Former Lumber Yard Site in Camden, New Jersey Now An Historic Place
by Paul W. Schopp
The remaining buildings and yard of the former Volney G. Bennett Lumber Company in Camden, New Jersey became a State and National Historic Place in 1993. Attaining approval for the State Register of Historic Places on June 28th and the National Register on August 5th, this former urban lumber yard stands alone as the only yard to be singularly recognized as an historic site.
The Bennett firm can trace its roots to the year 1876, but the part that Camden, New Jersey played in regional lumber history extends even further back. The rafting of felled timber, from northeast Pennsylvania and adjoining New York, down the Delaware River began in 1764 and quickly proved to be the best method to move these logs to Philadelphia for processing. Soon the bustling port area of Philadelphia became clogged with rafts that proved a hazard to shipping. The local timber merchants cast a wistful eye at the mud flats and shallow shore line of New Jersey and began storing the large timber rafts on the eastern shore of the Delaware. Log pens were constructed by driving pilings into the riverbed. This prevented the timber from being carried off by the changing tides.
In a normal progression, saw mills began to appear on the Jersey shore of the river to process the stored timber. The first recorded mill built was by William Carmen in 1822 and was steam operated. Three lumber merchants were already conducting business in Camden when Carmen constructed his mill. Shingle manufacturing was another industry in this fledgling South Jersey town. Two shingle producers generated enough waste by-products that their refuse pile became known as Shingle-Shaving Hill and was a favorite of local children for winter sledding. Initially, the vast amount of sawdust produced by the numerous Camden saw mills created logistical problems. But uses were quickly found: much of the sawdust was dumped to fill lowlands, in some places as much as forty feet deep, while a substantial amount served as fuel in the mills and other businesses.
By the 1840's, the lumbering industry accounted for a substantial amount of the expanding City’s waterfront from Cooper’s Point to Market Street, either for raft storage or with sawmills. Lumberyards also consumed a significant amount of land in the downtown area as the timber industry created homes, jobs and fortunes. The development of Camden neighborhoods indicated the local need for lumber, but lumber demand by wholesale dealers, housing and industrial use was even stronger across the river in Philadelphia. Camden sawmills produced almost every wooden housing component: joists, beams, floorboards, laths, doors, windows, sash, moldings, decorative work and roofing singles.
Lumber processing became the largest industry in Camden in the 1850's as rafting traffic down the Delaware increased. In addition, rafts of timber, mostly white pine from central and northern Pennsylvania began moving down the Susquehanna River to Port Deposit, Maryland at the head of the Chesapeake Bay. Camden lumber merchants made purchases of this timber at either Port Deposit, Maryland or Marietta, Pennsylvania. The rafts then were moved through the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal to the Delaware River and towed to Camden.
In 1859, Volney G. Bennett, a 23 year old lumberman from the logging and rafting community of Hawley, Pike County, Pennsylvania arrived in Camden, reportedly on one of the Delaware River log rafts. His brother, Harvey, had been living in Camden since 1850 and worked in a local sawmill. Volney began as a laborer at the McKeen & Bingham Lumber Company, which operated a steam sawmill and gristmill as well as a lumber yard on Water Street above Cooper. Both McKeen and Bingham were also from Pike County. Bennett advanced quickly at the firm and by 1865 had become a clerk. He remained at this location until 1876.
William and Franklin Holbert, also from Pike County, influenced Volney to relocate to their establishment in central Camden, Their Holbert & Branning Lumber Company, established in 1872, conducted a steam sawmill, wharf and a sales operation known as the Central Lumberyard. The management of this company decided to concentrate their efforts on the processing and wholesale end of the lumber business. So after brief negotiations. Volney G. Bennett leased the Central Lumberyard in 1876. Located at this site was Bennett’s first sales office.
By the end of 1876, Bennett had purchased his first piece of property for lumberyard use, where he erected his second sales office, storage sheds and stables. Bennett assumed the Central Lumberyard name and continued to use it even after he moved his yard one block north of its original location. This move allowed Holbert and Branning to expand their drying yards. Volney Bennett still provided a local outlet for the sawn lumber and other wood products from the adjacent sawmill.
The Central Lumberyard had a banner year in 1887, when Volney Bennett purchased additional lots, expanding his business to fill an entire city block. An 1890 account of the yard described it as follows:This enterprise had its inception in 1876. The premises occupied are 222 by 360 feet in Dimensions, extending from Front to (south) Second Streets and from Cherry to Spruce Streets. About one-half of the yard is covered with shedding for the storage of finer grades. An enormous stock is carried at all times of all kinds of Building Lumber, such as White and Yellow Pine, Hemlock, Spruce, etc. Mr. Bennett enjoys the closest relations with the dealers and manufacturers in the West and South and is thus enabled to handle stuff at the lowest figures... The business gives employment to about ten men and four teams are required for local delivery.
The Holbert & Branning sawmill was dismantled in 1893 and the drying yard land sold for other uses. Rafting on the Delaware River was discontinued in 1900 as the Upper Delaware timber regions had been clear cut. In a prudent business move, sawmills were relocated closer to the timber source, so that Bennett received an increasing amount of its lumber, by ship and railroad car, already cut, dried and dressed. Most of the sawmills disappeared from the Camden riverbank by this time, but the population of the area continued to grow and lumber merchants continued to prosper.
On February 20, 1899, Volney G. Bennett and his sons Alfred and Volney incorporated under the name of the Volney G. Bennett Lumber Company. The senior Bennett sold the Central Lumberyard to the corporation for $4500. From 1900 to 1906, the Volney G. Bennett Lumber Company acquired property yet another block north of the then-current location. The lumberyard now occupied two city blocks and had become the largest retail lumber operation in New Jersey. The volume of business in 1904 was six times what it was five years earlier, with a net worth of $74,854.28. At this time, each of the two city blocks stored a daily average of 1,000,000 board feet of lumber.
In 1904, the Volney G. Bennett Lumber Company erected a two-story, "most modern, brick, slow-burning stables for the housing of its many teams of horses" and a modern electric derrick to assist in handling lumber in the yard. As previously stated, in 1890 the firm used four teams of horses for delivery; after 1904, the number increased to twenty teams. The horses were kept on the first floor of the new stable, while the second was used for hay and harness storage. The following year broke all sales records for the company, with a net profit of $20,318.64 and three more teams and wagons added to the stable.
Volney G. Bennett retired from the business in 1905. Six years later, in 1911, the company was one of the first lumber firms in the state to be ushered into a new era. In lieu of a cash payment for an overdue account, Bennett Lumber acquired an autotruck belonging to a large Philadelphia trucking firm. The advantages over horses and wagons were quickly realized and soon trucks virtually replaced the wagons and teams. In 1917, the company sold the new stable to the local gas company’s coke operation for their teams and wagons. Another sale to the gas company occurred in 1922, which released the portion of the yard below Spruce Street. With the old yard sold and profits up, construction of a new sales office occurred to show off Volney G. Bennett Lumber Company’s corporate success. This new corporate image was manifested in the 1924 construction of a modern, one-story, Mission Revival-style ornamental concrete "cinder block" sales office, immediately adjacent to its former 1904 brick stable.
Civic responsibilities and other careers were pursued by Bennett and his children. Volney G. was an officer in several Camden Building & Loan Associations and was the first President of the Camden Board of Trade. He also constructed many blocks of homes, both in Camden and its suburbs. Killam Bennett was a wholesaler of Yellow Pine. In addition, he owned a local newspaper, The Post-Telegram, published in Camden, For several years he was the mayor of Riverton, New Jersey, where he resided. Volney, Junior stayed with the lumber firm and had a long and distinguished career as president of the Camden Board of Trade, following the death of his father. He also served as mayor of Merchantville, New Jersey, his place of residence. Alfred K., after serving as a Company incorporator, moved to Pasadena, California and constructed a large hotel. He was also instrumental in the founding of the Rose Bowl Parade.
In the 1910's the Volney G. Bennett Lumber Company corporate slogan was simply, "Buy Bennett’s Lumber". By the 1920's, it had become "As ‘Sterling’ is to Silver, so ‘Bennett’ is to Lumber". By 1924, Bennett Lumber was advertising the sale of lumber, sheet-rock and Creo-Dipt shingles. Other period advertisements asked consumers "Are you planning to remodel your home?" and requested potential clients to come to Volney G. Bennett Lumber Company for suggestions. These ads indicated the company’s trade in a variety of building materials, besides lumber, and the firm’s appeal to the home-improvement market as early as the 1920's.
Business for the company continued briskly, despite the vagaries of the Great Depression. However, in 1936 the Bennett family lost control of the corporation to Arthur Collins, who started working for the company in 1912 as a bookkeeper. During World War II, Bennett Lumber supplied much of the lumber required for the regional war effort. After the war ended, many of the firm’s customers continued to be local carpenters and contractors who followed the tradition, begun in 1876, of traveling to the city’s waterfront for their building material needs. The housing boom in the Camden suburbs was good for the local lumber wholesale and retail trade that now mainly sold processed lumber shipped in from various parts of the country. In the post-war era, many of the old Camden lumber firms along the waterfront either closed or moved to the suburbs.
By the mid 1950's and into the 1960's, homeowners began to repair, remodel and up-grade their houses. Lumber companies changed their stock and display to attract the new suburban home-improvement market. Carpenters and contractors continued to shop at the old lumber company, just as they had done since the founding. But the Volney G. Bennett Lumber Company realized that survival as an inner-city yard required changes to its physical plant and sales methods. Ironically, the first lumberyard to enter the autotruck era, was also the last to hang onto its old inner-city connections with the Delaware River and rail lines, even after most supplies arrived by tractor-trailer.
In April 1962, the former stable was re-acquired by Bennett Lumber. The firm promptly remodeled the stable’s interior into a complete sales center for lumber and home-improvement products. The new sales center also contained a small museum commemorating the lumber trade through the exhibition of antique tools. By 1966, Harold Roberts had purchases all outstanding corporate stock which placed the firm back into Bennett family ownership. Roberts, a native of Vermont, married one of Volney G. Bennett’s great-granddaughters, Jerry Bennett, in 1946. He began working for the company as a yardman, eventually becoming a salesman and bookkeeper in 1950. Harold and Jerry Roberts’ sons, Stephen and Brian, both joined the firm in the 1970's and now represent the fifth generation of the Bennett family operating the company. The firm updated the stable and 1924 office exterior features and joined the two structures to form a unified commercial storefront. All of this remodeling was accomplished in a Colonial Revival styling.
Despite Bennett Lumber’s last attempts to change its inner-city image to meet the new home-improvement market, the declining image of the City of Camden was too much to overcome. By the mid-1970's, the City and the Camden Housing Authority declared the waterfront district and neighboring area "blighted". The Housing Authority acquired the Volney G. Bennett Lumber Company Camden property in 1979 as part of a redevelopment plan for the improvement of the municipal port. To commemorate the historical significance of the Volney G. Bennett Lumber Company and its physical heritage, Harold Roberts insisted that the Camden Housing Authority amend its deed to memorialize this legacy. The amendment stated that the old sales office and brick stable would be "maintained by the Authority, its successors and assignees, in good and occupiable condition, pursuant to the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966". Roberts also required that a statement be placed in the deed legally reserving space in the old stable for the construction of a lumbering museum. This museum would feature displays of photographs and old tools to celebrate Camden’s role in regional lumbering. It would also illustrate the share that the Volney G. Bennett Lumber Company and its officers played in the region’s heritage.
Upon settlement with the Camden Housing Authority, the Volney G. Bennett Lumber Company moved to Barrington, New Jersey where it continues to operate co-extensively with the Mr Roberts Lumber Centers. Subsequently, the Camden property changed hands several times between quasi-governmental agencies. In 1980, a four-alarm fire swept through the yard, destroying all but one of the lumber sheds, the sales office and the stable. In 1991, the property was sold again and the former stable and office was converted into a restaurant, which continues to serve fine food today.
The lumberyard, sales office, stable and associated yard building of the Volney G. Bennett Lumber Company, like other contemporary lumberyards, have all been changed over time of reflect changes in technology, lumber supply, sales markets, fires, real estate demands and corporate image. However, they still exhibit the essential characteristics of the commercial late-19th and early-20th century lumberyard trade. They are significant because they embody the history of the origins, development and eventual demise of Camden’s lumber milling and lumberyard retail industries of that period in which Camden served as the regional center.
The stable is the last industrial stable left in the City of Camden. Once a ubiquitous structure in a city whose identity cannot be separated from its industrial history, the Volney G. Bennett Lumber Company stable serves as the last link to a long-forgotten past in a now-troubled northeastern city. Mr. Harold Roberts and family are grateful that both the State and Federal Government recognized the significance of this site. With the assistance of others in the timber and lumber industry, Harold Roberts is confident that a lumber museum will yet be located within the walls of the old stable building on South Second Street in Camden.
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