Saturday, December 31, 2011

Roosevelt: an experiment in cooperative living at Jersey Homesteads

Deep in the heart of New Jersey is a community constructed in whole cloth, so to speak, by the Federal government during the Great Depression. Originally founded as Jersey Homesteads within the larger community of Millstone Township, the borough is now known as Roosevelt. It's also the only complete town to be listed on both the state and national historic registers.

Under the aegis of the U.S. Department of the Interior Subsistence Homesteads program, nearly two square miles of Monmouth County farmland became an agricultural and industrial cooperative community for unemployed Jewish garment workers seeking to leave overcrowded Manhattan living conditions.  Russian immigrant and community founder Benjamin Brown envisioned a place where Jewish culture would be preserved. In fact, the records of many of the early town meetings were kept in Yiddish.

Like many other planned communities, Jersey Homesteads was laid out functionally, with clusters of houses on half acre lots, surrounded by common open space. All were designed in the Bauhaus style that was in the vogue in Europe at the time: single story concrete-and-steel buildings with little if any ornamentation. You can imagine that these living quarters were quite different from what the Homesteads residents were accustomed to on the Lower East Side.

The farm experiment didn't work out too well, as most of the settlers had little experience working the land, and the collectively owned and operated garment factory ultimately met a similar fate. However, the community became a haven for artists and intellectuals from the very beginning. Noted artist Ben Shahn moved to town in 1937 and left his mark most notably with a huge fresco mural in the Roosevelt public school building, depicting immigration history and labor reforms. These days, artists and non-polluting businesses occupy the old factory, and Roosevelt's population is one of the most highly educated in the state.

On my visit one Saturday, Roosevelt was quiet, leaving me to drive around town slowly to get a glimpse of what had become of the original structures and town design. What I saw was a mix of the old Bauhaus along with some more recent construction, all pretty much remaining in the envisioned peaceful environment.

The public buildings are all basically gathered in the same place: the post office, deli and grade school are clustered on one street, while town hall is just down the road. I stopped by the school to see if I could get a glimpse of the Shahn mural, but it was out of view. What I found instead was both fascinating and a little weird.

There's a small outdoor amphitheater next to the school, with a prominent bust of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Actually, it's not a bust in the traditional sense. It's more like a Roosevelt head mounted on a square column on which his name is chiseled. It's a decent enough likeness, but there's something about it that seems, well, kinda weird. Surrounded by benches as it is, and bereft of an actual body (which, given the size of the head would be darn imposing), it's almost supernatural, as if there's one night of the year when people gather to receive messages from it or something. That's not to say that there's anything strange going on there. It just struck me odd.

Read the town's website or talk to any of its residents, and it becomes very clear that this is a close-knit community with a civic consciousness and pride in its origins. The homes may be modest and the amenities in town are very limited, but Roosevelt remains a desired address for cultured types. Just remember that you have to pick up your mail at the post office.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Stamps, express mail and works of art

How often do you find yourself going to the post office lately? If you're like me, it's a fairly rare occurrence, especially now that I do most of my correspondence and bill paying electronically. Mostly, I'm there to ship something I sold on eBay, or maybe I'm sending hard-copy writing samples via express mail.

I have to admit that when I have time to spare, I rather enjoy going to the post office in my small town. It's old-timey and maintains that feeling of permanence you want in a government building, which so many newer buildings lack. Take a look at the higher reaches inside the lobby area of an older post office, and chances are you'll see some vintage murals. Depending on the location, you might see colonial history, idyllic local scenery, or maybe heroic representations of New Jersey industry.

These murals were the product of a convergence of economic hardship, government stimulus and artistic trends in the 1930s. Art - and artists - tend to suffer in poor economies, and the Great Depression was no exception. Among the 'alphabet soup' bureaus created under the Roosevelt Administration were the Federal Art Project, Public Works of Art Project and the Treasury Department Section of Painting and Sculpture, all designed to provide work opportunities to artists while improving public buildings. Murals were particularly popular, as the Italian Renaissance fresco style had come to the fore during the Roaring 20s. Most showed more traditional styles, idealizing American values in the communities where they were housed. They didn't just put the unemployed to work, they help to tell the stories of our past and expose us to fine art at the same time. Nationally, more than 5000 jobs were created through the art programs. In New Jersey alone, nearly 50 post offices were graced with their work.

I do wonder about the veracity of some of the scenes, though. The recently-restored mural at the Cranford Post Office, for example, is purported to depict the Battle of Cranford, a skirmish I've yet to hear of. Yes, troops were cantoned along the Rahway River in the town, but it's not likely they actually fought on town soil. I'm sure the mural has built community pride in our colonial forebears, perhaps it's at the price of accuracy.

These days, the murals have likely lost their meaning for many people who see them, but they're worth a look. When they were first installed, they showed a vision of the best of a prosperous and hopeful America. Today, they show the optimism of a people in the depths of economic despair, a people who would enjoy a level of prosperity within a generation.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Was Santa Claus born in Morristown?

Today, as many New Jersey children awake to the delight of toys around the Christmas tree, my own thoughts return to the excitement I felt for the visit that Saint Nick would make to my house.

Little did I know that the red-jacketed, white-fluffy-bearded big guy with the bag full of goodies is actually from Morristown.

Well, kind of.

It's no secret that our concept of Santa Claus was cemented in the public eye by political cartoonist Thomas Nast. Few people realize that Nast lived in Morristown for many years, on Macculloch Avenue.

Like many New Jerseyans today, Nast was a transplant. Born in Germany, he and his family moved to New York when he was a child, and it was there that he became famous for his politically-inspired drawings. This was before the large-scale use of photography, and good illustrators were essential for magazines to cover the stories of the day. Early in his career, he covered the wars in Italy for publications in New York and London, which made him the logical choice to cover the Civil War for Harper's Weekly.

He was a noted voice railing against the corruption of the Boss Tweed political machine that ruled the city after the Civil War, so much so that Tweed's representatives attempted to bribe him to leave the country. Instead, Nast moved his family to Morristown in 1872 and commuted to New York to continue his work at Harpers. His unrelenting attacks so infuriated the electorate that Tweed and his crew were voted out of office, with Tweed eventually convicted and sent to prison.

While crusading for what he felt was right and fair, Nast drew likenesses that have become ingrained in American culture: Uncle Sam, the Democratic and Republican mascots, and, of course, Santa Claus.

Nast's house is privately owned and not open for tours, but the nearby Macculloch Hall Historical Museum maintains the nation's largest collection of his works. Contributed by his family, the Nast archive includes rough sketches, watercolor and oil paintings, and proofs and drawings in pencil and ink. Students of the artist can also make an appointment to view his personal papers and photos.

I'm still trying to figure out whether Nast actually lived in Morristown when he drew Santa for the first time, but I'm not sure it really matters. Like many other notable people we New Jerseyans claim as our own, he lived here for a bit, and that's good enough for me.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Ducks, Barnegat Lighthouse and the Civil War

"What are three things that have never been in my kitchen?" (Apologies to Alex Trebek and legions of Cheers fans. Sorry, couldn't help it.)

The cold weather brings duck season with it. No, I don't mean the Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies kind of duck season, wabbit season, Elmer season. I mean the "Wow, did you ever know that so many kinds of ducks come to New Jersey?"

I first discovered this on a solo winter trip to Long Beach Island several years ago. Walking on the jetty by the lighthouse, I noticed some beautiful black, white, gray and rust-colored ducks congregating in the waters next to the rocks. Their colors seemed to be applied in blocks, much as one might work a paint-by-numbers portrait. I didn't know at the time, but harlequin ducks can often be found there in the winter, right along the rip-rap that protects the lighthouse property from eroding into the bay. They're a nice diversion from the mallards we're all familiar with.

Ivan and I visited Barnegat Light State Park last January to see these and other ducks, but before we got to the jetty, he wanted to stop and pay his respects to George Meade. Huh?

Turns out that the designer of the Barnegat Lighthouse is none other than the man who led the Army of the Potomac to victory at Gettysburg and several other Civil War campaigns. Meade was both an army officer and civil engineer who specialized in coastal construction. It was logical, then, that he was the one who designed the successor to the original 40-foot Barnegat light, which had been shoddily built in 1835.

Meade's replacement stands a majestic 172 feet, second in height to only Cape Hatteras light on the entire east coast. He used an innovative cylinder-inside-cone design that provides moisture-blocking insulation between the tower's inner and outer walls. While the construction has held strong since the light was first illuminated in 1859, the biggest threat to the tower is erosion to the north end of Long Beach Island, where it stands. That's why the rip rap is there, creating a harlequin-friendly environment not far away.

Meade also designed Cape May and Absecon Lights, both of which tower around the 170 foot mark. Depending on who you talk to, you'll hear differing opinions on which is tallest, or which should be considered most challenging in number of interior steps, but all have largely withstood the test of time. To my knowledge, Barnegat is the only light that commemorates Meade with a bust or plaque. Personally, I think the best homage to him is to climb to the top of his creation, look out to sea and imagine all of the mariners whom it guided safely to port.

Monday, December 19, 2011

East Point Lighthouse: at the end of New Jersey

To many people, the 'end' of New Jersey is Cape May Point, punctuated by the lighthouse.

To me, it's East Point, in Heislerville, also punctuated by a lighthouse.

Cape May is nice and all, but there are way too many people for it to be the 'end.' The end, to me, is a place where everything stops, and it's just you, nature and a broad expanse of water with no indication of land on the other side.

I first found East Point during a New Jersey Lighthouse Society Lighthouse Challenge Weekend. Held every October, these events encourage people to visit all of the open lighthouses in the state. The year I did it, that meant 11 structures that ring the coast starting at Paulsboro at the Delaware River and curving around the lower contours of the state and upward till you get to Sandy Hook at the mouth of the Raritan Bay. Starting on the river side, I visited two sites and was debating the third, which was a good 90 minute drive away near the mouth of the Maurice River.

That third lighthouse was East Point, a bit of coastal New England on the shores of Delaware Bay.

I was absolutely transfixed on that first visit, even with dozens of people present. East Point is the true middle of nowhere, and it's very easy to stand among the surrounding reeds and the wind, and consider this the edge of the earth. Imagine being the lighthouse keeper there, back in the day when Down Jersey was even more remote than it is today.

East Point began service in 1849 and is the second only to Sandy Hook in age among New Jersey lighthouses. Unlike most of the state's navigational beacons, it's a true house with a light on top, rather than a tower and lantern. It operated until the start of World War II, when it was extinguished for defensive purposes. Rather than relighting after the war, the Coast Guard deeded the building to the state, whose neglect doomed East Point to damage from the elements and vandalism.

Fast forward to the early 1970s, and a group of local residents banded together to save and restore the lighthouse. The Maurice River Historical Society has been working to bring East Point back to life, slowly but surely, first replacing the roof and lantern room and then successfully petitioning the Coast Guard to reinstate it as an active navigational aid.

I've visited the lantern room a handful of times during open houses, which generally are held on the third Saturday of each month during the spring, summer and early fall. It's been a while so I'm not certain how far the interior restoration has gotten, but on my most recent visit I was happy to see they'd gotten matching grants to continue their work.

In a way, though, it doesn't matter that much to me. Don't get me wrong: I'm all for bringing East Point back to its former glory. I just don't go there to see a perfect lighthouse. I go there for the atmosphere. It's the perfect place to contemplate life.

The more populated places in New Jersey don't offer a lot of opportunity for introspection. Before you can even start an interior dialogue, you have to block out all of the distractions, and that can be a mammoth challenge. At East Point, you're left with your thoughts, or perhaps with a close friend if you'd like. There's nothing getting in the way, except maybe a fisherman who's just as intent on solitude as you are. I didn't check, but I wouldn't be surprised if cellular service didn't reach that far.

Sunsets are beautiful there, as I'm sure sunrises are, too. Horseshoe crabs clamor next to the small boat launch in the spring to lay their eggs, and Monarch butterflies stop by for sustenance and a rest in the fall. The phragmites turn with the season, and the tide goes in and out. The rhythms of the natural world take over, and bring you with them.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Only slightly clammy: the towns of Bivalve and Shellpile

If you're sick of congestion and crowds and noise, have I got the place for you!

Years ago I found Shellpile and Bivalve, twin communities in the larger community of Port Norris, which is, in turn, part of the even bigger Commercial Township. These mollusk-themed places share a common link to the fortunes and downfall of New Jersey's oystering heritage.

It just looks as if these boats are sailing on shells.
You read that right: New Jersey and oysters. It's not widely known now, but in the first half of the 20th century, Delaware Bay was home to an abundant oyster population and a significant fishing industry to capitalize on it. A vibrant business community settled in Shellpile and Bivalve to harvest and process oysters, shipping them in long freight trains to markets in New York and Philadelphia. The name Shellpile, in fact, refers to the vast mountains of oyster shells dumped outside the processors' factories. Thousands of people lived nearby, mostly in sub-standard housing, filling the demand for labor at all stages of the oystering process.

A lethal parasite called MSX (Multinucleated Sphere Unknown) decimated the region's oyster population in the late 1950s, taking the fates of Shellpile and Bivalve with it. Today, a few companies continue to process clams and oysters brought in from other areas, but for the most part, the community has taken on a ghost town-like aura. The only time it livens up is for the annual Bay Day in June.

To get to Shellpile or Bivalve, you first need to drive through Port Norris, an experience straight out of a Twilight Zone episode. The streets are lined with homes and the occasional business or government building, but rarely is there a soul to be seen. The place doesn't look especially well-off, though it's definitely liveable. Where is everyone?

I wasn't sure what to expect when I visited recently. It had been a while since I was down there, so I didn't know if some of the structures I knew would be gone, but I was pretty well assured nothing would have improved. I'm still hurting from the time I visited to find that the fabled Shellpile Restaurant had been sold. I didn't have the heart to go inside and find out whether the owner had sold his out-of-this-world crabcake recipe along with the building.

On this visit, I was pleasantly surprised to see a big red, white and blue banner flapping in the breeze near the waterfront, welcoming visitors. The Bayshore Discovery Project had restored one of the historic shipping sheds, and it was actually open for visitation. When I went inside, two women were engaged in a meeting, busily talking about an upcoming event to be held there.

The Bayshore Project people have been in Bivalve for years, as it's the home port for the official New Jersey state schooner, A.J. Meerwald. Formed in the late 80's, the Project organization is responsible for the restoration and upkeep of the Meerwald and use it for a variety of educational purposes. Their larger goal is to motivate people to take care of the environment, the history and culture of New Jersey's Bayshore Region through education, preservation and example. During the summer, the Meerwald offers sailing excursions and summer camps to give kids and adults alike the opportunity to see what life was like on an oyster schooner in years past.

Unfortunately, the museum exhibit was closed during my visit, but I wandered through the building and outside a bit to find signs that it's probably pretty active during the warmer months. They even have a raw bar set up, which is enough to get me to return.

Outside of the immediate wharf area, Bivalve was very very quiet, looking, as always, like a painting Edward Hopper might have done during a period of severe depression. Old boats up on blocks had obviously not felt salt water lapping their hulls in many a year, and the church building was as shut-up and abandoned as it had been when I first saw it over a decade ago.

I took the narrow road through fields of phragmites to check out the Shellpile waterfront and found the same, if not more so. Summertime near the old Shellpile Restaurant is often more active, given the boat launch nearby, but on a Saturday in December, there wasn't much more than a few turkey vultures and a flock of gulls picking through a small pile of clam shells. When I first started visiting the area, I found it eerie. Now I find it curiously calming. Yeah, there's the possibility of a random visitor or resident driving by, but I've never been questioned or confronted by anyone when I was there. Somebody would actually have to be around for that to happen, and it often feels as if I'm the only human being within miles.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Mauricetown: a Victorian seafaring town

I was once at an event in Cumberland County where a woman complained to a local that it had been a long trip from, as she pronounced it, "Moooorstown." What ensued was the New Jersey version of "Who's on First," with one person thinking what she said was perfectly logical, but others getting a totally different meaning from her words.

It took some time to determine that she was, indeed, from Morristown (Morris County) rather than Moorestown (Burlington County) or Mauricetown (Cumberland County). Depending on who you talk to and where you are geographically, they can all sound the same, but they're distinctly different. 

Mauricetown NJ Victorian houseI stopped in Mauricetown on my recent Down Jersey jaunt because I'd heard its streets were lined with vintage homes, many of them meticulously restored. According to The WPA Guide to 1930's New Jersey, Mauricetown was home to nearly 90 seafaring captains between 1846 and 1915. That's still quite evident today, as many of the Victorian, Georgian and saltbox style houses boast signs stating their original owners' names. The town is nestled against the banks of the Maurice River, a convenience the sailors must have appreciated after long voyages away from family and friends.

At its peak, the community hosted major shipbuilding activity and contributed significantly to the region's oystering industry. Schooners were a regular sight along the river, but today, all signs of commercial activity on the Maurice appear to be gone. Even a bridge at the end of one of the main streets no longer stands, replaced, instead, by a picturesque park with a couple of benches.

Mauricetown NJ churchThere's not a lot going on in town these days, beyond the normal comings and goings and a few antique stores, so I just took a drive around to snap a few photos. I parked the car to take some pictures of a beautiful white church, and a man across the street suggested I come into his yard for a better shot. He introduced himself as the pastor and asked if I was in town for that evening's Christmas house tour. Residents decorate their homes and some of the other vintage buildings for the holidays every year as a fundraiser for the town's historical society. I was planning to be back on the road home by the time it started, but I'll definitely keep it in mind for next year.

Some of the homes are less well-kept than the others, and one, in particular caught my eye. More accurately, the realtor sign in the yard caught my eye. It needs some work, but it's a nice size, four bedrooms, two baths with a little bit of land to boot. When I got home, I checked to find it's on the market for less than $180,000.

I have to say: it's tempting. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

Step back to World War II at Millville Army Air Field

Given the choice of where to wander in New Jersey, I'll always go for the Delaware Bayshore region. Miles and miles of mostly flat surface brings farmland, small towns and sparsely populated marshlands. Driving is effortless, and it's easy to get lost if you don't know where you're going. Usually I go by instinct, and while I get lost from time to time, I've always found my way back home.

I've been itching to head back down to Cumberland County, but our southern jaunts tend to be dominated by birding at Cape May or Brigantine. With Ivan out of state on a chase, this past weekend was the perfect opportunity for me to get up early and hit the road before the rest of the world had wiped the sleep from its eyes. My goal: reach the end of the Turnpike by 9 a.m. and wander for the bulk of the day.

I was headed for the nether-reaches of the state: the area you really can't reach quickly from the Parkway or the Turnpike. Look at the map and you'll see what I mean. You'll spend a good hour on secondary state highways and then you'll end up in the middle of nowhere. "What exit?" means nothing there. The area is rife with long county roads with hyphenated names that refer to the end points.

Having been there so many times, I was stuck with the dilemma of exactly which spots to highlight. I have a few old favorites I've visited repeatedly. There are other places I've yet to find, though I have a good idea where they might be. In the end, I chose to stick with the familiar and leave the new places to future jaunts.

And, true to fashion, I got lost. I saw a familiar road name and made the turn, only to recall five miles later that it was the same wrong turn I always make. (Note to self: Buckshutem Road = stay on the other road.) While it didn't get me to my intended first stop, it got me someplace equally as interesting.

Millville is known for a bunch of interesting things: glassmaking, a historic village, and the Millville Army Air Field Museum. Contained within a commercial airfield that's still in use, the museum commemorates and celebrates the nation's first defense airport, opened in 1941. More than 10,000 soldiers and civilians, men and women, were stationed at Millville at some point during World War II, and 1500 of them were trained there for advanced air fighting. The museum tells their story while also relating military air history from the later conflicts in Korea and Vietnam.

For such a quiet and out-of-the-way place, the Air Field Museum has a surprising wealth of artifacts and research materials. I first visited about ten years ago and was impressed by the collection of World War II memorabilia, but the collection has grown substantially since then. Students of 20th and 21st century American military engagements can research their interests at the Henry Wyble Historic Research Library and Education Center. Seaplane enthusiasts will be especially interested in the Philadelphia Seaplane Base Museum, which includes artifacts from the early days of flight to the present.

Outside, you're welcome to walk right up to a collection of unrestored mid-century military equipment and aircraft, including a C-23 Sherpa that served the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Once a year, the museum also hosts the Wheels & Wings Airshow that includes other vintage aircraft and often hosts premier U.S. armed forces aerobatic teams like the Navy Blue Angels and Air Force Thunderbirds. The skies over Millville may no longer buzz with the traffic of military pilots in training, but it still holds an important place in aviation history.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The hidden Parkway exit

Travel along the Garden State Parkway, and you'll see a number of outlets that look like exits but aren't. Usually, they're at the far ends of rest areas or on the side of the road adjoining a neighborhood, and they have big warning signs that promise huge fines, several thousand points on the transgressor's drivers license, and certain death. (Okay, I'm exaggerating about the points and kidding about the death part, though the insurance surcharge from the points would likely bring about a fatal heart attack.) They're generally there so that the State Police and emergency vehicles can easily move between the highway and local streets when the road is congested or otherwise difficult to access.

I know of one un-numbered exit that's totally legal. If you find it, you can drive right through it and onto local roads.

I promised I wouldn't divulge the exact location, but it's accessible from one of the southern rest areas. Ivan showed me once, when we were on a birding expedition. If memory serves, there's even a traffic light at the end of the access road. And there's no toll booth. That should give you a hint to its whereabouts, because if it was anyplace really popular, you can be sure the Highway Authority would be collecting its share of revenue from it.

Any idea where it is?

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Down on the (1890s) farm in Holmdel

One of the perils of being in a relationship with a Civil War buff is the "Six Degrees" syndrome. You know ... you see or hear a family name that's shared by a war notable, and the first response is, "I wonder if they're related to....."

Six degrees, more or less, brought us to Holmdel's Longstreet Farm a few weeks ago. Ivan had been to the surrounding Holmdel Park in the past, and figured there had to be some connection to Confederate General James Longstreet. Everyone does, of course, have some connection to New Jersey. Why not Lee's right-hand man? A visit sounded good, especially following a particularly non-productive morning of prospecting new birding sites in eastern Union County.

Once off the parkway and past a defunct Lucent Technologies/Bell Labs site, we were pleasantly surprised to find a small working farm nestled in the middle of a country park. Historic Longstreet Farm has many of the bells and whistles necessary to a 19th century agricultural operation just before the start of mechanization: a vintage farmhouse, barns, outbuildings, land for crops and livestock, all well tended.

The visitor's first stop is a small farm building with exhibits that set the stage for the rest of the visit, explaining farm life during the time period the Longstreet place was in business. Having settled there in the early 1800s, the family originally owned all of the land that's now Holmdel Park, renting tracts to tenant farmers who planted, tended and harvested grain and potatoes.

From there we went straight to the farmhouse. Like many older houses of the time, it was built in several stages, the oldest dating to the late 1700s. I was a little surprised to find that the entire house was furnished to reflect the late Victorian era of the 1890s, with wallpaper and other appointments carefully reflecting patterns of the period. A costumed volunteer explained that their research and donated artifacts had led the county to choose that point in time, and I had to agree that it makes the Longstreet home rather distinctive among historical sites in the state. So often you see homes presented in the Colonial style, even when they were occupied clear into the 20th century. And even with the later timeframe represented, it wasn't hard to determine where the 1790 addition began. Since they'd elevated the ground floor rooms to accommodate a cellar below, the rooms in the 'new' part of the house were a few feet higher than the adjacent rooms in the older portion.

Plenty of Longstreet family portraits are hung throughout the house, which led Ivan to ask about the potential connection to the Confederate general. Only a distant relative, we were told; the family had come from Holland in the 1600s and one branch had split off and traveled south to live. Even without the military connection, though, the family had some pretty formidable members, including Mary Ann Longstreet, who was born in the 1820s and lived in the house well into her 90's with her nephew, who was apparently a bit of a dandy, judging from his belongings. Mary Ann's photograph indicates a stern personality who wouldn't be crossed. The house stayed in the family line until it was donated to the county in 1967, but the arrangement allowed Longstreet heirs to live in the house until the last one died in 1977.

We found the house to be a lot more interesting than we'd expected, and the remainder of the farm had its charms, too. Of special note to early American farm purists, the Longstreet barn is one of three remaining 18th century true Dutch barns still in existence in Monmouth County. A large flock of roosters and a guinea fowl or two live in a reconstructed chicken house, with a few escapees clucking around the farmyard for good measure, crowing to their hearts content. And two enormous work horses were in their paddocks in the 1860's era stable, bringing to mind the famous Clydesdales. No doubt they pull the plows in season, but they seemed pretty well rested when we were there.

Given it was the last weekend in November, the crops were in, but we were promised a cow milking demonstration if we stayed until 3 p.m. Longstreet Farm hosts special farm-themed events throughout the year. Whether you've got kids in tow or are just looking for some afternoon time on your own or with someone special, stop by the farm for a nice diversion.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Six Degrees of Castle on Budd Lake

When you're driving around a lake and there's an arrow-shaped sign that says "Castle," you follow it.

After all, you need to know: will it lead to little square burgers with holes punched in them? Will the aroma of sauteed onions lead you to your ultimate destination? We had these questions as we drove Lake Shore Road around Budd Lake (not the town ... the actual Budd Lake) on a quiet Sunday morning.

Ivan and I were doing a quick birding sweep before heading off to a holiday party, and our intended stop just off Route 46 had been taken over by law enforcement officials doing cold-water rescue drills. Hence, we were looking for a quiet spot where we could look over the water. Most of the logical places were either fenced off or otherwise rendered useless by annoying NO TRESPASSING warnings. Then, we saw the sign, an appropriated one-way arrow that had been pointed upward, with the letters "C A S T L E" superimposed where the usual lettering would be.

We continued around the lake, through a residential area of converted summer bungalows, seeing the occasional sign pointing us toward our quarry. Then, suddenly, as if from the mist, we saw it: a cinderblock stone structure with crenelated towers and a rough-hewn oaken door. This must be the castle.

Pulling up, we noticed a gated park across the road between the castle and the lake. Hmm... we didn't expect this to be a full compound. Before we walked across to the castle, we entered the park to find a variety of statues dedicated to various people. Obviously some sort of community was making this area its domain, but it wasn't overly concerned about uninvited visitors. We saw no NO TRESPASSING signs or anything else to indicate we were unwelcome. The place just looked kind of weathered and a little unkempt, with fallen leaves and branches strewn about.

It started making sense, kind of, when we reached the front of the building. Atop the door was a sign reading "Pax Amicus Theatre." I guess the park is a nice gathering spot for patrons before a show, or during intermission, especially in the warmer months. I've actually heard of the theater but had no idea it was housed within a castle.

Seriously, a lake in Morris County seems a bit of an odd spot for a castle. A log cabin or fishing lodge, perhaps. An old church, maybe. Even a school. But a castle? According to the theatre's website, the building was once a Jewish community center, and then a Knights of Columbus, but there is no information on why the thespians chose to convert the facade to a castle when they converted it to its current use. I'd like to say they took the former "Knights" theme to heart, or maybe they're just Monty Python fans and hope there's a Lady in the Lake waiting with a grail for the right prince to come along.

One interesting point: the website noted that the theatre's dedication in 1983 was attended by both the Wizard of Oz's Wicked Witch, Margaret Hamilton, and a young actor named Kevin Bacon. That Kevin Bacon? It would have been just before his first film appearance, in Animal House. And according to the Oracle of Bacon, Margaret Hamilton has a Bacon number (degrees apart) of two. Perhaps, with the Pax Amicus, we can reduce that to one.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Peters Valley: arts, crafts and a lesson in decay

No matter which National Park Service location I visit, I'm struck by a simple fact: the historic buildings that are in use are the ones that seem to better withstand the rigors of time, weather and, unfortunately, vandalism. Leave a building empty, and it rots. Get it occupied with a museum or a business or offices or residents, and it fares much better.

The Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area is a case in point. You might remember that back in May, we visited the abandoned town of Walpack Center (check out that post here for an account of why there are so many unoccupied buildings within the boundaries of the park). Like Walpack, Peters Valley was once a thriving little community nestled in the hills, with a general store, church and a few homes nearby. That's where the similarity ends, though, for Peters Valley has been transformed into an artists' community, with resident craftspeople, workshops and a gallery where visitors can view and purchase the art created there.

This time of year, the studios are largely quiet, and while visitors can take a self-guided tour during the summer months, when we arrived, we found that none of them was open. The Peters Valley Store, however, was. Originally the general store for the town of Bevans/Peters Valley, it contains crafts made by resident artisans as well as others from around the country. I'm generally not a crafts enthusiast, but I liked a lot of what was there -- well made, substantial and reasonably priced (though I'm still a bit dismayed that a great hat I saw cost over $100).

The general store is one of several buildings clustered near the 'hens foot' intersection of three roads, two that that T-stop on the same side of the another almost perpendicular, continual road. A National Park Service tour notes a variety of architectural styles that are unique to Peters Valley among the other small communities in the Water Gap. Just behind and to the left of the store is an interesting three-story Greek Revival-style home. The second and third floors are built out to the columns on the facade, making for a rather unique approach to the architecture. Another home on the corner exemplifies stucco-finished cobblestone construction.

We walked out a little bit to an old Dutch Reformed Church that hasn't been used for years, locked up but surrounded by a still-active cemetery. A couple of other people were there, decorating a family grave as we took a look at some of the older stones. As expected, many of the names were repeated, particularly Bevans, the name of the postmaster for whom the town had been named. I found a unique metal grave marker which seems to have held up better over time than its stone cousins.

Peering into the church windows, I could see several rows of auditorium-style chairs bolted to the floor, as well as a few more modern folding chairs lined up behind them. The interior paint looked pretty decent, but the plaster walls and ceiling were decaying in spots, with big plugs of it resting on the floor. At one time, I imagine, this had been a very nice, though unadorned place of worship, and now it's pretty much left to decay.

Looking at this community, even in its dormant state, it's interesting to wonder how long the original town would have remained vibrant had the residents not been displaced by the Tocks Island Dam project. Would people still be farming and working there as their ancestors had, or would most of them been lured away by opportunities elsewhere as New Jersey got more suburban?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Urban nature, Essential Life at the State Museum

Bears in the Meadowlands? Bobcats stalking pigeons atop a Newark office building? These days, anything seems possible, with a surprising number of species making appearances in the unlikeliest of places. Those examples, though, seem a bit extreme... for today, at least. It seems, though, that I'm not the only one considering the possibility.

Tricia Zimic painting
Pier Pressure
On my visit to check out the Civil War flags in Trenton, I stopped by the State Museum and found a kindred spirit in the artist currently represented in the New Jersey Artists Series. Tricia Zimic's "Essential Life" exhibit encourages the viewer to consider how the state's original animal inhabitants might adapt to our developed areas. Hence, we see bobcats wandering urban streets and piping plover chicks nested among flotsam and jetsam in a Secaucus marsh. On one hand, it demonstrates a remarkable adaptability of nature to adjust to the stresses mankind has placed on it. On the other, it's a call for each of us to do what we can to preserve habitat, wherever it's needed.
Tricia Zimic painting
Fast Food

I was first drawn into the exhibit by the seeming dissonance of animal against human landscape -- an owl nestled in an I-beam? As I delved farther, though, the sculptures and paintings became none-too-subtle messengers of a simple fact so many people forget: these animals were here before us, and it's our responsibility to ensure they have safe, clean, natural places to live. Most nature art supports that message, but Tricia's work leads you to think beyond the typical forest and water settings to our own backyards, literally and figuratively.

Especially in Northern New Jersey, our open spaces are at a premium and whatever we can do to preserve them will have a positive impact for animals, plants and humans alike. In addition to her art, Tricia's working on the reforestation of Essex County's South Mountain Reservation, with more than 40 sites currently in the program. Ivan, as I've mentioned earlier, is working to improve the health of the Hackensack Watershed through Hackensack Riverkeeper. Through these and other organizations around the state, all of us can participate in one-time or extended volunteer efforts to clean up, preserve and restore our environment.

Tricia's work will be shown at the State Museum until February 19. She very graciously granted permission for us to share a few of her works on Hidden New Jersey, and you can check out more of her work and philosophy on her website.