Descendants of Former Slave Return to Help Preserve Saddler's Woods
More than 125 volunteers in Haddon Township attend the annual event recently to maintain the natural integrity of historic woods.
Sunbeams glistened through the leaves of the 300-year-old Emancipation Beech tree located in Saddler's Woods as 125 volunteers from four states recently worked on projects to keep the preserved land as natural as it was when Joshua Saddler owned it in the mid-1800s.
The Emancipation Beech received its nickname because it was there when Joshua Saddler, a fugitive slave from Maryland, gained his freedom in New Jersey during the Underground Railroad era.
Saddlertown is a small community located along MacArthur Boulevard and Rhoads Avenue in Haddon Township. According to one oral history, Saddler’s owner tracked him down on Evan’s farm in Haddonfield with the intent to return him, his wife and son to Maryland. Evans was a Quaker and appreciated the hard-working Saddler. He bought Saddler's freedom and the former slave repaid him by working on his farm.
Dr. Elbert Saddler of Fort Washington, PA, and his cousin, Shelley Saddler-Toogood of Middletown, DE, drove to Haddon Township last month to plant native trees, remove invasive plants, maintain trails, clear waterways and pick up litter. The annual Fall Stewardship Day was sponsored by REI, the outdoor-clothing store and Longhorn Steakhouse through a $10,000 grant to buy tools, gloves, tarps, refreshments and commemorative shirts.
It was the first time Saddler-Toogood attended the conservation event. She learned about the Saddler’s Woods Conservation Association in August when she attended the Miller/Saddler family reunion in Saddlertown.
“When I heard about the work being done by SWCA, my family decided it was time to take an active part in the Saddlertown community,” Saddler-Toogood said. "This is awesome."
When Dr. Saddler took his first tour of Saddlertown and saw the Rhoades Avenue Church, he called it was a defining moment.
“I knew at that moment my grandfather was telling me the truth about his great-great-great -grandfather known as Joshua Saddler," he said. "Now that I’m retired from West Chester University, I have time to give back to the community that bears my family name.”
Not all volunteers at the fall cleanup were related to Saddler. Ryan Reynics, a senior at Rowan University is an intern with the Saddler’s Woods Conservation Association. Reynics was wearing hip waders as he worked with a group of volunteers clearing debris from a waterway adjacent to Macarthur Boulevard. Nine-year-old Jocelyn Moore woke up early to drive with her parents from New Brunswick to volunteer in this urban setting.
Janet Goehner-Jacobs, executive director of SWCA, said the turnout was the largest to date due to Saddler's involvement.
“Dr. Saddler invited chapters of the XAE Honor organization, which he established at West Chester University and students from Lehman College (NY), and Rutgers University in New Brunswick signed up to help at today’s event.”
The SWCA holds three big events a year, Earth Day in April, Trails Day in June and the Fall Stewardship in October. Goehner-Jacobs is a founding member of the SWCA which she helped establish in 2004. For the past six years, REI sponsors the fall event allowing the organization to maintain the natural beauty of the land. The SWCA provides more than 700 hours of education to groups and students each year while incorporating the historical aspect of the Saddlertown community during their Tree Tour and programs.
For more information about volunteer opportunities, tours or educational classes for adults and children, visit saddlerswoods.org or call 856-869-7372.
Read more about Saddlertown history at Saddlertown, an African-American Landmark in Haddon Township.