Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Woodstown: an architectural gem in Salem County

I've driven through enough small towns in the rural reaches of New Jersey to know they can be anything from run-down shells of their former selves to quaint and overly precious scenes out of a Thomas Kinkade painting. After my stop to admire Earl L. Erdner's edge-of-town warehouse-side wit and wisdom during a road trip in November, I wasn't sure what to expect from Woodstown. It's located at the intersection of U.S. 40 and State Route 45, a logical point for commerce, yet in sparsely-populated Salem County, one can make no assumptions. It might be vibrant and well kept... or maybe not so much.

Indeed, Woodstown is one of those 'donut-hole' communities, a municipality completely surrounded by its larger neighbor. (Metuchen is another example that comes to mind, surrounded as it is by the much larger Edison.) In Woodstown's case, Pilesgrove's acres and acres of farmland (and the Cowtown Rodeo) are the moat which separate it from the rest of the world. I'd driven around the donut many times in the past, but it never occurred to me to find out what was in the center.

I had reason to be hopeful about what I'd find. The WPA Guide to 1930s New Jersey describes the town as having "many old houses, including fine examples of Colonial architecture." With development pressure far less prevalent in Salem County than it is in Northern New Jersey, I had to believe that few if any of the structures referred to would have been torn down or modified negatively.

What I found was a classic, almost frozen-in-time community, in a good way. Route 45 evolved into Main Street, and with it, an exhibit of vintage homes of Federal, Victorian, Italianate and, yes, Colonial style. It reminded me in some ways of a less-traveled Haddonfield, or maybe a more rural but slightly more modern Burlington City.

Just a few of the Colonial-era houses in Woodstown.
While I could find no markers to note significant past residents or historic events at any of the homes I stopped to admire, I came to realize that the structures themselves are the stars, specifically because they've survived to be appreciated over the years. Each was clearly cared for by its owner, but they're definitely homes, rather than museums.

Just past the point where 40 and 45 converge, I came upon the Woodstown Friends Meeting House, built in 1783. Enlarged several times since then, it retains its classic, simple Colonial look, and one could easily imagine parishioners from any era -- late 18th century to early 21st -- entering its doors for meeting. Across the street, a simple yet rambling brick building once held the Friends Infirmary, the community's primary acute healthcare facility before the Elmer and Salem hospitals were built in the 50s and 60s. Though there haven't been overnight patients in the building in some time, its larger purpose remains to be care of those in need: several medical professionals and related agencies have offices there.

With evening approaching and a long trip ahead of me, I reluctantly left Woodstown before exploring all of its charms. I'll definitely be back, with the Historic Preservation Commission's helpful map in hand. And hopefully I'll time the trip to get to the Cowtown Flea Market when it's open, too.

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