Thursday, September 10, 2015

The star of Bethlehem? An Edison mystery in Hunterdon.

Once again, it was proven to us: travel around North Jersey and you're bound to find something related to Thomas Edison.

This time, it came when we made a left turn off Route 57 West, passing Earle Eckel's Autogiro Port on our way southward to points unknown. After an enlightening stop in Asbury (more to come on that soon), we found ourselves driving on an undulating road through beautiful farmland. We weren't quite sure where we were, except that we'd left Warren County.

The unusual two-story springhouse next to the sign
that started our mystery.
And then, there it was: a Hunterdon County historic marker. Titled "TOWER HILL FARM," it continued, "Dating back to the 1840s, this farm was purchased for Thomas Edison's storekeeper, Frederick Devonald, in 1932 and remained in the family until 1983. Unusual springhouse consists of two levels."

Devonald was a name I hadn't come across in my reading on Edison's life and career, leading me to believe that he wasn't one of the Muckers, the tight-knit group who worked closely with the Old Man on his experiments. He's not referenced in two of the latest and most comprehensive Edison biographies, nor does Mucker Francis Jehl mention him in his Menlo Park Reminiscences. Who was this mystery man?

Considering that Edison's Stewartsville Portland cement plant is a 12 mile drive away from Tower Hill, I wondered if he'd been one of the many employees who'd never worked in either Menlo Park or West Orange. And who had purchased the land for Devonald a year after Edison's death? Was the gift connected to his work service at all, or was I just reading too much into a sign author's attempt at economical writing?

Back at Hidden New Jersey HQ, we set ourselves to finding out. Checking first with Hunterdon County Parks and Recreation, we discovered that in addition to the stone springhouse we'd seen, the property hosted a farmhouse that had been built in 1848. Interestingly, the Parks and Rec website said that other Devonalds than Fred -- Ira and Margaret -- bought the farm in 1932 as a family weekend retreat, with three of them eventually making it their full time home. Records of the 1920 census list Ira and Margaret as two of the eight children being raised by Fred and his wife Julia in Orange.

There went my supposition that Edison had bought the property for Devonald, but what about Fred's job? His family being from Orange made it doubtful that he worked at the Stewartsville cement plant. Was he, in fact, one of the keepers of the famous storeroom in the Building 5 machine shop at the West Orange lab? The wondrous room that Edison famously claimed to have everything from the hide of a rhinoceros to the eye of a United States Senator, all in order to speed the process of invention?

As it turns out, it's entirely possible. A search of the online archives of Rutgers' Thomas Edison Papers project reveals more than 70 documents referencing or signed by Devonald, mostly related to the procurement of supplies for the storeroom. One even went directly to Edison at his Ogdensburg iron mines, asking for approval to purchase chemicals. (Edison asked for prices and said he'd see Devonald to discuss.) Another source noted that Fred once turned to Julia, herself an Edison employee, to make a motion picture screen.

And that leads us to Fred's brief star turn. While not a key employee, he was accorded a role in the development of one of Edison's most noteworthy inventions -- literally. A small room on the second floor of the West Orange labs was, in effect, the world's first motion picture studio, and the Edison movie making team needed animated subjects to test the kinetoscope technology. Hams like Mucker Fred Ott were more than happy to fake a sneeze for the cameras, and it seems that Devonald was open to participating, too. You have to wonder if he's one of the men in the brief dance scene in this film. We may never know which one of the subjects he was, and he certainly didn't go on to screen stardom. But it does go to show: in the right work environment, you can have a lot of fun if you show a little personality.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Backed up on the road to Sandy Hook

On a warm summer Sunday, we weren't surprised to run into people just trying to make it to Sandy Hook. What surprised us was how long ago they'd started their trip and the massive delay they suffered -- maybe New Jersey's first huge traffic jam. Certainly, it was the biggest hassle anyone has experienced in trying to get to the shore.

We'd started the day avoiding all things beach. In fact, we were at a sod farm in eastern Mercer County, looking for 'grasspipers' - a general description of the shorebirds that hang out in grasslands. The fields weren't quite as productive as we'd hoped, leading us to wander a bit aimlessly until we found ourselves in the western Monmouth County community of Allentown.

Full of Colonial, Georgian and Federal-style buildings dating to the earliest days of the nation, Allentown was built around an old grist mill on Doctors Creek. A picturesque mill pond offers a nice focal point to downtown and, of course, is irresistible to intrepid birders. The part downtown isn't quite so interesting -- it's the part that extends back to the residential areas that's tempting.

Finding the right road wasn't hard -- it's called Lakeview Drive. Before we got to the lake, though, we noticed an old graveyard by the side of the road. The landscape is well tended, the grass is short, but its old stone border wall has seen better days, and its grave markers are well worn. In a lot of ways, it's not much different from any number of other small cemeteries dotting the more remote areas of New Jersey.

Not exactly a rest area, but sufficient for the need.
What got our attention was a shorter stone flanked by two American flags. According to the plaque affixed on top, we'd stumbled on the pit stop for somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 travelers who were just trying to get to the shore during some of the hottest days of June.

This seeming horde of Bennies weren't headed to sun, fun and maybe some debauchery on the Boardwalk. They were members of what was acknowledged to be the best trained fighting force in the world: the British Army of 1778.

Led by General Sir Henry Clinton, the troops had left Philadelphia and were on their way to the British stronghold of New York at Manhattan. Originally, the plan had been to evacuate troops via ship down the Delaware River and around New Jersey northward, but a shortage of transports forced a change of plans to an overland route. Crossing the Delaware, the troops moved in a northeasterly direction through Mount Holly and beyond.

The trip was arduous. Heavily encumbered by a 12-mile long wagon train of equipment and supplies, the Brits and had been struggling to make their way despite demolished bridges and harassment by local Patriots. Even nature seemed to be conspiring against them: thunderstorms, mosquitoes and oppressive humidity made the trek especially onerous.

After encamping at Allentown overnight, Clinton decided to direct his troops toward Sandy Hook. It was a logical move: the British had captured the peninsula over a year before and fortified it against attack, though Patriots occasionally attempted raids to disable Sandy Hook Lighthouse. Several British naval vessels were usually stationed offshore as further protection, and from there, safety in Manhattan was just a reasonably short sail away.

Clinton and many of his troops eventually made it to Manhattan, but not without a serious fight, and that's an understatement. General George Washington, seeing an opportunity to strike, advanced the Continental Army to confront the British at Monmouth Court House - present day Freehold. The battle that ensued on June 28, 1778 was the largest artillery battle of the American Revolution and one of the longest engagements of the entire war.

Consider that the next time you're stuck in shore traffic.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Black Gold, Texas Tea: the hidden corporate headquarters in Flemington

For many years, New Jersey had the reputation of being the home for corporate headquarters. It seemed that if you were a Fortune 500 company, you either located your CEO here or had a major installation somewhere in the state. Some of them moved here from more expensive digs in New York City, finding good transportation routes and pleasant suburbs to attract employees. In any case, it wasn't hard to pick out the corporate HQs dotted along our highways, with their sprawling lawns and low-slung buildings. 

Curiously, as I discovered recently, one of the largest and most famous among them had much more modest digs on a small lot in Flemington. You might know that corporation as ExxonMobil. Back then, it was Standard Oil of New Jersey.

To say that the history of Standard Oil is complicated is a vast understatement, and I couldn't hope to explain it all in a readable blog post. For the purposes of today's story, what you really need to know is that at one point in the 1930s, the corporation's headquarters technically was a lawyer's safe on Main Street in the Hunterdon County seat. John D. Rockefeller's oil behemoth was broken up in a 1911 Supreme Court antitrust ruling, with Standard Oil of New Jersey (or Jersey Standard) being the largest of the resulting "baby Standards." Operating refineries at Bayonne and Linden, it continued to evolve after the mandated breakup, making several acquisitions and eventually becoming the world's largest oil producer.     

Flemington has never been known to be a big oil town, nor has there ever seemed to be a potential for anyone to strike black gold somewhere off Route 31. And, in fact, there doesn't seem to have ever been a Standard Oil office anywhere in town, except maybe for a desk and chair at a filling station. This was not a traditional arrangement by any means.

As you might have already guessed, the company's reasons were purely economic. In one word, taxes. New Jersey law at the time stated that a company was headquartered where its incorporation papers were housed. By moving its headquarters from Linden to Flemington in 1937, Standard Oil was able to shave its tax bill by 80 percent. The company's operations continued without missing a beat.

Exxon corporate histories say nothing about this move to the heart of New Jersey's farm country, though I guess it's not surprising. The fact that the company had previously moved its headquarters to Linden from Newark to save a half-million dollar tax payment leads me to believe that the stay in Flemington was a relatively brief one, lasting only until a more attractive tax haven could be identified.

Despite Standard Oil's penchant for bending the rules, it's likely that its new neighbors in Hunterdon County wouldn't have minded a bit that the company had done this bit of corporate legerdemain, if they even knew the move had occurred. The boost in revenue to the county meant their own tax bills would decrease. While no new jobs were created, nor was there any additional burden placed on local roads and utilities. Maybe they hadn't struck oil, but who ever complained about lower taxes?

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Eggs came first in Flemington (at least that's what we figure)

When I was in the fourth grade, my teacher gave me a project that opened my eyes to the diversity of our state. Everyone in our class had to write a report about a randomly-assigned county in New Jersey and present it to our fellow students. With 21 kids in the class, we were all guaranteed to learn about areas of the state we knew little of.

I got Hunterdon. Hunter-who? Clear across the state from my Union County home, I'd never heard of it. Dutifully, I sent a letter to the courthouse in Flemington, wondering what this far-off place had in store for me.

A few weeks later, I got a big manila envelope from the Hunterdon County clerk, loaded with pamphlets chock-full of facts and figures. While some of my classmates had gotten pretty tourist brochures featuring shore locations or historic sites in their assigned counties, the data-laden Hunterdon literature made one thing very clear: the county was where food comes from. And it was big business.

I was reminded of this recently as Ivan and I wandered just a block off Main Street in Flemington and came upon an office building labeled "Old Egg Auction Prestigious Offices." With a liberal number of rooster statues strewn about, the building clearly had been repurposed after an industrial past.

A county historic marker told the tale: "FLEMINGTON EGG AUCTION. The country's first, and, at one time, the largest cooperative egg auction operated here from 1932 until the death of the egg business in the 1960s."

The "first and largest" fit perfectly with my childhood impression of Hunterdon County, but what was this about the death of the egg business? Isn't that just a little dramatic? I mean, I'd had a Taylor ham, egg and cheese that morning for breakfast. Obviously, this warranted a bit more research once we got back to Hidden New Jersey headquarters.

Our usual sources gave but a hint of information. Published a few years after the auction's founding, the Flemington chapter of The WPA Guide to 1930s New Jersey noted that the auction had started in 1930 to ensure the county's poultry farmers could attract better prices for their wares than they presumably could by seeking buyers independently. More research revealed that the auction had operated from the basement of one of the downtown stores before moving to a Park Avenue factory that had once housed the Empire Glass Company. Not long afterward, the Flemington Egg Auction expanded to live chickens and other livestock, eventually becoming a model for other agricultural cooperative auctions around the country.

That was just the start. These days, the big Mid-Atlantic chicken states are Delaware and Maryland, but poultry was big business for New Jersey in the early- and mid-20th century. More than 1200 egg and livestock producers participated in the Flemington Auction in the late 1940s, and Hunterdon County wasn't even the largest poultry producer in the state. By 1956, sales of meat chickens and eggs accounted for nearly a third of all farm cash receipts, and we were fifth among all states in egg production. The Egg Auction alone was pulling in about $2 million a year.

Not long afterward, the tide turned, as oversupply and grain prices led egg producers out of the marketplace. Undoubtedly, improved transportation systems made it easier for lower-cost southern factory farms to ship fresh product to New Jersey at competitive prices, too. Maybe the egg business didn't die, but its New Jersey division wasn't doing very well. Farmers around the state, Hunterdon included, were discovering their land was worth more to developers than it would ever be if they continued producing eggs. Starved by a lack of suppliers, the Flemington Auction closed in 1976.

Its property festooned with painted rooster statues, the Old Egg Auction building got us thinking about evolution -- not just the fate of the egg industry, but the old chicken-and-egg question. In Flemington, the egg was clearly sold at the auction before chickens ever came before the gavel. Will it ever come back to roost? That's a debate for another day.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Going to church: the amazingly well-preserved Old Broad Street Presbyterian

I've long been of the mind that keeping a historic building in continuous use is the best way to keep it from deteriorating. An impressive structure on West Broad Street in Bridgeton proves that sometimes, the direct opposite is true.

Standing on a full city block along the main road, surrounded by scattered gravestones from the late 18th century to the present, the Old Broad Street Church owes a good part of its fine condition to the fact that it was largely abandoned in 1836, just over 40 years after it was built. According to the church's website, it may be the most pristine example of Georgian high ecclesiastical architecture surviving in the thirteen original states.

We visited on a recent Sunday afternoon, when the congregation generously opened the doors to a curious public. From the outside, the two-story brick building appears both stately and simple, designed in the manner of the Philadelphia churches of the day. Doors on three sides of the rectangular church welcome visitors; curiously, the only side without a door is the one that faces the road. One of the side doors was open, and as we walked past, I noticed what appeared to be a metal beam running from a metal box diagonally up to the ceiling. Was this some sort of reinforcement, added during a restoration attempt? Hopefully we'd find out.

A bit of neck strain for the folks in the expensive
seats? Photo courtesy Library of Congress. 
Walking inside, we were welcomed by a member of the friends organization, who gave us a brief history of the church, the first Christian congregation organized in Bridgeton. Its original members had been worshiping at far-flung churches and wanted their own meeting place in the growing town. By 1795, they had their own church, complete with box-style pews. The more prosperous congregants usually purchased pews closest to the front of the church, but as our hostess observed, prominence may have come with a cost. Sitting so close to the elevated pulpit, the rich folk had to strain their necks to see the minister in his elevated pulpit. Meanwhile, the view from the back pews was just fine.
The building's simplicity reminded me of a lot of Colonial-era Presbyterian churches I've visited, but unlike those, I could easily imagine early Americans sitting in Old Broad's pews to worship. Instead of wood floors, this church had brick, and the white paint on the pews both looked and felt sturdier -- more durable -- than what you usually see in a building that's been converted to central heating. The only concession to weather extremes is that curious metal contraption I'd noticed earlier, a two-stove and piping system constructed at nearby Atsion and installed in 1809. No other modernization has been done to the building since then: no plumbing, no electrical work, no mechanical systems.

This plaster medallion adorns the center of the ceiling.
It's a wonder the ornate plaster ceiling details have lasted so long, given the lack of climate control. That said, the absence of complications like plumbing and a constantly-working furnace may be what saved it. Uneven heating and leaky pipes have been the downfall of countless neglected historic structures.

As our hostess shared the history of the congregation, another docent told us we absolutely had to check out the balcony level, especially the east side. Religion had been part of the curriculum at the local school in the early 1800s, so students were brought to the church for instruction. Separated by gender, the girls sat in the western balcony, the boys opposite. How can we know for sure? The wood of the western pews is pristine, while those on the east are marked with carved initials and names. Come to your own conclusion.

So why was the church abandoned so early in its history? The growing city's population shifted eastward in the early 19th century, and Presbyterians understandably wanted to worship closer to home. They built a new church on the east side of town and left Old Broad Street. As will happen over time, the congregation has seen splits and mergers over its 230 plus year history, but they haven't forgotten their roots. Family plots in Old Broad Street's sizeable churchyard still take in new burials, adding to more than 10,000 graves that include resting spots of several members of Congress, New Jersey Governor Elias Seeley and a good number of veterans of the American Revolution and the Civil War.

The living are welcome, too, just a little less often. The doors of Old Broad Street open for worship during August and a special service on Thanksgiving Day. And if you're lucky, as we were, you'll happen by when they're having an open house. Between the truly striking architecture and the welcoming spirit of the church's friends and congregants, you'll be glad you stopped by.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

A tankard of liberty at Potter's Tavern in Bridgeton

If we've learned anything in our travels, it's that the terms "first" and "oldest" are often up for debate when it comes to historic places and events. Sometimes the claims have to be qualified (as in "oldest existing governor's mansion still at its original site") while other times, the boast is the well-meaning exaggeration of a proud community. Either way, there's usually a good story to be found, making our visit well worth the time.

A first was what led us to Potter's Tavern in Bridgeton: some contend that New Jersey's first Patriot newspaper was published there. Since we'd already told a similar story about the New Jersey Journal, the Continental Army-endorsed paper founded by Essex County printer Shepard Kollock in 1779, I knew we had to get the scoop.

On our first Hidden New Jersey visit to Bridgeton last year, we discovered the city holds the state's largest historic district, an impressive array of 18th and 19th century structures. Potter's Tavern stands prominently on West Broad Street, across from the latest of several successive courthouses to stand in town. While several taverns operated locally in the late 1700s, Potter's was especially popular with lawyers, who would would stop in before or after conducting their business at the courthouse, engaging in discussion of current events.

The tavern's contribution to history starts in 1775, several months after the initial battles of the American Revolution were fought in New England. New Jersey soil was untouched by bloodshed at that point, but a small group of Greenwich men had already acted on their displeasure with British rule by conducting their own version of a tea party, burning a shipment of the English import in the community's market square. Others were actively debating the various options of an evolving relationship with Great Britain: maintaining status quo, negotiating with the Crown on issues where colonists had grievances, or continuing the armed battle for independence.

Sometime before Christmas of 1775, one of those tea burners and other patrons of Potter's Tavern decided to issue their thoughts in a handwritten document on a weekly basis. Several wrote essays that were then collected and given to a scribe to be penned into one long document that was posted at the tavern. None of the essays was signed; the fact that they were transcribed by one person assured that no particular man's handwriting would betray him for advocating treason and rebellion. Tavern owner Matthew Potter wasn't one of the authors, but he could have been arrested just for allowing his customers to work on the newspaper on his property.

More than a dozen issues of the Plain Dealer were published from late 1775 to early 1776, helping to galvanize support for independence from British rule. Though Cumberland County's Loyalists attempted to find the writers and hold them legally accountable for their rebellious words, no-one was ever identified. After the war, several authors came forward, including two future New Jersey governors -- Richard Howell and Joseph Bloomfield -- as well as local physicians Jonathan Elmer and Lewis Howell. Copies of the Plain Dealer are housed in Rutgers University's Special Collections in New Brunswick.

The Cumberland County Historical Society opens the tavern to the public a few times a year,* including the day we visited. The smallness of the place seemed about right; you could see how the intimate setting would encourage the regulars to share dangerous ideas. We learned that the Potter family not only operated a food and drink establishment in the building, but lived there, too. The seating area on the first floor was about the size of a small living room, with a cozy fireplace and a barred-in counter where the alcohol was locked up. An authentic colonial kitchen in the back brings visitors back to colonial days. One of the restored rooms upstairs is interpreted as a bedroom, while the other exhibits historic maps of Bridgeton and Cumberland County and a collection of military swords used by Potter men from the Revolution through World War I.

All of this brings us back to the original claim and a question: was the Plain Dealer, indeed, New Jersey's first newspaper? The state's now-deceased de facto historian, John Cunningham, felt its regular publication schedule was enough to qualify it as a newspaper, while others say no. I contend that the label we put on it doesn't matter nearly as much as the impact of its existence. Unless another example can be found, it marked the first time New Jerseyans regularly put pen to paper to debate and promote the merits of independence from the British Empire. That's clearly enough to recommend it, and to place Potter's Tavern on the list where Americans risked their freedom to express their heartfelt beliefs.

* Those who'd like to arrange a private tour can make arrangements through the Historical Society.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Uncovering the Blue Comet in blueberry country

Near the center of the Pinelands community of Chatsworth, there's a sandy, partially grass-covered clearing on the side of the road. In it, there's a square plot marked off by a decorative black chain, and within the plot, a pair of rails embedded in the ground.

Apologies for the bad framing.
Photo shot from the car.
It's hard to see in the picture, but those rails extend far beyond the clearing, well into the woods in the distance. They mark the remains of Chatsworth's ties to the rise and fall of New Jersey's version of glamorous land travel.

Today, the strongest connection any of us have to passenger rail travel is likely to be with New Jersey Transit commuter trains and light rail, but for our earlier neighbors, that wasn't the case. In the first half of the 20th century, particularly before air travel became the norm, trains could be something very special. Long distance travelers could enjoy luxury accommodations on express lines like the 20th Century Limited, and even local commuter trains sometimes sported cars specifically for the first-class set.

By the 1920s, Central Railroad of New Jersey President R.B. White saw glamour as a way to attract riders to what had become the company's rather pedestrian, unpopular line to the state's southern shore destinations. The Blue Comet would run from New York to Atlantic City, but with style that lived up to its name in appearance and engineering. Capable of traveling up to 100 miles an hour, the train was said to be the first east of the Mississippi River to use roller bearings for smooth starts and stops.

White spared no expense in furnishings and design: passengers enjoyed luxurious upholstery and carpeting, fine dining and windows hand-etched with comets and stars. Each of the cars was named for a comet, including an observation car whose back deck could accommodate six travelers. The train was swathed in blue and cream colors, representing the sea and sand of the Jersey Shore, with nickel-plated accents. Even its whistle was distinctive, with Pinelands residents recalling a foghorn- or steamboat-like tone. When the Blue Comet made its maiden trip in February 1929, it became CRRNJ's flagship train.

Its introduction was ill-timed. Eight months later, the stock market crash plunged the nation into the Great Depression, leaving most potential travelers without the resources for luxury travel. By 1933, the train was making just one run a day, and competition from the Pennsylvania Railroad took additional ridership away. However, the Blue Comet soldiered on, logging an on-time record so reliable that people along the route set their clocks by the train's arrival. Legend has it that the people of Chatsworth counted on the northbound train to slow enough to drop off the New York and Philadelphia newspapers that passengers had read and discarded.

In fact, Chatsworth was little more than a brief blip of scenery to the Blue Comet until August 19, 1939. More than a foot of rain fell during a tremendous storm that day, with cloudbursts delivering the vast majority of it after 2:00 p.m. Poor visibility forced the train's crew to reduce speed to about 40 miles an hour, but restricted sightlines were just part of the danger ahead. 

By 4:30, flooding had washed the sandy Pinelands soil out from beneath the tracks at milepost 86, about a mile west of Chatsworth. The train's crew had no idea of the hazard they were approaching. Though the locomotive and coal tender made it over the now-unsupported track, the five passenger cars separated and came off the rails, resting at angles nearly parallel to the railbed.

Despite crashing in the sparsely-populated Pinelands, help wasn't long in coming. Realizing that the ever-reliable Blue Comet was late to the station, the concerned people of Chatsworth waded to the scene of the crash. Word went out that 100 or more souls could have died in the crash, drawing ambulances and doctors from distant communities. Of the 49 souls on board, 38 suffered mostly minor injuries, though the train's cook was fatally crushed and scalded when the dining car stove fell on him.The crash scene was so flooded that local residents later recalled wading through chest-deep water to help passengers in the train's last two cars.

The track was quickly repaired and service restored after most of the Blue Comet's cars were reconditioned, but the flagship train's days were numbered. Just over two years later, it made its final run, never having made much of a profit, if any, for the Jersey Central.

After finding the brief bit of track commemorated in downtown Chatsworth, we headed east on a road alongside the old railbed. The area may have become more developed over the years, but it wasn't hard to imagine what residents might have faced as they attempted to help the Blue Comet's passengers after the derailment. The track runs pin-straight for what seems like miles, often on berms of that classically-sandy Pinelands soil. Portions of the track were obscured by overgrown weeds and trees that had sprouted between the rails. Other stretches seemed to be clear enough to accept a train on a moment's notice. Someone with a good imagination could stand there at night and will herself to hear the roar of the Blue Comet, its foghorn whistle alerting local residents of its approach.

As seems to be the case with so many legendary trains, bits and pieces of the Blue Comet are still out there for the finding, with four complete cars still in New Jersey. One car, Biela, stands near Route 22 West, having been converted to a dining room at the Clinton Station Diner. Another three are owned by the United Railroad Historical Society of New Jersey, with plans for restoration and eventual return to the tracks.

Sopranos fans might also remember the train's fateful appearance on one of the series' final season installments. Model railroad aficionado (and Tony Soprano's brother in law) Bobby Baccalieri is admiring an antique Lionel Train version of the Blue Comet when he's dispatched by two hitmen from a rival crime family. Perhaps the show's producers didn't resolve the story of the famed Russian of the Pine Barrens episode, but ironically, someone in Tony's crew received a Pinelands-related payback of sorts.