“the Most Improveablest Land…”


Walking along past the Quaker meetinghouse in the placid afternoon, steeped as I was by this time in seventeenth-century events that seemed to have very practical twentieth-century applications, I suddenly felt that Burlington’s evident closeness to its past seemed natural rather than quaint. At the corner of High and Broad, Dr. Bisbee pointed out a plaque on the wall of the Mechanics National Bank, stating that at this intersection, at high noon on April 10 of each year, the proprietors of West Jersey meet to elect five members of their Council exactly as they have always done, and that three days later, they meet again on Gloucester Green to elect four other members, again according to tradition. “Since I’ve been a member of the proprietors, I’ve done a certain amount to spruce them up,” Dr. Bisbee commented. “My way of looking at it is that in the proprietors, Burlington has a priceless resource, in the booster sense, that ought to be exploited. For example, I was responsible for instituting the wearing of Quaker hats at the annual April 10 street-corner meeting, even though most of the modern proprietors aren’t Quakers.”

“I’m not quite so sold on the Quaker hats as Henry Bisbee is,” said Snowden Haines, a bit grimly.

The surveyor general’s office reminded me of Mr. Miller’s lair in Perth Amboy—the same well-sorted records and the same atmosphere of frugality, although I noticed that West Jersey permits itself the luxury of electricity. “We have to admit that our records aren’t in as good shape as George Miller’s,” said Mr. Haines. “Nor are we as alert and aggressive about claiming land. The case of the Garden State Parkway, which runs through both East and West Jersey, was typical. When the land for it was surveyed, George Miller stayed close to the State Highway Department, and we didn’t. We would wait for a piece of unappropriated land to be brought to our attention—and some were—while he deliberately went looking for land he could claim. Yes, there were some opportunities we neglected. What it comes down to is the values involved. Industrial activity in East Jersey has given great importance to land there. Here, it hasn’t happened yet. If it does, you watch—we’ll be just like George Miller.”

“People smile at the proprietors, but it’s business ,” Dr. Bisbee said, leaning toward me so as to deliver the last part of his sentence as if in confidence.

I asked Dr. Bisbee how he had come to be a proprietor and Council member. “It started with historical interest,” he replied. “I informed myself about the proprietors, and in 1951, I edited The Concessions and Agreements of the Proprietors, Freeholders, and Inhabitants of the Province of West New Jersey in America, 1676 , which was published at the expense of the city of Burlington. Then in 1955, the Haineses rewarded my interest by making me a gift of one thirty-second of a share in the proprietorship, the minimum permissible holding for Council membership, and the same year I was elected to the Council.”

“Even though no further acreage dividends are now in prospect, people often want to acquire shares in West Jersey,” Mr. Haines said as we left the surveyor general’s office. “Besides the gift to Henry, my brother and I sometimes sell a thirty-second of a share to someone who is interested, for a nominal sum like twenty-five or fifty dollars.” I got out my scratch pad again. At that rate, I calculated, the going price for a full share would range from eight hundred dollars to sixteen hundred dollars—plenty, it seemed to me, to entitle the West Jersey proprietorship to hold its head up to General Motors, to International Business Machines, or, for that matter, to George Miller himself. And plenty, perhaps, to inspire West Jerseymen to cull their attics for traces of the missing eighty shares.