Saturday, December 20, 2014

The silken past of Stirling

Paterson may be nationally known as Silk City, but if you wander around New Jersey long enough, you'll find other places with legacies of weaving the lustrous fabric. A historic marker on Route 206 noting a silk truck hijacking and resulting murder led us to the story of Newton's silken past, and now another informative plaque further proves that the Great Falls area didn't have an exclusive on mills.

A few weeks ago I was meeting a friend for lunch in the Long Hill community of Stirling when I came upon this description of the village.


Given the placid, sometimes rural charm of much of Morris County, it was a bit of a surprise to discover that Stirling had been an industrial town. Looking around, I saw only a small business area surrounded by suburban houses. We've been to plenty of factory towns, and Stirling doesn't look like one. If there was a story to be told, I'd have to do some digging.

As it turns out, the hamlet of Stirling owes its existence to the foresight of an insurance company and a railroad. Shortly after the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York announced interest in investing in Morris County land in the late 1860s, the Passaic Valley and Peapack Railroad purchased land in present day Stirling for the construction of a railroad station and right of way. Trains started running in 1872, and the line would eventually extend to the Delaware River, raising the prospect of Pennsylvania coal being shipped through the new community. Organizers named the community for William Alexander, Lord Stirling, the Revolutionary War notable who'd once owned land in the area.

Reliable transportation made it easy to bring in raw materials and labor, and ship out finished product, but first a town needed to be built. Bit by bit, the village came together, starting with eight houses and a railroad depot, followed by a Presbyterian church. The first factory was built on Railroad Avenue to make buttons; it eventually employed 125 people. By 1885 the plant was silenced, victim of an economic downturn, and the entire village, houses and all, was put on the market.

The Stirling silk mill
Silk came to Stirling in 1886 when Jersey City mill owner Claude Chaffanjon bought the factory and surrounding buildings and homes. Having immigrated to the United States years earlier, he brought skilled Italian and French weavers to work in the mill; as was the custom in Europe, many others came with looms of their own and weaved in their homes. The boon in population and industrial output brought growth in the community, too: Chaffanjon donated land for a new Catholic church, and an additional public school was built.

Chaffanjon's stay in Stirling was brief; within a year he'd sold the factory to Julius Schlachter, who brought German and Swiss weavers to town. In 1896 the mill burned down, replaced a year later by a new building. Within 25 years of the opening of the original mill, Stirling's population had become a veritable map of Europe, with Armenians, Germans, Italians, French, Hungarians and Russians mixed with the local born population. Their children generally attended school up to the eighth grade, foregoing high school to follow their parents' path into the mills. When Stirling Silk went bankrupt in 1908, it was bought by the Swiss company Schwartzenbach-Huber.

Though 30 miles away from the state's silk hub, the mill at Stirling wasn't immune to the labor unrest that struck Paterson. A June 1915 New York Times article notes that months of unrest followed management's decision to enact a new wage scale, and that several looms were being sent to other Schwartzenbach-Huber locations in Bayonne and Pennsylvania, presumably where labor was more compliant.

Nor was the Stirling plant protected from a wave of silk thefts that swept the region in the early 1920s. The fabric was a hot commodity - foreign suppliers were still recovering from the ravages of World War II, making U.S.-manufactured silk that much more desirable on the open market. A few months after thieves hijacked a silk mill truck on present-day Route 206 in Sussex County, thieves struck Schwartzenbach-Huber. On November 24, 1924 three masked and armed bandits broke into the factory and beat a 60 year old night watchman unconscious when he confronted them. After restraining him with cloth, they pulled a getaway truck up to the shipping dock and loaded it with 50 cases of silk worth a total of $35,000.

Stirling's silk days have been over for the better part of a century. Schwartzenbach-Huber had sold the mill and housing in 1928, but the weaving trades continued in much smaller companies around the village up to about 1940. As for the old silk mill itself, it burned to the ground in 1974 in its incarnation as a polyurethane foam factory.



Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The wild goose chase: a rite of winter birding

In New Jersey, the onset of winter brings the spectre of the wild goose chase.

"What?" I can hear you wondering. "Why would anyone make the effort to see geese when they seem to be everywhere?" As any casual observer or office park manager will attest, they've become fixtures in New Jersey, much to the frustration of anyone who's dodged, uh, goose bombs while on a stroll.

Thing is, some pretty remarkable birds are out there if you take the time to look. Some of the Canada Geese you see in the winter months actually are from the northern reaches of the continent, though they might not look that much different from the Jersey guys. Flocks migrate south as their ancestors have done for centuries, sometimes mixing in with the resident population to loiter at athletic fields or farm acreage dotted with mown-down, decaying cornstalks. And with those 'foreign' flocks sometimes come the proverbial needles in the haystack: the rare goose species that literally made a wrong turn at Greenland. Best guess is that some of the "not like the others" birds get caught up in a southbound flock and decide to stick with it rather than attempt to find others of their own species.

The Greater White-Fronted Goose, courtesy
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Gary Kramer
That's what makes them so attractive to a doggedly persistent breed of birders. There are folks who will stand at the edge of a big field, using a spotting scope to scan hundreds, if not thousands of Canada Geese in the hopes of finding a stray Greater White-Fronted, Pink-Footed or Barnacle goose. Those out for a real challenge will seek out a Cackling Goose, which looks essentially like a smaller, shorter-necked Canada Goose. It's a hobby that's not for the faint of heart, especially when you're struggling to hold your ground against arctic-temperature gusts as you slowly scan a massive flock that won't stand still.

That's why I was relieved to hear about the presence of not one, but four different rare goose species frequenting fields over the weekend. Reports were that a Pink-Footed and a Ross' Goose were sighted at two locations in Wall Township. We needed both for the year. Another Pink-Footed was said to be with a Barnacle and a Greater White-Fronted on a farm in Monroe, but we chose to head for the shore instead.

The Pink-Footed is a relatively new visitor to New Jersey; the first sighting of the species was in Bergen County less than four years ago. It ordinarily winters in Great Britain or the Netherlands after breeding in Greenland, but the word seems to be out in the Pink-Footed community that New Jersey is a welcoming place. The species has already been sighted in a few places around the state this fall. From my relatively novice perspective, it's a welcome visitor, as it's easily distinguishable within a big flock of Canadas: it lacks the white chinstrap and black neck, preferring shades of brown instead. And, of course, its feet and legs are pink.

The Ross' Goose, I knew, would stick out like a sore thumb: it's nearly all white. The only other bird you might confuse it for is the larger Snow Goose, so I was good with ID as long as none of the bigger guys was there.

We set off at mid-morning and promptly ended up at, well, the wrong spot due to a miscalculation by yours truly (long story short, mea culpa). After roaming a few spots on the Shark River estuary, we grabbed a late breakfast in Belmar and stopped to check out Wreck Pond in Spring Lake. While there was a fine assortment of ducks, a Great Blue Heron and Great Egret, the only geese were Canadas, a couple of Snow Geese and a pair of domesticated Egyptians (cool, but not countable).

Somewhere in our wandering, we found some birding acquaintances who pointed us in the right direction. The Pink-Footed, it turns out, was seen in a few places within about a mile of the location we'd originally tried to find. Perhaps if we went back and made a right turn instead of a left at a crucial intersection, we'd find the bird. Worked for us. We had about two hours of daylight left -- not a lot of time.

Sometimes finding the bird is a matter of finding the birders first. We got to the first place in the directions to discover several cars pulled over on the shoulder against a broad grassy field, with several spotting scopes already pointed toward a large flock of geese. Pay dirt. The assembled birders told us that both the Ross' and the Pink-Footed were milling among the hundreds of Canadas on the slope just above the pond.

I got the Ross' Goose without trying too hard, its whiteness a stark contrast to the assorted black and browns of the Canadas. The Pink-Footed was a bit harder, but it wasn't long before Ivan had it spotted with the scope. At one point, the two rarities were so close together they could be seen well without moving the scope at all. Considering it was my first time seeing the Ross' and the third time for the Pink-Footed, it was a sight to remember. We could head home with the satisfaction of a successful wild goose chase.

But, for me, the adventure wasn't quite over.

Ivan was committed to do a Christmas Bird Count on Sunday, so I was on my own. What the heck, I thought. I'll head to Monroe and see if I could spot the Barnacle or the Greater White-Fronted. The Pink-Footed would be a nice bonus, but thanks to our sighting in Wall, I wasn't particularly concerned about finding it.

I knew I was heading into an iffy situation, but I was fairly confident about my chances. As I got off the Turnpike and drove past the cluster of senior housing developments just off Exit 8A, I considered my situation. I was heading out badly equipped: Ivan had the sighting scope. But, I figured, if the birds were present, there would be birders with scopes there, too.

Indeed, when I reached the area and made the turn to drive along the edge of the designated field, this is what I was confronted with:

The farm field in Monroe. Those black spots are all geese. Your guess is as good as mine.
Yup: an undulating cornfield with a conservative estimate of several hundred geese milling about, pecking at the ground, a couple hundred yards away. To make matters worse, the farmer seemed to have cut the cornstalks a little higher than average, giving the geese more space to hide. The two birders already there had a spotting scope but were packing up. They hadn't found anything: not the Barnacle, not the Greater White-Fronted, not the Pink-Footed. Me, with my decent but not spectacular binoculars? I figured I'd stick around and see what happened.

Luckily, a few minutes later another birder showed up, though he also lacked a scope. Together we scanned what we could see from our vantage points, until he announced, "I think I have something." The Greater White-Fronted Goose happened to be scanning the space between two cornrows that ended right about where the birder was standing. The result was a nearly perfect though distant view, as long as the bird stopped for a moment or two. After he gave me a couple of landmarks to gauge from, I found the bird in question and agreed, first that it wasn't a Canada from the orangey legs, and then, after a few frustrating attempts to see its neck and face, I was sure.  

Satisfied that the identification was a strong one, I decided enough was plenty. Finding the Barnacle Goose in that flock would be enough of a challenge in good light, and the combination of clouds and early-setting sun were not my friends that day. Add to that, the Barnacle's plumage is nominally close enough to the Canada's, so playing the avian version of "one of these things is not like the others" wouldn't serve me well.

The fates seemed to want to give me one last treat before I headed home. Just as I was turning the car around, I noticed a slender raptor gliding overhead, toward the field of geese. Pulling over again and jumping out of the car with my binoculars, I tried to confirm my suspicion that the bird was, indeed, a harrier. The setting and the behavior was right, I considered as the bird decreased its altitude to coast just several feet above the field, but with the light and distance I couldn't call it definitively. As in so many other cases before, I couldn't be sure what I'd seen. All I knew was that I'd enjoyed seeing it.


(FYI, photos of the Pink-Footed, Barnacle and Cackling geese mentioned here are available with an article on Pete Bacinski's excellent All Things Birds blog on the New Jersey Audubon website.)





Saturday, December 13, 2014

Caveat emptor and labor struggles: the odd history of Consumers Research

Wander around long enough, and you're bound to find some real ironies revealed not by commemorative plaques or statues, but in conversations you have along the way. For instance, our visit to the Bread Lock Museum led to a local resident who told us about a 1935 labor strike that grew violent in the outskirts of Washington, Warren County. Rather than the typical manual labor action against factory management, it pitted a consumer advocacy watchdog against researchers and scientists devoted to product safety.

When I checked further, I discovered that management who had previously voiced, in the words of the WPA Guide to 1930s New Jersey, "caustic criticism of employers who showed hostility to organized labor," was all too willing to halt the creation of a union when it got in the way of his own goals.

Who was this union-resistant business entity, why had its leaders made the about-face, and why did all of this happen in the foothills of Warren County? To find out, we need to go back to nine years before the strike, and the birth of the consumer advocacy movement.

New York resident Frederick J. Schlink had worked at the U.S. Bureau of Standards, the federal agency charged with testing products to help government procurement entities get the best buys and most effective products. Frustrated by the dubious claims advertisers made to the public, Schlink, with a coauthor, wrote the book Your Money's Worth in 1926 to raise public awareness of false advertising and inferior manufacturing processes, and to call for the creation of an independent testing organization to protect and educate consumers.

Finding a receptive audience, Schlink founded the Consumers' Club and published the Consumers' Club Commodity List, which ranked products by quality and value. Rather than testing the products themselves, Schlink and his colleagues drew their information from assessments made by trusted sources like the Bureau of Standards and the American Medical Association.

By 1929, the renamed Consumers Research was nearly 100 employees strong, publishing three different periodicals from its New York City offices. They'd begun testing some of the products they reported on, but many reviews were still based on the work of outside laboratories. The publications drew a small but ardent subscriber base, prompting Schlink to dream that the movement could take on enough momentum to spawn a political party and even a federal Department of the Consumer.

Growth, however, would depend on the organization's ability to test products on its own, free of any financial indebtedness to advertisers or others who might attempt to influence product ratings. Unable to attract a major donor for the consumer foundation he sought to endow, Schlink relied on donations from club members and the dramatic expansion of subscribers to the list. With money an issue as the Depression hit and wore on, he came up with an idea that's been conceived by countless business leaders since: move the entire operation out of the city. Not only would a rural location be less expensive, it would offer more space for research labs, and a lower cost of living would justify lower salaries.

The Consumers Research board of directors considered several locations before Schlink purchased the former Florey Piano factory in Washington. He felt that the town, with its all-American culture, was the ideal example of the community that the average consumer called home.

Employees and board members, many of them city natives, were aghast. Considering the relative isolation of life outside cities at the time, it's not surprising: '30's era transportation and communications were far from the standard we enjoy today, and while Washington was a well-developed town, it lacked the amenities of Manhattan. One Consumers Research board member is said to have noted that he'd prefer suicide to living in a small town.

Nonetheless, many of the workers, committed to the consumer advocacy movement, made the move with Schlink and his management team. Many didn't last long in the rural environment and returned to New York, but others continued with the organization as it moved to larger quarters just outside town.

Over the years that followed, several of those who stayed grew increasingly discontented over pay, job security and working conditions. Finding Schlink to be less than open to their input, they organize a union to negotiate with management. It wasn't a surprising move, considering that many Consumers Research employees were activists, drawn to the company by its principled stand on behalf of the average American and its reputation as a haven for progressives.

When they approached the board for a meeting to discuss their concerns, the newly formed union was turned away, its three organizers fired. Board members who'd agreed to talk with the union were dismissed from their duties, too. Seeing no other way, more than 40 employees walked off the job on September 4, 1935, seeking protection against being fired on management's whim, the dismissal of two labor-unfriendly board members, reinstatement of the fired union members and a minimum weekly wage of $15.

Hostilities grew quickly, as a bus carrying replacement workers was stoned by strikers on September 10 and one of the opposing board members was assaulted. Violence escalated over the following days until a riot started on October 15. As The WPA Guide described it:

"Armed guards patrolled the acreage about the main building... a constable mounted on a farm horse rode into a crowd of several hundred strikers and sympathizers from local unions assembled on the road. His act provoked a riot that lasted for hours. The crowd surged through the ropes, showering the buildings with stones; automobiles were overturned and wrecked. By nightfall the guards were reinforced by hastily deputized farmers, armed with shotguns and rifles. ... Guns blazed as the deputized farmhands chased university graduates up and down the country lane... Strikebreakers barricaded within the building were evacuated in moving vans, with an escort of farmers. Miraculously, no one was killed or seriously injured."

The strikers' efforts became a cause celebre in New York, with more than 1000 people attending a meeting led by sympathetic Consumers Research board members and journalist Heywood Broun. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, American Civil Liberties Union co-founder Roger Baldwin and others attempted to talk with management on behalf of the strikers but were unsuccessful. It seems that some CR board members could not be dissuaded, as they believed the union was under Communist Party influence. And others couldn't reconcile the fact that the very people they needed to make the consumer movement succeed -- independent thinking professionals with integrity -- would want to have some say in their own working conditions.

Ultimately, the National Labor Relations Board heard from both sides, ruling for the workers. Consumers Research appealed the ruling and lost again but ignored the NLRB's decision. The strike ended on January 13, 1936. Many of the dissenting workers, along with two former board members, started Consumers Union, the testing and research organization that publishes the influential and highly-respected Consumer Reports.

The two organizations continue to provide useful and timely information to their subscribers, but their fates differ sharply. While Consumer Reports' subscriptions and testing labs grew, Consumers Research lost both paying supporters and influence. Schlink continued to operate the labs on Bowerstown Road in Washington until 1981, when he sold the operation to a conservative radio personality. The laboratories closed two years later as the organization moved from testing to focusing on the impact of legislation and regulation on consumers.

I tried to find the building on a recent trip to Washington but found no evidence of it on Bowerstown Road. The only evidence you'll find of a labor dispute, or of the useful work of Consumers Research, that you'll find in locally is in the memories of old timers and local historians.



Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Pork roll poseur? Tasting the challenger to Taylor and Case.

I had to do it. Honestly, I couldn't resist.

You may have heard that Whole Foods Market has done what many loyal New Jerseyans will label sacrilege. They paid someone to "reinvent" pork roll. Even more scandalous, they found a guy in New York, from a charcuterie named Vincenza's, to do it. And, by the way, they charge $14.99 a pound. For that price, you could get at least double the weight in Taylor ham or Case pork roll. Or scads more of the Shop Rite brand, if you're slumming. Just sayin.'

Now, you know I take my station as Hidden New Jersey reporter very seriously, as I do my dedication to the gift Senator John Taylor bestowed on a grateful state in 1856. If anyone is going to challenge the established hierarchy of the official meat of the Jersey breakfast, I'm going to check it out.

I heard that Whole Foods locations were selling the stuff as quickly as they could stock it, so I optimistically went to the Vauxhall location to try my luck. This is what I saw in the prepared meats case:


"Nostalgic for that Jersey breakfast treat?" Seriously? I could pick it up at the supermarket down the street. Small batches? Traditional linen casings? I spied the roll behind the counter glass to see that its place of origin is in Queens. Feeling generous, I supposed that they had to leave the area of Taylor/Case dominance to get someone uninfluenced to put together an original recipe.

I requested a quarter pound, and as the deli counter person sliced it, I asked if they were selling a lot of it. Indeed, several customers a day were calling to check availability, with many coming in to make a purchase. What I didn't think to ask was whether people are coming back for seconds. Sliced meat in hand, I wandered off to find a good kaiser roll.

Once I got home, I got all of the necessary items together:


(Yeah, I could have gone with fancier cheese, but it would have detracted from the experiment.)

The pork roll was sliced much thinner than the pre-sliced boxed version of Taylor ham -- probably somewhere between 1/8 and 1/16 of an inch thick. Consistent with the "finely crafted" aspect of the brand, there were actually inadvertent holes in some of the slices, probably where the meat hadn't been ground sufficiently.


I decided to cook it two ways -- traditional frying and the old reliable "I'm too hungry to wait" method, microwaving. This is one place where the Whole Foods folks win: the stuff fries up so quickly that there's no real advantage in nuking it...



... except for the grease, which will get soaked up by the paper towels you should nest pork roll in when you toss it in the microwave. The Whole Foods option, ironically, seems to kick off a lot more fat than either Taylor or Case, which, while offering a degree of deliciousness, is not exactly recommended by four out of five cardiologists.

And as I discovered, one of the big drawbacks of the thin, thin, thin slice is its inability to retain heat. By the time I got the cheese on it and transferred it to the roll, it was lukewarm. I didn't dare add ketchup, lest it drop the temperature another ten degrees or so. And it just didn't seem to be enough meat to measure up to the average-sized kaiser roll.

As for the taste, well, I'll give them this: it's got a very pleasant flavor, distinct from either of our storied brands. The label refuses to list the various spices, but a Bergen Record report says that coriander, port wine and white pepper are among them, combined with "natural smoke flavor," sea salt and sugar. I'll take their word for it. If they were going for something closely approximating pork roll, I guess they've accomplished that.

Thing is, I don't see the stuff overtaking our old traditionals anytime soon. Perhaps Martha Stewart will use it along with an artisinal cheese in her take on the Jersey Breakfast, but I'm guessing it'll be a long, long wait before you see it on a diner menu. Myself, I'm not convinced enough to spend the extra money, though I wouldn't toss the Vicenza's stuff if someone gave it to me. Bottom line, Senator Taylor's folks have nothing to worry about: they still have my business.


Addendum: Twelve hours after ingesting said gourmet pork roll, I awoke with agita. Not that I'm blaming the product. It just may have been my body's attempt to reject non-New Jersey pork roll like a mismatched donor organ.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Making beautiful music in Washington, the Organ Capital of the World

A hundred years or more ago, beautiful music came from a Northwestern New Jersey community in such abundance that the area was said to be the Organ Capital of the World.

Words from an 1897 catalog paint the picture: "Nestled among the green hills of Warren County... lies the beautiful little city of Washington, where for more than a half century, Cornish Pianos and Organs have been built. [...] Here is no great rush, but an infinite care and painstaking labor are exercised in a quiet co-operative way."

There's no sign of the company or the factory at its old location on the corner of State Route 57 and South Lincoln Avenue today; we learned about it from a docent during our visit to the Bread Lock Museum a few months ago. Astoria, Queens may be the birthplace of the more famous and fabled Steinway and Sons piano dynasty, but one could say the impact of Washington, Warren County on the world of music appreciation for the common person was greater. If the manufacturers in this town had their way, every American family would a piano or organ of their own. According to its own promotional materials, Cornish put out 40 complete instruments every working day, producing up to 12,000 a year in its factory.

Unlike Steinway and its luxurious Manhattan showroom, the Cornish Company eschewed retail. Rather, it sold direct to consumer via catalogs and advertisements that emphasized both the quality and relative affordability of the instruments. Potential customers could pick from several ornately-carved cabinets to accent their home decor, and "every responsible person in the land" was encouraged to purchase an organ or piano on credit. Cornish promised that purchasers could return their instrument within a year and get back the payments they'd made plus six percent interest. As an added inducement, the company made arrangements with a correspondence school to provide piano lessons to customers who may not have already known how to play a keyboard instrument.

The factory itself started as a much smaller structure built by a furniture manufacturer in 1858. After purchasing the building in 1880, the Cornish family and built several additions until it took up most of a city block. Nearly two dozen smaller keyboard instrument manufacturers followed, earning Washington its title as Organ Capital of the World.

The ultimate end of the Cornish company and its factory aren't quite clear. Local historians feel that the rise of the phonograph may have led to the company's demise, a good theory considering one didn't need to invest time in lessons to learn to play a record. Some reports say that the company never recovered from a 1922 factory fire, and a 1926 New York Times article states that the building was to be converted to a hotel, with 40 rooms on the second and third floors. Fifty years later, The Star Gazette of Hackettstown and Washington reports that after the company went into receivership in 1921, a former baseball player named Socks Farrell purchased the property, renovating a portion of the old factory to become the Farrell Arms.

Ultimately, the structure appears to have been destroyed in a 1934 fire, replaced over time by a gas station and then the Krauszers food store that stands today. Cornish organs and pianos, however, still stand beautifully in living rooms and parlors around the world, handed down over the generations to their original purchasers' offspring.




Wednesday, December 3, 2014

What in sand-hill? Cranes make Somerset a habit.

After a few years of birding, you get to know where the rarities are going to be, and when. It's more than understanding that Red Knots are going to arrive on the Delaware Bay in May or that the Short-Eared Owl will be hunting the grasslands of the Wallkill National Wildlife Refuge in the dead of winter. It's knowing that if a certain species is going to show in New Jersey at all, it'll be within a certain range of dates at a given location.

You might even say that it's a given that if the unlikely is going to happen, the experienced birder is going to know when and where it will occur.

Where's Sandy? The Randolph Road Sandhill Cranes,
neatly camouflaged in corn stubble.
It's that way for Sandhill Cranes. Ask a longtime birder if she's seen one this year, and she'll tell you whether she's recently visited a certain street in Somerset. I don't know if anyone knows exactly why the birds have adopted the spot for a late fall visit over the better part of a decade, but this year up to eight at a time have been seen in a cornfield across from a corporate park on Randolph Road.

About the height of a Great Blue Heron but twice as heavy, Sandhill Cranes are normally western birds, known for hanging out in large numbers in prairies and the type of grasslands that are not natural habitats in New Jersey. Spending their summers in Canada, large flocks make their way to Nebraska and other points south and west for the winter. Talk to folks in New Mexico, and they'll marvel over the spectacle of thousands of Sandhill Cranes congregating at the state's Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, their rattling calls heard up to two miles away.

Sandhill crane. Credit: Department of the Interior/USGS
New Jersey's crane visitors appear to be a lot quieter, or at least their sparse numbers don't gain the same level of attention for their calls. A few birders at a time might stop on the shoulder of the road to get a good eyeful or a couple of photographs as the birds forage for leftover corn or the occasional rodent. Otherwise, they go without notice, blending rather nicely with the stubbled cornstalks on the field.

Besides Somerset, Sandhills have been known to show up in Cape May, Mercer and Camden Counties at times over the past 20 years, but it's not clear whether those places produce sightings as reliably as the Randolph Road cornfield. We saw them among a foraging herd of longhorn cattle in New Egypt a couple of years ago while on a chase to see the even rarer Northern Lapwings, but nobody's reported them since.

Why these individuals aren't with a larger flock, we'll never know, but I'm selfishly happy to be able to see them here, rather than having to travel west for the spectacle. If they're looking for a bit of solitude or distance from the clamor of the Sandhill Crane lifestyle, it's ironic that they've chosen the country's most densely populated state to spend a few weeks in.

On the other hand, they may have a good reason. Interestingly, while I was checking into the cranes' visitation to these parts, I came upon one of the most novel bird-related theories I've ever read. A group of Jersey Devil hunters submits that some of those who've claimed to see Mother Leeds' 13th child may have actually seen a Sandhill Crane instead. With their height and impressive six foot wingspan, the cranes would give an unsuspecting wanderer a good fright, but I'm skeptical. The cranes, on the other hand, may just be stopping by to find their storied cousin.

It's as good an explanation as any. Right?




Sunday, November 30, 2014

A cool drink of water: stumbling onto Molly Pitcher's spring

If you grew up in New Jersey, or driven on the Turnpike for that matter, you've heard of Molly Pitcher. Young history buffs first learn of her as a hero of the Battle of Monmouth during the American Revolution, bravely staying on the field of battle as cannons roared around her. Fought in the area outside Freehold on June 28, 1778, the conflict was one of the largest of the entire war and certainly the biggest in New Jersey. As we learned from a recent visit, the day's weather put a woman with a pitcher in a good position to become a legend.

Molly's feats vary, depending on which account of the day you hear. One story has her repeatedly bringing water to her husband and his fellow soldiers on the oppressively hot, humid summer day, keeping the Pennsylvania artillerymen hydrated as many troops on both the American and British sides succumbed to heat stroke. Another version has her taking the place of her injured husband in a gun crew of the 4th Continental Artillery Regiment. She may also have been fetching water for the cannons themselves. Their barrels needed to be swabbed after firing to clear errant sparks and spilled gunpowder, a task especially important during what was to be the most extensive use of artillery in the entire Revolutionary War.

Molly herself is commonly assumed to be a woman named Mary Ludwig Hays, whose husband was part of a large gun crew. She was among the many women who accompanied the troops, cooking, repairing clothes and caring for injured and sick soldiers. Given the hectic nature of battle, it's entirely possible that she stepped in to help when a gunner was injured or suffering from the heat.

We weren't thinking much about tracking Molly down when we set out to explore the battlefield's trails and interpretive markers. Portions of the battlefield are still used as farms and orchards the way they were back in 1778, leaving an impressive viewshed for you to consider from the back side of the visitor center. Miles of hiking trails, roads and field edges offer places to get some perspective on the battle.

The weather was a bit raw on the day we visited, so we decided to check out the park's almost 3000 acres by car. A few roads traverse the area to make it easier to explore, but there are still plenty of wooded sections and farm fields to help you envision what Washington and his troops came upon when they marched into the area. There aren't a lot of interpretive markers along the roads, but the park map showed one not far from a small parking area just off Wemrock Road, near a rusting railroad overpass.

The gravel lot was only large enough to accommodate a couple of cars, but we were the only ones there. Looking around for the interpretive sign, I saw something unexpected: a stone flanked with small faded and aged American flags. The side closest to the car clearly said "MOLLY PITCHER," with some additional printing below it. A closer examination revealed the word "SPRING" painted closer to the bottom of the stone. On the other side was more printing; though chipped by age, it manages to still say "THIS MARKER PLACED BY ALEXANDER JAS___ AND _____M D. PERRINE."

Several steps away, a bramble-covered area was divided by a series of wooden planks across a small running stream. Its source was obscured by vegetation, but it seemed we might have stumbled upon the spring where Mary fetched the water that sustained several American troops during the heat of battle.

I'm always a little wary of unofficial markers, but this one got me curious, especially given its condition. While the stone has seen better days and the state apparently hasn't seen fit to replace it, the presence of the flags, however weathered, led me to believe that someone's been paying at least cursory attention to it.

Turns out it's been there for more than 75 years. According to the Red Bank Daily Register of July 6, 1966, the stone and an interpretive sign were placed there by William D. Perrine and Alexander Jasco, Sr. in 1938, well before the state purchased the land for a park. The sign, now missing but said to be well-maintained 50 years ago, noted "From this spring, Molly Pitcher (Mary Ludwig Hays) carried water to her husband and thirsty soldiers."

What's more, there's another well or spring somewhere on the battlefield that's also claimed by some to be Mary's water source. Neither is marked on the official park map, but I suspect that if we'd wandered a bit more, we'd have found it eventually.

Before we left for the day, we agreed to return to the Monmouth Battlefield once the weather gets warmer. The fields and woods may just be a nice stopover for migrating birds in the spring, and the trails look promising for both good exercise and a ground-level experience on one of New Jersey's great contributions to American independence.

We may even try it on one of the challenging humid days we seem to get in droves in late June and early July. Considering the ordeal our ancestors went through to ward off the British and Hessians that day in 1778, the least we can do is leave the relative luxury of air conditioning to get a deeper understanding of what happened there.