In the acknowledgements of my book The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America I wrote: “Jonathan Wood of the Cumberland County Historical Society first introduced me to Philip Vickers Fithian’s homeland. I enjoyed discussing Fithian with Jonathan during our driving tours of Cohansey and lunches in Dutch Neck Village.”
This small statement does not do justice to all Jonathan Wood taught me. Nor does it do justice to a friendship that lasted well beyond the publication of The Way of Improvement Leads Home.
Jonathan Wood, who passed away last night after a three-month battle with illness, taught me almost everything I know about the life of Philip Vickers Fithian, the history of Presbyterians in New Jersey, and the history of Cumberland County, New Jersey.
After graduating from Penn State and completing an M.A. in history at the University of Pennsylvania, Jonathan taught history for decades at Millville (NJ) High School. I did not meet him until after he retired from teaching. I was writing a dissertation on early New Jersey history. The history of Cumberland County, a county with settlements that predated William Penn’s founding of Pennsylvania, featured prominently in my work.
At an early stage in my research someone mentioned that I needed to get to know Jonathan Wood, an officer of the Cumberland County Historical Society.(CCHS). I corresponded with Jonathan for several months in 1996 before I drove to the town of Greenwich to spend a day with him and pick his brain about local history. Shortly after I arrived we hopped in Jonathan’s Buick and he drove me around town, pointing out virtually every historic site related to Fithian, the American Revolution, and the Presbyterian community in the region.
We hit it off immediately. Jonathan was passionate about his work as a historian. He regularly quoted passages from Fithian’s diary. He told me about trips he took to Virginia and New England where he tried to learn more about Fithian and some of the earliest seventeenth-century settlers of Greenwich and the surrounding townships.
I think he saw me as a kindred spirit. There were very few people in Jonathan’s life able to talk about Fithian and local Presbyterian history at such a deep level. As we said goodbye at the end of the day I noticed that tears were filling his eyes. At the time I didn’t understand why he was so emotional. After all, he was just showing around a visiting graduate student. But as I got to know Jonathan I was able to understand just what this visit had meant to him. He saw the potential of a friendship that I did not yet see. And I am glad he did.
We stayed in touch. After I had read all the materials I needed to examine in the Lummis Library I continued to make visits to Greenwich as a way of reinvigorating my passion for the project. I always looked forward to running my latest ideas past Jonathan. We always walked the grounds of the place that Fithian called “Cohansey” (this was the part of the county situated along the Cohansey River. Jonathan was one of the only people I met who still used the term). Jonathan knew the historical value of such a practice. As we walked and talked (and sometimes drove) I would try to get Jonathan to think about Fithian and his relationship to what I was now calling the “rural Enlightenment.” He was skeptical at first, but eventually came around to the idea.
After The Way of Improvement Leads Home appeared in 2008 Jonathan started sending me reviews of the book in the form of hand-written letters. He liked the book, but he also thought that there were dimensions of Fithian’s life that I got wrong. I always pushed back at his constructive criticism. He rarely backed down. Jonathan relished in the give-and-take of historical conversation. He once told me it reminded him of a graduate seminar he took at Penn with historian Richard Dunn. (Jonathan got a big smile on his face whenever I reminded him that Dunn was my academic grandfather. My dissertation adviser at Stony Brook, Ned Landsman, studied with the esteemed early Americanist in the 1970s).
Whenever I returned to Greenwich for a book talk or lecture Jonathan always insisted that I stay with him at his home in Millville. I recall staying-up late into the evening most nights talking about American history, Cumberland County history, and the many history books stacked-up next to his reading chair. He always filled the guestroom where I was staying with early American history books from his personal library. In the morning he would cook us breakfast before we headed off to the library for the day.
Thanks to Jonathan, I became captivated with the story of Greenwich and its history. At the center of Greenwich history is an event known as the “Greenwich Tea Burning.” In December 1774, about a year after the so-called “Boston Tea Party,” a ship filled with East India tea docked at Greenwich and local Presbyterian patriots confiscated the load and burned it in the center of town. Philip Vickers Fithian may have been involved in this act of protest. A monument to the event stands on the town’s “Ye Greate Street.”
It seemed to me that the story of the Greenwich Tea Burning might make a great study of how a local community remembered and commemorated its past. I landed a grant from the New Jersey Historical Commission to fund a research project on the town’s history and gathered together students and former students into something we called “The Greenwich Tea Burning Project.” The grant allowed us to spend a week or so in the summer conducting research in Greenwich.
I always got the impression that Jonathan was a bit overwhelmed when I showed up with three or four students to do research on the history of Greenwich and collect oral histories of some of the residents of the town. The Lummis Library was small and he worried that we might get in the way of other patrons and researchers. Sometimes he would set-up a big work table for us on the second floor of the library, an area that was not open to the public.
But I also think Jonathan was always excited about our visits. He was thrilled that I was so interested in the place where he had spent most of his life. He liked to talk to the students (including my own daughter Allyson) about the history of the region and provide them with tours of the area. I’d like to think that our visits kept him young and hopeful.
One of the highlights of our Greenwich Tea Burning Project visits was a Wednesday evening trip to the boardwalk at Ocean City, New Jersey. This was Jonathan’s idea. He thought the students needed a break after a long day in the library. Jonathan could not get enough of Ocean City. He talked about this Jersey Shore town with a child-like giddiness. After he retired he would spend a week or two there every September. Jonathan really enjoyed seeing one of his favorite vacation destinations through the eyes of the students as we walked the boards and ate ice cream and pizza.
Eventually the funding ran out on the Greenwich Tea Burning Project. The students on my team went on to bigger and better things and I got distracted by other book projects. (I would like to return to it one day. The book is actually almost finished! I am envisioning it as a work of public history and memory. And when I do finish it it will be dedicated to Jonathan). I had not seen Jonathan in several years when his friend Joe Mathews wrote this morning to tell me of his passing. I felt an overwhelming urge to write this post.
Jonathan Wood was a gentleman, a Christian, and the heart and soul of local history in this little corner of southern New Jersey. Today I mourn with his family and friends. I hope the Cumberland County history community recognizes the magnitude of this loss.
I am sure Jonathan is in heaven right now talking with Philip Vickers Fithian and getting all of his questions answered.
Rest in peace my good friend. Rest in peace.
Here are some pics I dug up: