Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Fun with Flags at the Old Barracks*

One of my favorite parts of exploring New Jersey is that there's always the chance of finding something extraordinarily cool in a spot you're not really expecting.

Like the time we found a bamboo forest at Rutgers in New Brunswick. Or when we discovered a piece of Grover Cleveland's wedding cake at his birthplace in Caldwell. Or found a taxidermied specimen of the now-extinct Heath Hen at the Drake House in Plainfield. Usually, they're not the things you're initially looking for in the place you're visiting, but they become one of the dominant aspects of your memories of the place.

I had a similar experience recently in Trenton. As part of my work with the Crossroads of the American Revolution National Heritage Area, I'm at the Old Barracks several times a month. Said by some to be the last remaining colonial British military barracks in North America, it was constructed in 1758 as part of a larger defensive system during the French and Indian War. It played a pivotal role in the American Revolution and had a checkered past until it was purchased by local preservationists in the early 1900s. Now owned by the state of New Jersey, it's been fully restored to tell stories of colonial life and defense. If you're into military history or early Jerseyana, it's an amazing place to visit.

Among the many artifacts is something you'd never expect to find at a small museum in New Jersey: one of the oldest surviving flags in North America and maybe the British Isles. It's hanging unassumingly on a wall in the Barracks' French and Indian War exhibit space.

The Pine Tree Flag. Photo courtesy The Old Barracks Museum..
In the interest of full disclosure, the flag's story is tied more to Connecticut than to New Jersey, but there's no shame in that. Some of our best friends came here from other places. It's known as a Pine Tree flag for the small conifer affixed to the upper left portion near the St. George's Cross. Embroidery in the center stripe of fabric appears to label it as the banner of the 5th Connecticut Provincial Regiment, which hailed from somewhere east of present-day Hartford. The soldiers of the 5th served at Fort Ticonderoga during the French and Indian War, and many of them likely clipped pieces of the flag for souvenirs at the conclusion of their service. That's why the damage to the banner would seem so uniform in spots. Flags carried by regiments during the Civil War sometimes suffered similar damage -- one could say they were sort of loved to death. (Coincidentally, New Jersey's Civil War flag collection is just a few blocks away at the State Archives, with select few examples on display.)

How do artifacts like this survive, and how do they end up in Trenton? This one seems to have been the beneficiary of the forgetfulness of the soldier who might have been its creator. Flagbearer and Ensign Jacob Woodward took the homemade flag when his service was complete, tucking it away in a chest, much as many of us do when we move from one stage of our lives to the next. Maybe he took it out occasionally to view it, maybe not. All we know is that 200 years later, a Woodward descendant sold the chest and its contents in an estate sale, leaving the new owner to discover what he fortunately recognized to be a treasure. Professional textile conservators have estimated that the flag dates to the mid-1700s, if not earlier.

One thing led to another until, in 2009, the Pine Tree flag found a home within Trenton's own French and Indian War relic. Though the Barracks and the flag weren't acquainted in their primes, it's fitting they should be together now, much like centenarians who meet at the VFW and build a friendship based on similar wartime experiences. Together, they tell a story of pre-Independence American history that so many of us know so little about.

*Apologies to fans of The Big Bang Theory

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

None shall pass! Sandy Hook's hidden fort

Our birding excursions at Sandy Hook usually lead us close to the tip of the hook, where Fort Hancock's Nine Gun Battery and Battery Peck continue to molder, unrestored. Part of the search for interesting species takes us close to the Coast Guard base, where, if you look in the right direction, you might notice an odd bit of construction: a very sturdy granite block structure topped by a water tank.

The big stone walls seem like a bit of overkill to protect a water tank, both regal and like a discarded part of the set of Monty Python and The Holy Grail. Then again, they probably stood up well to the surges of Hurricane Sandy. It wasn't until recently that we noticed an additional, less medieval-looking wall coming out from one side and continuing eastward for a short bit, looking rather vestigial beneath overgrown vines.

Ni! A portion of the old Fort at Sandy Hook.
We did not bring it a shrubbery.
I didn't think much of it until my recent visit to the Strauss Museum in Atlantic Highlands (more on that to come), where I came upon a 19th century map of Sandy Hook. Rather than illustrating the location of Fort Hancock's many batteries and functional buildings, the map portrayed a pentagonal structure at the tip of the hook, labeled only as "fort." Part of the location matches the site of the still-standing walls. After a little research, I realized we'd inadvertently stumbled on the remnants of the Fort at Sandy Hook, the Civil War-era predecessor to the army base that had operated from the late 1800s until 1974.

The fort's intended shape is illustrated
near the top of this 19th century map.
Who knew? Sandy Hook's strategic location near the entrance to New York Bay makes it a perfect defense location, so it's not surprising that Fort Hancock wasn't the first Army base there. To start the tradition, the wooden-walled Fort Gates was built there in 1813 to protect the harbor and city. The rather obviously-named Fort at Sandy Hook was part of the next generation Third System U.S. fortifications as advances in weapons technology drove construction of granite-walled defense systems. Construction began on the hook in 1857 as part of a larger network of forts within New York Harbor that was designed to protect shipping channels into the city along with Forts Richmond (now Battery Weed), Tompkins, Hamilton and Lafayette near the Verrazano Narrows.

As the map portrays, the fort's pentagonal shape was highlighted with bastions at each corner. Though construction was far from complete at the start of the Civil War, the Army outfitted the fort with more than 30 cannons of various sizes and capacities. Company E of the 10th New York Heavy Artillery was assigned to the fort in April 1863. By July 1866, the fort was vacant again, apparently never to be used again.

Three years later and only 70 percent built, the Fort at Sandy Hook was declared obsolete. New artillery technology, in the form of rifled cannons, could easily destroy the granite-walled fortress, rendering it useless. However, portions of the fort were reportedly incorporated into the still-standing Nine Gun Battery built in the 1890s through the early 1900s.

For safety reasons, Nine Gun remains closed to the casual visitor, so it's not easy (or prudent) to figure out exactly where the old fort walls exist in the newer construction. However, there's still that wall below the Coast Guard water tank, visible from Lot M at the base of the Fishermen's Trail near Battery Peck. Look carefully to the east of the tank, and you might be able to follow a line to additional parts of the fort wall. Don't attempt, however, to get too close. While the Coast Guard base is still recovering from Hurricane Sandy, the site remains an active military installation, and you can't just walk in. Even if you bring a shrubbery.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The bus from Baltimore came in: Orioles reach New Jersey

Maybe it's a coincidence, but just as their baseball namesakes have come north to play the Mets and Yankees, Baltimore Orioles -- the winged ones -- have made their way to New Jersey.

It's not entirely unusual - I generally see my first Baltimore Oriole of the year sometime in late April or early May. What's really getting me this year is the sheer numbers of them being reported in different areas around the state. I saw my first pair at the Deserted Village in Union County's Watchung Reservation over the weekend, typically the place where I find them for the year.

I wasn't quite prepared for my next run in with a member of the species. My local neighborhood park -- a little common space in the midst of long-developed suburbia -- is home to an absurdly loyal series of Black-crowned Night Herons that has shown up every year, along with the usual small park coterie of sparrows, geese and Mourning Doves. Kingbirds and American Goldfinches will arrive from time to time, but Orioles? Never.

Until the other day. Just about the time their human counterparts were probably starting batting practice at Citi Field, I heard a very fluid yet unfamiliar song as I was walking through the park. Who could it be? Fortunately I had my binoculars with me, making it substantially easier to scan the upper reaches of a large sycamore for whoever was vocalizing.

And then... I spotted a bit of bright orange. Preferring the high perches as they do, Orioles, in my experience, at least, are far easier to identify from their color than from the black-and-white patterning of their wings or the darkness of their heads. That hue and the uniformity across the underside of the bird made the bird unmistakably a Baltimore Oriole. He hopped along a bit and gave me confirmation with a turn of his body.

As I watched, I could see the bird singing his heart out. When he stopped, another Oriole within earshot began his vocalization. Could there be two in the neighborhood? And even more important, would they both find mates and build nests here?

I haven't heard them since that evening, but I did find another in a park just a few miles away. Will he find a friend and make his summer home where I can visit easily? Will they raise offspring that will return next year and thrive as well? I can only hope they have better luck than the baseball team did with the Mets this week.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Doc in the box: Dr. Robert W. Cooke's very small clinic

County historical weekends are always reliable and often a scavenger hunt. They're reliable in that they all promise a bevy of local sites, many of them house museums where you can learn about life in a given town during the 1700s or 1800s. The houses are all wonderful in their own way, playing an important part in helping people appreciate local history. That said, there's only so many times you can hear about chamber pots and bed warmers before you start yearning for something a little different.

That's where the scavenger hunt comes in.

This past weekend, I checked out the Weekend in Old Monmouth, the two-day event encompassing more than 40 open sites on four separate driving routes in the county. Finding all of them would take a navigator or a GPS, and with Ivan on an out-of-state birding foray, I had neither. Thus, I picked a few spots and hoped for the best.

Eventually, my strategy had me heading for the doctor's office. The Holmdel Historical Society contends that Dr. Robert Woodruff Cooke's office, built in 1823 or thereabouts, is the nation's first and oldest building used exclusively for a medical practice. In fact, they're so confident in the assertion that they're willing to give a cash reward to whoever can prove them wrong. Okay, the reward is only $25, but hey, they're willing to back up their claim.

The building as it looked in 1940,
courtesy Historic American Buildings Survey.
I was prepared for an old building when I drove up. What I wasn't expecting was how small it was. Boasting impressively detailed Federal-style architecture, the structure nonetheless looked more like a children's playhouse than a doctor's office. Indeed, when I walked in, I discovered that the entire first floor consists of a reception area, a smaller side room where examinations presumably took place, and a closet. A door next to the fireplace opened to an extremely steep staircase leading to a second-floor bedroom that may have been used for overnight patients. How an ailing patient would be able to negotiate those steps was beyond me.

A view from upstairs, over the railing and looking down.
The second generation of his family to go into medicine, Dr. Cooke was born in Newton, grew up in Somerset County and attended medical school in New York. Ready to start his own practice after an internship with an older doctor, he purchased 14 acres of land in Holmdel in 1823 and built the office building. He later married and built an impressive house nearby for his growing family.

One of the doctor's four children, Henry Gansevoort Cooke, followed him into medicine and took over the practice when Robert died. The younger Dr. Cooke was also a Civil War veteran, serving first with the 29th New Jersey Regiment at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, and later as a volunteer surgeon at the Wilderness and Cold Harbor. (Family history courtesy Gregory Cooke.)

As unique and interesting as the building and its history are, the real treat of the visit was talking with the members of the Holmdel Historical Society. Cooke family members have very kindly lent some of the doctors' medical instruments to help tell the story, and one of the docents almost gleefully explained their use (tonsil snipper, anyone?).

Situated near the corner of McCampbell and Holmdel-Middletown Roads, the building was actually moved a few years ago to accommodate the construction of a McMansion development. It's now safe on the grounds of the Village Elementary School and listed on the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places, hopefully preserving its place in history permanently.

Likewise, the historical society folks seem genuinely excited by this little gem they saved, and eager to discover more of its story. I had to wonder why Dr. Cooke had built a totally separate building for his practice, rather than designating a room or two in his house to see patients, as some doctors do today. Had he, perhaps, actually lived in the building before he got married? And had any of the building served as a de facto post office during the 19 years the elder doctor was Holmdel postmaster? The folks I met there had their own theories, but the facts are still to be proven. Like any great piece of local history, the story of Dr. Cooke's office continues to develop.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Hitchcock on Sandy Hook: My adventure with The Birds

Spring this year has been hit and miss, with very few warm days. Any nature lover with a flexible schedule would have headed to a favorite birding spot when the temperatures promised to reach 75 degrees on a sunny day.

For me, that's Sandy Hook. It's one of the state's top birding spots any time of year, but during spring migration, it's especially promising. I had no specific reason to believe it would be spectacular today, but you never know. And to paraphrase a popular saying, a mediocre day at Sandy Hook is still better than a great day in a lot of other places.

What I didn't realize was that my visit would land me a screen test for a remake of a Hitchcock movie. No, not Psycho (I'm not that obsessed with birding). Yes, The Birds!

Now, over the past several years, Ivan and I have seen plenty of large flocks of small avian visitors, and smaller flocks of large avian visitors, and sometimes they take flight in ways that might be scary to those who aren't familiar with their general behavior. Like anyone else would, I sometimes make Tippi Hedren jokes, especially when gulls or blackbirds are involved, but I've never felt stalked.

This time, though, I got a fish's view of a predator, totally by mistake.

Sandy Hook's varied habitats offer several different places to bird, depending on what you'd like to see. My first choice today was an area at the tip of the hook called the locust grove, known to attract warblers and other songbirds. It's nestled between Battery Peck and the northern end of Nine Gun Battery, accessible from a gate in the chain link fence, and it leads out toward the pond on the Fisherman's Trail.

An Osprey overhead -- photo not taken
during the event described in this post.
The farther north you go on the hook, the more likely you are to see Osprey, and I was thrilled to see a half dozen or so in the air as I got out of my car. Where it was once news to see one nesting pair at Sandy Hook, the population has soared in recent years. By my informal count, there are at least five active nests on the hook this year. Some are on platforms built by the National Park Service specifically for the Osprey. Others capitalize on existing man-made structures like a radar tower on the Coast Guard base and, despite the efforts of the NPS, the chimneys of a few Fort Hancock buildings. Their success says a tremendous deal about the improved health of Raritan Bay and the efforts of environmentalists to make the region more hospitable to the ol' fish hawk.

Thing is, there are so many of them that you have to wonder where else they're nesting. A couple of years ago, I was scolded away from Battery Kingman by an angry Osprey parent protecting its young, and there are other platforms tucked away in locations less accessible to human wanderers. I think that's how I got into trouble today.

I was probably about a third of the way down the locust grove path when I heard insistent peeping from the sky. Looking up, I saw three Osprey -- two circling broadly and a third hovering almost directly above me. I kept walking, only to look up again to see the same bird over me, now flapping its wings busily. I'd seen that flap before, but over water: it's the maneuver of an Osprey readying itself to strike at a fish.

Hmm. Perhaps it's time to look for birds elsewhere.

In the Hitchcock masterpiece, the birds' hostility comes out of nowhere. My experience is easily explained. The closer I got to my car, the less disturbed the Osprey seemed to be, leading me to conjecture that I'd unknowingly approached a nest. By this point in the season, they're well-established and already incubating two or three eggs, one parent keeping the unhatched offspring warm while the other guards the area or goes fishing for the family. They've got enough to worry about from predators without having to warn me off.

A big part of birding is understanding the place of the human. We're there to observe and enjoy but not to disturb or harass. When a normally-quiet bird like the Osprey starts to vocalize, or a usually sweet-sounding songbird calls harshly, it's a cue to depart. We know our intent is pure, but the bird doesn't.

Birding is good all over the hook; I had no specific need to be on the locust grove trail. If the Osprey wanted me gone, I was more than happy to cooperate.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Plymouth Rock at Echo Lake?

We run into plenty of historic markers -- plaques on boulders -- in our travels. Every once in a while, they're head scratchers.

For instance, there's the one in Union County's Echo Lake Park, situated near the western end of the lake. It's not far from the intersection of Route 22 and Mountain Avenue in Mountainside.

It stands alone in a grassy field, with no benches or contemplative area to give it context. One might think it was dedicated to someone associated with the creation of the park in the mid 1920s, or to whatever might have been there before the park, but it isn't. The inscription on the plaque is rather puzzling:

If you can't quite make it out, the inscription reads: "New Jersey State Branch of the National Society Sons and Daughters of the Pilgrims planted this site to commemorate the courage faith and ideals of our early settlers 1966."

I'm all for memorializing the people who helped found the country, and when I researched the Sons and Daughters of the Pilgrims, I discovered that's the business they're in, so to speak. Founded in 1908, the organization's members are the descendants of people who came to the New World before 1700. Their ancestors didn't have to have come over on the Mayflower, but they've been around a loooong time. And part of their mission, beyond encouraging the study of Pilgrim history, is to create "durable memorials of historic men, women, and events."

So that explains why the New Jersey chapter would invest in placing a good sized brass plaque on a very large stone in a public place. It doesn't explain, however, why the plaque and stone would be placed at Echo Lake. While it's a well-used park, it doesn't have the visibility of a downtown location in a major city, and that part of the park gets much less visitorship than other areas. Someplace in Military Park in Newark, or even within the grounds of the Presbyterian Church in Elizabeth would be more fitting, considering the founding dates of both cities.

Why, indeed, does Union County need its own Plymouth Rock?

Your guess is as good as mine, but I do have a theory, fueled by the relatively recent appearance of a series of historic markers on nearby Mountain Avenue. Signs for the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route (or W3R) mark the path taken in 1781 by the Continental Army and ground forces sent by France to help American forces finally defeat the British. Starting in Boston where more than 4000 French officers and troops landed, and extending south to Yorktown, Virginia, the route actually diverges in New Jersey, reflecting the more westerly route the French took (more or less along current day Routes 202, 287 and some county roads) and the easterly route Washington's troops took (attempting to convince the British of yet another possible attempt to invade Staten Island) before heading toward Trenton. The Mountain Avenue segment is part of that easterly route.

Knowledgeable as they must be about colonial history, had the New Jersey Pilgrim sons and daughters deliberately chosen to plant their memorial in Mountainside alongside this pivotal Revolutionary route? Or was it just a happy coincidence?

Or maybe the answer is much simpler. In time-honored Jersey tradition, could it be that the Pilgrim descendants just knew a guy at Union County Park Commission who could get the stone placed? Who knows? Stranger things have been known to happen.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The unlikely link between chickens, deli food, bandages and art

What do Johnson & Johnson, a good brisket sandwich and art have in common? Interestingly enough, Rutgers University and New Brunswick, sort of, by way of George Segal.

That's George Segal the artist, not George Segal the actor.

A lot of people don't realize it, but Rutgers' New Brunswick campus was at the center of a vibrant and influential art community in the late 1950s and early 1960s. For example, now-legendary Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein was a professor in the Douglass College art department, right around the time Rutgers College instructor and performance art pioneer Allen Kaprow was beginning to conceive of what became known as Happenings. Enjoying both the proximity and distance from Manhattan's scene, they and others found the freedom to experiment on radical new ideas.

Segal found his way from his native New York City to Central New Jersey in 1940 when his father bought a chicken farm in South Brunswick as part of an organized effort to boost food production during the Great Depression. After briefly attending Rutgers, he studied art at Cooper Union in the early 40s and Pratt Institute several years later, marrying Helen Steinberg, the girl next door, in the interim. Ultimately he earned his bachelors degree at NYU, graduating in 1949 with a degree in art education.

The Segals bought their own South Brunswick chicken farm in 1953, but when finances got tenuous, he started teaching English and art in local high schools. Kaprow lived nearby, and the two became friends, with Segal's paintings eventually becoming part of Kaprow's exhibitions. The pair also shared wall space in New Brunswick's Z&Z Kosher Delicatessen in New Brunswick, perhaps hoping that patrons would fancy a nice piece of art with their kreplach.

A portion of Segal's
New Jersey Turnpike Toll Booth,
as installed at the Newark Museum.
Eventually, Segal's worlds combined: he hosted one of the first Happenings on the chicken farm and began using poultry netting (chicken wire) to frame out the basis of plaster sculptures that he'd arrange in front of painted canvases. He soon abandoned the wire in favor of placing plaster-soaked J&J gauze bandages directly on his models, reportedly coming upon the idea after one of his students gave him the material doctors used to create plaster casts for broken bones. Segal would plaster his models with the gauze, allowing it to set only to a certain firmness, then gently removing and reshaping it back to its three-dimensional form. Thus he'd have a fully-formed, accurate human being, albeit in ghostly white. He'd then place the form -- or several -- into a tableau that he called an 'assembled environment.' It might be a group around a kitchen table, couples on a park bench (as in New York's Christopher Park) or a toll collector in an authentic Holland Tunnel booth (as in the Newark Museum's garden).

Segal's molding methods evolved over time, allowing him to create intensely lifelike details in his plaster sculptures. Understanding that his models had to stay in the same posture for more than a half hour as the plaster hardened, he came to realize that what he was capturing was not a pose or posture, but the subject's actual true stance, revealing a great deal of who they were as people and lending truth to the art itself.

Over the decades, Segal's art has been installed widely -- chances are you've seen either the plaster works or those cast in copper, like the Breadline installation at the FDR Memorial in Washington D.C. If you're like me, they've prompted you to want to participate somehow. Maybe you've found yourself wanting to line up with the hungry men waiting on the bread line, or maybe handing fare to the toll collector at the booth in the Newark Museum Garden. Either way, they've drawn you into their lives and made you wonder: what's on your mind? What challenges are you facing today? And perhaps, in some small way, they've encouraged you to consider the same questions about yourself.

Segal eventually became successful enough as an artist to leave teaching behind, but he maintained a 6000 square foot studio at the South Brunswick chicken farm until his death in 2000. Whether he still had chickens at that point, I don't know.