By: Vince Farinaccio
Walt Whitman’s visits to a farm there were “like going back to the old Whitman homestead at West Hills.”
While many South Jersey residents are aware that 19th-century poet Walt Whitman resided in Camden for nearly two decades, a lesser-known fact is that, for a period of time, Laurel Springs served as the location of his summer home.
Today, Laurel Springs is a borough in Camden County. But according to a 1979 New York Times article about Whitman’s 160th birthday, the town was part of Clementonia Township in the late 19th century and went by the name of Laurel Mills.
Whitman learned of the town’s existence in 1876 when he met Harry Stafford, the 18-year-old eldest son of George and Susan Stafford, whose farm was situated in the Laurel Springs area. Harry worked in Camden as an errand boy for a Camden printer. Whitman, still recovering from a stroke he suffered three years earlier, apparently discussed his situation with the young Stafford and received an invitation to visit his family in Laurel Springs, the site of Laurel Lake and Crystal Springs, the waters of which reputedly contained healing powers.
A short train ride delivered him to the Stafford farmhouse. Whitman’s visit lasted the entire summer and he would return to the location as a warm-weather retreat from city life over the next few years as he prepared a book of prose sketches that focused on his early days in West Hills, Long Island and Brooklyn, his experiences during the Civil War as a volunteer nurse and his diary entries about life in New Jersey. These would be collectively published as Specimen Days, the opening paragraph of which identifies the inclusion of what he calls “Nature-notes of 1877-’81,” his early years visiting Laurel Springs.
“From , portions of several seasons, especially summers, I spent at a secluded haunt down in Camden County, New Jersey,” Whitman writes in Specimen Days, “…with primitive solitudes, winding stream, recluse and woody-banks, sweet-feeding springs and all the charms that birds, grass, wild-flowers, rabbits and squirrels, old oaks, walnut trees, &c., can bring.”
His time in Laurel Springs served to return Whitman not only to nature, the most celebrated subject of his earlier poetry, but also his youth in Long Island. David S. Reynolds, in his book Walt Whitman’s America, observes that “visiting the Stafford farm…was like going back to the old Whitman homestead at West Hills.”
However artistically restorative or pleasantly nostalgic his stays were with the Stafford family, Whitman’s main purpose for his summer retreats was his physical health. He regularly walked down a dirt path to Crystal Springs and Laurel Lake, “collecting material for special mud baths which, he claimed, healed his ailing limbs,” the New York Times reports. Reynolds explains that Whitman’s “references to ill health did decrease during his main years there, from 1876 to 1884.”
The Laurel Springs website, however, claims that Whitman credited his improved health to regular exercise and the daily meals cooked by Mrs. Stafford. In a letter to a friend, he acknowledged the food but also the company of the Stafford family, writing that it “does me good to be with them all. Everything is very old-fashioned, just suits me—good grub and plenty of it.”
According to Reynolds, Whitman references the location of the Stafford farmhouse and vicinity by a variety of names, but never mentions Laurel Mills. He refers to Glendale and Kirkwood, both towns in proximity to Laurel Springs. Another, Timber Creek, not far from the Stafford homestead, is described as “quite a little river” by Whitman, who notes that “it enters from the great Delaware twelve miles away.” The last of the names, White Horse, is probably a reference to the White Horse Turnpike adjacent to the aforementioned towns and formerly known as White Horse Road prior to 1854.
In Specimen Days, Whitman introduces the start of his Laurel Springs notes with a sort of invocation, and its message is clear: “Who knows…but the pages now ensuing may carry ray of sun, or smell of grass or corn, or call of bird, or gleam of stars by night, or snow-flakes falling fresh and mystic, to denizen of heated city house, or tired workman or workwoman?—or maybe in sick-room or prison—to serve as cooling breeze, or Nature’s aroma, to some fever’d mouth or latent pulse.”
Next Week: Mickle Street