Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Remnants of the South in Middlesex County

Drive down Middlesex County Road 615 and you'll eventually run into the town of Helmetta, its welcome signs highlighted by a rendition of the community's most notable feature: the Helme Company snuff mill. It's not hard to locate the massive brick factory building that housed the business. Located adjacent to the road and the paralleling railroad tracks, the structure is emblazed with a fainting painted sign stating

Helme Products Inc.
Manufacturers of Snuff & Tobacco
Factory No. 4 5th Dist NJ

Just a small part of the existing Helme Products mill.
Given that snuff is a form of pulverized tobacco, one would wonder why it would be manufactured in New Jersey rather than below the Mason-Dixon line. The Helme factory was once the world's largest snuff plant, primarily shipping its products to southern states.

This dichotomy mirrors the life of the founder of the company (and the town), George Helme. Though born in Pennsylvania, he practiced law in Louisiana and was an officer in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. His wife's family lived and operated a small snuff mill in Spotswood, and George soon became a partner and then sole owner of the company, incorporating it under his own name in 1884.

Expansion of the business also called for expansion of the community. In classic company town fashion, Helme bought additional land to build more factories along with worker housing, government services, and the like. He named the town Helmetta after his daughter, Etta. At a point, 500 people were employed at the mill, likely making for a lively, close-knit community of families. According to the WPA Guide to New Jersey, the snuff business continued to be profitable even through the Great Depression while providing solid jobs to 375 people.

Today, Helmetta is much quieter. Many of the homes that mill workers and management lived in are still there, though updated and individualized to the point that they don't look much like company town housing anymore. The mill stands empty and silent, having been shut down in 1993 by a successor company that moved the New Jersey operations to West Virginia. Though the mill district was been placed on the US and state registers of historic places in 1980, several of the structures have been demolished since.

As I've researched the town, I've discovered that plans have been put into place to demolish the plant buildings and erect townhouses, multi-family housing (apartments?) and a community center. The borough council put several stipulations into place, apparently to ensure that the demolition and construction would be  completed as quickly as possible after a suitable developer was chosen. Some of the area appears to have been cleared, and the pond I visited was clearly remediated, but otherwise, there's no sign the mill will be coming down anytime soon.

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