Smithville Park and History

In the buildings, ruins and landscape of Smithville Village today resides the remarkable story of Hezekiah B. Smith and his model industrial village. Smithville grew from a typical, small mill operation on the Rancocas Creek to a major industrial plant employing hundreds of workers in its shops and yards from the 1860s to the 1920s. Known for its high-quality woodworking machinery, the Smithville-Mt. Holly Bicycle Railroad, and the Star high-wheeled bicycle, Smithville was also well ahead of its time in town planning, sustainability, and workers' rights and welfare. Within its borders, it offered its residents and workers a variety of recreational, artistic and educational opportunities. Smithville was, in just about every way, a model industrial town.

Smithville Village today is the historic centerpiece of Eastampton Township maintained by the Burlington County Parks System. As the Smithville Historic District, the village is listed on the National and New Jersey Registers of Historic Places. Smithville is undergoing a long-term comprehensive restoration effort to include not only its significant buildings, but also its historic streetscapes, site furnishings and structures. The revived historic village will complement the Burlington County Parks System of trails and water access to offer a broad range of recreational opportunities and cultural events to county park users much like it did for the residents and visitors of Smithville during the time of H.B. Smith.

The History

Dating back to the pre-colonial Native American settlement of Alumhatta, the rural lands which would become Smithville were slow to develop through the 17th and 18th centuries. Early colonists set up saw and grist mills to harness the Rancocas Creek's natural power in cultivating the areas bounty of arable croplands and hardwood forests. Typical of the small mills that lined the banks of the Rancocas, these mills employed a limited group of tradesmen and laborers supporting the owner of the mill.

Big changes came to the site in the 1830s. The Shreve Brothers, Jonathan L. and Samuel, purchased the lands to set up a textile manufacturing facility. Shreveville, as it was then known, prospered into the 1850s, growing to a village population over four hundred, with over two hundred employed at the large factory complex south of the residential area. For the Shreves, a stylish Greek Revival mansion was built at the north east corner of the site. With its overscaled factory buildings and almost urban residential neighborhood, Shreveville was practically a small city set in the midst of Burlington County farm country. While the Shreves' success finally dissolved in an 1850s textile depression, the basic town structure they created was built upon by H.B. Smith and is still visible in the buildings and landscape of the park today.

Upon arriving in Burlington County in 1865, Hezekiah and Agnes Smith found in the former industrial town of Shreveville the ideal site for the production of Smith's patent woodworking machinery--a rural site with abundant natural resources; a location near economic giants Philadelphia, New York and Washington; and a bargain price of $20,000 for 45 acres and a village full of buildings. In addition to getting his business off of the ground, Smith spent the next several years upgrading the factories and rebuilding the village housing stock. He also created a public park at the center of the village, built a dormitory for unmarried factory mechanics, built an opera house for cultural and artistic events and constructed a schoolhouse for village children just north of his mansion. All of these improvements were financed out of Smith's pocket.

Smithville was to be a model industrial village which combined worker well-being with productivity. This included a shorter workday; a fresh, affordable supply of food at Smithville's village farm; and a wide range of intellectual, artistic and recreational events held in the village throughout the year. Unlike most contemporary factories, women and children were not a significant part of the workforce and records show the factories were unusually safe.

The success of Smith's industrial enterprise led to a statewide popularity which sent him to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1878 and the New Jersey Senate in 1882. He remained a major political figure statewide until his death in 1887 at the age of 71.

The Smithville Mansion

Built some 25 years before H.B. Smith's arrival in Burlington County , the Greek Revival mansion symbolizes in its buildings and gardens the complexity of its most famous owner. On the exterior, a six-foot wall surrounded a collection of gardens where H.B. and Agnes could escape from the bustle of the village. Following Agnes' death in 1881, H.B.'s interest in developing the gardens intensified. He began a collection of exotic plants and animals within the garden walls and in a greenhouse that was attached to the gardener's cottage.

The interior of the mansion was no less impressive, as Smith continually added rooms and connected nearby buildings to form one large, interconnected structure and included, among other things, a billiard room, bowling alley, poker room, and a bar. As much as the mansion served as Smith's private retreat, it was in almost continual use for Smith's social events and political soirees. Smith was never short of company as the mansion was occupied by a near steady stream of house guests until H.B.'s death in 1887. Well preserved, the mansion is Smithville's most reliable witness to the remarkable life and work of H.B. Smith.

In the acres between the Smith Mansion and the Factory Complex are the streetscapes of Smithville. Originally created during the 1860s and 1870s, the Smithville streetscape embodied the vision of H.B. and Agnes Smith in creating the model industrial village. Unlike the overcrowded, polluted mill towns and cities that typified America 's industrial age, Smithville was developed to maximize the sites natural resources for both business and enjoyment. H.B. Smith not only brought a major industrial complex to the pastoral landscape of central Burlington County, but in constructing the industrial village, he worked to establish a strong sense of social and cultural values which would create the environment for a healthy and happy workforce. The landscape provided a setting that was both residential and recreational: worker houses were placed with views of the public park, the Rancocas Creek and the Smithville Lake beyond. Just south of Park Avenue was the "village green." With its tree canopy, open lawn and bandstand this park was the social and cultural heart of the town, hosting a variety of events, both large and small. To the south of the park, the Rancocas Creek and the Smithville Lake were used for swimming, boating and skating during the course of the seasons.

As successful a businessman and politician as H.B. Smith was, he was, at heart, an inventor and a mechanic. By building Smithville into a 'model village' he was successful in attracting and keeping a highly skilled workforce to not only build his machinery, but to participate in the continual process of refining existing machines and inventing new ones. Symbolic of the atmosphere that Smith tried to nurture in his company, a trade publication was created to develop the intellectual horizons of the woodworking artisan. Nationally distributed and edited by Agnes, The New Jersey Mechanic contained an array of stories in addition to those on the trade, including travel, philosophy and literature. Smith's strategy paid off. Woodworking machines were constantly improved, and other machines invented, like the steam powered tricycle, steam-powered boat, and an early helicopter. Smith also partnered with other inventors, manufacturing George Pressey's Star high-wheeled bicycle and Arthur Hotchkiss' Smithville-Mt. Holly bicycle railroad. In both cases, Smith Co. mechanics engineered the products well beyond the original designs. It was Smith's woodworking machinery, though, which carried the company (and town) from its beginnings in 1865 to the closing of the machine shop some hundred years later.