200 Plus

Four Mile Colony Starts in Pine Barrens

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Nov 20, 2019

After years of being attacked by supporters of the science of eugenics, progressive politicians and a muckraking press describing the Jersey Pine Barrens as being an area filled with deviants, criminals and inbreeding bigamists, its people were taking matters into their own hands.

Fundraising among the local citizens provided enough money to construct a colony for boys on land donated by the state near New Lisbon. On Jan. 15, 1914, J. Frank Macomber and his wife, who had 14 years’ experience at the Vineland Training School, were appointed to take charge of what was called the Four Mile Colony. The term “colony” is fitting when you realize just how isolated the Pine Barrens were at the time. Macomber kept a journal.

“On the fifteenth of January we arrived at New Lisbon with light hearts. The weather seemed favorable for immediate operation but our first disappointment came next day when snow and unfavorable weather set in and continued for some weeks. This interval gave us opportunity to definitely plan and arrange our work. We cleared a road and selected the location for buildings and a well. The latter was sunk as soon as possible.”

Work progressed.

“Jan. 18: Mr. and Mrs. Mac sick with bronchitis. Mr. Joseph White and Miss Elizabeth White called. ... Feb. 3: Saw Victor Bush about having a roadway brushed between New Lisbon and the Colony. … Feb. 11: First load of lumber arrived. … Feb. 12: Received iron for well digging. Took same to Colony and fitted up dirt buckets and rope for well. Hired the rope from Mr. Nixon. Extremely cold; 2 degrees above zero. … Mar. 5: Trees everywhere are broken and show piled high in roads. … April 27: Carpenters have buildings all raised. Mrs. Macomber’s rose bushes arrived.”

Macomber explained what had been done.

“Several acres of land have been brushed and about three hundred feet from the public highway we have erected the first building 18x60 feet with an addition 18x30 feet. This is a one-story building and will be the regular dining room and kitchen. We will use it for the present as temporary living quarters. It is substantially built, plastered throughout and will meet our requirements for some time. We have under construction a barn 25x60 which will be used as a general building for a while. The cost of building is increased from 10 percent to 12 ½ percent on account of having to haul materials a long distance over bad roads.”

The colony was intended to be a working, self-supporting farm.

“A horse has been purchased; also, a buggy, cart, harness, etc. We shall need another horse, wagon, harness and other things as the work progresses. We found it necessary to purchase a stump puller to get the road cleared and shall use it to good advantage in preparing the land for farming.”

The boys began to arrive as work was still underway.

“By dividing our first building into several rooms by temporary partitions we manage to make room for the first six boys. The second building was the barn which has stalls for four horses and four cows and ample room for the necessary wagons, hay and other feed. The third consists of dormitory, day room, attendants’ room, clothing room, toilet and bath. This building was occupied by a few boys and mechanics while construction was going on. … During the summer months the boys were taken to the nearest running stream, several times each week for their bath. They enjoyed this very much, but we were glad to get our bath house finished before the cold weather.”

The work continued.

“May 18: Forest fire still raging. Mr. and Mrs. Mac drove to Colony in excitement. Planted tomato plants, etc. Mrs. Macomber was going to the spring beside Chip’s house for water, when she met two huge pine snakes across the wagon trail. She called for help. Chip came, and yelled, ‘You hold one while I catch the other.’ … June 13: Set up stump puller, and pulled three stumps. … July 3: Made 2 cements blocks for flower stands. … July 25: Mr. and Mrs. Nash accompanied by thirty-eight summer teachers came in autos from Vineland to visit the Colony, and also some Piney characters.”

On Aug. 6, 1914, as World War I was beginning in Europe, the Philadelphia Inquirer announced, “What its promoters call the world’s first experiment in the colonization of mentally defective children under a system which scientists believe will transform into productive members of society otherwise potential criminals was officially launched here today when the Burlington County Colony for Feeble-minded Children, established through co-operation of the State Department of Charities and Corrections as the source of inspiration with philanthropic citizens of the county as chief contributors, was opened and dedicated. Several children already (have) been placed in the institution.”

A few days later, the Camden Morning Post explained.

“The new colony is at Four Mile, in the ‘pine belt’ whose conditions of depravity as uncovered by State investigators gave the first public inspiration for the great work that has been undertaken here for the solution of a double problem – that of preserving society from the menace and expense of defective children left at large to become criminals and the saving of these weaklings from careers of crime and shame. … State officials and philanthropic citizens whose donations have made the colony experiment a possibility attended the exercises. Several of the mental waifs for whom the colony is intended have already been domiciled there.”

Macomber wrote that the colony ended the year on a high note.

“Dec. 24: (First Christmas Eve). All people living around the neighborhood called to see Santa Claus. All received a box of candy and nuts. … Dec. 25: Boys had breakfast at 7:00 o’clock and received their presents. All the neighbors’ children came to receive their presents, too.”

In 1915 on the first anniversary of the colony, the Trenton Times sent a reporter to view the progress.

“Destructiveness is a natural characteristic of boy nature and the inmates of the colony, who, no matter what their physical age, are only children mentally, delight in felling the trees and grubbing out the under-brush, a job at which the ordinary normal laborer balks. A large park and a garden have been cleared by the inmates of the Four-Mile Colony. … Every boy loves a bonfire, and it is a source of a real celebration among the childish inmates when weather conditions permit the burning of brush piles left in the clearings by the woodchoppers. … Corporal punish is almost unknown in disciplinary measures. Superintendent Macomber explains that the best results are obtained in using methods of correction that would apply to children of 3 to 10 years of age.”

The experiment in the Pines seemed to be a success.

“Forty inmates are now housed at the colony, and more will be admitted as soon as there are accommodations. Ocean County authorities recently requested that they be permitted, under the same management to erect cottages and place a company of imbeciles from their county at the Four-Mile institution.”

World events would change the Pine Barrens forever, and attacks on this area would decrease. Most of the area described in the original Kite report was seized by the U.S. government to become Camp Dix, its residents scattered and disappearing into history.

Eugenics in the United States lost favor as many progressive politicians turned their eyes to a war on alcohol. The colony was taken over by the state of New Jersey, and work by its residents was prohibited. The Pine Barrens today are visited by thousands who witness its beauty but are told little of the war once waged against its residents.

Next Week: The hangar.


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