Historical Escape

It’s a clear summer night with a faint sound of footsteps and the quiet, repetitive hum of crickets.

Then, a voice says, “I was told by a Quaker friend if I came here, you’d give me a place to stay.”

Another voice responds, inviting the man to come upstairs to safety.

This is the story of one man’s journey from slavery to freedom, and it all takes place in Cherry Hill’s own backyard.

The story of Joshua Saddler’s escape from slave owners in Maryland to what is now known as Croft Farm in Cherry Hill has recently come to life through a free podcast made available through the collaboration of the South Jersey Tourism Corporation and Camden County.

The podcast is one in a series that recently debuted, highlighting the region’s historical ties to the Underground Railroad.

The podcast called “Croft Farm/Saddlertown,” weaves the story of Saddler’s arrival to the region, using oral history accounts from the time period and summaries of documented historic events of the time.

The scene is set when Saddler asks for Thomas Evans at the 16-room farmhouse on the Cooper Creek, which was built in 1753 by Isaac Kay in what is now known as Cherry Hill.

“The Evans family was one of the most active Quaker families in the fight for abolition, moving fugitive slaves through secret routes on the Underground Railroad,” the podcast narrator says.

Through accounts from the time period, the podcast details Saddler’s work at the mill for the Evans family. He later purchased five acres of land in what is now known as Haddon Township — and called it Saddlertown.

The podcast also brought to life statements made in a Nov. 30, 1937 Evening Post article from then-87-year-old Saddlertown resident Jackson Barnett.

“Joshua Saddler or Joshua Fisher was owned by a cruel Maryland plantation owner and decided to flee with his wife and two daughters after a two-day journey from Maryland to New Jersey,” Barnett’s character says in the podcast. “Saddler searched for a safe place where he could find work, secured a position with Evans and changed his name from Fisher to Saddler to avoid recapture.”

Barrett’s character went on to detail how the Evans family helped Saddler and his family hide from his Maryland slave owner.

“Saddler’s old master came to New Jersey, stopping at farmhouses along the way, trying to find Joshua until reaching the Evans farm in Haddonfield,” Barnett says. “But Evans had received warning that this man was looking for Joshua and devised a plan to ring a warning bell if he saw the Maryland man approaching, thereby allowing Joshua time to hide.”

Saddler’s house no longer exists, but it was believed to be close to the Rhoads Temple United Methodist Church, presently located at 504 Rhoads Ave., near the intersection of Macarthur Boulevard and Crystal Lake Avenue.

By the 1920s, the Evans family sold their mill to John Croft Jr., who, along with Thomas McCargo, farmed the land until the early 1980s.

In 1985, the Crofts sold the 80-acre property to Cherry Hill Township, and in 1995, the Cherry Hill Arts Center was dedicated on the grounds of Croft Farm.

The five podcasts were funded through a grant from the New Jersey Historic Trust and are available for free download by visiting www.pathwaystofreedomtour.com.

Members of the South Jersey Tourism Corporation said they hope the podcasts will inspire residents to tour the historical landmarks in their own community.

“We hope people from our area — throughout the state and throughout the country — will come visit these five sites and listen to the podcasts,” said Jake Buganski, executive director for the SJTC. “They are fascinating, historically important and reflect the diversity of people, from Quakers to members of the A.M.E. Zion Church, who helped run the Underground Railroad.”

Other podcasts include the Macedonia A.M.E. Church in Camden, the Peter Mott House in Lawnside, Mount Peace Cemetery in Lawnside and Haddonfield’s Historic District.

“Within the shameful history of slavery, the Underground Railroad stands as a beacon of freedom and courage that helped enslaved African-Americans who escaped from the South to find freedom in the northern states,” said County Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr. “These podcasts celebrate five sites and institutions located throughout Camden County that were safe harbors for slaves seeking freedom, making them come to life through vivid portrayals of events.”