Col. John McKee was both a Civil War veteran and visionary in the development of our South Jersey community. Born in 1821 in Virginia to freed black parents, he moved to Philadelphia at the age of 21. There, he married Emeline Prosser, the daughter of a successful Market Street restaurateur. In 1863 he enlisted in the 12th Regiment of the U.S. Colored Infantry of the Pennsylvania National Guard. He was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel of the 13th Regiment serving under General Louis Wagner.
In 1866, Col. McKee became involved in real estate, where he helped freed slaves rent homes and lease property for farming. By 1870, his real estate holdings grew to $190,000. His vast land holdings included 400,000 acres in Atlantic County, 400 properties in Philadelphia, 66 acres along the Delaware River, 23,000 acres in New York, and some 300,000 acres of coal, oil and farm land holdings in Georgia, Kentucky and West Virginia. Col. John McKee was heralded as the wealthiest man of color in the country. By today's standards, his financial worth would be roughly $52 million.
In his 27 page will, Col. McKee's intent was to continue developing McKee City. Additionally, he set aside 10 acres of land for the Roman Catholic Church that would later be used to build St. Katharine Drexel Parish. He named the Archbishop of Philadelphia executor of his estate as a result of the care he was administered when stricken with typhoid fever in 1896. He found that Catholic nuns would minister to him and other people of color suffering from the disease, while many other white caregivers would not. Presently Philadelphia's Roman Catholic Church is the sole trustee.
In an attempt to ensure his legacy, McKee stipulated that a naval academy for orphaned young men be built, prominently featuring a bronze equestrian statue of himself. He included a photo of himself in his Civil War uniform in the envelope when he was drafting his will in 1899. Due to legal wrangling, these two directives would not come to fruition. To the surprise of his own family, McKee was much less generous with his own family, He bequeathed a gold watch and $50 annuity to his grandson and a shabby cottage rent free along with a $300 annuity to his surviving daughter. McKee's great grandchildren disputed the will in 1952, however their claims were dismissed by Judge Robert Bolger.
Today, little remains of McKee’s city. Many of the original buildings burned or were torn down. Part of the land holdings became what was the former Atlantic City Race Course and the Hamilton Mall. Bill Boerner owns the last remaining farmhouse from McKee City, which his family purchased nearly a century ago. He still grows apples and other produce on his Pleasant Valley Farms property off Route 40 in Hamilton Township.
Col. McKee died on April 6, 1902 of a paralytic stroke at the age of 81. His legacy continues to fund an estimated 20 $250,000 scholarships yearly for fatherless boys of the five county areas of Philadelphia both on the college level and for vocational training. McKee is buried at Eden Cemetery in Collingdale, Pennsylvania, a few miles outside Philadelphia.
http://mckeescholars.org/pdfs/McKeeWill.pdf See pages 22-24
Suzette Charles was our own Miss America, born and raised in Mays Landing, New Jersey. She was a Presidential Scholar her senior year, graduating from Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts in 1981, then earning a full scholarship to Temple University. She competed and won the title of Miss New Jersey, going on to compete in the 1984 Miss America pageant. Early in the competition, she won the Preliminary Talent, winning first runner-up of the pageant overall. After the reigning Miss America Vanessa Williams was forced to resign that July, Suzette replaced her as the new Miss America for the remaining seven weeks of the reign. She went on to carve out a career as a singer, entertainer, and television personality.
In later years she married an ophthalmologist and plastic surgeon, Dr. Leonard Bley and raised her family including two children. She is still active with the Miss America Organization.
Mays Landing's first African American citizen was beloved by the children and residents who knew him for his candy shoppe on the corner of Farragut Avenue and Main Street. He owned and operated Underhill's, where they called him "Old John" until 1913. In the early years of the 20th century the KKK had a prescence in South Jersey, particularly in Mays Landing, but Underhill's neighbors safeguarded the man they would later refer to as 'Our Citizen'. His funeral in 1925 included lying in honor in his bronze casket in the Atlantic County Courthouse, followed by a mile long procession to his final resting place in Union Cemetary, Mays Landing.
The estate of John Underhill (valued today at $1,425,000.) was left to the the town of Mays Landing, who's stated wishes were to build a gymnasium for the new school; a fountain and benches in downtown War Memorial Park and play areas for children of the community, now Underhill Park.
Representatives of Mays Landing choose to use the newly acquired property to construct the (first) Mays Landing Country Club. Later, in 1962, Leo Fraser designed a new club and relocated to a 135 acre tract in Hamilton Township, while an even bigger attraction was being developed in Mays Landing, post World War II. The property John Underhill invested and also gifted to his hometown would later become the Atlantic City Race Course (ACRC).
When ACRC opened on July 22, 1946, as the Atlantic City Race Course, it was primarily the work of four individuals. The most famous of the group was John Kelly Sr., (Olympic Gold Medalist and father to Princess Grace Kelly of Monaco), created the race course together with Fred Scholler, Glendon Robertson and James "Sonny" Fraser. Shareholders included show business personalities Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Harry James, Sammy Kaye and Xavier Cugat.
On August 1, 2 and 3, 1969 an estimated 100,000 people attended the Atlantic City Pop Festival at the race course, two weeks ahead of Woodstock. A ticket for the entire three day weekend was $15. The overwhelming turn out was an unexpected and controversial state of affairs, as local government agencies and police departments were strained beyond their means.
In 2015, Atlantic City Race Course closed, as gaming in other states saturated the market. The era of horse reacing in South Jersey was over on January 16th of that year. A portion of the property is now home to the Hamilton Mall and several restaurants, including: Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Longhorn Steakhouse and Chili's, as well as the BAM Shopping Center.
The grandstand and track remain in a state of decline.
Hamilton Township's origins are directly tied to the Great Egg Harbor River and the tributaries that run through it. George May, after whom the village of May's Landing was named, built a shipyard and trading post near Babcock Creek in 1756. During the Revolutionary War, a local innkeeper and militia privateer, Captain Samuel Snell, is said to have captured 19 British ships off the river’s inlet, selling their cargo and ships at the docks at May's Landing. The early 1800’s saw Mays Landing become a thriving waterfront town with George Wheaton building over 100 sailing vessels with lumber harvested from area pine forests. In the 1850’s Senator William Moore owned a fleet of more that 50 sailing vessels engaging in commerce along the entire eastern seaboard. His villa, the Sugar Hill Inn, sat perched on a high bluff overlooking the Great Egg Harbor River. Prized commodities of sugar, molasses and rum, arrived from the Far East by sailing ships and were stored in the walled foundation of the Inn, awaiting shipment to Philadelphia. This part of town became known as Sugar Hill, a name still used to this day. In nearby Weymouth, cannons and cannonballs for the War of 1812 were produced on the site of Atlantic County Park at Weymouth Furnace, until it was destroyed by fire. By the twentieth century, shipbuilding began to disappear with the decline in suitable resources. Iron was then substituted for ship hull construction.
Hamilton was incorporated as a township by an act of the New Jersey Legislature on February 5, 1813. Portions of Egg Harbor Township and Weymouth Township were acquired while the area was still part of Gloucester County. A Board of Freeholders was then established with representatives from four townships: Galloway, Hamilton, Egg Harbor and Weymouth. May's Landing was designated the county seat, while portions of the township were carved out to form Hammonton and Buena Vista Townships. The Freeholders first met on May 10, 1837 at the home of John Pennington in May's Landing. Among those first members were Pennington's brother-in-law Lewis M. Walker, owner of Walker's Forge and John Briggs, manager of the Weymouth Ironworks. Briggs worked for Samuel Richards, owner of the ironworks and a close friend of Walker's. Both Pennington and Richards offered up land to the county for the new buildings. Soon a courthouse, jail and offices for the sheriff, clerk, and surrogate were constructed on the site that became the center for county business. Samuel Richards also built the American Hotel at the corner of Main Street and Farragut Avenue. The hotel opened for business in 1840 with William Wescoat as its first operator. Wescoat advertised the hotel as being an ideal site, having excellent food and fine accomodations. As the county's seat, today Mays Landing is home to the Atlantic County Justice Facility, the County Court Complex and the main branch of the Atlantic County Library.
In 1854 the first trains came through the area linking Camden with the new resort of Atlantic City. In 1871 a spur of the railroad was completed between Egg Harbor City and Mays Landing. By 1880, the railroad came to Mays Landing through the Newfield branch of the West Jersey and Atlantic Railroad Company. The line eventually merged into the West Jersey and Seashore Railroad and continued to operate until the mid twentieth century. Cotton milling had become the economic mainstay of the town for over eight decades, utilizing freight trains to transport goods and passenger trains to move people to cities up and down the east coast. The Mays Landing Water Power Company grew to become the town's largest employer, with modest company owned housing and a schoolhouse for their children (est 1903)-now home of the Hamilton Historical Society. The building on Mill Street that once housed the company’s general store and coal yard, also still stands as home to the local chapter of Mason’s. Additionally, R.D. Wood & Sons also owned factories in Millville and Florence, NJ. While there were still farmers and shipbuilders scattered about the area in the late 1880s, the plant employed over 200 men, women and children, a figure that rose to approximately 300 throughout the 1890s. By the late 1930s approximately 25 percent of the town's workforce were still employed by the mill, until the end of it's 82 year reign.
In 1907, Father McCormick, who would become the first Pastor of the newly constructed St. Vincent de Paul Church, approached the Leilings Family about opening their lakefront property for church picnics. With the success of having churchs as far out as Philadelphia coming to Mays Landing, the Leilings opened Lake Lenape Park officially in 1910. In 1939 the Leilings commissioned Herman Dehm Sr. to construct a 65 ft wooden lighthouse, referring to it as the 'singing tower', as a landmark for canoeists. In 1960, the Young Family bought the Park and reopened the indoor skating rink in 1973 after it had previously been destroyed by fire. Today Lake Lenape Park is a county property, while the skating rink has remained a family business.
In the summer of 1946, a group of prominent investors pooled $4,000,000 to open the Atlantic City Race Course in Mays Landing. Among the four were Jack Kelly-Philadelphia businessman and father of Grace Kelly; Fred Scholler; Glendon Robertson and James Fraser. Among the shareholders were: Frank Sinatra; Bob Hope; Harry James; Sammy Kaye and Xavier Cugat, When the doors opened on July 22, 1946, an estimated 25,000 fans came by buses, trains, planes and thousands of automobiles to witness the track’s first races. Casino gambling came to the Atlantic City Boardwalk with the opening of Resorts International on May 26, 1978. Competition from the casino town and 24 hour expanded gaming ultimately lead to the track's closure in 2015.
Another blow to the local economy came in 2014 when five of Atlantic City’s 12 casinos closed as New York and Pennsylvania tourists stayed closer to home. Today Hamilton Township sustains it's place as a bedroom community for Atlantic City, while also being South Jersey's largest retail shopping district. Outside of Atlantic City, Mays Landing is not only rich in history, but continues to offer the most options for movie theaters, dining choices, outdoor recreation and higher education in the Atlantic County region.
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