Monday, February 28, 2011

Heading down to Salem...

This weekend's trip brought us down to the end of the New Jersey Turnpike: Salem County and environs. Truth be told, it was a bit of a compromise. I've been wanting to get back down Jersey for quite a while now, given that I haven't made any regular trips to the region in some time. When Ivan checked his online birding bulletin board and found that a yellow-headed blackbird had been found in Mannington, the plan was in motion.

Fortunately the weather was on our side this time, as it was relatively warm with variable skies, not a lot of wind, and no precipitation. We hit the road, with the general direction of going to Exit One and making a left onto Route 45. This pretty much immediately brings you into the flat farmlands of Salem County, occasionally punctuated by a small bit of commerce or some marshy territory. Not surprisingly, there are plenty of opportunities to see random birds of interest along the way.

Now, I have to admit that when I head to Salem on my own, I always seem to end up taking different routes, driving by sense of feel, so to speak. It's kinda hard to navigate someone else with that approach, and there was the need to get through Salem City on the way to the bird in Mannington. Thus, I'm a little scrambled in my mind on which came first: the birding or the Saleming. For the purposes of the blog, I'll handle the birding first.

The bird itself had been located on Compromise Road in Mannington (there's got to be a good story around that name, don't you think?), among a flock of blackbirds. We found our way up Route 45, beyond the county hospital and just outside of the radius of the alarm sirens for the Salem/Hope Creek Nuclear Station. Along the way, we made some roadside stops against a marsh or two to scout some birds, including three bald eagles perched authoritatively in a tree. Pretty cool.

Once on Compromise Road, we were looking for a place described as "about half the way up the road, across from a house with a white sign and a couple of cows in the front yard." I wondered: what if the cows had gone in for the day? And how would we know we were halfway up the road?

Not to worry: it wasn't long before we saw a white sign advertising the Wilson Wool Works, with a few cows in the yard. Where were the sheep? Who knows? The real question became "where's the yellow-headed blackbird?" Among the birds we found along the stretch of road, none had a distinctive yellow pate. Somewhat disappointing. (And a side question: if the Wilson Wool Works had a website, would the URL be www.www.com?)

We did, however, find something interesting where Compromise Road ends: a rather large and distinctive grave marker for John Fenwick, who, with other Quakers, founded Salem in 1675 as the first permanent English settlement on the Delaware River. The Mannington area had been named for him before being renamed for the tile manufacturing company that now dominates the area.

A little later, once in Salem, we made a stop by the famous Salem Oak, where Fenwick negotiated for the land with the local Indian tribe. That, of course, would make the tree well over 300 years old, and its spread branches extend in a broad radius over many graves in the Friends Burial Ground on West Broadway. While the tree was still fertile, its acorns were much sought after and thousands were sent nationwide, meaning there are countless Salem Oaks still out there somewhere.

Now, Salem city itself is an interesting case. The WPA Guide to New Jersey, written in the late 1930's, has a description that still fits: "Salem is like an old, old sampler with a few bright spots: but it is time-worn and frayed. The old brick Georgian Colonial houses facing the brick-paved streets would stir envy in a Williamsburg reconstructionist, and the square, heavy, frame structures, typical of the Civil War era, are a living memorial to another historical period."

Not a lot has changed in 70 years. A thriving port in colonial times, its somewhat tucked-in location on the river made it difficult for Salem's nautical industry to change with the times, and it really hasn't recovered since. Over the years, the discovery of marl for fertilizer, and the growth of the glass industry helped improve the economy, but now it's back to being a backwater, with not a lot of money evident in the community. It's really a shame, too, because the architecture is a hidden gem. Someone with a lot of vision, some money and a long timeline could make a huge impact.

Across the street from the tree is another Salem Oak: the diner bearing its name. A classic Silk City diner with very little renovation over the years, it's a real throwback. Save the crummy pastel paint job on the outside, you'd think the whole thing had just come off the production line in Paterson. I was especially taken with the condition of the restroom, which reminded me that these old diners were delivered with virtually no prep needed by the owner. Just get the plumbing and wiring hooked up from the street and main, and you're open for business.

Now, the last time I was at the Oak, I had a less than stellar meal and indifferent service. This visit didn't change my opinion much. While the French toast was pleasantly thick and spongy, the bacon was disturbingly hard in places, as if there had been a rind they didn't bother to trim off before cooking. And the waitress totally blew Ivan's order, which led to a five minute wait to get resolution. She was apologetic and owned up to the mistake, but really -- there were probably about five tables occupied, and the place wasn't all that busy.

One fun find, just outside of the city center on Route 45, was Royal Port Antiques, located in a restored feed mill on Fenwick Creek. I often check in on one or two favorite shops in Salem which carry 'olde junk,' but much of Royal Port's inventory are legitimate antiques found in the surrounding communities. With so many old and unpreserved farmhouses in the region, it's not surprising to find good stuff there. I had to stop myself from buying a huge old lightbulb for $5, wondering where in heck I would put it... but honestly, I may find myself driving back down to snap it up. (Yes, I know -- I'll spend more in gas and tolls to get it than it's worth, but whatever. I'm an Edison nut, so sue me.)

here's more to come on our Salem County visit... stay tuned for more!

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