Monday, December 17, 2012

Pitman Grove: getting that old time religion

You wouldn't know it from its sedate downtown today, but Pitman was once such a popular summer destination that more than a dozen trains a day would bring visitors to enjoy the town's offerings. I discovered the primary reason for that on my recent Gloucester County jaunt, one day before the much-vaunted December 12, 2012. As it turned out, the number 12 was significant to my visit.

You'll find the community of Pitman Grove just off Broadway, marked by a simple metal arch. Stroll down the walkway and you'll find yourself on First Avenue, one of the twelve sidewalks that radiates from the community's literal and spiritual hub, a trellised open-air church, or tabernacle. Each of these streets is meant to represent one of Jesus' disciples. On either side of each narrow pathway are tiny houses on 30x40 foot lots, many decked in Victorian gingerbread and happy pastel shades.

By now you're probably sensing a religious theme, and you're spot on. Pitman Grove is a relic of the Camp Meeting movement that took hold in America following the Civil War. Protestants - in this case, Methodists - would unite in tent settlements for a few weeks in the summer to attend religious services and share fellowship in a rustic setting. Here in New Jersey, the most famous example is the still-in-operation Ocean Grove, though retreats were also established in National Park and other then-idyllic spots.

A small group of ministers established this particular camp meeting in what was then Mantua, both for its peaceful rural location and convenient rail access. They named the community in honor of Reverend Charles Pitman, a prominent preacher of the time, and the name recognition probably didn't hurt attendance. More than 10,000 people were drawn to the grove for services, prompting the camp meeting association to purchase 70 acres of land and sell or rent small lots where the faithful could pitch their tents.

Community members eventually started to build summer cottages on their lots, and a town grew up around them, with a store, restaurants, a barber, ice cream parlor and more. Pitman incorporated as a borough in 1905, and consistent with residents' religious values, the purchase of alcohol was forbidden in town. According to the borough website, "Pitman was known as a place with no mosquitoes, no malaria and no saloons. To this day, Pitman is a dry town with no liquor stores and no liquor licenses issued. We do, however, have our fair share of mosquitoes!" Some problems just can't be eliminated by statute.

Like many other communities of its type, Pitman Grove eventually came on hard times, prompting the borough to take on about 50 of the properties in the 1970s when the Camp Association couldn't pay the taxes. Many of the homes weren't built for year round use, and some of the more decrepit ones were demolished while others were improved and rented out or auctioned off. The town also invested in upgraded infrastructure, clearly seeing the value in keeping the community viable. On my stroll, I noticed a sign on one house that announced it had been winterized, its utilities shut off maybe until next summer, so I suspect a few of the properties are still seasonal homes.

I don't know if Grove residents are still predominantly worshipers, but I noticed several "Keep Christ in Christmas" signs in front of a few of the cottages. Services are still held at the restored tabernacle during the summer, so I guess the Grove is still a desirable location for the faithful, at least in the summer.

1 comment:

  1. The houses that were auctioned off weren't necessarily improved. I grew up in one. They slapped some shiny new vinyl siding on the outside, but the inside remained untouched. Pipes randomly burst, pouring sewage through the half existent, living room ceiling. Holes in walls revealed a total lack of insulation. Then there were the roach infestations. I will never forget the roach infestations.

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