How Not to Dry Gunpowder

My office is in the little village of Medford, New Jersey.  I have looked up many of the little hamlets I have visited in the American County Histories Collection but for some reason I had never looked up the place where I spend every weekday.

I looked it up tonight out of general curiosity and a desire to learn more about this old town and its history and buildings.

I found out that an old building right outside of town called “The Nail House” got that name because the original owner, Mark Reeve, invented the first machine to cut nails with a head and ran his small manufacturing facility in the building.

I also was reminded of what I love most about this collection.

These volumes were put together in the late 19th century when the people compiling the histories still had access to documents and people who formed an unbroken chain to the local history in the distant past.

The Nail House in Medford, NJ

Along that chain were passed stories, photos, engravings, and — of most interest to me — anecdotes like the one below. In the history of Medford, I found this under the woefully inadequate title “Pioneer Accident”.

Pioneer Accident… or How Not to Dry Gunpowder

In Revolutionary war times gunpowder was quite a necessary article, and Adonijah Peacock, then a resident of what is now Medford, was somewhat skilled in the manufacture of that necessary article. He lived about one and a half miles southeast of what is now Medford village.

Sometimes there was not that proper care or judgment exercised that there should have been. In his haste upon one occasion to furnish Gen. Washington with powder, he sent on quite a large quantity that had not been properly dried, consequently it was returned to Mr. Peacock. His powder-mill being a primitive affair, and using his old-fashioned kitchen fireplace for a dryer, proved rather dangerous.

While in the act of drying this lot of rejected powder it somehow ignited, causing a terrible explosion and instantly killing Mr. Peacock. The old kitchen, in which was the fireplace, was not only entirely demolished, but the force of the explosion excavated a hole under where the house stood as large as a good-sized cellar. A woman that was standing in the kitchen door was thrown about fifty yards. Her hair and a portion of her clothes were burned off, otherwise she was uninjured. A large quantity of powder standing outside the building was also ignited, and assisted in the sad havoc of life and property, besides the great loss to the then needy American army.

A grandson of Mr. Peacock lives upon the old plantation, and vouches for the truthfulness of the incident.

It is stories like these, little anecdotes passed down locally over time, that keep me coming back to the American Counties collection.

All images included in blog posts are from either Accessible Archives collections or out of copyright public sources unless otherwise noted. Common sources include the Library of Congress, The Flickr Commons, Wikimedia Commons, and other public archives.

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