Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Yahoos in the Civil War? See their flag at the Archives!

New Jersey's Archives in Trenton hold a wealth of state-related documents dating back over 350 years, but few realize that the collection also contains notable non-document items worthy of viewing. In a darkened room off the main lobby, the Archives displays a rotating collection of Civil War battle flags carried by the citizen soldiers who fought in the War Between the States.

It's not commonly known to those who don't study the war, but Civil War infantry regiments were generally issued a number of flags, including a US flag and state flag, as well as other marker flags. Cavalries also got flags, but they were much smaller, given the difficulty of riding a horse with a full sized banner. After the war, many of the flags were kept by soldiers or ripped apart for regimental members to share as keepsakes, but several were returned intact to the state. Those formed the nucleus of the New Jersey State House flag collection, which was displayed in the capitol building until 1885, when the building suffered a fire. Fortunately, the flags survived and were placed in fireproof storage.

Today, only a few flags are displayed at any given time, due to their advanced age, but the Archives room contains photos of some of the more interesting ones not on display. One of the flags in storage, for instance, has a lovely silk butterfly on it, reflecting the 36th Regiment of the Third Cavalry and the colorful silk linings of their jackets.

When I visited the Archives last week, the four flags on display were largely designed on the theme of the American flag, but with lettering that designated the regiment that carried it, and, perhaps, the list of battles they'd fought in. The one I was most curious about was the "Yahoo" flag carried by the 23rd New Jersey Infantry. Long before internet search engines, the definition of 'yahoo' was derived from the book Gulliver's Travels, whose Yahoo characters were described as vile and uncouth. Who in heck would carry a banner designating themselves by a derisive term?

The 23rd, as it turns out, was mustered from Burlington County in the summer of 1862 to help replenish the First New Jersey Brigade, which had been exhausted by continual service. The 1000-strong 23rd, however, wasn't, well, all that military in demeanor, especially when you consider that its first commander resigned to avoid a court martial for drunkenness. When their new commander inspected the troops and found them less than attentive to protocol, he dubbed them Yahoos, and the name stuck. In fact, many of the veterans of the 23rd proudly declared themselves Yahoos for the rest of their lives. They may have served only nine months, mustering out just before the Battle of Gettysburg, but through their flag, their name lives on.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A day in the park with Lad, a dog

In a park on a quiet, wooded hillside on Pompton Lake, there's a small sign that says, simply, "Lad." Not far away, there's an engraved stone embedded in the ground, which goes a little farther: "LAD. Thoroughbred in body and soul. 1902-1918."

Not far from that marker, there are stones with other names, plus a small kennel. What happened here, and why the focus on dogs?

Terhune Park in Wayne is, in fact, the estate of Albert Payson Terhune and his wife Anice. Readers of early 20th century literature may be familiar with the "Lad, A Dog" book series, or perhaps the movie that was made from the original book in the early 1960s. Albert was a dog lover and breeder of rough collies and had tried without success to find a market for the stories he wrote about his dogs. That changed when the normally aloof Lad finally took a liking to a family friend who was also an editor for Redbook magazine. Fictionalized accounts of the dog's exploits were eventually published there, the Saturday Evening Post and in other periodicals, building a huge following. In those days, reading was one of the few forms of entertainment in the home, so writers and publishers alike could profit handsomely from serialized stories featuring popular characters. 

Known as Sunnybank, the Terhune estate eventually became home to at least eight collies and a cat, and the Terhunes' love of animals even extended to frogs and goldfish they named and kept in a pond near the kennel. Lad, however, was the rock star of the family. Profits from his stories were donated to the Red Cross and the Blue Cross, earning him medals from both organizations. In the years following his death, thousands of loyal fans continued to visit his grave.

The house itself no longer stands, having been victim to abandonment following Mrs. Terhune's death in 1964. Much of the estate was sold to developers, but Wayne Township condemned a 10 acre portion for use as a passive recreation park.

Ivan and I found Sunnybank to be a calming, pastoral setting when we visited a few weeks ago, and it seemed that the other visitors there at the time did, too. There are no ball fields or playgrounds there, just a few park benches and a gazebo near the lake, making it a perfect setting for quiet contemplation. Sitting there, overlooking the water, one could easily imagine the Terhunes enjoying a nice afternoon outside with the dogs.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Getting back to gobbles at Haines Farms in Union

The most hidden of New Jersey is the stuff that's not there anymore, brought to life by memories at particular times of year. Thanksgiving always brings me back to a very specific recollection from grade school: the annual visit to Haines Farms to see their gaggle of turkeys.

My mom tells the story of the first time my older sister brought home a permission slip for the trip. The idea provoked visions of little first graders taking a bus ride out of suburbia into New Jersey farm country, and learning all about turkeys from a farmer. While there were more farms in the state at that point than there are today, Union was already pretty well built out and certainly not host to any.

What Mom didn't realize was that the trip was to a farm stand just a couple of miles away from our grammar school. The Haines family ran a produce and poultry farm in Union for quite some time, but all I remember was their retail location on Chestnut Street. In November, they'd show a large contingent of live toms and hens in a big pen for local residents who preferred their turkeys extra fresh. The Haineses would welcome the schools to bring students by for what was probably the first time any of us had seen a live turkey. I don't know if they were just being nice, or if someone there realized what a good marketing opportunity it was. You know: the kids come home, talk about their field trip, and the parents get the bright idea of where to get the holiday bird.

As kids, we didn't really follow the logic chain. We just liked seeing the huge birds clucking and strutting around their large enclosure. I can't remember there being much more to the trip than getting off the bus, watching the turkeys for a few minutes, and then getting back on the bus for the ride back to school. The whole thing couldn't have taken more than an hour, round trip.

Haines Farms went out of business years ago and is virtually non-existent on the internet, but a recent posting on the "Growing up in Union in the 50's, 60's, 70's and 80's" Facebook page offered a little more information. Word is that their greenhouse was part of an exhibit in the 1939 World's Fair and was donated to the Smithsonian after the business closed in the 1980s.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Was that a ghost I saw? The bogus haunting of Liberty Hall.

A few weeks ago, Ivan and I visited Liberty Hall in Union, and before that, I also wrote about the town's Revolutionary War past. Not surprisingly, there's a link between the two: Hannah Caldwell and British soldiers. I heard the connection several years ago, when I first visited the house and before possession of the property had been transferred to Kean College. The tours were a little less polished and a little longer in the telling, with volunteers happy to share some of the more, shall we say, interesting parts of the history. 

The story goes like this: following the Battle of Connecticut Farms, British soldiers made their way back toward Elizabeth and Staten Island on the road that's now Morris Avenue. The battle had been tragic for the townspeople, with the torching of nearly every building in the community and the shooting death of Hannah Caldwell, wife of the Third New Jersey's chaplain, Rev. James Caldwell. When the Redcoats reached Liberty Hall, darkness had already fallen, and several stopped there to camp on the property for the night. Some especially bold soldiers decided they'd rather stay indoors since the weather was turning stormy. They knew that the house belonged to Governor William Livingston, and a reward was being offered for his capture, so certainly it was quite a coup to actually stay there, maybe even sleep in his bed. No doubt, some knew that the family had moved out for a few years, but they were unaware that Livingston's three daughters, Susanna, Sarah and Catherine, were back in the home they loved so much.

Susan was already in bed, but when she heard the soldiers noisily entering the house, she rose to investigate. Lighting a candle, she left her bedroom dressed in her flowing white nightgown. Just as she reached the landing on the staircase, the sky was illuminated with lightning, briefly flashing in the large window behind her. All the invading soldiers saw was a ghostly white figure descending, looking to some like the spectre of Hannah Caldwell. Frightened by the prospect of paying for their sins, the Redcoats quickly left the house, never to return. 

Fast forward to the 20th century, when Mary Alice Barney married into the Kean family. She quickly fell in love with Liberty Hall and its history and took substantial steps to preserve it and its contents for eventual use as a museum. That's not to say she didn't have a little fun along the way. Hearing the story of the supposed ghost of Hannah Caldwell and the frightened British soldiers, she commissioned a painting of the brave Susanna Livingston, descending a staircase, candle in hand, to investigate the noises below with the aid of a small black cat. The painting is obscured from view by a door, and apparently Mary Alice would use the arrangement to startle unsuspecting guests (I think she'd ask them to go upstairs to find something, and direct them to that door for the attic stairs.). Regardless of how she 'showed' the painting, I like to think it was one of the ways Mary Alice showed her kinship to the young woman who protected her house from damage and harm.

The last few times I've gone to Liberty Hall, the volunteers have neither shown the painting nor told the story. I have to believe it's still there, so if you do go to visit, ask about it. My recounting of the story is from memory and may be a little off from the legend, so it's well worth checking. Even if they show you the painting, it's likely they won't let you take a photo ... I'm still surprised I was given permission to take the one above.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Both sides of the Civil War... in Cape May

That awful pork-roll-on-potato-roll sandwich may have left a dent, but it wasn't enough to tide me through lunchtime on our recent Cape May visit, so we headed downtown to get a real meal. That done, we took a quick stroll down Jackson and found ourselves at the outdoor Washington Street mall. Even on a November Saturday, the place was almost as populated as it is on a summer afternoon.

I figured we were just headed back to the car, but Ivan took a detour onto the mall, which is basically a street closed to traffic. After looking for a minute or two, he found what he was looking for:

If there's a Civil War connection to any given place, Ivan will find it. This one relates the story of a local man who survived a battle injury and confinement at one of the worst Confederate prison camps. Cape May resident and Union Colonel Henry Washington Sawyer gained some of his fame for being part of a prisoner exchange that returned Brigadier General William Lee to the Confederates. Yes, that kind of Lee: the son of Confederate Army leader Robert E. Lee.

Sawyer returned to Cape May after the war and built the Chalfonte Hotel, which still stands today as the city's oldest continually-operated lodging place. After his death, the hotel eventually went into the hands of a family from Virginia that had ties to the Confederate Army. To this day, the hotel continues to serve Southern food and works to extend the region's hospitality to all of its guests. Considering that many believe Cape May to be south of the Mason-Dixon line, it's rather appropriate, but one wonders what Sawyer would think. He certainly didn't get the best of southern hospitality at Libby Prison.  

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Stevie Nicks, get out of my head!

I've finally relented to the madness of listing all of the species I've seen since Ivan and I started birding together. Add to that the few notables I recall from my other travels, and I've collected a roster of about 150 birds, give or take.

Thus, when Ivan suggested that we drive to Cape May last Saturday, I was a bit more than receptive. He'd heard that two doves, the Eurasian Collared and the White-winged, were cited at the point, and if he needed them for his lists, I certainly could do with seeing them, too. Doves, for the uninitiated, aren't just the cooing white creatures we see at weddings and in magic shows. Most are kinda pigeon-y in color and size, but they're more distinctive than the average sidewalk denizen. You've seen 'em. You probably just didn't realize it.

I have to admit that I'm not a big fan of getting up early enough to hit the Parkway at 6 a.m., even if someone else is driving. It still frustrates me that my favorite Parkway rest stop, Ocean View (milepost 15 or so) now lacks a staffed food source AND doesn't open until 8:30 a.m. I mean, where am I supposed to get my burger and duck into a rest room? Governor Christie, are you listening?

That rant aside, and needing the facilities, we made a beeline for Cape May Point and the state beach, figuring we'd then stop for a convenience-store bite and locate the doves next. Fortunately the rest rooms near the lighthouse were open and the 7-Eleven offered up prepared breakfast sandwiches. A helpful note here: avoid the pork roll and cheese on potato roll. It's both a belly bomb and potentially trichinosis-laden, if you catch my drift.

Cape May Point offers acres and acres of protected habitat, but the two doves were said to be hanging out at specific residential addresses, so we went to check those roads, scanning the utility wires along the way. We checked for the white winged dove with no luck, running into a couple of birders Ivan knew, who also hadn't seen the bird.

Not the white winged dove we saw,
but a white winged dove, nonetheless.
Next stop, collared dove. The neighborhood there was a little denser and closer to the beach, and the dove's address led us to a corner property ringed with evergreens and a nice enclave of bird feeders. Shortly after we got there, we were joined by that first pair of birders and another trio, all scanning for a bird which seemed not to want to be seen. The chat was friendly and optimistic, making the wait and the additional scans rather pleasant.

Someone decided to check out the trees on the other street bordering the property, and I ambled over to see if I could find anything. With that many more experienced birders present, I didn't expect to be the one to spot it, but... I was! Nestled back in an evergreen, like one of those glass Christmas tree bird ornaments, was the visitor we'd all come to see, the Eurasian collared dove. He very nicely accommodated us with some good views, turning from time to time to allow us to see different aspects. Before we parted company, we exchanged numbers with one of the other birders, who pledged to let us know if she saw or heard about any other good feathered visitors.

With that victory in hand, we drove back over to see if our luck would continue with another visit to the white winged's reported spot. This time, the property owner, himself an avid birder, suggested we could come into his yard for a look. He also told us the dove had been showing up around 3 p.m. for the past several days. Great! If we could just get all the birds on regular schedules, all of this listing folly would be so much easier.

We had a few hours to kill before then, so we headed back to the lighthouse to check out the ducks on the nearby pond. Given the time of year, the duck population is increasing both in volume and variety, making it more likely we'd find something interesting at the blind. At the very least, I might get one or two new species for the list.

It didn't take long for us both to make good sightings. As I was scribbling "coot" into my listing book, Ivan called a male Eurasian wigeon. It differs from its American cousin in the color of its head (the local guy has a green cap of sorts while the import is more brownish in the same spot) and underbelly, while the females of either species are pretty similar, making ID difficult. Several birders happened by and crowded into the blind to get Ivan's description of the bird's location on the pond among so many waterfowl there.

Unlike the frustrating chases of weekends past, we were really cleaning up on listing birds, but the last quarry, the white-winged dove, was yet to be seen. We optimistically headed back to the proper address, and a few yards before we got there, noticed yet another birder trained on a tree in a field. To the naked eye, it appeared he was staring at an oddly grown branch. A closer look revealed the growth to be an immature bald eagle, just hanging out. Eagles are becoming more common, though it's always a thrill to see one, especially a young guy who looks strong and healthy. It crossed my mind that he was frustratingly close to the white-winged's habitual afternoon spot. Hopefully we'd spot the dove before the eagle did.

Not to worry. As we pulled up to the proper address, the property owner was walking down his porch to the driveway, camera in hand. No doubt the visitor had arrived!

A small crowd gathered as we put binoculars to eyes and looked upward into a nearby tree. After a few moments of looking, someone found the white-winged dove and began describing his whereabouts so the rest of us could find him. Yup, there he was, patiently nestled on a branch, displaying the distinctive white stripe on the edge of his wing. Nice!

Thanking the property owner for sharing the view with us, I asked, "What're you going to have for us next week?" I was kidding, of course, but I guess you could say I caught the bug. A successful day will do that, I guess. It wasn't just the birds, though. As Ivan mentioned later on, one of the great parts of birding is the sense of community, and Cape May was birder central that day. Almost from the moment we got there, we'd run into others who were capitalizing on the great weather to visit with the birds, and all were more than happy to share their finds and hear about our discoveries. You can't help but feel good about that.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Newark Airport's secret murals, revealed

A while back I posted a piece on Newark Airport's early days and its beautiful Depression-era art deco terminal and administration building, which was restored several years ago. What I didn't mention -- because I didn't know -- was that a key part of the terminal is no longer there. It's at the Newark Museum.

I visited the terminal a few years ago to check out the architecture, and it didn't disappoint. No longer welcoming travelers as a gateway to their flights, the building now houses various law enforcement and public safety agencies, but I was able to walk freely through the lobby and upstairs balcony area. It had all the usual art deco accouterments, but I was stopped short by an abstract-looking mural on the second floor. It felt weirdly modern, though I couldn't place the era.

The answer came in a booklet provided nearby, which explained that the mural was one of several sponsored by the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration. Armenian-American painter Arshile Gorky painted ten works for the building and called them "Aviation: Evolution of Forms under Aerodynamic Limitations." Instead of working directly on the plaster walls, Gorky painted on large canvases, a practice regularly used by WPA-sponsored artists. His works remained in view at the airport from their installation in 1937 until the War department took control of the airport in 1942. At that point, they disappeared.

However, they weren't forgotten. In the 1970's, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, now operators of the airport, began an inventory of art in the agency's older buildings. While surveying Newark Airport's oldest building for its art deco detailing, a researcher happened to notice a thread dangling from one of the walls and surmised he may have discovered the missing murals. Eventually, through testing the fate of the Gorky works became clear: they'd been obscured by fourteen coats of mundane wall paint that had been slapped up over the years.

Today, two panels of the ten survive and are now hanging on the first floor of the Newark Museum, their vibrant colors restored. I rediscovered them when Ivan and I visited the museum over the summer, and found that the one I'd seen at the airport was a reproduction. To be honest, I had mixed feelings about seeing them at the museum. On one hand, I was rather pleased that I could identify them and knew their provenance. On the other hand, I felt they should be at their original home, EWR circa 1935. There, they felt like a secret treasure only a few of us knew about.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Hold the onions: the story of Liver Eating Johnson

The road wanderer's best friend (besides the GPS to get home) is the roadside historical marker. More than once, we've been drawn to an interesting story purely by chance, when we've seen one of these signs on a county road or local street. Kinda gives you incentive to drive the speed limit.

Traversing county roads around Hunterdon County a few weeks ago, Ivan and I came upon a rather puzzling marker:

The title alone gives one pause. Without reading the rest of the sign, I envisioned a local oddball who made his name by ordering liver every time he went to the local tavern. Maybe he got the name by winning a bet for eating several pounds of liver which, while being very nutritious, isn't everyone's cup of tea. 

You can read the sign for yourself to get the gist of the story, but it's possibly a little misleading. While Garrison/Johnson was born in Little York (now Alexandria), New Jersey, the deed which led to his sobriquet actually occurred in the American West. 

I checked into the Johnson story and found several conflicting accounts, all basically pretty revolting. Some say that after a troubled childhood, he left New Jersey to take to the sea, serving in the Navy before venturing west to the frontier. Others say he fought in the Mexican War and enlisted to serve on the Union side in the Civil War. Allegedly, he deserted after striking an officer, which led him to change his name to avoid capture.

The liver-eating part is, well, a bit gruesome. According to legend, members of the Crow tribe killed his wife, and in revenge, he took to a 12 year murder rampage. He slaughtered several Crow, eating his victims' livers since the tribe believed that eating the raw liver of the game they hunted would give them added strength. I haven't seen the movie Jeremiah Johnson, but I'm guessing that the cannibalism story line wasn't part of the plot. After all, the title role was played by Robert Redford, not Anthony Hopkins.

My research led me to a very well written essay by a young student who refutes the whole 'liver eating' story. That account says that while Johnson was an ornery, belligerent man, he had largely favorable relations with the natives. His nickname apparently originated after a knife fight with attacking Sioux, when a bit of his opponent's liver remained on Johnson's knife after a stabbing. Turning to his companions, Johnson offered the blade and asked if they'd like a bite. That may be callous, but it's not cannibalistic.

Johnson lived out his life in classic 1800's Western style, bootlegging whiskey, enforcing the law (while doing the bootlegging, I don't know), prospecting for gold and eventually retreating to a cabin in Montana. He's buried in Cody, Wyoming, far from his Garden State roots. Kinda makes you wonder how many other frontier legends were born in New Jersey.  

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Finding the Station Agent in Newfoundland

One of my favorite New Jersey-based movies is The Station Agent, a quiet independent movie made eight or nine years ago. Some of the early scenes are in Hoboken, but the lion's share of the movie was shot and based in Newfoundland, Passaic County. Without giving up too much of the plot, the primary character inherits an old train depot in Newfoundland and relocates there. The place looks very remote, and the depot was obviously standing unused for many years, weatherbeaten and with peeling paint. A few aging train cars sit unused on a nearby siding.

This, of course, is just the kind of thing I look for, so a couple of years ago I took a drive to find the old depot and get a few snapshots.

Newfoundland had long had a special place in my mind, though I'd never actually been there. My Girl Scout troop used to make the long trip to Camp Lou Henry Hoover on Swartswood Lake, and enroute, we'd pass signs for Newfoundland. At the time I had no idea there was an actual community by that name in New Jersey, and I'd joke that we'd somehow reached the Canadian border. Poor joke, I know. I was that kind of kid.

Station Agent depotMy adult trip to Newfoundland brought me up Route 23, through Wayne and Lincoln Park and northward. Eventually the commercial establishments on the road got fewer and farther between, and the Newark Reservoir came into view. Then I started seeing signs for Newfoundland, and the real search began.

Given how quiet and peaceful the depot's environs seemed in the film, I assumed I'd be wandering around backroads for a good hour or so, but I found the depot very quickly. It's actually just a few hundred yards in from the highway! 

It's also very nicely kept and well maintained with fresh paint and, when I was there, some of those nice house banners. Apparently someone either lives there or uses it as an office, but they keep up the railroad spirit by leaving the "NEWFOUNDLAND" sign on the building for the trains that once stopped there. When I watched the movie on DVD later on, I discovered that the producers had had to rough up the station's exterior a bit before shooting. For once, then, something looks better in real life than it does in the movies. 

Sunday, November 6, 2011

First football, then the constitution, all on College Ave.

Today marks the 142nd anniversary of the first intercollegiate football game between Rutgers and Princeton, played in New Brunswick. As any college football aficionado or proud son or daughter of Rutgers knows, the men in scarlet won the game six goals to four.

But did you know that the game was played at the same location where New Jersey's 1947 state constitution was drafted? And it's the same place the Scarlet Knights' mens basketball team played its home games en route to its storied 1975-76 NCAA Final Four appearance? That's some lucky real estate there, though some may have argument with the constitution.

Many Rutgers students pass the College Avenue Gym without ever realizing the history lurking within and beneath the building. There's a plaque by the front door, memorializing the constitutional convention, but the football connection is missing. Indeed, fans going to present day games couldn't be faulted for thinking the first game was held at the current stadium in Piscataway, given the bronze statue at the north entrance and the large "BIRTHPLACE OF COLLEGE FOOTBALL" painted on the wall inside.

The historic November 6, 1869 game was played in much humbler surroundings, but student spirit was just as intense as it is today. Few know it, but the rivalry between the two New Jersey schools had been fueled by a dispute over who owned a particular Revolutionary War cannon, but that's a story for another day. That, plus a drubbing of the Rutgers baseball team by the Princeton nine, led to the first football game. About 100 spectators came to see the two teams of 25 men playing a game closer to soccer than today's football. Three games were to be played over the course of a few weeks, but only two were held. Seems that the faculties of both schools were concerned that athletic pursuits were getting in the way of academics. Imagine that!

The Barn, as the gym is known, was built in 1931 to replace the fire-ravaged Ballantine Gym which had been located near present day Zimmerli Gallery. While the mens' and womens' basketball teams now play at the Rutgers Athletic Center across the river, the Barn still hosts volleyball and wrestling matches. One wonders if the ghosts of 1869 ever come out to cheer for them. Perhaps when Princeton visits.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Lighthouses in Jersey City? Not quite, but close.

Right now there are two lighthouses in Jersey City.

There used to be just one, and once spring arrives, it's likely the city will be back to just one again.

Well, that's not exactly accurate. Neither is a lighthouse, but their original purpose was much the same. Both are actually lightships, sailing vessels that were once stationed at dangerous places offshore to warn oncoming vessels of shoals and other hazards to navigation. The benefits of a ship over a lighthouse are pretty obvious: they can go places where it's too difficult to build, they can be moved as needed, and they're likely more cost effective for the same reason. 

Today, the Coast Guard uses large lighted buoys to do the same work, rendering the lightships obsolete. Like many lighthouses, though, some of the ships have taken on new lives, and it would seem that their mobility is a real asset in that regard.

One of the Jersey City lightships, the Winter Quarter, is berthed, seemingly permanently, at the New York Harbor end of what used to be the Morris Canal. You might know the place better as the Liberty Landing Marina next to the old Central Railroad of New Jersey terminal in Liberty State Park. The Winter Quarter now holds offices for a yacht dealer and other businesses of interest to the boaters who leave their pricey craft at the marina. Our visitor, the Nantucket, has a somewhat classier job as a floating vacation rental property and events location, and you can see her bright red exterior very clearly from across the marina.

Turns out that this is just the most recent of a series of lightships that guided water traffic near the treacherous Nantucket Shoals from 1850 to the mid 1980s. Contrary to the old superstition about renaming ships, It was fairly common in those days for those in the light service to take on new names when they were relocated.

Built in 1950 as Lightship 612, our visiting Nantucket was the very last vessel to serve as a lightship in the US Coast Guard, being retired in 1985. During her 35 year commission, she served in three other locations - San Francisco; Blunts Reef, California; and Portland, Maine - before her final station in Nantucket.

When I visited the marina to take a few pictures, I had to laugh, considering the history of the area. Here were two important guides to navigation, placed at either side of the end of a man-made canal that was engineered for safe passage and speedy travel. The practicalities of the current day often have an interesting impact on historical sites and relics, don't you think? In any case, repurposing things means they'll be available for future generations, even if it requires a bit of imagination to see them as they once were, not as they are today.

Thanks to our friends at Bowsprite for pointing out the Nantucket's current location. If you're interested in the comings and goings in New York Harbor, check them out!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

From tabletop to cockpit: Boonton's plastic past

This past weekend's freak snowstorm and follow-up tree damage kept us from making any lengthy road trips, but we found our way to another local town museum, this one run by the Boonton Historical Society. Located in the John Taylor building (no, not that John Taylor) on Main Street, the Boonton Museum contains a timeline of town events to 1903, plus artifacts from the Morris Canal and several fossils found during the construction of the Jersey City Reservoir. There's also a room for changing exhibits, presently housing vintage service uniforms from the armed forces and various scouting and Civil Defense organizations. Pretty cool stuff.

Despite all of that, though, my interest was grabbed most by something in the gift shop - an iconic Boonton relic that didn't even warrant a mention in the historical exhibits. Some of you may remember Boontonware, that miracle hard plastic material from which dishes, bowls and tableware were molded. A mix of Bakelite and formaldehyde, Boontonware is unbreakable and remarkably durable. In fact, my mom still has the dishes and bowls she purchased when I was a young kid. My very first (and for a long time only) memories of Boonton are of visiting the Boontonware store and picking out a cartoon-themed kiddie dining set consisting of a plate, cereal bowl and tumbler. They don't have those at the Boonton Museum, but they have the same design of salad and mixing bowls my mom still uses on a regular basis.

They're still making Boontonware somewhere in Ohio, which is a bit depressing, but, I guess, better than it not being made at all anymore. In checking it out, though, I've learned, though, that Boonton's participation in the early molded plastics industry also set the stage for its role in the electronics industry in the first half of the 20th century.

You'll recall that we recently found out about Jimmy Doolittle's historic instrument-driven flight at the Aircraft Radio Corporation testing field in Boonton. Part of the reason ARC and other radio pioneers located in the town was because they needed molded parts. Think of all of those radio chassis, dials and so forth that needed to be crafted to exact specifications, and it all makes sense. Thomas Edison had a similar process with his inventions: he had people on staff or nearby to design and craft parts for his creations and the machines that would mass produce the successful inventions. No doubt, the radio companies wanted their parts makers to be close by, to make any needed design adjustments quickly and efficiently before the radios went into production.

Did Jimmy Doolittle himself ever use Boontonware? There's no record to prove or disprove, but the U.S. Navy bought plenty of Boonton Molding's virtually indestructible tableware for use on their ships during World War II. In fact, the company coined the Boontonware brand after the war in an attempt to keep sales up after defense contracts expired. In any case, I think we can say with some certainty that Doolittle didn't use the same cartoon bowl I did growing up.