The enigmatic couple who created Smithville

My friends say I’ve got enough hair-raising tales for stories-around-the-campfire for a month of Saturday nights — but I’m still a sworn skeptic when it comes to the idea of ghosts.

On an assignment for the paper, I attended a séance and actually slept at Lizzie Borden’s house and have interviewed renowned psychics. One even told me I’m like a magnet for ghosts.

I’ve got creaky stairs and lights that seem to turn themselves on and off, but I would never say I live in a haunted house. My husband snapped a photo inside Mount Vernon of what looks like a young ginger-haired George Washington standing next to me.

So when I saw a copy of Fred & Ethel Noyes of Smithville, New Jersey — the Artist and the Entrepreneur, by Absecon resident Judy Courter, it almost flew off the bookstore’s shelf and onto my stack of beach reads.

Published in April by the History Press, it is a well-researched warts-and-all account of the enigmatic couple who significantly altered the landscape of northern Atlantic County by creating a historic village — where one had never existed — around an old stagecoach stop.

It became a major tourist attraction with three restaurants and a landing strip for private planes.

The Noyeses were inspired by Colonial Williamsburg and Old Sturbridge Village and went on to curate an interesting collection of antiques and derelict structures from throughout South Jersey. The buildings were converted into shops where blacksmithing, decoy carving, and other crafts were demonstrated.

Courter goes well beyond the meat-and-potatoes of the Noyes’ enterprise to flesh out the color and contour of the couple’s lives, noting that Fred liked an afternoon tipple and painting landscapes while Ethel kept a notoriously tight grip on the enterprise but enjoyed having her hair done weekly in Philly.

“I loved talking about Fred and Ethel Noyes with all the people I interviewed. … There were so many interesting anecdotes,” said Courter, who had to cull her 600-page first draft down to around 200.

She will host a launch party for her book at the Smithville Inn from 5 to 7 p.m. on Wednesday, June 26, 2013. If you want to attend you must RSVP by Sunday, June 23, to

Ethel Noyes died in 1978 and Fred Noyes passed away eight years later. They left no immediate survivors.

Courter said she was inspired to write the book after noticing a photograph of Ethel in the old Lantern Light Inn — now cleverly renamed Fred & Ethel’s by the new owners.

The book inspired me to wonder about an odd encounter that my husband — then boyfriend — and I had when a fire broke out in Smithville adjacent to the condo where I was living in 1997.

We ran outside into the crisp September night and saw an old barn on the corner of Route 9 and Moss Mill Road engulfed in an explosive ball of flames. It was a sad sight. We were close enough to hear a raspy sizzle as the fire spread quickly through old post-and-beam structure.

We turned away from the fire after hearing a twig crack and saw an older woman, immaculately styled in a long gown. She stared straight ahead, declaring, “That is the old Freehold Barn … what a shame.”

She glowed in the firelight. And she took a long drag from a cigarette holder with the kind of imperiousness that once made smoking seem so glamorous. She had a gap between her two front teeth.

Her comment made us look back at the fire for an instant and when we turned to her to say something … she was gone.

Months later, when we went to Fred & Ethel’s for dinner, we saw a photo of Ethel Noyes on the wall—perhaps the same one Courter noticed — same glasses and gap-toothed smile, wearing a gown like we saw on the woman by the fire.

It was creepy, yet at the same time comforting to think that the ghost of Ethel Noyes may still be keeping close tabs on what goes on at Smithville.