Saturday, September 13, 2014

Winfield Park: born of war, a battle to build

If you look through the trees along the northbound side of the Garden State Parkway northbound, just before exit 136, you might notice an enclave of small dwellings, many connected to each other. These nicely kept one- and two-story buildings look a bit like modular housing, yet there's an air of permanence to the entire area.

You've just passed the town of Winfield, a proud enclave of just under 1500 people on a triangular 0.177 square miles of land bordered on two sides by the Rahway River. It's basically a sliver of land between Cranford, Linden and Clark, so small there are only two roads in and out of town. Many in Union County know it as a tight community where generations of families have lived in what was originally built as temporary defense worker housing during World War II.

That's partially true: residents have always been close-knit, and the town was built for defense workers, but the houses were always intended to be permanent. And Winfield holds a unique distinction among American towns: it's the only defense housing project to be established as a separate municipality.

Winfield has its roots in the months before America entered World War II. The U.S. Government's Federal Works Agency had created the Mutual Ownership Defense Housing Division to build suitable dwellings for the multitudes of workers who were being hired by manufacturers and shipbuilders supplying the armed forces and America's allies. The low-cost, permanent housing would be a boon for people who lacked enough money for a down payment: the government planned to sell the developments to their resident-owned and operated housing corporations.

Need for housing was particularly acute for employees at the Federal Shipbuilding and Drydock Company on Kearny Point, and the FWA set to work to find a large enough piece of land on which to build 700 housing units. Another 300 were built in nearby Newark and Harrison.

Actually locating the development wasn't easy, for both logistical and political reasons. The ideal location would be close to utility networks but in a community where those facilities were underused and land was inexpensive. Open tracts in and immediately around Kearny were largely marsh and easily ruled out as too difficult to develop quickly, forcing the FWA to look farther afield. Ultimately, they investigated seven different communities as possible locations.

Nearly 20 miles away, a small bit of land by the Rahway River in Clark looked ideal. Then the political challenges emerged. While Clark officials had courted the project, their constituents were concerned that the influx of new residents would change the town's character. Taxes were anticipated to double as the cost of services would increase while no new rateables would be built with the community. The issue became so contentious that the entire slate of officials who'd encouraged the project were voted out.

With local government now led by sympathetic officials, opposition leaders then came up with a plan to ensure the defense worker community would have no impact on the town's finances. If they couldn't stop the project, they'd find a way to get it declared an independent town with its own budget, taxes, services and public works obligations.

That's exactly what happened. Just after construction began on the project in June 1941, one of Union County's state assemblymen introduced a bill to establish Winfield Park as a municipality. Through legislative sleight-of-hand, the bill was rushed through both houses without opportunity for discussion or public comment. Governor Charles Edison refused to sign it into law, declaring it to be counter to the needs of national defense, but his veto was easily overturned. For better or worse, Winfield Park was now a municipality -- the only one in New Jersey owned lock, stock and barrel by Uncle Sam.

Opponents inadvertently helped create a sense of camaraderie and self-determination among Winfield residents, starting when the first pioneering 145 families moved into the incomplete town in November 1941. What they found when they arrived was less than ideal -- shoddily built homes with inconceivably poor plumbing, muddy roads and sidewalks, and no electricity -- but they made do. After residents went on a rent strike to underscore their grievances, Federal investigators found the contractor guilty of fraud and bid manipulation, forcing the FWA to hire a new company to finish the project.

Still, Winfield Park residents soldiered on, creating a town from scratch. Defense workers headed to work on a government-supplied bus (when it wasn't broken down) as their families got to know each other. Friendships grew and clubs formed, along with a volunteer ambulance squad and co-op grocery store. A grammar school opened to much fanfare in 1943. And as was originally envisioned, the Winfield Park Mutual Housing Corporation purchased the entire town from the U.S. government in 1950, paying off the mortgage in 1984.

Inevitably, with the arrival of the Garden State Parkway and greater suburbanization, the land on which Winfield sits became more valuable than the homes and small commercial area sitting on it. Though developers have periodically approached community leaders with various proposals for redeveloping the area, the residents have always said no. It appears that they like where they live and who they live with. Why change it now?

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

History under River Road: the vanished town of Raritan Landing

Over the weekend, we made another visit to East Jersey Olde Towne, a collection of historic buildings moved to Middlesex County's Johnson Park when threatened with destruction. This time around, the buildings were open and we arrived just in time for the afternoon tour.

The buildings themselves are interesting examples of colonial-era architecture, with ties to the area's original settlers and their descendants. The really fascinating part of the tour, however, wasn't the structures or their former owners, but of another town whose remnants remained hidden below the grounds around us. 

A hint of its existence is in the name of the Landing Lane Bridge, which crosses the Raritan River near the borders where New Brunswick, Franklin Township and Piscataway meet. The name always seemed a little odd to me, but it suddenly made sense when I learned the name of the hidden community: Raritan Landing.

True to its name, Raritan Landing was a busy port community starting in the early to mid-1700s. The sons of New York merchants, eager to strike their own fortunes, realized that there was money to be had in the productive lands of the Raritan Valley, if they could get the bounty to the city. Farmers had plenty of grain, timber and livestock to sell, and the growing city populations had a large appetite and shrinking amounts of available land on which to farm. Shipping by boat would be the fastest and most productive route, leading them to set up shop on the farthest inland point of navigation on the Raritan River.

Raritan Landing, courtesy Rutgers Libraries
Warehouses started popping up on the northern banks of the Raritan River, west of New Brunswick as farmers learned of the new opportunity to sell their crops. It's said that 50 or more wagons at a time would be lined up on the Great Road Up Raritan (now River Road), waiting for their opportunity to unload their wares. A small but dense community grew around the commerce with residents building houses, stores, stables and a mill, among other structures.

Land along the Raritan is low, and Johnson Park floods in a decent-sized storm, as we've seen with Hurricanes Floyd, Sandy and Irene. Raritan Landing was a good three feet lower than the land is today, and residents found themselves flooded out time and time again. Wealthy merchants retreated to the bluffs above, building stately houses befitting their success. Today, the stone Cornelius Low mansion stands near the corner of Landing Lane and River Road, the only visible sign of the community that once bustled below.

So why did Raritan Landing disappear? Its demise came in stages. First, the Revolutionary War brought raids from foraging British and Hessians who first looted property and then burned buildings down, driving many residents away in the process. Some locals returned, but many sold their lots to wealthier merchants, changing the character of the community in the process. In the 1830s, newer, faster transportation came to the area in the forms of the Delaware and Raritan Canal and the Camden and Amboy Railroad, enabling farmers and merchants to get their goods to market faster. Raritan Landing essentially became obsolete.

By 1870, many of the buildings had been dismantled, the land converted to pasture. Sixty years later, visible traces of the village were obliterated, covered by three feet of fill dumped there when land across River Road was excavated for the construction of Rutgers Stadium. Fortunately, local historian Cornelius Vermeule created a map of Raritan Landing based on his own childhood recollections and stories garnered from family members. 

Ironically, much of what we know about Raritan Landing comes thanks to sewer enhancements in the 1970's and road-widening projects of the late 90's and early 2000's. The New Jersey Department of Transportation was required to underake an archaeological survey before building the Route 18 extension into Piscataway, resulting in the unearthing of several building foundations and a treasure trove of 18th and 19th century artifacts. Luck played a role in the project, too. Archaeologists were about to walk away empty-handed in the 70's when a local resident came by to ask what they were up to. He recalled the mounds of excavated dirt dumped near the river bank from the stadium construction, leading the researchers to dig much deeper for their quarry.

Several of the more interesting artifacts from the digs are on display at East Jersey Olde Towne, but frustratingly, DOT archaeologists unearthed only a portion of what remains of Raritan Landing. The state was only required to investigate areas that would be disturbed by road construction, leaving much more of the old village below the surface. Even the foundations they discovered are now invisible to the eye, having been covered over again. Some might have even been paved over.

The thing is, it's still there, waiting for future generations to find it. Who knows when it will be unearthed, or by whom. We can only hope that if our descendants choose to build more road there, they'll care enough to dig for the treasure of our shared past.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Is there a doctor in the dugout? The baseball prowess of Doc Cramer.

Drive Route 72 through Manahawkin, and you're likely to ask the same question Ivan and I did: who's Doc Cramer? His name appears on directional signs, and if you wander off the highway a touch, you'll find Doc Cramer Fields, a municipal sports complex.

The first time we noticed the sign, it was dusk and we were on our way to the Road to Nowhere to find owls. Our imaginations went to the days when Ocean County was sparsely populated and, perhaps, home to a kindly general practitioner who might have been popular enough to warrant having a street named for him. You know: ol' Doc Cramer, who delivered most of the kids in town and tended to Mrs. Smith's lumbago. My mind transformed him into Burt Lancaster playing Dr. Archibald "Moonlight" Graham in Field of Dreams: a man who gave up dreams of baseball stardom to go to medical school and care for an entire small town.

Sometimes those odd mental linkages have merit. When we got back to Hidden New Jersey headquarters, I discovered that Doc Cramer was, in fact, a baseball player, and quite a good one, too. Born in Beach Haven in July 1905, Roger Cramer was never a doctor or a medical student, despite earning excellent grades in high school. Rather, he kind of did the Moonlight Graham routine in reverse. As a boy, he often accompanied local doctor Joshua Hilliard on house calls around Manahawkin, picking up his lifelong nickname along the way.

Though he'd been playing ball since the age of eight and starred on his high school team, Cramer's entry into professional ball was late by most standards. He was 24 and playing on a local semi-pro team when Philadelphia Athletics backup catcher Cy Perkins saw him. At Perkins' suggestion, Cramer tried out for the A's the next day and was sent to their D-league minors team.

After some seasoning, Cramer joined the A's as a utility outfielder in 1930, getting even more playing time in the following years and playing in the 1931 World Series. He became known for his prowess at the plate, going six for six in a nine-inning game and setting a franchise record that still stands today for season hits by a left-hander. Despite his solid hitting, his contract was sold to the Boston Red Sox as A's team owner Connie Mack faced Depression-era financial woes.

Cramer's success continued during his six year stint in Boston, as he hit over .300 every season from 1937 to 1940, tying the league lead in hits in that final year. He played one season on the Washington Senators and spent another seven years in Detroit before concluding his 19 year career. In total, he played on three All-Star teams, appeared in two World Series and retired with a .296 batting average, among his other achievements.

While Cramer's statistics could arguably put him into the Hall of Fame, he's yet to be enshrined in Cooperstown. Some say that his case is weakened by the fact he played during World War II, when Major League rosters were depleted of their talent. Ironically, as a coach for the Chicago White Sox, he was instrumental in developing future Hall of Famer Nellie Fox, whose career numbers are remarkably like Cramer's own.

Cramer played long before athletes were paid large salaries -- most if not all had to keep off-season jobs to make a decent living. Workman's tools replaced the bat and glove in the fall and winter months as he built houses as a union carpenter. According to the Society for American Baseball Research, he made more money swinging a hammer than he ever did on the ballfield.

Staying true to the Jersey Shore, Cramer lived in Manahawkin for much of his life and returned to the house he built there when he retired from baseball for good in 1953. According to family and friends, he still responded to fan mail from admirers and often hosted his old baseball teammates, even getting to Philadelphia from time to time for a Phillies game.

Cramer died in 1990 after a brief battle with cancer. He's buried at Greenwood Cemetery in Cedar Run, and honored, of course, by the street and ballpark that carry his name.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The hidden Ellis Island Hospital: admitting again, starting October 1

Long-time readers know we have a special relationship with Ellis Island... the New Jersey side. As a volunteer with the National Park Service partner non-profit Save Ellis Island, I tell the little-known story of the immigrant hospital that once treated and cured over a million people in the first half of the 20th century. I've explored portions of the 29-building unrestored hospital complex, but I haven't been able to share that much with you because, well, it hasn't been open to the public. Why share something hidden that you can't go to see for yourself?

That's about to change.

Starting on October 1, Save Ellis Island will be conducting reservation-only hard hat tours of the island's south side, including several sites within the historic Public Health Service hospital. Visitors will see rooms where doctors worked to cure immigrants of illnesses ranging from measles to the infectious eye disease trachoma. While there's very little furniture left in the wards, the walls and windows tell a compelling story, reminding us how hard it must have been for sick immigrants to have their American dreams delayed by illness. 

The hospital was a city unto itself, and the tour will reflect that. More than a million people were treated there, with mortality of only 3500 souls. The morgue and autopsy room will be on the tour, as well as the laundry that cleaned and sanitized up to 3000 pieces of linen a day (imagine the cool machinery involved with that!). You'll also get to see the large (but yet to be fully restored) lawn and recreation space where recuperating patients enjoyed fresh air, sunshine and a breathtaking view of lower Manhattan.

Befitting the hospital's unrestored state, this is a program for folks who are comfortable with uneven surfaces, dust and peeling paint. The buildings are safe, but they definitely won't pass the white glove test.  

If the prospect of getting into buildings that haven't been open for 60 years isn't cool enough, tour participants will be getting an extra treat: a really unique (and hidden!) art exhibit. The artist JR is in the process of installing a project that repopulates the hospital with some of the immigrants who traveled through Ellis. I had the opportunity to check out a few of the areas he's already worked on, finding hope, poignancy and whimsy mixed among more than a dozen life-sized historic photos installed on the walls, windows and fixtures.

Revenue from the ticket sales for the tours will support SEI's ongoing restoration and preservation work on the hospital buildings. As you can imagine, bringing more than two dozen century-old buildings back to life isn't a quick or inexpensive task.

Keep an eye on our Facebook page and the Save Ellis Island web page for details on reserving your spot on an upcoming tour. Who knows -- I may even end up being your guide!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Newark's State Fair was a great state fair

Midwestern-born friends of ours admitted to being a bit confused at the hubbub advertised as the State Fair and held in the parking lot of the Meadowlands Sports Complex earlier this summer. I can't say I blame them: it wasn't a real state fair, with 4H exhibits, tractor pulls and judged livestock shows. That's held at the Sussex County Fairgrounds in August. The other one, technically named "State Fair Meadowlands," looks like a street carnival on steroids. No self-respecting livestock would step foot there.

Excuse me. Can you tell me how to get to the PATH train?
Interestingly enough, the East Rutherford version was a bit closer, geographically, to the first permanent home of New Jersey's premier agricultural exhibition: Newark. Yup, the state's largest city was once the place where farmers and their families learned the latest about livestock and crops, enjoying fun and games while they were at it. Technically, the site of the fair, the current-day Weequahic Park, was in Clinton, an small community that was yet to be absorbed by Newark. In the years before the site became a county park, it was largely farmland, neighbored by marsh instead of apartment buildings, highways and train tracks.

Clinton had a better deserved reputation for breeding mosquitoes than for crop production until James Jay Mapes came to town. A noted scientist with an interest in agriculture, he purchased an unproductive farm there in 1847 as a laboratory for his theories in crop rotation, fertilization and seeding. His work wasn't just successful, it proved the value of scientific agriculture in improving soil quality and crop yield.

Though many farmers had scorned 'book farming' before, the results were undeniable, and Mapes became the closest thing to an agricultural rock star as was possible in the mid 19th century.
Who wouldn't want to boost production on their own acreage, and who better learn from than the master himself? Mapes took to the speaking circuit, drawing on his considerable wit and speaking skills to present over 150 lectures on scientific farming. He also patented and sold his phosphate fertilizer branded as, what else, "Mapes Fertilizer."

The farm in Clinton became a popular draw for knowledge-hungry farmers, so much so that in 1866, the organizers of the New Jersey state agricultural fair chose it as the event's permanent site. Besides the usual seminars, shows and competitions, farmers and their families could enjoy food, drink, shows and games of chance at the newly-dubbed Waverly Fairgrounds. The grandstand and racing oval constructed for the fair proved so durable that it stood until 1960, evolving from a horse track to automobile racing.

Clinton's days as the capital (at least for a few days a year) of New Jersey agriculture ended in 1899, as Essex County amassed several tracts of land to become present-day Weequahic Park. The last bits of the township were annexed to Newark in 1902, completing a process that had gone back and forth for close to 70 years. In any case, the years of moos, manure and midways were over for the park, but it would later host significant events, including a celebration of the city's 250th anniversary in 1916.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Tomato hangover: 80 varieties at Rutgers' Snyder Farm

Wait a minute, Bunol, Spain. You may have La Tomatina, but you don't have the Great Tomato Tasting. Both happen on the last Wednesday in August, but we New Jerseyans celebrate our tomatoes by sampling their deliciousness, rather than letting them get overripe and then throwing them at each other in some sort of wacky bacchanalia.

Well, some of us do, anyway. For several years I've been meaning to head to Pittstown, where Rutgers and the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension host the annual open house and tomato tasting at the Snyder Farm Research and Extension Farm.

This year I finally made it, and if it's possible to overdose on tomatoes, I think I did.

Before I get into that, however, a few words about the farm itself. Originally, the 390 acre property was owned by Cliff and Melda Snyder, well-known in the community for their embrace of the science of agriculture and the technology that proved to help farmers increase yield. Cliff was the longtime president of the Hunterdon County Board of Agriculture, while Melda served both there and was director of the New Jersey Farm Bureau. Both welcomed their colleagues to the farm to learn more about advances in agricultural science.

When Melda died in 1988 (Cliff had predeceased her 20 years earlier), she bequeathed the farm to Rutgers, which has transformed it into a research facility to foster sustainable agriculture. In other words, while the farm's staff works to develop crop plants to keep New Jersey farms profitable, there's a strong emphasis on environmental responsibility and educating the public.

The farm itself is a bit off the beaten track -- take Route 78 to Clinton, then some country roads that bring you into Pittstown and beyond, passing a good amount of working acreage along the way. Rather than a broad expanse of one or two crops, the Snyder farm has a wide variety -- corn in one area, small orchards of apples and peaches in another, as well as other crops. It's kind of like a gardening hobbyist's fantasy, except that research scientists are closely controlling and monitoring the conditions.

And then, of course, there are the tomatoes -- about 80 different varieties, served up in bite-sized chunks for sampling. Whether you're a fan of grape tomatoes, beefsteak, plum tomatoes, sauce tomatoes, you name it and it's there. Rather than try to explain, I'll give you a look at just a few of the offerings:

The grape tomatoes were very popular and came in many
different colors.

No, that's not a small watermelon.
It's a grape tomato called Lucky Tiger.

Pear tomatoes. They had red ones, too, but these were more fun.
Imagine the sauce from this one!

The Large Tomato table, where volunteers cored
the fruit before cutting it into sample chunks. 
I lost count of my samples somewhere around 40 and felt a sudden need for something, well, NOT tomato. Fortunately several other tables were offering alternatives, including exactly what I needed: basil. Mixed with small bits of tomato, mozzarella and a dash of olive oil (we're in New Jersey, after all), it was the perfect palate cleanser. But then there were the peaches and the melon and the apples and the honey and even hazelnuts. The only thing missing was blueberries, whose season has already passed. A few bushes were still bearing fruit in the display garden, but I resisted the urge to pluck a couple of berries and run.

Needing a break from noshing on healthy food, I jumped on a hay wagon for a narrated tour of the research fields. A volunteer Rutgers Master Gardener shared insights on the studies being done at the farm: peach trees that grow more vertically to increase the number of trees that can be planted on a tract, the relative effectiveness of various fertilizers on corn (chicken guano seems pretty helpful, whole milk not so much), halting the impact of basil downy mildew on one of my favorite herbs. And in one very special area, researchers are monitoring the progress of their efforts to recreate the Rutgers tomato originally hybridized and introduced by the school in 1934.

As I marveled at the number of apples and peaches hanging tantalizingly from the trees, our guide noted that the farm donates about 30 tons of harvested fruit and vegetables to food banks every year. Some fruit, she admitted, was left beyond the electrified fence to bribe deer to stay out of the farm and away from the plants.

I may have gone for the tomatoes, but I left feeling even prouder of our state's flagship university and its agricultural extension program. The folks at the Snyder farm are living up to the example of the folks who donated the land, finding new and more responsible ways for Garden State farmers to provide us with healthy, abundant produce. And, well, I ate enough fruit and vegetables to make my parents beam with pride.

But I have to admit: on the way home, I stopped for some mutz and focaccia. There's only so much tomato I can eat without bread and cheese.

Friday, August 22, 2014

French, botany and a debate on socialism: Just another week at Miss Dana's School for Young Ladies

Today it's the site of a wine store, but back in the day, 163 South Street in Morristown hosted one of the nation's most progressive educational institutions for young women. No historical markers commemorate the site, but Miss Dana's School for Young Ladies deserves note as an incubator for independent thought for women of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

I wish I could say I discovered Miss Dana's totally on my own, but getting there was more like a scavenger hunt than a field trip. Our friend Joe Bilby, co-author of 350 Years of New Jersey History, From Stuyvesant to Sandy, mentioned Dorothy Parker's birthday as one of the historical nuggets he regularly posts on the National Guard Militia Museum of New Jersey Facebook page. Research on the Algonquin Round Table wit led to Miss Dana, but more on that connection later.

As we learned when we stumbled on the site of the Bordentown Female College, women's education in 19th century America generally took one of two routes. Some of the institutes, seminaries or colleges founded exclusively for girls focused on the type of higher education that we're familiar with today. Others were basically finishing schools that prepared daughters of wealthy parents for their entry into polite society, teaching manners, literature and the culinary arts so they could have a decent conversation with their future husbands and neighbors.

Despite the impression you might get from its innocent-sounding name, Miss Dana's School was a serious educational institution. The property on South Street was originally home to the more studious-sounding Morris Female Institute but became Miss Dana's when Elizabeth Dana leased it in 1877 after leaving her English and French Boarding School in Dobbs Ferry, NY. What happened to the Female Institute isn't clear, but if the scathing assessment provided by Rutgers Professor G.W. Atherton is any indication, it didn't live up to its scholarly name. (Either that, or Atherton made a hobby of exposing self-professed educators who consistently employed bad grammar and paltry vocabulary.)

Miss Dana's proved popular with prominent families, both in New Jersey and around the country. Classes were small, limited to 15 girls taught in seminar style to assure personal attention. Students learned the classics -- Greek, Latin, literature, history and the Bible -- in addition to mathematics and hard sciences like chemistry and physics. Botany, psychology, studio art, music, logic and other electives were also available to round out the students' education. Noted scholars visited the school to lecture on current events and politics; in fact, Reverend William Griffis, one of the first Americans to travel extensively to Japan, came to the school to share his impressions of the East. (You might recall we "met" Rev. Griffis through our research on the Japanese graves in New Brunswick's Willow Grove Cemetery.)

Parents could send their daughters to Miss Dana's with the assurance that if the girls took to their studies, they'd be assured a path to further success at one of the nation's top women's colleges. Graduating from her school meant an automatic acceptance to Vassar College, with no other entrance requirements necessary.

Unlike her predecessors at the Morris Female Institute, Miss Dana had a penchant for excellence that transcended the classroom. As one indication, in 1893 the school became the first in the state to hire a resident nurse. Marietta Burtis Squire was at the top of her field; at other points in her career she was the first president of the State Board of Examiners for Nurses and Superintendent of the Orange Memorial Hospital.

Elizabeth Dana died in April 1908, having prepared a few hundred women for higher education and productive lives. The school closed four years later, but her legacy lives on. Just after her death, students and alumnae endowed a reading prize in her name at Vassar, which the college continues to award to the student who undertakes and completes the best independent reading project over their summer break.

So what's the connection to Dorothy Parker, poet, author and satirist? Born in Long Branch as Dorothy Rothschild, she lived with her family in Manhattan but boarded at Miss Dana's after a stint at a Catholic school in the city. (She joked that she was encouraged to leave after characterizing the immaculate conception as "spontaneous combustion.") She graduated in 1911 as part of the school's last class. Her biographer, Arthur F. Kinney, suggests that the education Parker got in the Morristown school may have influenced her worldview and political interests. As he notes, the weekly current events discussions during her senior year "focused on such themes as exploitation in the slums, reports of muckrakers, and the growth of the Socialist party." The final issue of the school paper before her graduation included articles on child labor in American sweatshops and U.S. expansion in the Pacific region.

One has to wonder how many other girls' schools in that day were encouraging that kind of discussion. While finishing schools taught young women how to conduct a pleasant conversation, Miss Dana encouraged her students to think for themselves. She was well ahead of her time.