“the Most Improveablest Land…”

PrintPrintEmailEmail

“I first got interested in this thing back in the late thirties,” Mr. Miller went on, finally pulling out of the files a yellowed paper that I took to be the Stuart deed. “I’m a native of Perth Amboy and a lawyer, and back in those days I was alternately practicing law in Perth Amboy, specializing in real estate, and serving as assistant attorney general of New Jersey. One way and another, I was in and out of this office so much that I got to know probably more about the records than anyone else, and in 1940, when the Board’s registrar went to war, I was appointed to fill his place. A member sold me a couple of shares, so I could go on the Board. I’ve held the job ever since, and I get a salary, which I hope I earn. I’m Jewish, by the way, and that’s something more or less new among East Jersey proprietors. Most of the early ones were Anglicans or members of the various dissenting Protestant sects. I’m proud to be able to say that during my tenure as registrar we’ve published, at the Board’s expense, two volumes of great historical interest— The Minutes of the Board of Proprietors of the Eastern Division of New Jersey from 1685 to 1705 , which we got out in 1949, and a second volume of minutes covering the years 1725–64, issued just a year ago. I’m also proud to be able to say that during the same period, we have become financially highly solvent.”

On that reassuring note, Mr. Miller quitted the vault, taking with him the deed. He carried it out to the battered table in the main room, where the stove was now glowing cheerily. I waited while he copied out the pertinent parts, and then, emboldened by his mention of the Board’s financial affairs, I asked him to enlarge on the subject. He did so, with neither hesitation nor braggadocio—with, rather, a cool factualness that reminded me of any corporation executive reporting on a good year. To begin with, he said, the East Jersey Board has a striking, if spotty, record of dividend payments. In the early days, when it still had practically all of East Jersey to parcel out, it paid its shareholders dividends in land—ten thousand acres per share in 1684, five thousand more per share in 1698, and another twenty-five hundred in 1702. In those days, obviously, a single share held for a decade was ample to give a man almost baronial status in East Jersey. The pace slowed as land began to run short, of course, and very little East Jersey land has been distributed as dividends since the Revolution. Instead, occasional dividends have been paid in cash—and in recent years, not so occasional, at that; for example, there were no dividends at all from 1929 until 1955, when twenty-five dollars was paid, followed by the same sum in 1957 and again in 1960. As to the possibilities of buying into the corporation, Mr. Miller told me that he acts as a clearinghouse for transactions. Anyone wishing to become an East Jersey proprietor must first be lucky enough to approach him at a time when shares are on the market, and must then be able to satisfy the Board that his purpose is not to indulge in land speculation or otherwise fall short of proprietary standards of conduct. As recently as 1954, the going price for a share was under two hundred dollars, while the latest sale, in 1960, brought just over one thousand dollars.

Figuring quickly on a scratch pad like a securities analyst, I calculated that on the basis of the 1954 price, the average annual cash return of East Jersey over the years 1954 to 1964 amounted to 3.75 per cent, and that over the same period, the capital appreciation came to a whopping 400 per cent. I asked Mr. Miller to explain exactly how the Board earns the money out of which it pays these dividends. He replied that while its steady income is the modest fees it charges for supplying documents and information, its important income—that from which dividends are paid—comes from land sales, which he spoke of as windfalls. Ordinarily, he said, the Board has no idea what land it owns; to find out, it would have to go through the prohibitively expensive process of surveying every square foot of East Jersey. In the absence of surveys of its own, it makes its claims on the basis of those made by others. Land values in East Jersey have skyrocketed over the past decade or so, and this rise has been accompanied by a large number of transactions; the transactions have necessitated a great deal of resurveying, and every once in a while a new survey reveals an unowned patch of land—say, a vacant strip between two properties that were supposed to be adjacent. Such patches were brought about, most often, by carelessness or errors in the old surveys that have been relied on for the past two or three centuries. Sometimes, it seems, the early surveyors became confused about the compass needle’s magnetic variation from true north; sometimes they were misled in their calculations by local effects on the compass caused by iron-bearing rock; and sometimes their instruments were downright inaccurate. By vigilantly keeping track of new surveys and thus discovering slip-ups in old ones, Miller explained, he finds odd-shaped pieces of land to which no one else can establish ownership, and to which the Board thereupon lays claim under the 1682 conveyance from the Carteret heirs to the original proprietors. Very few real-estate lawyers have any stomach for quarrelling with such venerable evidence as that, and the man who had previously believed he owned the land is usually only too happy to pay the Board for a deed to it. If he isn’t, there is generally someone else who is.