Thursday, March 17, 2011

Where the Naugles hide

"We have to go to the Naugle House." It was either that, or words to that extent, that Ivan declared as I steered the car down Route 17.

"What's a naugle," you ask? Yup, I asked, too. If you get enough naugle hide, can you make a nice recliner? How many naugles would it take? As we considered various naugle-related questions, we left the highway for some back roads and eventually ended up at Saddle River County Park in Fair Lawn. This, Ivan explained, was a true example of hidden New Jersey: a small gem off the beaten path.

Right on the side of the driveway to the park was a small wood and stone house with plywood-clad windows, surrounded by a chain link fence of recent vintage. This sign was next to the house:

"Built by a Naugle?" I exclaimed. Like, what's a Naugle? I mean, it's not often that wayside markers are so imprecise as to not identify someone by their full name (unless really famous like Lafayette, that is), so maybe a naugle is a what and not a who? At the very least, this sign seemed to prove that naugle isn't a verb -- there wasn't any naugling going on at this place. Think about it:  it was a possibility. I'll leave that for you to consider.

Our friendly Fair Lawn tourguide
introduces us to the Naugle House
which didn't start out
as a Naugle House.
Ivan was a bit surprised to see the house in a derelict state, as he could remember it being occupied throughout his school years. In fact, he'd brought college friends there to visit, and they'd met a man there who'd shook the hand of a man who shook the hand of a man who (add a few more generations here) had shook the hand of General George Washington. I guess he had his own little six degrees of Kevin Bacon going on there. (So when you meet Ivan, be sure to shake his hand so you can join in the chain). And yes, he confirmed, a family named Naugle had lived in the house.

So, me being me, I did a little research once I got home. First off, there are two other Naugle houses (if not more) in Bergen County, both in Closter. These folks apparently got around, but the Fair Lawn house seems to be the only one that someone has claimed was actually built by a Naugle. Imagine that: you've got a handy guy in the family, but he refuses to help you build your house.

This specific Fair Lawn Naugle house was built sometime in the 1740's or '50's, according to Preservation New Jersey, which placed the building on its Most Endangered list of 2007. The story on the wayside marker is in some doubt, as the property was originally deeded to a Vanderbeck, whose sister married a man named Brouwer who moved into the house and was eventually the paymaster for Lafayette's Light Division. Additionally, it's been determined that Lafayette visited the house in the 1790s, not 1824. No Naugle lived in the house until the 1800s, and then intermittently after that. In other words, the Fair Lawn College Club had the story totally wrong.

Regardless, it's a great example of how history can morph and grow into local legends that make a place remarkable even if the story may be specious. And ultimately, the Naugle House is teaching local residents an important lesson about growth, development and the power of small groups of people with a common purpose.

In 2004, descendants of the Naugles sold the property to a developer, along with adjacent land, with the vision of building several townhouses. (Yes, more new construction is just what Bergen County needs.) Long story short, local residents passed an open space referendum in 2005 to preserve the house. The whole thing moved forward largely through the action of a persistent group of fourth grade students who prodded the borough to buy the property from the developer. The sale is expected to go through very soon.

Now, the house awaits stabilization and eventual restoration, which could take as long as 20 years to complete, considering the need to apply for and receive grants. For the time being, local historians are doing further research to uncover the full story of the house, from its construction to now. Hopefully, they'll be able to get to the bottom of the facts, but even if they don't, it'll be a pretty cool place to visit, incomplete history and all.

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