By BERNIE WEISENFELD Courier-Post Staff
Before there was Pitman, there was Pitman Grove.
A unique neighborhood with streets laid out like a 12- spoked wheel, symbolizing the 12 biblical disciples, the Grove was established in the 1870s as a Methodist summer campground.
Founders purchased 70 acres near the West Jersey Railroad that carried the faithful to rousing camp meeting services from around South Jersey and Philadelphia.
One of numerous camp meetings held throughout South Jersey in the late 19th century, the Grove was named for Rev. Charles Pitman, a noted Methodist evangelist who died in 1854. The town took the same name when it incorporated in 1905.
On historic registers
The Grove "is the origin of Pitman," said borough Councilman Robin Mollenhauer, whose family has owned homes there for decades. Mollenhauer's mother, Lorraine, was a driving force in having the wooded enclave of some 250 cottages placed on state and national historic registers.
Pitman Grove's principal entrance is from Broadway near Pitman Avenue. A tabernacle, or auditorium, still stands at its center, as it did when fiery preachers delivered sermons to thousands of worshippers.
Some first lived in tents, later building small cottages, occupying 30 by 40 foot lots. While modest in size, houses were distinctive for their fancy latticework and second floors that overhang front porches.
Restaurants and shops followed, then permanent residents settled around the Grove.
"It's the history of Pitman today," Mollenhauer said. "Many of your prominent families started at one generation or another living in that area."
The Grove's small homes were tightly packed and flimsily built for summer use, but the neighborhood has become increasingly livable in recent years. Grants helped upgrade the housing and the borough installed new sidewalks, lights and utility lines. The Grove auditorium got a $250,000 renovation.
During the 1990s, Gloucester County vocational school students replaced demolished Grove cottages with five newly built homes. They were given some of the Victorian-era gingerbread woodwork that were part of the charm of the original houses.
"It's come a long way," said Mary Lou Hagerty, 65, a Grove resident for more than 40 years. Surrounded by the Grove homes of three of her children, Hagerty said she's there to stay. Advised by friends to move when the neighborhood began to look rundown in the 1970s, "I said, `No. It's going to come back.' I'm so thankful I did," she said.
Her son, Frank, 43, agrees. "I like the closeness of everybody," said Frank Hagerty, who lives with his wife and two children across the street from his mother.
Grove real estate values have risen, Mary Lou Hagerty and Mollenhauer said. When Hagerty and her husband bought one of the neighborhood's larger homes in 1960, with a wraparound porch, the price was $4,200. "Now the average, I'd say, is $75,000."
Added Mollenhauer, "I just saw in the paper the other day a (Grove) house sold for $95,000, which is phenomenal."
"There are a lot of young people moving in. Not only are the houses in much better condition for habitation, but the people who live there take better care of them now."
The borough owned about 50 of the Grove homes acquired in the 1970s from the Pitman Camp Meeting Association, which could no longer afford paying taxes on the properties. Some were rented, others auctioned off and the most dilapidated were demolished. Last year, Pitman Council decided to sell off the remaining dozen borough-owned homes, about half of them occupied.
"We need to close that book and move forward with owner-occupied homes," said Mayor Bruce Ware. While inexpensive … borough rents for Grove cottages range from $125 to $400 a month … the homes weren't designed for the elderly renters who occupy most of them, Ware said.
Reach Bernie Weisenfeld at (856) 845-6533 or firstname.lastname@example.org