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Bizarre History of Cape May > Joseph Leach was minister, teacher, newspaper editor and politician

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 The word was out in 1840, even heard as far north as Shutesbury, Mass., 112 miles west of Boston, that there existed a nice place to live in the south of New Jersey, a place called Cape Island, sometimes referred to as Cape May.

The climate, it was said then, was milder than Shutesbury’s, where the temperature dropped to around 23 degrees in January, and there were growing opportunities for anyone desiring to settle there.

Heeding the message was 24-year-old Joseph Smallidge Leach, who was born in Shutesbury, once known as Roads Town because its only claim to fame was that a road ran through it. Leach, whose family had Massachusetts roots dating back to 1629, wasn’t all that happy about the climate in the New England town, fearing that it would be injurious to his health, even though there were mineral springs in the area that were supposed to improve the body.

So in 1840, two years after he was licensed to become a preacher, Leach packed his bags and headed for the seashore, first to the county seat of Cape May Court House and then to Cape May. It marked the beginning of a multi-faceted career in which he was to make a local impact as a newspaper editor, an ordained minister, a school teacher, a city recorder, a freeholder and a justice of the peace.

First, though, there were other things on his mind, not the least of which was the subject of love and marriage. The following year, in a romance that apparently was born in Massachusetts, Leach took as his bride Sophia Ball at a ceremony on May 31, 1841, the day after she traveled by boat to New Jersey from Worcester, Mass.

They established residence in Court House and in July of 1842 their first child, Josiah Grenville, entered the world. He was to become a prominent attorney and an Army colonel to fight in the battle of Fredericksburg during the Civil War. He was also to be among five sons and four daughters born to the couple, the youngest, J. Eldridge, dying in his sixth month on Dec. 20, 1860 when Leach was 44 years old.

Soon after their marriage, Sophia was homesick for her New England roots, but as with others who came here sand got in her shoes and she eventually adapted to life in southern New Jersey. In 1848, seven years after they tied the knot, the couple moved to Cape Island where they occupied their first house on Hughes Street near Franklin Street.

It was a move that was to project Leach into the role of a prominent citizen of the time in Cape Island.

His religious credentials already in place from Massachusetts, Leach became affiliated with the Cape Island Baptist Church in January of 1849. It was a momentous time for the relatively new church, which began in 1844, and for Leach. He was to serve there as a deacon for 43 years and was issued a license by the church to “preach the gospel wherever and whenever the Providence of God shall open for him a door to do so.”

He was to preach in the pulpit whenever the church was without a pastor and was to volunteer his services as the clerk of the church and as a trustee.

There was much more to come for Joseph Smallidge Leach as his local fame grew in Cape Island. He turned to teaching in 1851 when he was licensed for that purpose in Lower Township.

That was a big time in local history because it was the year that Cape Island was officially incorporated as a city.

Leach was right in the middle of the history making event. He was elected city recorder, a position that earned him a place on the new city council. Not so coincidentally, perhaps, was the fact that the first mayor of Cape Island was Isaac M. Church, who also was the pastor of the Cape Island Baptist Church and who signed Leach’s preaching license.

Leach was chosen as part of a trio to draft laws “for the better government of the borough of Cape Island.” One ordinance suppressed riotous conduct, another prohibited the explosion of fireworks, still another banned swimming without “suitable bathing attire” and another, perhaps a sign of the automobile future in Cape May, restricted carriages from parking where they blocked the streets.

Printer’s ink apparently got into Leach’s veins in 1855 when he purchased the Ocean Wave and became an active editor-publisher for the next eight years. Initially designed to be a Cape May edition only, the newspaper’s name was changed by the new owner to the Cape May County Ocean Wave to encompass news beyond the shores of Cape Island.

One of his editorial campaigns was credited with having brought about the construction of the Cape May and Millville Railroad.

In 1857 he editorialized, “We have heard little said for some time past about the railroad question. We hope that the citizens of our county have not given up the idea.”

His tenure as owner occurred during the Civil War and editorially and in personal speaking appearances Leach was to speak out in favor of the Union forces.

In its early stages, Leach helped form the Cape County Republican Organization in its support of Abraham Lincoln in his first presidential bid. One of his early challenges was to convince the Board of Freeholders, upon which he was later to serve, to provide funding for the training of volunteers.

As there was to be in the future with bigger but not so internally divisive wars, there was concern that the war between the states would come directly to the shores and the land of Cape Island.

“Why should Cape May have stood in the rear when it is known that her homes are more exposed and are more liable to receive invasion than any other on the seaboard from Maine to New Jersey?” he asked early in the war as Washington was being threatened by the South.

In those days the postmaster’s job was a political one and Leach, his Republicanism showing, pushed for it, challenging his opponent Joseph Ware, who had served as the fourth mayor of Cape Island from 1856 to 1861. Leach won the position on June 26, 1863 during the heart of the Civil War but Ware took over on July 10, 1866 after Lincoln was assassinated and Democrat Andrew Johnson assumed the presidency.

Leach retired from public life around 1875 and he and his wife enjoyed the quiet life of the seashore, devoting much of their time to the Baptist church. He was 77 years old when he died on Aug. 9, 1892, some 53 years after he left the town of Shutesbury to become part of one called Court House.

A reminder of his past still stands at Cape May’s Baptist Church on Columbia Avenue. A large marble plaque honors him as “a successful educator, an able editor, and an exemplary citizen” who preached many years without compensation and served as a deacon for 43 years.

(Some of the information in this article was researched in the June 1974 edition of the Cape May County Magazine of History and Genealogy (by Craig C. Mathewson Jr.) and in the book, “Cape May County, New Jersey,” by Jeffery M. Dorwart.)


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