William J. Lewis’s recently released book, New Jersey’s Lost Piney Culture, published by The History Press, a division of Arcadia Press, is an examination of cultural changes within one of New Jersey’s most culturally important regions, the Pinelands.
The New Egypt resident — who studied business at Rider University and served in the United States Marines — refers to himself as a lifelong Piney, a term that generates either pride or ridicule in state populations.
His chapter “Is ‘Piney’ Still a Bad Word?” recounts how the people of the Pines were labeled and marginalized by the larger population. That still affects general perspective and beliefs about the residents of the region — and interestingly serves as a microcosm of how groups of people can be marginalized:
An anonymous South Jersey farmer spoke about how the generations before the 20th century Pineys were more independent and lived a truer life off the land in the Pines. Up until, say, the early 1900s, the Piney way of life depended on hunting, fishing, trapping, and harvesting items to supplement the family budget, creating an independence from a modern New Jersey 40-hour workweek their descendants do not enjoy.
On June 28, 1913, Governor James Fielder called Pineys “NJ degenerates.” The governor came out publicly against the people of the region and, ultimately, the Piney way of life all based on lies published in a report by Dr. Henry Goddard and Elizabeth Kite, which had serious ramifications on the Pineys back then and still has effects that continue to be felt to this day. While Governor Fielder used his words and position of power to tear down an entire culture as a plank in his reelection platform, it was John McPhee who ultimately helped save the Pineys with his words, which produced the power to influence a positive change.
The Kite report described the Pineys as inbred heathens. As a result, many state government policies and local government actions were taken against the Piney people, and the Piney world was turned upside down during this time. The New Lisbon Development Center was established in 1914 in the heart of the Pines. Two years later, the Burlington County Colony for Feeble-Minded Boys, which was formerly a branch of the Training School at Vineland also located at New Lisbon, was turned over to the state. Author Robert McGarvey described the times nicely: “The psycho business in the area boomed.”
New state-funded mental wards were established in Burlington County, and both new and old facilities saw an increase in such wards. An excerpt from the Batsto Citizens Gazette read, “The towns and cities had just as many degenerates and feebleminded. There were over 12,300 wards of the State in 1913. The sparsely populated Pinelands probably provided but a fraction of the inmates, but because of their isolation it had been easier to single them out for research.”
Burlington County, the largest county in the state by area, also had the highest proportion of state wards to population. Having been painted as a culture of people who could not avoid their condition because it was hereditary and all-encompassing, the residents of the South Jersey Pine Barrens became even more withdrawn from the public eye, and the Pineys became even more reclusive in nature and suspicious of outsiders. While the science had been refuted by numerous colleagues of Dr. Goddard and Kite and by other experts in the scientific community several times over — Goddard’s study was found to be riddled with false documentation and based on false assumptions that have since been proven wrong — the public condemnation that initially followed the report’s publication is, arguably, the greatest catalyst to the end of the subsistence-living lifestyle of the people of the Pine Barrens and the ultimate extinction of that mold of Piney.
In 1913, researcher Elizabeth Kite published her explosive report, titled “The Pineys,” that included tales of “heavy drinking, livestock quartered in children’s bedrooms, incest, and widespread inbreeding.” The report caused quite a scandal in New Jersey. Governor James T. Fielder made a personal visit to the Pine Barrens, where he found the residents to be “a serious menace” to the public. He stated, “They have inbred, and led lawless and scandalous lives, till they have become a race of imbeciles, criminals, and defectives.” Following this visit, he asked the legislature to isolate the area from the rest of the state.
The most infamous Piney who ever lived is Deborah Kallikak. While she herself has been all but forgotten, the Goddard and Kite caricature of her and her Piney roots lives on in the minds of outsiders to the region today. Sadly, the label is still brandished like a red-hot iron cow prod and negatively applied to most residents of South Jersey. The myth that the people of the Pines are inbred, heathens, and to be avoided or watched with a close eye but at a far distance when encountered derived from the Kite report and continues to be spread by outsiders.
It wasn’t until the 1985 seminal work “Minds Made Feeble: the Myth and Legacy of the Kallikaks,” by David John Smith, that once and for all Deborah and the public image of a Piney were restored to good form, even though we still see the Goddard myth today in 2020. In his book he stated, I have attempted to describe the making of a social myth and to illustrate how lives were restricted, damaged, and even destroyed as a result of that myth. In the process of researching and writing it, I have been reminded of, and made more sensitive to, how careful we must be in the sciences and in human service professions about the myths that we accept, foster, or even create. Myths have a way of becoming reality. Myths have a way of gathering force as they are passed along. They have a way of surviving the intent and lifetime of the creators.”
New Jersey’s Lost Piney Culture, William J. Lewis, 144 pages, $21.99, The History Press.