George Middleton, Anti-Slavery Congressman

 

The Allentown tannery was founded in 1743 by Moses Robbins, was owned successively by James Midddleton, John Palmer, and George Middleton. The latter was a native of Crosswicks, and came to our town in 1839. After purchasing the tanyard property he made many additions and improvements, so that the buildings covered nearly an acre of ground [lot behind S. Main St. buildings from Waker Ave. to Lakeview Dr.] and the plant had a capacity of tanning 3,500 hides a year [the former tanning wheel can still be found behind his residence at 35 S. Main St.].

 

The house on [7 S.] Main street was built by Mr. Middleton for his office and the storage of leather, it being convenient to the driveway that led to his tanyard, a short distance at the rear. The loaded bark wagons with their high built sides, as they came from the pines and entered the driveway, used to be a familiar site almost daily to those living in town.

 

The old method of tanning hides was a slow one, it taking from three to twelve months for preparing different kinds of leather for market, whereas at the present time but a few weeks are required. Under the changed conditions of things in general the business of tanning probably could not now be carried on here owing to the scarcity hereabouts of animals that supplied the hides, and also to the scarcity of oak bark, which was largely used in the operations. It was because of the new conditions that were gradually being brought about that Mr. Middleton, in 1885, was led to abandon the business that he had successfully conducted for so many years, and a business that had been in a continuous operation on the same spot for 142 years.

 

Through his business interests, which also included farming a large tract, George Middleton became a prominent citizen of the county. Aspiring to political honors, he was nominated in 1858 by the Democrats as their candidate for the Assembly in the State Legislature. Having been successful, he again ran and was elected in the following year. In 1861 he became the nominee of his party for Representative in Congress, and in the following election he was again the successful candidate. Being re-nominated for a second term, the next election went against him, he being defeated by his Republican rival, Doctor [William A.] Newell.

 

Mr. Middleton was a member of the Society of Friends, and although he allied himself with the Democratic party, yet he favored the action of those engaged in the anti-slavery movement prior to the Civil War; and he exhibited in a practical manner on many occasions his antagonism to the obnoxious Fugitive Slave Law. Many a black man fleeing from southern slavery had cause to be thankful while on New Jersey soil for the aid and comfort extended to him by George Middleton and his Quaker associates.

 

It may not be generally known that a certain house on [possibly 26 S.] Main street, not now in existence, was once a “station” of the “underground railroad” of ante-war days. The object of this secret movement was to assist the runaway slaves from the South in their efforts to reach Canada, where after they once crossed the boundary line, they were free men. The usual mode of operations here as elsewhere, was to bring the blacks to the said house by night, were they would be concealed during the following day and until after nightfall, when they would be forwarded to the next point, which was a village on the South River, near Amboy. From here they would finally reach their destination if all went well.

A certain well-known politician of our town at that time was known to be very active in this movement, but would never admit the fact when questioned concerning it. When running for office he strongly denied having anything to do with it even when face to face with men who had been associated with him in the work.

 

A lady resident of our town has recently told of an incident connected with her childhood days. She had been spending the day at the house referred to, and about dark had occasion to go to the cellar while rendering some assistance to one of the ladies. Passing through a door in a partition there was found a partly furnished room, and at a table were six negroes eating their supper. She little knew at the time that the people before her where fugitive slaves, and it was not till years afterward she learned that what had been seen was one of the methods of operating the so-called “underground railroad” in the days of African slavery.     

 

[Excerpted from Charles H. Fidler’s Local History Sketches, “Allentown Messenger” March 10, 1904 and August 29, 1912]