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Maurice River Recollections Project
River Reaches
Debra A. Barsotti
Research Journalist
Citizens United to Protect the Maurice River
and Its Tributaries, Inc.

The Maurice River Reaches Project - River Recollections
Robert Francois
Spanning Several Centuries of History

Robert Francois became involved with the Millville Historical Society in 1972, just after he finished his term in the US Navy. His grandfather Albert Beebe cultivated his interest in Millville's history.

As he grew up, Francois was immersed in a living history lesson. Francois spent much of his time in the company of his grandfather, who was the primary caretaker of Union Lake and the land surrounding it. Francois listened with great interest as his grandfather talked about the rustic village that became a union town. "There was a village there - about half dozen houses and a saw mill," Francois said.  As his grandfather gave Francois a glimpse at the town's humble beginnings, it spurred an interest to learn even more. "It just told me a lot about the history. I got hooked on it."

"I spent most of my time up at Union Lake with my grandparents," Francois said. His grandfather lived at the head of the lake. Beebe moved there in 1912, when he was hired as caretaker of Union Lake. Beebe made a home in one of the structures adjacent to the Union House. His house, built in 1901, was originally used for the headquarters of the Millville Poultry Farm. Beebe married in 1917. He and his wife lived in that converted dwelling all of their lives.

Francois lived "down in Millville - down in town." He recalled that when he wasn’t in school, he was up at the lake. He would go patrol with his grandfather, either by boat, canoe or in his Model A Ford. "That's what he had when I was a little kid," Francois said, still obviously impressed. "We would patrol the lake together." Once known as Union Mill Pond, the lake had certainly evolved by the time Francois was riding with his grandfather. During those patrols, Francois learned the history of the dams, canals, and the industry that grew up in the little town that became known as Millville.

Francois is very willing to show some of the historical accounts of earlier eras that he has come across. He pointed out that originally the village was small, with just a few houses and a couple of mills. And before that, the people who traversed the wilderness were part of the Delaware Indian Tribe known as the Lenni Lenape. The Lenape survived on the bounty of the land, the streams, and the river they called Wahatquanock.(There are several variations in the spelling of this Lenape name: Whahatquenock and Whappahanack are two of those variations.)

Francois said that his grandfather was very interested in the evidence that surfaced about the region's earliest inhabitants. His grandfather found artifacts near the Union House indicating that the Lenape had a summer camp just below the Union House. In fact, one of the well-traveled Native American foot trails, the Cohansey Trail, crossed streams and woodlands through the region, right across the grounds where the Union House was constructed. That route eventually became known as the Kings Highway, which stretched all the way to Cape May. Francois mentioned that these artifacts are part of Cumberland County Historical Society's collection.

In the early 1700's, discovery of the Maurice River valley's natural resources attracted the attention of industrious men from more settled areas along the northeast. Broad tracts were surveyed, but at first only ripples of settlement took hold in this portion of what was originally called West Jersey. A hand-drawn map in the Millville Historical Society shows the boundaries of some of those early tracts. Francois delights in showing the 1748 survey map. He points out that there was no Union Lake at the time. The map shows only a few ponds and a slip of a river that twisted towards the Delaware River. The map also shows that the property surrounding the river was within the boundaries of land deeded by William Penn to his sons Thomas and Richard.

The Penn brothers sold their 19,000-acre tract to a group of businessmen, who under the auspices of the Union Company, established several mills on the tract. The Union Company damned up the pond that lies in the boundaries of the tract and called it Union Mill Pond. This was "the site of Millville," confirmed historian Lucas Elmer in his History of Cumberland County.

Francois is familiar with the history of these first settlers - and with the importance of the waterway that helped them get their lumber and other products to market. Even before the city of Millville was incorporated in 1866, industry thrived along the upper banks of the Maurice River.

Beebe, Francois' grandfather, was hired by the Millville Manufacturing Company in 1912. As primary caretaker of the lake and the company's property, Beebe's duties included enforcing regulations on and around the lake. Poaching and illegal lumbering were outlawed. By the 1950's boaters needed permits. In later decades, motor boats were not permitted beyond the head of the lake. Union Lake did not become property of the state of New Jersey until 1981. Before that, Beebe and others were hired to patrol and keep an eye on things. Francois followed in his grandfather's footsteps and took on the position after Beebe's successor, Mr. Biggs, retired.

"I began patrolling the lake in 1973, after I returned from four years of service in the Navy," Francois said. During that time, the Wood family, who owned the Millville Manufacturing Company, had shifted their interests to dairy farms and milk distribution. Their Pennsylvania farms evolved into WaWa Incorporated. A division of the Wood family's business, the Maurice River Company, maintained control of the lake until 1981 when they sold it to the State of New Jersey.

Francois was put on the state's payroll, but the position became a part-time job. " I would go out with the game warden and the conservation officers," Francois said, adding that most of the infractions involved fishing without a license. Speed boats and jet skis also had to be discouraged with big fines. "The state wanted to establish the lake primarily as a fishing lake, not as a recreational lake," Francois said.

In 1987, a new dam was built. "I was shifted to look after that," Francois said. Not too many years ago, that position was eliminated, ending Francois' long association with Union Lake. But just before that, the lake was partially emptied to construct the new spillway. That gave Francois a opportunity to see history from a unique vantage point.

"When the spillway was built in 1987, the lake was drained half way down," Francois said. With this much water gone from the confines of the shores, Francois said that it was possible to see the original course of the Maurice River and the perimeter of the Union Mill Pond. A portion of the raceway and some of the cedar swamp's preserved stumps were visible. Across the river from the spillway, Little Mill stream empties into the lake.

When the lake waters receded, a pile of rubble stood crumbled on the lake floor. "It was once a chimney and a fireplace," said Francois. The ruins belonged to an old dwelling, the nearest neighbor to the Union House back in the early days. Francois said that the owner of this dwelling had established a road that went across the small stream to Shingle Landing, the precursor to Millville. At the time a small bridge spanned that stream. As Francois surveyed the once submerged landscape, he pinpointed the location of the bridge. "That bridge was still intact," he said. "The railings were missing but the planks were still there. I actually walked across it. The stream was actually running under it again." Francois said that a "corduroy road," a road created from logs pushed down into the soil, would have led to the bridge.

Bridging the gap between eras isn't as easy as that, but as a historian, Francois works to do just that by preserving historical documents, cataloging written accounts, and collecting anecdotes, like those stories he heard from his grandfather.

One of those stories never failed to capture Francois imagination: During the American Revolution, Hessian troops set course for the Delaware River for Red Bank, NJ. The troop split up and one group apparently marched up along the west bank of the Maurice River. It is told that, for some reason, these soldiers abandoned their cannons in the swamp.

Sometime in the 60's or 70's Francois heard a story that could have verified the tale his grandfather would tell him. A hunter was out in the cedar swamps. He sat down to rest on what he thought was a log. It was cold, too cold to be a log. He scraped off the mud and uncovered the barrel of one of the cannons. He had intended to come back and recover it. The story goes that the hunter had intended to come back, but he didn't take good notice of the location. Neither the hunter nor anyone else located that alleged cannon.

Another story Francois heard his grandfather tell was about a storm that tested the limits of the old dam. During that Labor Day storm in 1940, five years before Francois was born, the level of the lake rose four feet above normal. "At that time, there were no floodgates on the canal," Francois said. "The lake spilled over into what is now Union Lake Park and into the Third Ward, across Sharp Street along Columbia Avenue. They had to sand bag the canal from the lake  - all the way across Broad Street and over to the Millville Manufacturing Company." Francois said that the entire town was involved in the sandbagging efforts. "The spillway held," he related.

People with motorboats were recruited to go out into the lake and lasso the trees and limbs and debris that were collecting like floating islands. Whatever had broken loose in the rising rush of water threatened to jam the wooden gates and clog the spillway. The boaters were asked to lash onto the debris and tow it to the banks. Much of this was deposited onto the beach areas. "That effectively changed the shore line," Francois said.

There were constant changes along the waterways. Francois' grandfather used to tell him about the time when trees literally grew out in the water. "When I was a kid, there were still some trees standing tall just out a couple of feet into the lake," Francois remembered. "And you could still trace the outline of the canal when I was a little kid. The raceway ran from the Mill Pond, above the Union house, and all the way down to Sharp Street." Francois said that in the 1950's he could run his motor boat down the canal and all the way to Forty Cats Island.

Francois' experiences on the Maurice River were limited until he joined the Sea Scouts, a division of Boy Scouts of America. He joined the troop when he was a junior in high school in the early 1960's. The skipper was Bill Biddle. The troop acquired a 63-foot Navy Pickett that had been mothballed. Francois remembered that he spent a good bit of his first year of scouting caulking the wooden deck. Once the vessel was sea worthy again, Francois said that the scouts cruised up and down the Maurice River and into the Delaware Bay. In later years, the scouts even took the ship down to the Chesapeake Bay.

Francois' Maurice River memories include maneuvering that old Navy boat through Jaw Bone reach, stopping at the artesian well to take on fresh "sweet water", and watching the operations at the Cargill Granary. The wharf was very active with barges coming in to be loaded. He remembers a series of conveyor belts, cargo cars, the holding bins and the grain elevator.

This conversation with Robert Francois spanned several centuries. In addition to his experiences and the stories of his grandfather, Francois will undoubtedly pull out significant artifacts, photos, and documents to provide an historical context. If there's still something about the Maurice River, Millville, or Cumberland County that you need, you can ask him to point you in the right direction. And if you're lucky, he just might have a story or two to share with you.