Friday, June 29, 2012

Striker to the line! Base ball with the Elizabeth Resolutes

Visit any good-sized county park on a summer Saturday, and you're bound to see a game or two of baseball on the sandlot diamonds. If you're really lucky, you'll run into one that makes you wonder if you've just stepped onto the Field of Dreams.

Well... maybe your thoughts will land a little earlier in history than that, to about 150 years ago.

A couple of weeks ago I stopped by Rahway River Park in Rahway to watch a game between the home team Elizabeth Resolutes and the visiting Brooklyn Atlantics. Unlike the other teams playing nearby, these gentlemen were dressed in baggy uniforms and high-legged stirrups. They play a game called 'base ball' (that space between the syllables makes all the difference), following rules that differ from those most of us grew up with.

The first thing that struck me a little odd was the lineup. I got there in time to hear the Resolutes' manager reel off the batting order to his team.  "Batting fourth... batting fifth..." Okay, nothing unusual there. "Batting eighth... batting ninth... batting tenth... batting eleventh..." Huh? No designated hitter here, but apparently more players approach the plate than actually play defense at any given time.

Second, equipment is very basic: a bat, a ball, home plate and three bases. Players don't use gloves for batting or fielding, and the catcher wears no protective mask or chest padding. The top hat and vest-wearing umpire had a cane, but I never figured out why.

Third, the game is fast paced, especially when judged against today's professional matches. Pitchers throw to the plate virtually as soon as they receive the ball from the catcher, and there's no delay in returning the ball to the pitcher after a strike is called. If the umpire detects any excess time being taken, he'll hurry the game along with a call of "play ball!" This definitely is not the kind of sport where you can look away and expect not to miss anything.

Oh, and the batter? He's a striker, and he's called to bat with the exhortation, "Striker to the line!"

So what's the deal with these guys, and why the unusual club name?

The 21st century Elizabeth Resolutes are members of the Vintage Base Ball Association and honor a team of the same name that played in New Jersey between 1866 and 1878. Starting as amateurs, the 19th century team won the state championship in 1870 and decided to turn pro in 1872, becoming New Jersey's only participant in the national Association of Professional Base Ball Players. Apparently, though, the team's amateur days were their most successful, and they disbanded after just a few years of professional play.

Today's Resolutes are just one of many base ball teams competing on the East Coast, joining the Flemington Neshanock as New Jersey's two vintage clubs. Besides playing matches in local parks, they add sporting flavor to events that commemorate America's past, like Civil War reenactments and history festivals around the region. Check the Resolutes schedule for upcoming games -- they're definitely worth checking out.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Saving a bit of defiant pluck: the Frazee house and the Revolution

It's a bit disconcerting when you find out a historic place you thought was being preserved is, in fact, not quite there, or not even close. Ivan had that experience when he brought me to Fair Lawn's Naugle House last year, only to discover it vacant and in disrepair. My own experience occurred the other day when I stumbled across the Frazee House on Raritan Road in Scotch Plains. While I'd never visited, I'd heard enough about the house's story to assume that either the county or the township had made it into a museum.

Frazee house Scotch Plains NJ
Look carefully to the left of the white boarded windows,
and you'll see a representation of Betty Frazee,
bread in hand.
The house may be just a simple farmstead, but its story symbolizes the attitudes of local residents during the Revolution. By 1777, New Jerseyans had already gotten a strong taste of what the war would bring them: frequent troop movements, raids on their crops, looting and worse. The previous winter, British troops had come through, stealing, pillaging and physically assaulting women and children, leaving a former Loyalist stronghold both traumatized and poorer. No doubt, the experience prompted many state residents to adjust their sympathies toward the patriot cause.

Surviving accounts suggest that Gershom and Betty Frazee supported Washington's troops by feeding the militia during the Battle of Short Hills in June 1777. It's said that on June 26, following the fight, General Cornwallis led his British troops past the Frazee farmstead. Smelling freshly baked bread, Cornwallis stopped at the house and asked for a loaf. Obviously, asking was a bit of a formality, considering the out-and-out thievery his troops had committed over the past many months, but it's safe to assume he'd have thought it was the gentlemanly thing to do. Betty Frazee likely knew she didn't have a choice, but she made her feelings known. Handing him the bread, she famously said, "Your lordship will understand that I give this bread, not in love, but in fear."

Cornwallis is said to have declined and moved on, but records suggest that his troops availed themselves of other items on the Frazee property, including livestock and household goods.

When I read up a bit about the house, I understood why I'd assumed the property was in serviceable shape. Like a lot of old colonial-era houses in New Jersey, it had been used as a residence for most of its existence, with its occupants making various improvements and updates along the way. The property stayed in the family until the 1890s, when a complex situation resulted in small plots being deeded to several descendants, and the house and a much smaller portion of land being sold to another family. For much of the second half of the 20th century, the property was the home of the Terry Lou Zoo, whose owners lived in the house. Subsequent owners held the site for only brief periods of time, and on 1998 the township of Scotch Plains took it by eminent domain with plans to make it a park.

Fortunately, the property around the house remains undeveloped; the old zoo structures have been taken down, and the immediate neighborhood still has a rustic feel to it. There doesn't appear to be any danger of encroaching McMansions or townhouses. Nonetheless, Preservation New Jersey added the house to its most endangered list in 2000.

State and county historical grants have funded some internal structural work and necessary archaeological study, but the house is far from saved. Fortunately it's also gotten support from the local Rotary Club, which is working closely with the township on the slow process of bringing the Frazee house back to beneficial use.

Friday, June 22, 2012

South Branch WMA: a very birdy grassland walk (without the ticks)

Wrong turns uncover a lot of great surprises for us Hidden New Jersey nuts. I guess that's not surprising, as you don't go places you don't usually visit. (I'm feeling a lot like Yogi Berra right about now.)

It was a wrong turn that helped us discover a beautiful grassland birding spot in Hunterdon and Somerset Counties a couple of weekends ago. I won't bore you with the logistical details, but it involved taking 287 in the wrong direction to get to 78 and then wandering around looking for an appropriate ATM. The net was that after driving through some classic Central Jersey former farmland/present subdivision terrain, we found ourselves in open fields, some covered with crops, others laying fallow.

Grassland is in woefully short supply in New Jersey. With so many families getting out of agriculture over the past few decades, a great deal of pasture has been converted to residential use. The farms that do remain are often pushing to get the greatest productivity possible from their acreage, meaning that fewer fields lay fallow to recover after a planting year. Translated to bird talk, there's less room for grassland species to nest and feed, putting them in danger. A large percentage of the birds on the lists of state endangered and threatened species are those who count on this type of habitat.

Always on the lookout for good habitat, we stopped a few times to check for birdage, particularly the grassland species Ivan needs for his year list. Then we came upon a brown plank sign labeling the entrance to the South Branch Wildlife Management Area. This was a new one for both of us, and if the fields we'd just past were any indication of the quality of its habitat, we needed to check it out.

A paved road leads off the road but is blocked by a padlocked gate fifty yards or so in. We parked the car nearby and walked around the gate posts to explore further up the road, which appeared to end at a crest in the hill. To the left was a broad field of assorted grasses and wildflowers, while the clearing to the right was edged by a thick stand of trees. From the music we were hearing, we could tell this was prime territory. Why hadn't we heard about this spot before?

Walking along, we were able to spot most of the usual suspect birds, as well as some of their brighter cousins. Indigo bunting, yellow warbler and goldfinch were regular sights, as were both Baltimore and orchard orioles. The orchards, in particular, were unusually plentiful; we must have seen three or four juvenile males before finding an adult.

We also scared up a fox who'd been obscured by the tall grass. Not wanting to deal with us, he trotted down the road and found refuge in the woods. He might have been the one who'd left the scat I'd noticed at spots on the pavement; we didn't see any deer. Or, perhaps, it might have been the byproduct of whoever left the claw marks I thought I saw in some mud.

In any case, the road kept going once we reached the rise, terminating at an old prefab metal building. Even though the property appeared to stretch far beyond, we chose not to do any bushwacking. We've had more than our share of post-trip tick discoveries so far this season, and we were both relieved to be birding somewhere productive that didn't require us to walk through brush. There was no need, anyway: a connecting road led across the property and was just calling out to us. How could we resist the invitation?

Like the Negri Nepote Grasslands we visited last year, this field hosts a long row of 300kv transmission lines that announce themselves with a buzzy hum as you approach. Also like last year's experience, a red tail hawk was perched about midway up one of the transmission towers, occasionally screaming to warn us away. This one, though, wasn't nesting and didn't appear to have young nearby at all. He seemed to be preening or airing out one of his wings, creating a somewhat cloaklike shape on one side. At first we wondered if he might be injured, but after taking looks from several perspectives as we walked further down the trail, we decided he was fine. Maybe a little wet from the previous night's rain, but fine, nonetheless.

The path continued down a short, gentle incline to a wooded area complete with a tiny brook, and then back up to another field. Finding nothing really different in terms of habitat or birds, we decided to turn back and continue on our road trip travels. Even though we hadn't found Ivan's target birds there, we'd seen enough to know that South Branch WMA was a definite option for future exploration.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Burlington: a refuge from the Civil War

The slim brick rowhouses of Burlington's historic Wood Street are interrupted by a wider and squatter cream colored stucco residence labeled "Grant House." While it was never actually the home of then-General and later President Ulysses S. Grant, one of his visits there might have saved his life.

A graduate of West Point who fought in the Mexican War, Grant rose to the rank of commanding general of the Union Army during the Civil War. Justifiably concerned about the safety and welfare of his family, he moved his wife Julia and four children to the house at 309 Wood Street, in Burlington. His children attended classes at the school, and by all accounts, the family had an uneventful stay in town. Though he spent little time there himself, the General would visit when he could.

Shortly after the surrender of Confederate forces at Appomatox in April 1865, Grant traveled to Washington D.C. for a cabinet meeting. President Lincoln invited the Grants to join him and his wife for a night at the theater, but the General declined, knowing that Julia disliked Mary Todd Lincoln's erratic behavior and would refuse to go. Of course, you're not going to tell your boss that your spouse thinks his wife is crazy, so rather than telling Lincoln the truth, Grant cited a promise to visit the children in Burlington that night.

US Grant house, Burlington, NJ
The Grant home in Burlington:
a safe haven from the Civil War, perhaps more.
Yes, it was that night: April 14, 1865, the evening Lincoln was assassinated at Ford's Theater. Grant knew nothing of the attack until his train reached Philadelphia that night. After escorting Julia to Burlington, he caught a morning train back to Washington.

There's some question as to whether Grant was a target of the conspiracy to kill Lincoln, and given the genesis of the plot, it would make sense. Over a year before, the general suspended the exchange of prisoners of war, realizing that the Confederate army already lacked manpower. Holding captured soldiers would only reduce the army's effectiveness further. Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth hatched a scheme to force Grant's hand: kidnap the president and demand the release of the Southern soldiers in exchange for Lincoln's freedom.

With the addition of co-conspirators, the plan grew and evolved. Instead of kidnapping Lincoln, Booth would assassinate him, while his compadres murdered both Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward. The Union would be crippled by the loss of its top administration leaders, Booth believed, sending the country into disarray. Was Grant on the hit list? Even if you took his prisoner-of-war policy out of the equation, he was a top military leader, making him a powerful target. Regardless, the plan beyond the Lincoln shooting was a failure. The man assigned to kill Johnson balked at the prospect of murder, and Seward's assailant succeeded only in injuring him seriously.

What we do know is that Grant and his family found safety and security in Burlington. And there's an interesting little footnote, too. Rumor has it that well before the war, Grant and then-candidate Lincoln once arm-wrestled at one of the local inns. No word on who won, or if it could possibly even be true, but it's fun to consider.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Oliver Cromwell in Burlington - fighting the patriot cause

After finding the Bonapartes in Bordentown, I guess it wasn't all that surprising that I'd locate Oliver Cromwell just down the road a piece, in Burlington. And while the South Jersey version wasn't the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, he too fought for freedom from the British Crown.

Oliver Cromwell Burlington NJ
Oliver Cromwell's late-in-life home.
Burlington's Oliver Cromwell was born in 1752 in nearby Columbus, and he was among several free black men who served in New Jersey regiments during the Revolutionary War. In the earliest days of the conflict, blacks were barred from enlisting on the patriot side, but that rule was changed in late 1775, after the British promised freedom to enslaved Americans in return for military service against the colonies.

Cromwell got into the action as things were heating up in New Jersey. He was among the soldiers who crossed the Delaware with Washington on Christmas 1776, and he fought in the battles that turned the tide of the war: Trenton and Princeton. He may have been a battlefield drummer, relaying orders from officers to soldiers in the field of conflict. Serving a total of six years in the military, Cromwell also saw action at Monmouth, Germantown, Brandywine and Yorktown, ultimately leaving the army with a badge of merit and honorable discharge papers that were signed by General Washington himself.

According to some sources, Cromwell's overall likeability came to his benefit several years later. When he applied for a veterans pension, several notable Burlington residents helped him secure a $96 per year payment from the government. It was with that money that he bought a 100 acre farm just outside town. Much later, he moved into the house that now bears his name, ultimately outliving eight of his 14 children before dying at the age of 100. It's said that several of his descendants still live in town, no doubt proud of their ancestor's contribution to the cause of American independence.

Local residents organized the Oliver Cromwell Black History Society in 1984 to advance public understanding of African American history. Through their efforts, the name of this notable New Jerseyan lives on.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Hawks -- and others -- rise above Linden

Parks in highly-developed areas can be a bit of a roulette game from a birding perspective. Depending on the site's location and size, you could find something as profound as a pair of nesting eagles (as in Ridgefield Park's Overpeck Park, hard by I-80 and the Overpeck Creek), or as mundane as grackles (multiple places I'll not name to protect the innocent). I wasn't sure quite what we'd find when I suggested we check out the newly-opened, 95-acre Hawk Rise Sanctuary in Linden this past Saturday.

To the average person, Hawk Rise's location might not sound all that promising, stuck on the broad strip of land between Route 1 and the Turnpike, amid warehouses, a tank farm and a recently-capped city landfill. Then again, that description isn't much different from the way many people would characterize the Meadowlands, and we know how vibrantly alive with wildlife that region is. Plus, New Jersey Audubon was actively involved in developing the sanctuary with the City of Linden. I felt pretty confident that the trip would bear at least some good sightings.

Hawk Rise Sanctuary Linden NJ
The path from the parking lot leads you through woods.
Signs at the park's Range Road entrance mark out the course of a wide 1.25-mile gravel and plank trail that brings visitors through a variety of habitats. While the landfill is off limits, you can see it at the eastern edge of the preserve, covered with grasses and the occasional shrub. We began our trek through the wooded area just as police at the nearby shooting range started practice. Between that and the sound of barking from the adjacent animal shelter, it was hard to imagine that we'd soon hear the chatter of more than 30 species of birds.

That, however, is exactly what happened. The farther we walked in, the more the outside noise faded away,  replaced by the sounds of nature. By the time we made our way through the woods to the edge of the landfill (Mount Linden?) Ivan was recording names of birds he'd heard but not spotted, which I've never seen him do.

Hawk Rise Sanctuary Linden NJ
Marsh with capped landfill in the distance.
The trail straightens out once you get to the landfill, so the mound is to your left and a healthy wetland is to your right. As we walked along, we caught the song of the oft-heard-but-rarely-seen marsh wren, along with the call of the ubiquitous red-winged blackbird. A willow flycatcher stood atop one of the marsh reeds, occasionally adding his voice to the chorus.

Looking up and tracking, with binoculars to eyes, Ivan called, "Osprey!" Not unexpected, considering how close we were to water, but a nice find.

I heard something else rapidly approaching us overhead. "L-10-11," I called, checking out the recent take-off from Newark Liberty. We never quite forgot we were within ten miles of the airport, but the jet noise stayed well within acceptable limits.

The trail ends in a cul-de-sac boardwalk about twenty feet or so from the edge of the Rahway River, and while you can see houses and a little bit of industry at the far side, there's plenty of nature to observe. A killdeer picked through the mudflat a few feet ahead of us, and a snowy egret was doing some morning fishing in some shallower water farther away.

Hawk Rise Sanctuary Linden NJ Rahway River
The eagle was just on the other side of the river. I swear.
The real surprise of the day was perched beyond the egret, at the far bank of the river. From the size and coloration of the bird, there was no question: it was an adult bald eagle, looking very comfortable in his (or her) environs. The majestic bird stood there patiently, giving us a nice side view and leaving only as a small motorboat approached. Even then, it didn't go for altitude, simply gliding a few feet above the water for as far as we could track it. Given that eagles tend to avoid human activity, it was kind of surprising to note that when we sighted it, the bird appeared to be just a few hundred feet away from the edge of a residential neighborhood. We hadn't heard anything about a nesting pair in the vicinity, but I guess anything's possible.

Our walk back through the woods netted us a few more species, including Baltimore oriole, indigo bunting and a heard-but-not-seen red-bellied woodpecker. Oddly, we didn't see a single Canada goose on the landfill or near the river. Could we have found the one place in Union County they haven't discovered?

Even considering all our great finds, I think I was most heartened by the potential for Hawk Rise to make so many more people aware of what's living -- and what's possible -- in our most industrial settings. Audubon will be running a series of events there, and the organization is working with Linden schools to include the sanctuary in the local science curriculum. We need more stuff like this in New Jersey.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Williamsburg on the Delaware? Visiting colonial Burlington

As much as I'm a New Jersey booster, it's rare that I get really blown away on one of our visits.

My visit to Burlington blew me away. I knew there was history there, but I didn't realize I'd get bombarded by it as soon as I turned off of Route 130 and onto High Street. The vast majority of buildings I saw were well over 100 years old, some even 200 and older. I mean, even the PSE&G customer service office gets into the act, housed in an old colonial-era building and labeled with a hand-painted sign. (No logo there!)

That first impression was confirmed repeatedly as I walked around town. How in heck Burlington doesn't get more notice as a true historical gem, I'll never understand. Consider that it is or has been:
West Jersey Proprietor, surveyor, Burlington NJ
West Jersey Surveyor General's office (similar to the one
for East Jersey in Perth Amboy)
  • The Provincial Capital of West Jersey 
  • The birthplace of a noted American writer, a hero of the War of 1812 and an early governor of the state
  • Site of the oldest home in Burlington County and among the oldest in the state.
  • Home of of the state's oldest library and oldest continually-operated pharmacy (not in the same building, of course)

In short, it's a New Jersey blogger's dream!

Captain James Lawrence birthplace Burlington
Captain James Lawrence's birthplace on High Street.
I first stopped by the Historical Society on High Street for a little guidance. This modern building is in the yard behind James Fenimore Cooper's house and the birthplace of Captain James Lawrence of "Don't give up the ship!" fame. A researcher there provided me with a small map and told me that regrettably, no tours were available. I'd brought my handy WPA Guide to New Jersey, which would be of some help, but I wish I'd checked the very informative City of Burlington Historic District website before I left the house. (If you're planning a visit, stop there first!)

One of the many vintage buildings
in E. Broad Street's commercial area.
Burlington comes by its vintage legitimately. Founded in 1677, it boasts the site of the first European settlement in New Jersey, populated by French Walloons on Burlington Island in 1624. The land passed to the English in 1664, ushering in the Quakers who developed this Delaware River community into a major port. Unfortunately the city's shipping industry was eventually overtaken by Philadelphia's, but the prosperity it brought is clearly evident in the 18th and 19th century architecture.

Besides the sheer volume of historical places still existing there, and the number of notables who called Burlington home at one time or another, there's the architecture. A portion of the historic area is on the National Register of Historic Places, but it's worth taking a stroll around to see the rest. You'll want to see the homes of notable past residents, but many built by the less famous also have plaques stating their ages and previous owners.

What struck me was how authentic it all felt -- because it is. Many homeowners have lovingly restored or preserved their property, but there's still a feeling of weathered experience in the buildings, kind of like an older person who's concerned about his health but not afraid to show some wrinkles and gray hair. If it weren't for the cars parked along the street, you could find yourself transported back 150 years or more.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Aerial recon over the Turnpike, or just taking the blimp out for a spin?

Driving the Turnpike South the other day, I noticed something small and roundish in the distant sky. I wasn't sure what it could be, given that the sky was filled with mostly grayish clouds, and I couldn't really differentiate the object's shape from what might possibly be a natural formation.

To my delight, the object was heading north, almost as if it was getting on the Turnpike, too. Wait! It looks like... an airship! I couldn't see any markings from that distance, but it didn't appear to have the broad, colorful brand labels you see on an advertising blimp.

My mind immediately went to the news coverage I'd read earlier this week: a prototype long endurance drone airship was set to be tested at Lakehurst Naval Air Station. Could this be it? I was near Exit 7, not so incredibly far from the base by air. I had to get pictures.

Photo of the airship in question, taken from a safe
and stationary location.
Only problem was... the Turnpike. Had I been on Route 22 or 46 or 70, I could have just moved over to the shoulder or quickly turned the car to a parking lot. Obviously, you can't do that on the Turnpike, and I didn't really feel like meeting a State Trooper that afternoon. Just my luck, I was alone, so I couldn't even get Ivan to take a few snaps through the windshield as I drove. What to do?

Exit 7 was fast approaching, and I considered pulling off there, but I couldn't remember if it was verboten to park or leave your car standing in a toll interchange. (Turnpike and its danged rules!) Then I saw my salvation: a sign for the nearby Richard Stockton Rest Area. Could I get there before the airship did? I passed up the exit, put the blinker on, and eased into the right lane for a quick slide into Stockton.

Fortunately, movement was light in the parking lot and I was able to glide into a parking spot facing the highway. Nobody seemed to notice the airship as it grew larger in the sky and started to pass right in front of us. Well, except for a limo driver standing next to his town car, gazing skeptically upward. 

I grabbed the camera, and as I snapped away, I hoped the lens would be sufficient for the distance. Lettering on the ship's side confirmed it was a Navy vessel, and I could see the mooring lines hanging from its bow. Was it the drone in question? I don't know that much about airships, but this one looked pretty run-of-the-mill. Maybe, though, being mundane is part of its camouflage, of sorts. 

The excitement of running into something potentially great got deflated just a bit when I returned home. A little post-discovery research confirms that the prototype is significantly larger than the Turnpike airship. There's no specific word on when the big guy will take to the air; anytime between now and June 10 is as much as I've been able to garner. 

If you happen to be around Lakehurst over the next few days, keep an eye to the sky, and let me know if you see anything! 

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Cape May Warbler: a bird with a Napoleon complex?

Birds are given such interesting names that one wonders how the nomenclature is decided. Physical attributes are often the key, but place names also come into the mix with some frequency. That’s how the Cape May Warbler came to get its name, as explained by the 1917 classic, Birds of America:

“A male Warbler, captured by George Ord in 1809 in Cape May, NJ was described by Alexander Wilson and named by him the Cape May warbler.”

Okay, fair enough, and mildly interesting. The description goes on to say,

Cape May Warbler
Cape May Warbler, blissfully NOT afflicted
by a Napoleon complex.
“Not until 1825 was a female taken, and this by Charles L. Bonaparte at Bordentown, N.J. This tan eared Warbler has ever since been eagerly sought, joyously welcomed, and enthusiastically praised.”

Bonaparte? As in the French military leader and emperor who sacrificed his name so the rest of us could attribute a complex to short guys acting like martinets? Napoleon Bonaparte?

Sort of. Charles Bonaparte was his nephew, born in 1803 out of wedlock to Lucien Bonaparte and his mistress. It seems that Napoleon didn’t approve of Charles’ mother and wanted his brother to marry the widow of the king of Etruria instead. One thing led to another, Charles’ parents got married, and after a series of movements around Europe, several members of the family ended up in Bordentown. I suppose that after all of that tzimmes, the quiet Burlington County town made a nice respite.

Somewhere along the line, Charles became an avid birder, delivering several papers at Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences. Some say that before leaving Italy, he’d discovered the Moustached Warbler, and that he collected specimens of a new storm petrel on his voyage to the United States. He eventually befriended John James Audubon, their ornithological talents complementing each other. While Audubon was highly skilled in finding specimens in the field and committing their images to paper, Bonaparte was more adept at taxonomic classification and nomenclature.

Bonaparte lived in New Jersey for only a few years before returning to Europe, but I’d like to think that he found the state to be as fascinating a field for study as birders do today. Whether it’s the Cape May Warbler or the Bonaparte’s Gull, or even the Zenaida genus of doves he named for his wife, his influence lives on.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Iron Mike and the CCC

Ever have one of those weekends where you run into the same person in two different places, even though you didn't share your agenda with him, or, for that matter, even have plans set beforehand?

Memorial Day weekend was that way for us. Granted, it was three days instead of two, but still, it was kind of wild, especially considering the guy we ran into was Iron Mike.

We first met Mike on the grounds of the Montclair State School of Conservation, deep within Stokes State Forest. As you'll see, he really lives up to his nickname.

Iron Mike CCC Stokes New Jersey
Mike in Stokes State Forest
Considering how firmly planted he seemed to be in Sussex County, we were surprised to run into him two days later at Roosevelt Park in Edison.

Iron Mike CCC Edison New Jersey
Mike in Edison
Both statues were accompanied by a plaque marking the statue as a representative of the thousands of Americans who participated in the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. From 1933 to 1942, the CCC employed young urban men to plant millions of trees to restore the nation's depleted forests and prevent soil erosion. Besides providing good jobs to reduce the unemployment rate, the program enabled participants to help support their families, many of whom were living in poverty. Eventually, every state in the nation hosted at least one CCC camp, and the Corps' work extended to other wilderness activities like building roads, stocking rivers and lakes, and creating drainage systems to preserve valuable farmland. Many of their projects, including a litany of county, state and national parks, continue to make a positive impact to this day.

As I discovered through a little research, Iron Mike is the product of the effort of CCC alumni to increase awareness of the Corps and its impact. They're aiming to place at least one Mike in every state, and remarkably, Ivan and I found both New Jersey Mikes without knowing anything about the statue project. Stokes Mike has been there since 1996, while Edison Mike has gazed over Route 1 since 2003.

Not to quibble, but I found slight differences between the two iterations, explained perhaps by the seven year gap between their respective births. The Edison Mike is, shall we say, a bit more sinewy than his Stokes brother. Maybe they're cast from different molds, or perhaps the Middlesex County incarnation spent a little more time at the gym, but the variations make for a fun little game of observation. Go check them out and let me know what you think.