Shelltown: Ellisdale

From Henry Charlton Beck’s 1939 “The Jersey Midlands,” a chapter on the quaint hamlet, which straddles the old Province Line between East and West Jersey. Beck’s books have been republished by Rutgers University Press and are widely available.


There is an area in New Jersey midlands where it is difficult to be certain, without losing an eye or two over the map, just when and where a traveler crosses from one county to another. Hamilton Township, in Mercer County, reaches down to a sharp point in Extonville, not far from Ellisdale and not too far from Crosswicks. Yet from this bewildering corner forgotten history traces old roads in almost every direction.


An unwavering line moves down from where the Crosswicks Creek crosses, dividing Burlington County from Monmouth and Ocean. Extending upward, it separates six of Mercer’s townships, Hamilton from Washington and Windsor, Lawrence from Windsor and Princeton and finally, vanishes when the traveler is making the most of all he sees.


If he is thinking of the old covered bridge, posted with advertisements of patent medicines and circuses long departed, he will forget that Burlington County has been left across the creek and that on the other side the settlement was more particularly North Crosswicks, seemingly Woodwardsville of an earlier time, in Mercer. A turn to the right, or to the southeast, and the subsequent twists and turns that lead toward Arneytown, through Ellisdale and beyond to Walnford, are sufficient to lose the wariest until, without any warning at all, he’s in Upper Freehold Township and Monmouth County.


There’s no use consulting Mr. Gordon[’s Gazetteer, 1834] on Ellisdale—he doesn’t mention it at all. Nor does succeeding historians pay the tribute its red brick houses would seem to command. Perhaps that’s because the name is comparatively recent, for as late as 1834—and that’s mere century ago!—Ellisdale was Shelltown. Because of the family still in the neighborhood it would be interesting to guess that this might be Woodwardsville but that would cause trouble. Perhaps confused by the lines even in his day, the chronicler is careful to say that Shelltown is “on the line between Hanover t-ship, Burlington co., and Upper Freehold t-ship, Monmouth co., on a small branch of the Crosswicks creek” adding that the village “contains some half dozen dwellings” and that “there is a Friends’ meeting house near it in Monmouth County.”


We had done some prowling around in the neighborhood of Shelltown long before. Then we were told that Shelltown had become Ellisdale and that no one knew the background of the older name. The explanation was forthcoming the day Uncle Edwin Newbold denied that Arneytown was named for Arney Lippincott, declaring instead that John Arney was its namesake. That was the day Miss Charlotte arranged a picnic without knowing exactly what she was accomplishing.


Certainly she had no idea that the location chosen for the disappearance of sandwiches would in itself supply a clue leading to the recollection of other festive occasions in the locality and to an introduction that was to uncover all sorts of fascinating odds and ends. All we meant to do was ask Squire Tilton for permission to appropriate his grove. Then we saw his house [located on the south side of the road between Ellisdale and Walnford].


In order that too many loose ends won’t be left dangling, let’s talk about Shelltown—or Ellisdale—first of all. It was the squire who told us that the crossroads village where the half-dozen houses of Gordon’s day have increased to perhaps a dozen annexed the name that was discarded in an unusual way.


Apparently the village had existed for some little while without a name. Then one fine day, an itinerant peddler came to town. “What do you call this town? he asked of someone making conversation as he untied his pack. “Oh, don’t know,” was the response, “guess don’t call it much of anything.” “I got a name for it,” declared the peddler. “Whenever I see that chimney down there, with the shells in it, as I come up the hill, I say, ‘Well, here’s Shelltown!’”


That is how the squire, Frank B. Tilton, told the tale. Who owned the house with the decorated chimney, he never heard, he said. Some say it was an eccentric sort of chap, but that assertion may malign him greatly. Just because the fellow went to the trouble to get shells—and he must have brought them from a distance in those day—and took pains to have them pressed into the plaster of the chimney, there’s no call for making a fool of him. It’s obvious that the name struck the fancy of the villager who heard it first, for it was approved and carried long enough for the Gazetteer to record it.


Later generations came who thought, probably, that Shelltown didn’t sound very impressive. Perhaps the house with the decorated chimney burned down—certainly there’s no trace of it today. Just when the present name of Ellisdale was adopted isn’t certain but as long as a change was being made, the choice was a good one. It was time to remember the Ellises, celebrated in the locality since the days of Roger Ellis, of Yarmouth, Massachusetts, a settler of the Plymouth Colony, and Rowland Ellis who, some seventy-five years later, came to Burlington as a teacher sent from England by the—be careful, for the reciting of it sounds suspiciously like the anthem!—the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts.


Squire Tilton’s house, sufficiently remarkable in its architectural appointments to gain attention from authorities in the nation’s capital, stands majestically on a long gradual rise of pasture land. To the left of it the lane, deeply cut by every king of vehicle that has been used through the better part of two centuries, approaches the barnyard. There are tall oaks at the foot of the hill but beyond the grove where the Squire’s sister planted them over seventy years ago, the view toward and from the manorial brick dwelling is unobstructed.


The trees were planted around a schoolhouse that stood there where we took our ease that hot afternoon. There was a breeze going there but elsewhere the waves of heat diffused the picture, cattle seeking what shelter there was along the snake-fence, another old farmhouse across the way and the brook between. There was a clearing in the midst, with a slight elevation, showing where the school had been. What we were not prepared for was the disclosure that the dwelling diagonally across the road, occupied by a tenant farmer and his family when we were there, was the schoolhouse itself, remodeled, of course, but with unmistakable lines.


If that was a surprise, then the next assertion was a super-surprise. Before the building was a school, it had served, in another location some distance away, as a meeting house. This sturdily built structure, once a meeting house in one place, later a school in another and now a tenant house in a third, is the one Mr. Gordon so tersely refers to in his description of Shelltown: “There is a Friends’ meeting house near it, in Monmouth county.” When one pauses to reflect on the number of persons in so many generations served in one of several capacities, surely this is a shrine, marked only by time, honored only after chance questions of the curious have been answered.


The Squire [Tilton] in contrast to so many in the midlands who have lived with history so long that treasures have become commonplace and ancestors folk who linger about old houses in the glass and china and beds they used, touches heirlooms reverently and speaks tenderly in the past. “My great-grandfather was a Quaker preacher,” he said, with  twinkling eyes. “That was in the days when the meeting house at Arneytown was new. He had been a great dancer up to the time when his eloquence a the meeting eliminated anything like that. Whenever he passed a tavern where the dancers were making merry, he whipped up his horse so as to hurry away, the temptation was so great to go in and join the happy company.”


Until the 1860’s the little building that was the meeting house and later a school was serving the Friends at meeting somewhere back from Squire Tilton’s grand old house. The Squire said he remembered a man by the name of Black preaching there. He was suspiciously like his grand-grandsire, good Quaker though he is, when he harked back to parties and good times in Crosswicks and the villages about, in contrast to reminiscences of more sober happenings.


“When there was a party and I was a youngster,” he said—he was seventy-one when we chatted there on the porch with bird’s nests with reach in the vines—“we’d hitch up two mules and carryall’d be full.” Even the recollection seemed to peel off at least ten years. “There was none of this business of getting serious over the first girl you’d hold hands with. When the invitation would come, you’d be asked to bring this one or that. If you had a roomy wagon, you might be asked to round up all the girls in the neighborhood. And if I wanted to take someone particular home, I didn’t go off in a sulk if I found she was riding down the road with somebody else. There’d be plenty left for me.”


The Squire denied the suggestion that Quakers of his day were strict about party hours and etiquette. Sometimes the young folk wouldn’t get home till daylight, he said. There was one rule, however, in many of the households thereabouts. No matter what time you got in, you were expected to be at the breakfast table at eight o’clock. “Everybody had a good time dancing, then,” Squire Tilton assured us soberly. “Now they have to go out in the dark and—hug!”


The brick house was built with an eye to practicality. Before it, on what is a sloping lawn today, was the original dwelling, of hand-hewn timbers. This had served the family for years and it was continued in service for the builders as well until the manor house was finished, no overnight proposition in those days. Then, and not until then, it was taken down. The new house was unveiled in all its glory and the view down the pasture to the road was unobstructed for the first time in the same climax.


Now serving as the steps, two of them, before the door of what was obviously was a later addition, not as well made as the rest, as afterthoughts are likely to be, are what at first may be mistaken for millstones. “No,” the Squire shook his head, “they’re from the tannery.” These are relics of the days, in 1777 and after, when John Ellis was operating a tanyard down behind the house.


Tanning leather was a painstaking process then, involving the use of white oak bark and pigeon manure. “Stones like these were to soften up the leather hides,” Squire Tilton explained. One can be forgiven for not recognizing a tanner’s stone of long ago when he sees one for the first time. Stones such as these may be the last things he expects to find connected with an ancient tanner’s trade. The tanner’s stone is described best perhaps by Marion Nicholl Rawson. “It was an immensely thick stone rolled on its circumference like a car wheel and having its edge chiseled into roughness so that in passing over the tanner's bark it would crush it easily,” she says. “It revolved on a great shaft and turned by a blind horse, or ox, but was taller than either.”


Unless the horse that John Ellis used was unusually small, these stones that now are steps, thrust part way under the house, were not as large as this description would indicate. Seeing them there and hearing of their former use led naturally to the inquiry whether anything more of the tannery remained.


“No,” said the Squire. “All the rest was plowed under long ago.” Then he seemed to remember something and took us quickly to one of the outbuildings. “This was part of the old yard at that,” he corrected himself. “It was pretty far gone when I moved it up here where it might come in handy. It sort of settled a little but it still comes in useful.” Leaning wearily toward the barns, there had been more than a settling, we thought. But they thing nothing of moving old buildings where they want them, in this part of the country.


Although we were to hear a great deal about some of his ancestors a short time later, the Squire made scant mention of some of the Tiltons, perhaps because many of them were linked with important doings. In Book A, Freehold records, a John Tilton and Company is mentioned among purchases of land from the Indians, payments made in “peague” of wampumpeague, Indian money valued at one sixth of a penny, as well as in rum. Some of the items are listed, “to the Sachem of ye gift land,” “to a sloop to hire, 10 days, with expences in provisions upon a voyage with the Patentees to Pootopeck Island to settle ye, the counterey affairs here.”


These were days in the early 1700’s or perhaps earlier when it was recorded, “There is a new town in the County called Freehold, which has not been laid out and inhabited long.

It does not contain as yet above 40 Families and as to its Out Plantations we suppose they are much the same in number with the rest and may count it about 30,000 acres.”


Perhaps Sylvester Tilton, who was in the neighborhood of Freehold and Manahawkin in the days of the Refugees, had a more colorful role in history, for it was he who has been mentioned prominently many times in a variety of accounts concerning the skirmish at Manahawkin, spelled Manahawken by Mr. Salter [in his famous 19th century History of Monmouth and Ocean Counties]. We have always believed the present spelling more logical since there is no apparent intention of going back to the original.




When the report came that John Bacon and his marauders were on their way, sentinels were stationed on the road. The Refugees made no secret of their approach and the clanking tally, of their superior number. The sentinels raced across the fields to give warning but before they could take cover, the pursuing Loyalists opened fire and Lines Pangburn, one of the organizers of the Baptist Church in Manahawkin, was killed. Sylvester Tilton, severely wounded, swore to avenge the injury on a man named Brewer, who did the damage.


Tradition says Tilton achieved his purpose. He trailed Brewer, who was heavily armed, and let it be known that he was on a vengeful errand with nothing more than his fists to aid him. Coming upon his quarry when his weapons were fortunately missing, Sylvester set upon him and beat him unmercifully. Then he stood glowering. “You tried to kill me once,” he said. “Now I’ve settled with you. Get along with you and join the rest of your gang.” The survivors of the Bacon outlaws were already on their way to Nova Scotia.


That steamy afternoon on the portico when everywhere but the shaded schoolhouse grove seemed uncomfortable, with a copy of the original History of the Ellis and Tilton Families, tracing the limbs and branches and twigs of the family tree from the first settlement of these pioneers in America in 1640. The writing was done by Charles R. Elllis, Sr., of Bordentown, whose picture at the front indicated that his beard must have been a care to keep out of the ink—it was written when he was seventy-three.


Much of what was written is a mere record of who married whom and how they fared and where but there are illuminating disclosures here and there that link the families with important events through many generations. But it would be wrong to leave the tanyard deserted before recalling it briefly to activity.


All the land around was at one time part of the Woodward tract. For a long time Squire Tilton’s farm, in the midst of holdings that extended across the Woodward land and the Kirby tract as well, was known as “The Tanyard Farm.” The family historian says that during most of the time “five or six men were constantly employed there making boots and shoes.” For these times that was a large establishment.


The Ellises started the tanyard. Francis Ellis had come from England, probably Derbyshire, in 1640. John Ellis, his son, “learned the trade of tanner of his half-brother and began a tannery on his father’s farm,” his father and mother “boarding with him.” “In consequence of requiring so much help lovingly, and yet, with perception, “his family averaged from twenty to twenty-five while he was yet a bachelor, his sister, Meribah, being his housekeeper.”


Perhaps the family moved in. Perhaps the tanner had jobs for all and times were slack elsewhere. The Squire merely smiled at such suggestions, turning the pages of the family saga with mixed emotions. It was obvious that he had lived with the ghosts of ancestors who, on quiet evenings in the old house, had seemed to live again. For him the stone steps will never suffer the tanyard and its workers to go far away.



The chronicle discloses that no matter what version of the death of John Ellis [an early 18th c. tanner] is the true one, either was unusual, perhaps unique in the countryside, then and now. He succumbed “after skinning a hog that died from the hydrophobia” according to the conclusions of his time. Later the writer reveals that Dr. Charles Ridgeway, of Bordentown, used to say that death was due to the bite of a mad fox. The passing of John Ellis was mourned by many for he “was very kind to the poor.”


The names that carry through the leaves of the record are woven into a fascinating pattern. In so many cases sturdy wives outlived several husbands. One such was Elizabeth Ellis, who became Mrs. Eaves, then Mrs. Harvey and finally Mrs. Woolman, marrying one of the brothers of the father of the famous John Woolman. Later on it was Sarah Ellis who became John’s wife.


Any mention of John Woolman must link the midlands with the neighborhood with Mount Holly. By no means a forgotten town, the county seat of today is inclined to forget the village of yesterday when before and during the Revolutionary War, it was “a place of considerable importance.” Historian writing in the middle 1800’s told of meetings of the Legislature there, as well as the quartering of British troops on the “inhabitants.” The houses so used “where designated by numbers, some of which remain, as relics of those perilous times.” William IV, “then a young man, was quartered here with the British troops.” There were some skirmishes in town and musketballs were “frequently found on Topetoy hill.” Ask folk in Mount Holly to find Topetoy hill for you today and you’ll know how much cab be forgotten.


Thoughtful people will recall, however, that Stephen Girard came there on a peddling tour, opened a cigar store and “sold raisins, by the penny’s worth, to children.” Stephen is described in one old, yellowing account, quoting from an earlier source, as “a little, unnoticed man, save the beauty of his wife, whom he married here, worried and alienated his mind.” Others may remember that during those “days of peril” “a singular cannon was made by a person who afterward lived in the village. It was constructed of wrought-iron staves, hooped liked a barrel with bands of the same material and then bored and breeched like other cannon.” This was William Denning “who in the day of his country’s need, made the only successful attempt in the world to manufacture wrought-iron cannon” and who, according to the same notice of his death at the age of ninety-four, tried a second one while in Mount Holly “but could get no one to assist him who could stand the heat, which is said to have been so severe as to melt the lead buttons of his coat.”


The unfinished piece went to the Philadelphia arsenal and the one completed, “captured by the British at the battle of Brandywine,” went to the Tower of London. The British offered an annuity to the one who should instruct them in the manufacture of such a cannon “but the patriotic blacksmith preferred obscurity and poverty in his own beloved country, though the country for which he had done so much kept her purse closed from the veteran soldier until near the period of his decease.”


There was no intention of wandering afield but, you see, the Ellises led us to John Woolman and John took us to Mount Holly and there was nothing we could do about it. The Woolman house is standing, of course, as is also the Springfield meeting house where he was heard in days before he had become famous as “the celebrated traveling preacher of the Friends” although meeting house has been reconstructed since the time of the disastrous fire. John Woolman is by no means Mount Holly’s private property for the whole countryside knew him and certainly he visited his uncle, as well as the Ellises, in Upper Freehold Township.


John Woolman’s Journal is a delightful piece of writing in itself. In it he reveals his intimate reactions to the world and all about him, almost from the time of his birth, in 1720 in Burlington County, through days when he lived with his parents and “wrought on his father’s plantation” and on beyond the time he “hired himself to tend a shop and keep the books” of man in Mount Holly who taught him the tailor’s trade. Unquestionably John met Sarah Ellis on one of his preaching journeys, for his first religious tour was in 1743 and his marriage was in 1749. He had unusual ideas and ideals, and he boldly declared them, campaigning against slavery, against “the too liberal use of spirituous liquors,” “the custom of wearing too costly apparel” which was an odd notion for a tailor, and the refusal of pay for lodging wayfarers in his house, even enemy soldiers. It would have been interesting to have known Sarah’s reaction to all this.


Certainly there were goings-on in Crosswicks, and Shelltown and beyond which the man who “allowed his beard to grow, and when of inconvenient length, clipped it with scissors,” and “wore clothing of the natural color; the woolen white, the linen flax” would not have approved, for all his liberal views on many things. Presumably he was alone when he died of smallpox in England in 1772, on a preaching mission in the country of Yorkshire, Derbyshire and adjoining counties from which emigrants had come to be his friends in Burlington and Monmouth Counties.


It is probable that John was dead and buried in England before the Ellis tanyard was conceived but the forebears of the Woodwards, Eaves, and Furmans had known him and had heard him at meeting. Susan Ellis married Thomas Furman at Arneytown meeting house which Woolman may have known as well as Springfield, Crosswicks, and Mount Holly. There was a tailoring man among the Ellises, too, later on, Charles J. Ellis, the son of William and Rebecca, joining the firm of Lippincott & Parry and dealing in “cloths, cassimeres and tailors’ trimmings” at Market and Second Streets, Philadelphia, a warehouse district today.


There was an Ellis, too, the Squire’s family chronicle revealed, who was filled with John Woolman’s unrest and uniqueness. This was Abraham Ellis who in 1834 started a business in Bordentown, failed, tried schoolteaching in the West, came back to Marlton and then was heard of, at the last, at Watervliet, N.Y., a leader “in the Society of Shakers.”


On the other branches of the ever-spreading and prolific tree were John Henry, believed of German parentage and a brick-maker who provided the bricks for the old Presbyterian Church at Allentown [the foundation of his house remains, for now, in the new industrial park on Old York Road]; Rebecca Wright, “an esteemed minister of the Friends” who also went to England on a religious visit when such travel was rare, as well as Lairds, Cowgills, Freeds and more Tiltons. One especially notable member of the cast was Uncle William Burtis who in the early 1800’s lived at Lamberton, and later between Crosswicks and Allentown.


Perhaps Uncle William was one of the family historian’s favorites—certainly he was one of Squire Tilton’s. There might be ghosts of strict Quakers whom the Squire would admire, the might be tanners, brickmakers, and merchants of serious mien and there might be plodding farmers worrying about their fields in darksome corners of the old house but for Uncle William Burtis there was a special smile, a livelier twinkle. Uncle William, very corpulent and short, “was considered very good company in the seaside parties” of the family and its friends.


“Twelve and fifteen farmers would go together in their own wagons and some large farmers would go together in their own wagons and some large farmers would take their own teams,” reads the account. “They would take their own provisions, a cook and a fiddler, and would hire a house for a week.” These parties “kept up every summer for over forty years.”


Just imagine the scene, the long trip through the countryside to the sea—with Uncle William and his multiple chins. The concluding sentence of the entry, written with a little sign of regret that the genealogist wasn’t in one of the wagons, is: “They enjoyed themselves without any of the restraints attending the fashionable watering places of the present day.” There was at Squan, or Manasquan as it is now. Even so! Restraints? Uncle Charles, call Uncle William to this side of the boardwalk and tell us what you think now!


When we called on the Squire a second time we came away knowing that his ghosts will be at home in the old brick house—as long as he’s there to guard the things they loved. Kentucky toddy glasses, old Sandwich glass, hobnail glass, old pottery, Wedgwood china—whole sets that recall parties, weddings and even laborious reading of wills are everywhere. There are desks and tables to make an expert gasp, sideboards and overcrowded cupboards to produce a permanent goggle in the amateur. Beyond the wide hall and its wide stair of simple dignity, there are rooms overflowing with heirlooms, recalling the generations of hands that touched them.


As we gazed up at an oil painting of Daniel Webster on the back of which was a note from his wife, who should know, saying it was a good likeness, and old-fashioned proof-glass had been produced. This was used when wages on the farm included three drinks a day for hired help. The hands were entitled to as much as the cylinder would yield when dipped in the barrel at the end of a bit of catgut. “They used to grade the liquor according to the bead on the glass,” said the Squire. “But they didn’t have to here—it was always good, always pure apple, made down there across the valley.”


“All in the family—all in the same house,” boasted Mrs. Tilton proudly, in her twittery way. “Others don’t care for all this, maybe, but he does. Oh, my yes, he does!” She was closing the cupboards, inviting continued inspection on our own if we cared to stay longer. “All in one house, that’s unusual, isn’t it? He loves it all—and so do I! Sometimes it’s as if all the Ellises and all the Tiltons and their friends for years and years were here together. Yes, it is. All of them here, around us, all the time!”


The Squire’s face was aglow. He had forgotten that he had said his son liked Florida better and that when he was gone, the old house…. Generations were at his elbow and no take! It was as if he heard the music of a country fiddler, as if he were with his great-grandfather, passing an inn, and fighting down the inclination to go in and join the dance. Something had made him young again, in happy reverie, as he drove his wagon along a hay-scented road with a girl on the seat beside him and more in the wagon. “All of them here, around us….” Even if they were shadows, memories, faces through a mist, the Squire liked the thought, the idea of a party.