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Wrightstown’s Farmland Transformed for War

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Jul 12, 2017

In July 1917, the landscape of New Jersey and the nation was undergoing major changes both physically and politically. In order to train the 1 million-man army needed to fight in the trenches of France, the U.S. government had authorized the building of 16 cantonments across the country. One of these was carved out of the rich farmland near the borders of Ocean and Burlington counties near Wrightstown, N.J.

Roger Batchelder wrote in the official history, “(F)few people of the outside world, or even of New Jersey itself, had heard of Wrightstown. Or, if the name was at all familiar, it was because they had lost their way while motoring, and gone far from the main highways. It was merely one of the hundreds of obscure New Jersey villages, which had neither flourished nor declined materially since the days when Washington crossed the Delaware. The rich soil of the marl region had proved so valuable for farming that the natives had preferred the peaceful occupation of growing wheat and corn for the New York markets to the industries with which large numbers of workers are associated. And so Wrightstown had ‘stayed put’; had it not been for the aberration of the German Empire, it would still be ‘put,’ and its placid, monotonous existence would not have been disturbed.”

Within days of the selection of the site, work began on a project needed to be completed in days, not years, and the New Egypt Press reported on July 13, “Today 5000 skilled mechanics are busily engaged in constructing 1100 buildings to house Uncle Sam’s rookies while they are being transformed into soldiers to overthrow Prussian autocracy. To do this a city complete in itself will be built. Thirty one miles of rail road tracks will be laid, telephone and telegraph wires and instruments installed, administration buildings, unique in their modern contrivances for military work will be erected. Between forty and fifty million feet of lumber will be used to build this city, and that means the unloading and hauling of seventy carloads each day.”

In an age before most power tools, the 1,100 buildings included more than just temporary barracks.

“Each of the fifteen cantonments to be built throughout the country will have hospitals, shops, libraries, entertainment halls, storehouses, stables, besides sleeping quarters. The estimated cost of each cantonment is about $3,000,000.”

The same day Toms River’s New Jersey Courier sent out a reporter.

“Here is a sign along the road, ‘U.S Military Reservation,’ and a caution as to automobile speed.

“Over yonder spraddle (sprawl) a lot of khaki tents, round with pointed tops. It is Sunday afternoon, and husky-looking lads in khaki lounge around; one sentry gun on shoulder, indolently and gracefully in the strength of his youth, leaning against a post. Here in an improvised ball field that yesterday was a rye field, is a game of ball. Across the road a yellow gash runs the length of the big potato field, where a railroad siding is being laid by groups of men who know no Sunday, but are grading, placing ties and laying rails in three gangs. Farther over by the railroad shows a pile of yellow lumber, and a huge pile of brick gives a red blot on the landscape.”

The New Jersey Department of Agriculture published estimates of what would be needed to feed 38,000 men. It also gave a good idea of what a soldier’s diet would look like. According to the Courier, “Millions of pounds of beef, mutton and pork will be required for these men, and in addition immense quantities of vegetables and fruits will be consumed. The following table gives some idea of the quantities of the latter needed annually in this one cantonment:

“199,500 bu. Potatoes; 58,400 bu. Onions; 34,300 gal. each of pickles and vinegar; sufficient wheat for 15,603,750 loaves of bread; 34,200 bu. Navy beans; 4,200 bu. Evaporated apples; 3,200 bu. Evaporated peaches; 1,710,000 lbs. canned tomatoes; 1,109,700 lbs. butter.

“In addition to these supplies large quantities of other produce will be bought by the men, and all kinds of seasonable fruits and vegetables will be in great demand.”

As work proceeded, the government decided the new camps needed names. The Trenton Times of July 16 explained.

“In announcing the designations, the Department revealed that the subject had been given consideration by a board of officers headed by Brigadier General Kuhn, chief of the War College Division, and that selections were governed by a carefully-prepared policy. In each case the name selected is that of a man from the section represented by the troops concerned, but not unpopular in the vicinity of the camp. Short names were chosen for convenience, names like Washington and Lincoln were omitted because of the temporary nature of the camps, and other names were avoided because they are duplicated by prominent men now living.”

Three New Jersey heroes were honored – Zebulon Pike, Stephen Kearny and George B. McClellan – but none of these would be used to name the camp at Wrightstown. That honor went to a former New York governor, John A. Dix, who never held a field command and, according to the Philadelphia Ledger, had only one claim to fame.

“It was while he was Secretary of the Treasury under President Buchanan that he issued the famous command in a telegram referring to the sailing of a schooner from New Orleans against his orders, where he said to Lieutenant Caldwell: ‘If any one attempts to haul down the American flag shoot him on the spot.’”

While the state wasn’t being recognized with its camp name, in Washington, D.C., a New Jersey Quaker was fighting for the right for women to vote. Alice Paul and organized pickets at the White House were demanding President Wilson stop blocking an amendment to the Constitution giving women the vote. Starting in late June, the government began arresting the pickets. On Bastille Day, July 14, Paul ordered another march.

The Washington Times carried: “Sixteen suffrage militants made another unsuccessful attempt to picket the White House today, and were arrested, and rather than spend the next thirty-six hours in the House of Detention on a sidewalk obstruction charge, left $400 collateral with the Police Department for their appearance in court.”

What had the women done? According to The New York Times, “(T)here was so much politeness and so little disorder that the crowd gathered for the widely advertised show dwindled away before it was over and as a spectacle the affair was a failure.

“The suffragists, carrying banners, the most conspicuous of which bore the French Revolution motto, ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,’ marched quietly to the two gates of the White House grounds, stopped, politely refused to move on, were arrested by the police with every show of consideration, and later calmly deposited bail of $25 each to guarantee their appearance in police court Monday to answer charges of unlawful assemblage.

“Even the thousand or more spectators, unlike former crowds that have menaced the pickets, seemed imbued with the spirit of order. They applauded or jeered good-naturedly, made no attempt to seize the banners, and quietly moved away after the arrests had been made.”

Two events took place that day that would have lasting effects on the suffrage movement. The Washington Times took notice of one.

“The storming of the pickets (was) enlivened by a clash between Dudley Field Malone, collector of the port of New York, now staying at the Shoreham Hotel, and Harry M. Martin, a real estate man, with offices at 1404 H Street northwest. Malone threatened to break Martin’s jaw, but no blows were struck.

“Following the near fisticuffs during the storming, Mr. Martin called at the District building in an attempt to have Mr. Malone arrested. He said the trouble started when he was jabbed in the back with a banner held by one of the women, and an altercation with Mr. Malone, who was standing nearby, followed.

 “‘I was standing in the crowd when some man bumped into me, and almost knocked me off my feet,’ said Mr. Malone in giving his version. “He seemed to have done it offensively. ‘If you do it again,’ I told him, ‘I’ll smash you in the jaw.’”

In the second event, when the list of the 16 arrested women was published, three of them were from New Jersey, and all were members of powerful Democratic families. The women promised they would appear in court to defend their actions, and Malone decided to testify in their defense.

Meanwhile, the White House decided the time to be polite was over. It was time to crush the women’s movement once and for all.

Next Week: Wilson’s dilemma.


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