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Historic Houses

The Girard House
Mt. Holly
Where Stephen Girard, Philadelphia's philanthropist, sold buns and sweetmeats during the Revolution

From Historic Houses of New Jersey by W. Jay Mills, 1902
Edited by GET NJ, COPYRIGHT 2004

SHADY Mill Street, very little changed since the voices of gay red-coated soldiers and the rumble and groan of their baggage-wagons disturbed the sweet Quaker quiet, bears the honor of retaining the miniature square house where Stephen Girard and his young wife lived for a part of the Revolution, and earned their living by selling buns, raisins, cock-a-neenee, and other sweetmeats to the British soldiery and the sombre-garbed Quaker children of the neighborhood.

Mill Street is almost the same, but many a sun has shone on Time's dial since those long-dead days. The British regiments with, tradition says, a future king among their number-youthful Prince William Henry -marched away six-score years ago, and the Mt. Holly children of such quaint names as Atlantis Gandy, Lucretia Peppit, Remembrance Eayres are asleep under the shadow of the Friends' Meeting-House, close by the old-time walk and playground, Woodpecker Lane. (Woodpecker Lane is now called Wood Lane.)

During the Revolution Mt. Holly was considered a stragetic point, and was frequented by both armies. In the year 1772 it contained almost one thousand inhabitants and two hundred dwellings. Although not the county-seat, it was quite a market centre. Among the most important families of that time were the Coxes, Atkinsons, Whites, Chews, Burrs, Blacks, Newbolds, Brians, and Strattons. Many prominent Quakers, members of what has been termed the landed gentry of Southern Jersey, had ancestral estates and manor houses in the vicinity. On Branch Street, in the centre of the town, there stood at that time the deserted dwelling of John Woolman, the good Quaker preacher, then in England. In its little rooms he had lived his noble life and thought his beautiful thoughts. There, too, he must have worked on his famous journal and ethical essays, so beloved by Charles Lamb, and called by a more modern writer the sweetest and purest autobiography in the English language. On Brainard Street was the church of the noted John Brainard, where he upheld the principles of free government despite the threats of Tories and the risk of personal danger. The British burned his church when they left Mt. Holly, but the little school-house where he taught the children of the neighborhood is still standing.

Richard Cox Shreve has left us some interesting glimpses of the Mt. Holly of a little later date in his remembrances. He writes:

One of my earliest recollections is of the illumination in Mt. Holly in the winter of 1815 in celebration of the treaty of peace between Great Britain and the United States after the War of 1812.

I was seven years old at the time. My father, Charles Shreve, lived on Mill Street, in the house adjoining the one where I now live. My grandfather, Major Richard Cox, for whom I was named, lived in the house next to the Farmers' Bank. He had been an officer of the Revolutionary army. I remember riding about the streets of the town in a sleigh and seeing my grandfather's house brightly illuminated for the celebration. Pieces of boards with holes bored through them had been placed across the windows, and in the holes were thrust tallow dips. Major Cox was a middle-sized man, rather stout, and wore kneebreeches. John Watson, the author of ' Watson's Annals of Philadelphia,' said to me one day, at my house, that Major Cox was 'the man of the town.' Squire Samuel Clark once told me that he remembered Major Cox as the principal man of Mt. Holly, and as being pretty arbitrary. . . .

"When I was a boy there was a whipping-post standing at the eastern end of the market-house. The post was a little wider one way than the other, and the culprit's arms were tied around it and he was lashed on the bare back, though I never saw it done. Here at this end of the market-place when I was a child, before I had gone to Westtown Quaker school, a May-pole was erected every year, usually a tall pine about forty feet high with a green top. The little girls and boys of the town, dressed in their best, would join hands and dance around the May-pole. It was as regular a feature of the ist of May as the Christmas-tree now is of the 25th of December. Here at the market-place also, when the stage from Philadelphia arrived with the mail, the people would gather around, and the stage-driver would call out the names of persons for whom he had newspapers. Two persons then often joined in taking one paper-one of the subscribers would read it on the evening of its arrival and pass it over to his neighbor on the next morning. . . .

"Before 1820, when we went to Philadelphia, we used to cross from Cooper's Ferry to the foot of Arch Street in the horse-boat. There were, I think, six horses, three on each side of the boat, and the tread of their feet caused the paddle-wheels to revolve. 'Old Billy' Cooper, as everybody called him, owned all that part of Camden. His hotel at the landing was an old-fashioned frame structure, one story and a half high, and there was a long porch, and plenty of chairs on it. The market-men stopped there. He was wealthy, but saw to the starting of the boats himself, and that the passengers would get aboard in time. He would call out ' Over to Arch Street, all aboard, over to Arch Street!' At Arch Street on the other side the men would call out Over to Billy Cooper's, all aboard!'

It was early in the year 1777, upon learning of Lord Howe's arrival near Philadelphia, that the one-eyed French pedler, then mockingly called " old Girard," although still in his twenties, packed his sack with foreign knick-knacks from recently-arrived merchantmen lying off Water Street. With his newly-acquired wife, Polly Lum, the ship-builder's daughter, he hurriedly fled from his Philadelphia home. Tradition has it that he peddled his way across the country to Mt. Holly, where upon his arrival he purchased a partly constructed house on Mill Street for the sum of five hundred dollars. There on that street of history, where many famous people have walked,-the stately William Penn, good John Woolman on his errands of mercy, young James Fenimore Cooper, the future novelist, in his gray wool stockings, and a host of others,-this odd couple started housekeeping and hung out a sign telling the townspeople they had gewgaws and sweetmeats to sell.

Historians have differed upon Mrs. Girard's personal appearance. Some have written that she was exceedingly pretty, and others that she was of a very plain appearance ; but she will ever be thought of at Mt. Holly as the former, for there are tales that her male customers, much to Girard's anger, found her so attractive that for the pleasure of gazing into her bright eyes and listening to her gay laughter many of them spent all their stray pennies for tobacco and lollipops, thereby helping to form the nucleus of her husband's great fortune. First there were blue-coated boys for customers, and who knows but what the great Governor Livingston when boarding at Atkinson's Tavern patronized the pretty Polly. Then came a time when the British marched into town with bugles blowing and banners flying, scaring most of the inhabitants, including Girard, who was of a very timorous nature. In the private dwellings of the richest families and the Friends' Meeting-House the redcoats were quartered. In the latter place one can see to-day the marks of the commissary's cleaver and meatknife upon the ancient seats where many patient forms sat quietly during thousands of meetings waiting for inspiration. But the British did not come to Mt. Holly with the intention of harming the inhabitants, and soon Girard's little shop was better patronized than ever before, and Mrs. Girard, so tradition says, neglected most of her household duties to wait on the English dandies, who demanded all of her attention. The "scarlet fever," as admiration for the redcoats was termed in those days, owing to a Jersey woman's (Susannah Livingston) clever bon-mot, was easily caught by the woman, who after a short period of married life had grown to loathe her morose and rather stern husband. It has been said that their marital troubles reached a culmination when Girard, entering his shop at an inopportune moment, saw a British officer snatch a kiss from the merry Polly across her counter. Frequent were the altercations which occurred in the little house after that date, and there may be truly said to have been enacted the first scenes of " The Ill-Assorted Marriage" which turned Girard into a hopeless cynic and drove his pretty, pleasure-loving wife to a mad-house.

A local historian, in an issue of The New Jersey Mirror, the old Burlington and Mt. Holly paper started by Nathan Palmer in 1818, has given an interesting anecdote of what is believed in some measure to have been the cause of Stephen Girard's removal from Mt. Holly.

A farmer named Bill Clark, in coming into town, was required to pass by Stephen's shop, and his little dog ' Snyder' used to annoy ' Bill' by running out of the store and snapping at his heels. On one occasion the dog secured a good hold on 'Bill's' pants, and in trying to kick him loose he flung the little beast into the store. This enraged Stephen very much, and he hotly inquired of Clark, 'What for you kick my dog ?'

It happened that it was 'Bill's' day for being intoxicated, and he retorted that the next time he would shoot the d----d dog; and in a short time afterwards he carried out this threat.

The little dog was Stephen's pet and companion, and he began a lawsuit to recover damages for his loss. The jury, however, found in favor of Clark. So he vowed he would not live among such ungrateful people. True to his word, he sold out, shut up shop, and went to Philadelphia.

The truth of the story of Girard and his dog is vouched for by many old residents of Mt. Holly, but we read in the record of his life that when he left there he did so thinking that Philadelphia was a better place for him to have made a name for himself in the world than this little Jersey town, and such a knowledge must have had a powerful influence on a man of his character.

Whether Stephen Girard sold his house and shop on leaving for the first city of his adoption, which he so truly loved, is not known, but in 1812 it was purchased by William Rogers, who completed its unfinished rooms. It is now known as the residence of the Holman family, and has been little changed since the days pretty Polly sold sweetmeats to the soldiers, and Stephen Girard called his barking dog Snyder away from the passing chaise or pedestrian.

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