A Boy Could Make From 30 to 40 cents a Day by Hard Work
Pegg Family Conserved Acres
by Egbert T. Bush, Stockton, N.J.
published by the Hunterdon Co. Democrat, November 21, 1929
This is another in a series of articles by Egbert T. Bush Paying attention to the wonderful trees of old Hunterdon County. A complete list of Bush’s tree articles can be found at the end.
Did you ever go nutting for shellbarks in the olden days, or even in the olden ways? Did you ever lie awake half the night in fear of sleeping too late in the morning? During such a restless night did you ever listen to the howling wind and the raucous scraping of the great elm’s willowy limbs over the shingle roof—all that was between you and the stars? In your fitful slumber, did you ever see that ground strewn with, O such beautiful nuts, while the swaying treetops sent down great showers to keep up the supply? Did you ever feel such a shower come crashing down upon you only to make you jump out and find that the crash had been all above the shingles?
Possibly not, but those who did are not yet all dead. The few survivors will recall many of the trials and the thrills of such experiences. Others may be somewhat interested in the simple telling by a simple participant in the old-time sport. No, it should not be designed as sport for us. It was duty, necessity, downright hard work. But we managed to get much sport out of it, nevertheless.
One is driven to wonder at times whether people of this sport-seeking age have not unfortunately lost a little of the ability to make sport out of necessity. Anyhow, I do not believe that this is all a mere fool’s philosophy. To get the most out of life, one must make himself enjoy what it is necessary for him to do. Any other way turns too much of life into drudgery.
After such a fitful night, it was not pure sport to get up an hour too soon, gulp down a hasty breakfast and then make one’s way through cold and darkness to a deserted spot in the distant woodland. But that spot must be reached if possible and pre-empted before some rival got there. For the law of preemption, though all unwritten as to nutters, was well understood and generally obeyed.
Having reached the place long before nuts could be seen, the thing to do was to crouch close to the lee side of some big oak, and wait for daylight to come creeping slowly through the forest. The oak was preferable to the hickory, first, because its greater bole gave more shelter; second, because the oak did not throw nuts at you and the hickory did, nuts that struck very hard after falling 60 or 70 feet. It was always fun by day to see the hulls burst into pieces and fly in every direction as the nuts struck the ground, but the boy always objected to making the top of his head the point for striking— except in cases of nutting necessity.
There were great differences in the quality and desirability of nuts from different trees. For home use, flavor and the ease with which the pit could be taken out in halves were the chief requirements; for market, big nuts ready hulled were especially desirable. I remember exactly where stood the tree that bore the biggest, handsomest, most satisfactory nuts that I ever saw. But that tree was very stingy. If one found two dozen nuts under it on the most favorable occasion, he was in luck. Yet though never preempted, it was taken en route whenever possible.
With the daylight came the nutters, never a dearth of them. But the boy who had made his preemption fared quite well, unless, as sometimes happens, he had miscalculated the tree’s time for being generous. As a rule he felt well paid for his night of worry and his morning of shivers.
“Ye Good Olde Dayes”
It was great nutting, at least in my estimation. But old people, as seems to be the habit of such, delighted in telling us of the greater nutting in their early days, and still greater that came to them by tradition. We were restricted because many fine tracts were forbidden grounds. But there were still plenty of free areas if one went far enough. Probably a hundred bushels of nuts were gathered then for every bushel that could be found now.
We were told that now and then a large tract was forbidden in the earlier days. There was a traditional story of one pioneer who owned several hundred acres of woodland in the “Great Swamp” all finely scattered with hickories among the giant oaks.1 His crops of nuts were immense, for the Swamp land exactly suited the shellbarks which grew and bore here as in a few other localities, as they would be doing still except for men’s lack of foresight.2
This pioneer was a good sort of man in a general way, but woe to him or them who would gather nuts in his holdings. He believed implicitly in that great basic law, “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s.” And he was unquestionably right. Yet there was some difference of opinion. Early settlers have a way of adding to that basic law the convenient proviso of their own. “That the natural right of man to share in the wild uncared-for products of nature shall not be restricted.” That was community law, and community law, once established, dies out very hard. The owner demanded the proviso. In his own eyes he was Caesar’s representative and the nuts were his just as clearly as any of his other property. His neighbors felt that they had a natural right to share in what nature had produced on his land without assistance by him or expense on his part. They resented his disregard of that right while he bitterly resented their violation of the basic law.
Protecting the Nuts
On good nutting days he would rally his whole force of nutters, then mount his horse and ride furiously about the woodland to drive out marauders and to confiscate any nuts found in their possession. No doubt there were elements of fun on both sides. But the defender was only one, while his tormentors were numerous. They had the satisfaction of greatly annoying him, but he was all the time gathering in the spoils of that war?
At last he commissioned his young son to help in the defense. The youth, proud of his promotion but all the time in sympathy with the other party, rode about making a great show of ferocity when his father was near, but whenever possible, helping to hide nuts that might be in danger of confiscation. When his father was at a safe distance he always rushed up with this greeting: “Pick like the devil! The old man is coming.”
The Great Swamp mentioned above was a region of indefinite and shrinking boundaries. In my boyhood we were all “Swampers” if we lived about Croton, Boarshead, the Frog, Locktown or west-ward. The few of us who survive are not at all annoyed by that name now. At times there may have been a little sting, especially when used by airy people who lived outside or on the fringes, and thought their land better than ours and themselves superior beings. It is only a pleasant memory now, and one that we would not lose on any account.
The Great Swamp
A short time ago it was my privilege to examine a series of maps, largely topographical, covering all this region for many miles up and down the Delaware and far back into the interior. They had been carefully drawn long ago by an expert engineer. No, more likely he was simply a surveyor then. But we now have engineers of so many kinds that when we would designate a man who trundles a one-wheeled vehicle up and down a plank, it seems hardly polite not to write “E.W.” after his name, to denote Engineer of the Wheelbarrow.
On one of those maps the surveyor shows the greater part of Hunterdon county. To the surprise and delight of the writer, he outlines a region some ten miles long and about half as wide at its widest, beginning a little southwest of Flemington and extending to the Delaware. It covers the places above enumerated, though they are not mentioned. Perhaps the villages were negligible hamlets then— or nothing. No matter. He marks the whole area in bold letters, “GREAT SWAMP.” And as represented, it does look like a swamp indeed. Presumably the greater part of it was primeval forest when that map was made. The original out-line was probably drawn by some early explorer who happened to get his feet wet in one of its sloughs, turned in disgust and slurringly named the whole region for what his prejudiced eyes saw in it, disregarding all the glorious oaks and hickories for which it later became famous. Such is the blinding power of prejudice.
I thought that Mr. Bush was describing a map made by Lt. J. Hills in 1781, called “A Sketch of the Northern Parts of New Jersey” (above).3 But this map does not quite match Mr. Bush’s description.
The earliest mention of this area as “the Great Swamp” can be found in one of the surveys in the Lotting Purchase dated 1711.
In our nutting days, as intimated, we needed nuts much more than we needed the sport of gathering them. Who did not want nuts for cracking during the long winter that confronted him? But still more than this we needed nuts for selling. All country stores bought them for the city markets and for the manufacturers of high-grade oil.
Oil for the Clock
It would sound strange now to hear some one say: “Find me a nice fat hickory nut; I want to oil the clock.” But I knew what that meant. I often saw the old home clock treated in that way and saw it respond nicely to the treatment. My father put the pit between the broad, corrugated jaws of his shoemaker pincers. With one hand he gently squeezed out a small drop of the precious oil, and with the other took it off on the point of an awl or of a darning needle, and applied it wherever needed, drop by drop till all necessary places were nicely lubricated. That saved the fee of the traveling “clock tinker,” who was as likely to ruin the clock as to make it run.
The usual price of nuts was about $1.50 a bushel. But it took much work to get a bushel. If one came home with more than a peck for his night of anxiety and morning of hustling, he was lucky. If he had half a bushel, he was on the way to become a millionaire, though we did not hear anything about those fellows then. One thing was sure—the nutter always came home tired; but when successful, so happy! It was a slow way of accumulating wealth. But in those days a boy got from 25 to 40 cents for a long day’s work, with no chance to pick out what he would do. Now a boy gets as much for one hour, turning up his nose if the work offered does not just suit him.
300 Bushels in a Season
People still tell of a crop of 300 bushels of hickory nuts gathered sixty years or more ago by Mahlon Pegg and his family on their own farm. That is the greatest I ever heard of being gathered in my own time. The Pegg farm lies on the road leading from the Harmony school-house to Flemington, and is still in the family. One is surprised to learn that most of those forest acres are still undisturbed; that old trees are dying out and young ones growing up to take their places, just as nature meant they should. Money never tempted Mahlon Pegg to desecrate his woodland, and his family have kept good the faith in nature’s way.
The Mahlon Pegg farm can be seen on the 1873 Beers-Comstock map of Raritan Township. It has a very long drive to Leffler Hill Road, and is about midway between that road and Plum Brook Road. Harmony School Road had not yet been laid out and made public. But it must be the road that Mr. Bush called the road from Harmony school-house to Flemington.
Mahlon Pegg died many years ago. His widow, a second wife and one of the long-lived family of John Hockenbury, active in the early life of Croton and vicinity, died on the farm several years later. Jacob Pegg, the only son, died there about four years ago, not far from 80 years of age. The only remaining member of the family, Susan Pegg Shepherd, widow of the late Mansfield Shepherd, now owns the homestead, and is quietly spending her remaining years amid the scenes of her youth. Let us remember to the credit of the Pegg family that they have all done their part to conserve the diminishing natural resources of Hunterdon county.
* * *
Mahlon Pegg was born to Daniel G. Pegg and Margaret Buchanan on August 8, 1805 and died on October 4, 1876 at his home in Raritan Township.
Margaret Pegg was the daughter of Samuel Buchanan and Ann Case. When distribution of the estate of Samuel Buchanan dec’d took place in 1851, daughter Margaret was also deceased, and her share went to her children. Step-son Lowrence Opdycke was named as one of her heirs, as well as sons Jesse, John and Mahlon Pegg, each getting one-fourth of Margaret’s share, or $51.59 & 3/4 of a cent. Presumably daughter Mary was also deceased.4
On February 7, 1829, Mahlon Pegg married Elizabeth Sebold (1810-1848), daughter of Jacob Sebold and Hannah Drake. They had seven children. His second wife was, as Bush mentions, Dinah Hockenbury (1813-1906), daughter of John Hockenbury and Sarah Sutton. They had two daughters, including Susan, who was born on October 11, 1854. She married Mansfield Shepherd on March 28, 1897. Shepherd was the son of William Shepherd and Elizabeth Ann Conover, and died in 1913. Susan, who had no children, died on October 2, 1941, age 86.
Jacob Sebold Pegg, son of Mahlon and Elizabeth Pegg, was born on Dec. 18, 1842 and died on July 10, 1925. He was buried in the Slack Cemetery in Kingwood. He married Susan Barbara Clemens on Sept. 24, 1884, but it appears that the marriage did not last. In the 1900 census, he had moved in with this step-mother Dinah Pegg and was listed as a 50-year-old single man, working as a farm laborer on Dinah Pegg’s farm. By 1910, Dinah Pegg had died, and Jacob was living with his step-sisters Adaline and Susan, and Susan’s husband Mansfield Shepherd (age 54 that year). Also with them was the daughter of Dinah Hockenbury Pegg’s sister Jane Horne. This was Mary Jane Horne (also written as Horner), single, age 73 in 1910.
By 1920, Jacob S. Pegg was listed as the head of household, age 77 and single, living with sisters Adeline Pegg 67 single and Susan Shepherd 65 widowed. Also in the household was Henry C. Holzchuk 20 single, born in NJ of German-born parents. After Adaline Pegg died in 1924 and Jacob Pegg died in 1925, the farm of Mahlon Pegg was occupied by Susan Shepherd. She was 75 years old, living with her boarder, Henry Holschuh 29, single, farm laborer. And in 1930, she was 85 years old, and Henry “Holzerland” was 39. He was described as an “unpaid family worker.” It was in this census (1940) that I learned that Harmony School Road was once called “Dinah Pegg Road.”
Susan Sheppard/Shepherd died on Oct. 2, 1941, and the farm passed out of the family. It had been owned by the Peggs since sometime between 1850 and 1860 (I have not done a deed search).
The Puzzling John Peggs
Mr. Bush stated that Jacob Pegg was the only son of Mahlon Pegg, but he appears to be mistaken. There was a son John, born on Sept. 30, 1836, who was counted in this family in 1850 as age 13, one of the children of Elizabeth Sebold Pegg. He married Matilda Godown on Jan. 1, 1862. She was the daughter of Isaac Godown and Permelia Myers. John and Matilda Pegg lived their lives in East Amwell, being counted there in the census records of 1870, 1880, 1900 and 1910. Matilda died in 1900, and John died on Aug. 14, 1911. They are buried in the Union Cemetery near Ringoes.
It is easy to confuse this John Pegg with another John, born in Sept. 1838 to Jesse Pegg (Mahlon’s brother) and Anna Buchanan. He was counted with them in the 1850 census. They were living in East Amwell, and John was age 8. He married Emma Jane Case on Jan. 30, 1879. I have not found this John Pegg in the 1880 census. By 1900 he and Emma were living in Raritan twp., and their one child had died. After Emma Case died in 1907, John Pegg, also known as John J. Pegg, moved to Delaware Township where he rented a farm and lived alone. In 1920, he had moved to the Jutland-Pittstown Road in Union Twp., where he continued to farm on rented land, and took on a boarder, one Lafayette Davenfort, 62, single, house painter. I do not have a death date for John J. Pegg.
John Pegg, son of Daniel and Margaret Buchanan and husband of Mary Pierson, and brother of Mahlon, is the John Pegg who lived on the old Robins farm. He wrote his will on May 22, 1862 leaving $100 to his “namesake” John Pegg Hartpence, and the residue to his wife Mary. It appears that he had no children. Egbert T. Bush mentioned him in his article on Buchanan’s Tavern.
John Pegg Hartpence was probably the son of Asher and Elizabeth Hartpence, born about 1855 in Raritan Twp. He was counted in that family in the 1860 census for Raritan twp.
So, after all that, here is what I end up with:
Sons of Daniel G. Pegg & Margaret Buchanan
1) Jesse Pegg (1804-1879) & Anna Buchanan
had John J. Pegg (Sep 1838-aft 1920) m. 1879 Emma Jane Case (1857-1907)
They had one child who died before 1900.
2) John Pegg (1805-1862) m. 1829 Mary Pierson
no children, even though some family trees claim that John Pegg (1836-1911) was their son
3) Mahlon Pegg (1805-1876) m. 1829 Eliz. Sebold
Their son John Pegg (1836-1911) m. 1862 Matilda Godown
I was surprised at how often Daniel G. Pegg has turned up in my website:
- Harmony School Rightly Named
- Boarshead Tavern in the 18th Century
- Two Taverns at Robins Hill, part four
- The Two Taverns at Robins Hill, part two
- Buchanan’s, A Tavern With a Long History
Many thanks to Michael Gesner for sharing his Pegg family tree with me, without which I could not have found my way through the thicket of Peggs.
For those of you who are interested, here are the articles by Egbert T. Bush that call attention to Hunterdon trees (with links for the stories that I’ve published so far):
- Biggest Log Ever Brought To Stockton, Sep 5, 1929
- Gathering Nuts Was Once An Industry, Nov 28, 1929
- California A Paradise for Birds, Boys, Berry Pickers, Mar 13, 1930
- Indians Thought Lightning Would Not Strike a Beech, Dec 11, 1930
- Big Willow and Other Trees, Jan. 1, 1931
- Fruits That Were; Fruits That Are, Mar 19, 1931
- Lime and Trees and Other Things, Apr 21, 1932
- Old Sentinel Oak Has Passed, Apr 4, 1936
- Best candidates for this ‘pioneer’ owning several hundred acres in the Swamp are Jeremiah King and Joseph Thatcher. Jeremiah King (1736-1822) had 11 children by his second wife Sarah Rittenhouse. Joseph Thatcher (c.1715-1791) only had three children by wife Margaret Hull. ↩
- Mr. Bush seems to be saying that hickory nuts could be found every year from the same trees. But that is not the case for hickory trees in my neck of the woods, which happens to also be in the Great Swamp. These trees only produce nuts every other year. ↩
- Unfortunately, my copy of the map has very poor resolution, and I was unable to locate a better one on the web, either in the Library of Congress collection or the Rutgers University map collection online, or the NJ Historical Society. If any of you know where it can be found, please let me know. ↩
- Minutes of the Orphans Court, H.C. Surrogate’s Court, Book 10 p. 421. ↩