“the Most Improveablest Land…”


I asked whether the Board had had any windfalls lately, and Mr. Miller nodded. “One was the Woodbridge case, which was settled a few years ago. In 1959, I think it was, the town of Woodbridge, just north of here, sold off a parcel of municipal land for three hundred thousand dollars. Woodbridge’s title was based on a perfectly valid grant dated June i, 1669. But—and here’s the catch—the 1669 grant stipulated exactly one hundred acres, whereas the 1959 survey showed a hundred and seventy-two acres . Somebody must have slipped up somewhere—in 1669, I mean. Naturally, the Board was quick to claim the extra seventy-two acres as previously unconveyed land. We released our claim for ten thousand dollars, which was paid in shares by various interested parties—the town of Woodbridge, its board of education, and five private companies that have oil pipelines running across the land. There, substantially, was the source of our 1960 dividend. And this year we had another interesting windfall: about a hundred acres in Brick Township, over by the mouth of the Metedeconk River, has netted the Board twelve thousand dollars.”

I asked whether such windfalls come along very often.

“Depends what you mean by ‘very often,’” Mr. Miller replied, coolly. “We collected slightly more than one hundred thousand dollars in land sales immediately after the Revolution.” Time, with the East Jersey proprietors, is relative. After locking the vault and gathering up his papers, he ushered me out of the surveyor general’s office. “The Board’s future looks bright,” he said in parting. “When the northernmost areas of Sussex and Passaic counties begin to open up, more windfalls are virtually certain to come along.”

Reflecting that Mr. Miller had had reason for his self-satisfied look, I set out for Burlington and the West Jersey proprietors. As I moved past Hightstown and Allentown, away from the industrial concentrations of the northeast into the heart of agricultural West Jersey, the air became redolent of dried wheat and corn—the smell of land. For all of modern transportation and communications, identifiable regions, with their characteristic flavors, die hard if they die at all, and one need not travel far from New York City to find at least one of them.

At Burlington, a riverfront town on the Delaware, I called at the real-estate office of Haines & Haines, where I had an appointment to see Senator Henry S. Haines, vice president of the Council of West Jersey Proprietors, and his brother, I. Snowden Haines, the Council’s clerk. A receptionist ushered me into a homey second-floor office containing Early American furniture and a fireplace; there I met the Senator, a blondish, sparse-haired, tweedy, genial, slow-spoken proprietor in his middle years. He told me that from 1960 to 1964 he had represented Burlington County in the state senate; that he is a Democrat; that he and his brother come from a long line of West Jersey proprietors; and that, like his forefathers, he is a Quaker. He told me something of the organization and operation of the West Jersey proprietors, putting the case in the form of contrasts to the setup in East Jersey—or, more often, in the form of contrasts to “George Miller,” an expression that I gradually came to recognize as more or less a synonym for East Jersey in West Jersey proprietary circles.

Attrition of old shares has been far greater in West Jersey than in East Jersey. Of the original one hundred West Jersey shares, all have vanished but about twenty, of which, the Senator said, seventeen and a fraction are owned by him and his brother. Unlike the East Jersey proprietors, those of West Jersey are not a corporation; their legal status remains undefined. Their governing body—unlike East Jersey’s, which is open to anyone who owns a share and is acceptable to the other members—is a nine-member, elected council. Again unlike East Jersey, they maintain only a miniscule treasury, having no salaried employees and few expenses. Nor do they pay cash dividends; all nine of the dividend distributions voted by the Council since it was formed in 1688 have been in the form of acreage rights, starting with five thousand acres per share in 1700 and coming on down to a thousand per share in ion. Since then, not an acre.