By Sean Patrick Murphy
On Geri Egizi Borbe’s wish list is to have the history section of the Voorhees Township Web site updated.
“I’ve been thinking about this and support the idea of having it updated,” Borbe said. She is the Voorhees Township Schools Public Information Officer.
“Each year that it is not updated makes it more outdated,” she added. “But bringing it up to date is a big job.
“I was thinking that maybe a high school group could take it on as a project,” Borbe continued. “Or a college or graduate history major could select it as a project.”
So what were the most dramatic developments in Voorhees’s history?
The railroad coming through the Kirkwood and Ashland sections of town in 1854 had a profound impact on the township. It turned a community of farmers and millers into a destination for vacationers, and eventually permanent residents who could commute to Camden and Philadelphia (Camden was once the home to ten major industries which employed over 40,000.).
The second major development was the high speed line in the 1960s to Philadelphia. This reinforced Voorhees’ position as a bedroom community for Philadelphia.
These both triggered significant residential real estate and business growth.
And what does Borbe think is the most interesting part of Voorhees’s history?
“The Echelon Airport (site of the former Echelon Mall) might not have been the most significant economic development, but the romantic story of Rogers (his name was spelled ‘Rogers’) and Jeanette Smith, the young couple who built it and ran it for several years, and the significant and tragic events surrounding their lives would make a great movie,” Borbe said. “I am privileged to have had the opportunity to interview Jeanette Smith.”
She said she discovered several surprises while researching Voorhees’s history, including:
- Gibbsboro used to be part of Voorhees until 1924. It would be interesting to learn the reasoning for Gibbsboro’s decision to break away;
- that Voorhees was named after Governor Voorhees who gave permission for the township to split from Waterford Township in 1899;
- that the then two-room Kresson School on Route 73 had outhouses until the 1950s, and that some students rode horses to school even then;
- that several African-American soldiers who fought for the Union Army are buried in the cemetery behind Mt. Zion Church next to the school district administration building on Route 73; and
- that Voorhees was hit hard during the Depression. People lost farms, houses and land. A retired teacher who taught in Voorhees during the Depression told me she brought her own food to school for her students whose families couldn’t afford it.
After getting involved in township activities, Borbe was appointed to write the township’s newsletter, “The Voorhees Voice,” in the late 1970s. Along with township information, it included a brief article about the township’s history in each issue.
According to her, the most apparent change in Voorhees is in the number of residents, businesses, and professional offices. And with that growth in population came a growth in diversity.
“But besides this obvious growth and economic development, today Voorhees is a much more united township than even when we moved here in 1973,” Borbe said. “Old timers used to refer to themselves as living in Kirkwood, Ashland, Kresson or whatever section of town they lived in.”
At that time Voorhees residents received their mail through six ZIP codes: West Berlin, Somerdale, Cherry Hill, Marlton, Berlin Borough or Kirkwood. “Slowly and gratefully, the township has developed a sense of being one community — our own post office and one ZIP code certainly helped guide us to greater unity,” she said. “But so did many other factors; a consolidated fire company, one Middle School for the whole town, township wide sports organizations, etc.”
Borbe said the required social studies curriculum in Voorhees schools leaves little room for any in-depth study of local history. But, she said the Voorhees history that appears on the Voorhees Township Web site is a resource for Voorhees elementary students in their study of their community within the curriculum.
“It’s fun to learn about the history of the town you live in. Kids enjoy it,” Borbe said. “It also puts their own life experiences in their surroundings in perspective. They learn that whatever prestige or achievements Voorhees enjoys today came from the hard work and planning of those who came before us.”