaker hands all, down in Burlington County will soon be marred by a city of 30,000 men. All Quaker families appear in the list of those lands which will now be devoted to warlike purposes. It is a strange transformation.”

The same day, the Lakewood Citizen told its readers the war would affect more than just a few Quakers living in Burlington County. “‘Begin today to eat more cornmeal and Hominy grits in place of wheat flour and wheat breakfast foods’ is the message Uncle Sam’s Department of Agriculture is sending out, broadcast to housewives. ... try a wheatless breakfast tomorrow and then extend the wheatless ideas to other days or meals.”

As work on the training camp proceeded, the Trenton Times on the 19th asked, “What is to be the official name of the great Army Cantonment here? This is a question state and county officials are making and hundreds of residents are discussing. That the big training camp will be named after some important character in national history is the belief.”

“Among the G.A.R. (Grand Army of the Republic) men throughout Burlington County there is a movement to ask the war department to name the Wrightstown camp after General E. Burd Grubb, famous Civil War leader of the ‘New Jersey Yahoos and game chickens.’”

The New Egypt Press, which was close to the worksite, on June 22 explained, “There will be about 1000 buildings in the cantonment of which many will be two-story frame houses each to accommodate 150 men. A kitchen and mess hall will be in each of these buildings. Then there will be officers headquarters buildings, hospitals, libraries, entertainment halls, stables, power plants etc. about 1000 car loads of lumber will be used. There will be about 2000 car loads of other building materials required for the giant undertaking.”

There was also some bad news for local businesses: “It shall be unlawful to sell any intoxicating liquor including beer, ale or wine to any officer or member of the military forces while in uniform. Any person, corporation, partnership, or association violating the provisions … shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor and be punished by a fine of not more than $1000 or imprisonment not more than 12 months or both.”

While the work was just beginning on one of New Jersey’s biggest wartime projects, only a few miles away, in Camden, another one was coming to an end. The Philadelphia Inquirer announced on June 22, “The New York Shipbuilding Corporation is making preparations for launching the battleship Idaho on Saturday, June 30. Due to wartime conditions it will be launched under strict regulations, as there will be no special ceremonies, and very few visitors will be admitted, and then only those who are known to the officials of the company. The battleship has been on the ways for almost 3 years, work having been delayed by strikes among the employees. The governor of Idaho and a party of officials will come here to attend the launching.”

The Philadelphia Ledger reported from Camden on the big day, “A tense lull – almost anything could have happened in that last moment, for the prize was big and the enemy daring; the feeble tinkle of a shattered bottle, and then –

“The largest and heaviest battleship in the United States Navy slid into the placid waters of the Delaware.

“It was thus with less ceremony and more impressiveness then doubtless has ever before attended the launching of a superdreadnought, the USS Idaho was launched at the yards of the New York Shipbuilding Corporation in Camden at 9:45 this morning.

“Scarcely had Miss Henrietta Amelia Simmons, the 14-year-old granddaughter of Gov. Moses Alexander of Idaho, sprinkled its nose with the champagne, when the ship like a huge red monster, moved lazily down the ways.

“Thousands of working men working in jeans and overhauls, who had made this titan grow, instinctively let out a cheer of admiration as a great hulk of a boat cleared the yard and sat gracefully and apparently as lightly as a bit of down, upon the broad surface of the river.”

As the 600-foot, 32,000-ton monster dreadnought slid down the ways, the Navy chaplain recited a prayer: “May the vessels of our Navy be guarded by thy gracious Providence and care. May they not bear the sword in vain, but as the minister of God, be a terror to those who do evil and a defense to those who do well.

“Graciously bless the officers and men of our Navy. May love of country be engraved on their hearts and may their adventurous spirits and severe toils be appreciated by a grateful nation; may their lives be precious in Thy sight and if ever our ships of war should be engaged in battle grant that their struggles may be only under enforced necessity for the defense of what is right.”

While the USS Idaho would not see action in World War I, she would fight her way across the Pacific in World War II, and the Jersey-built battleship would be one of the first U.S. ships to enter Tokyo Bay in August 1945.

The temporary base at Wrightstown wouldn’t be called Roosevelt or Grubb, but Dix –  and 100 years later, it’s still there.

Next Week: Dissenting in wartime.


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