Monday, December 30, 2013

Contact! and Ahoy! Aviation on the Hackensack River

Substantially industrialized rivers can hold a lot of secrets. Sometimes they're regrettable, in the form of pollution and blight that take decades and millions of dollars to remove. Other times, they reveal a more romantic past, with activities you can barely imagine the area could support today.

We recently got a lead on one of these stories from reader Greg Parson, who commented on our story about New Jersey Aviation Hall of Famer Ed Gorski and the Lincoln Park Airport. Among his reminiscences about Gorski and the field, he mentioned that his uncle, George Lambros, had operated a seaplane base in Little Ferry.

A seaplane base? On the Hackensack River? With our friends from Hackensack Riverkeeper, we'd cruised up the river in August, enjoying the rebirth of the Meadowlands punctuated with occasional stories of past and present commerce on the river, but I couldn't recall hearing anything about aircraft. Had I missed something?

Indeed, when I mentioned it to friends on Facebook, several confirmed that two bases were operational at the location at some point in the past 40 years. One friend even noted that she used to watch the takeoffs when she was growing up in Ridgefield.

Greg kindly got back to me with some additional information, including an address and the observation that the current Little Ferry Seaplane Base is actually across the river from the original Lambros property, which was in Ridgefield Park. The Little Ferry location had once been the home to a famed restaurant called Tracey's Nine Mile House, which apparently served an amazing sliced steak sandwich.

Depending on your perspective, this is either the Hackensack River
or Runway 01-19 of Little Ferry Seaplane Base.
With that information in hand, I took to the web for additional background. While there's not a lot of data out there on George Lambros or his operation, I did discover that the base opened in August, 1947 as an adjunct of sorts to nearby Teterboro Airport. Lambros operated an instructional school and seaplane rental out of the base, using craft like the Grumman Wigeon to certify pilots for water takeoffs and landings. Among those giving the lessons was Springfield resident Kathleen Hilbrandt, who'd received her flight instructor rating after serving in the Women Airforce Service Pilots during World War II.

Lambros didn't have a monopoly on that stretch of the Hackensack, with Mellor-Howard Seaplane Base operating nearby. The Hackensack Riverkeeper himself, Bill Sheehan, also informed us that another seaplane port operated farther upriver, at Carlstadt. Now the site of River Barge Park and Marina, the former Sky Harbor was also a training location for water-heading pilots during World War II.

Look for more recent information about the Little Ferry operation, and you're up for a difficult search, especially if you attempt to find the seaplane base itself. At least two owners have operated the base since Lambros, but I couldn't find the date when it moved across the river from Ridgefield Park to Little Ferry. Several sources, including the Federal Aviation Administration website, list it as an active base, with two operations reported in 2012 (I'm assuming that's one landing and one takeoff, but I could be wrong). However, when Ivan and I visited the site recently, all we could find was a closed restaurant (perhaps the successor to Tracey's), a dock that appears to have seen better days, and no evidence of aircraft whatsoever. To be fair, the area was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy. Across the river, the former site of the Lambros base is occupied by a large industrial building.

Needless to say, we'll be doing a bit more research on this fascinating aspect of the Hackensack River. Meanwhile, if you're in the area and see an amphibious airplane coming in for a landing, let us know!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Looking back on 2013: our Hidden New Jersey adventures

It's been quite a year for Hidden New Jersey, with hundreds of new friends, speaking engagements completed and planned, and, of course, a host of new discoveries. We've published over 100 stories this year, and as 2013 comes to a close, I thought it would be fun to revisit a few of the amazing places and people we've learned about. I hope you'll check them out, if you haven't already!

Few people realize that the Meadowlands was the site of an explosive event in World War I-era sabotage. During a visit to Lyndhurst, we discovered the story of a 1917 munitions factory explosion and the heroism of switchboard operator Tessie McNamara, who bravely saved 1700 of her coworkers from harm.

Cumberland County's Seabrook Farms was not only a leader in agricultural production and distribution techniques, it fostered cultural diversity out of necessity during World War II.

Witnessing (and hearing) the mating of the woodcock is something everyone should experience. We spent a spring evening watching the show as twilight descended over the Great Swamp.

Who knew there was a uranium mine in Hunterdon County? Actually, there wasn't, but two brothers created quite a stir when they tried to start one not far from the Delaware and Raritan Canal.

Our visit to the New Jersey Aviation Hall of Fame raised several fascinating stories of little-known links between the Garden State and the history of flight:

  • Trenton sent hundreds of paratroopers to serve in the D-Day invasion of World War II. While they served valiantly, not one received a medal or ribbon, for good reason.
  • Aviator Marjorie Gray ran her own flying school at Teterboro after serving in the Womens Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). She flew 19 different types of aircraft in support of our WWII fighting forces.
  • Lincoln Park Airport owner Ed Gorski was the go-to mechanic for everyone from Clarence Chamberlain, Amelia Earhart and Commander Byrd.

Speaking of flight, two Triton Regional High School students clued us into the landing spot of America's first manned air voyage. Tucked behind a new Walmart, the site of Jean Pierre Blanchard's 1793 balloon landing is also home to a historic 400+ year old oak tree.

Touring the National Guard Militia Museum of New Jersey gave us a new appreciation of the many ways our neighbors and forebears protect our state and the nation. Besides getting a more personal view of the demands of wartime, we learned about early conflicts we'd known nothing about!

Development pressure continues to endanger many places whose stories deserve preservation. Fort Lee's former Rambo's hotel and saloon was featured in several silent movies when the town was the film capital of the world. Fortunately through the work of community activists, it's been saved from the wrecking ball and will be repurposed by the town. Red Bank's T. Thomas Fortune house, however, is still in danger, with an active citizens group working to purchase and restore it. Once home to an eminent 20th century African American publisher and civil rights activist, the site tells a little-known story about the power of advocacy journalism.

Virtually everyone recognizes the power of the Ellis Island story in America's immigrant past, but few know that a smaller immigration station once welcomed floods of newcomers in Gloucester City. We found the building, still standing, and discovered why it was built in New Jersey when Philadelphia is just across the Delaware River.

Ridgefield's busy streets are lined with dense development, so it's hard to imagine that painters and poets once flocked there to escape the hubbub of New York. With roads including Art Lane and Studio Road, the town's Art Colony of Ridgefield attracted notables like James Maxfield, Man Ray and Marianne Moore.

And finally, in our continuing quest to explore the state to its farthest reaches, we traveled into New York to access the stone marking the point where New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania meet.

Many thanks to Hidden New Jersey friends Joe Bilby, Gordon Bond, Donna Brennan, Stephanie Espinal, Katie Field, Tom Meyers, Peter Primavera, Rebecca Vives and Craig Walenta for their contributions in making these stories come to life.

As New Jersey starts its 350th anniversary year, we look forward to sharing more of the state with you -- and hearing your stories, too. We think 2014 is going to be a lot of fun!

Monday, December 23, 2013

From Navy Wildcat to traffic helicopters: the story of Linden Airport

Studied closely, the gritty borders of U.S. Route 1 have a litany of stories to tell, their inspirations lost to progress or the wrecking ball. Like the phragmites reedgrass that grows so well in disturbed soil, the presence of a new strip mall is often a good indicator of something notable that's been replaced.

That, at least, is the case on one stretch of road in Linden. On the western side of Route 1, you'll see a large, fenced-off field; the only indication of the enormity of its previous use is the presence of big mounds of milled rubble. Across several lanes of traffic is a big-box mall and multiplex cinema of recent vintage; tall signs declare it to be Aviation Plaza.

In true 'blink and you'll miss it' fashion, you might notice one of those small square road signs with an airplane on it, the international designation for an airport, with the word "Linden" below it. And a little farther down, on the eastern side of the road, you might see a larger, but still modest sign saying "Linden Airport" at a nondescript intersection. What's an airport doing here, just a few miles down Route 1 from Newark Liberty International Airport?

Linden Airport seen from overhead. The large parking lot
and big-box mall at right were built after 1998,
replacing additional runways and older hangars.
The airfield and the empty field, as it turns out, share a common history. Between 1937 and 2005, that massive lot was home to a General Motors assembly plant where thousands of workers manufactured vehicles under just about every GM nameplate, from Cadillacs to pickup trucks and SUVs. Soon after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, however, the company's sights took to the air, bringing Linden along with it.

In early 1942, GM created the Eastern Aircraft Corporation to take over the production of the Grumman Wildcat fighters for the U.S. Navy. The Linden plant was retooled to produce planes and an airport was quickly built across the highway as a testing and commissioning field. More than 3500 planes rolled off the production line and took to the skies from Linden, built with pride by hundreds of local men and women.

Following the war, GM's Linden Assembly plant resumed production of civilian vehicles and its airport found new life. The Federal government deeded the property to the City of Linden under the condition that it continue operation as an airfield, ready for recommissioning for military use in the event of future war. Since then, advances in defensive technology make that possibility highly unlikely, but as the airport's website notes, "back then it was considered a vital part of our military's strategic industrial reserve plan."

As Newark Airport grew as a regional hub and gained international status, the Linden field became a reliable landing spot for smaller commercial traffic that would ordinarily be dwarfed by passenger and freight jets. Though it lacks a radio tower of its own, New York radio and television news stations continue to count on the now-dubbed KLDJ as home for their traffic helicopters, and hobby pilots can use it as an alternative that's almost as close to Manhattan as Teterboro. The field even hosts occasional events like the Red Bull Air Race, held there in 2010.

For historians, however, ghosts of the World War II era field are virtually impossible to find. Present day Linden Airport bears little resemblance to the World War II-era test field, with only one original landing strip still in existence. The old hangars at the north end of the airfield were torn down in 1998 and replaced by newer structures tucked out of sight from Route 1. The rest of the property is now taken up by the Aviation Plaza shopping center and multiplex theater.

On the positive side, LDJ has fared much better than many of New Jersey's other airfields-turned-retail locations. Unlike South Plainfield's old Hadley Field, aviators can set down at Linden, do some last-minute holiday shopping and quickly return to the skies. It seems that the ratable-seeking Linden city government may have found the best of both worlds: maintaining its original commitment to keep the field operational for perpetuity while increasing the tax base.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Deck the Hook with boughs of holly...

Even after countless trips to Sandy Hook, I'm still finding new reasons to love the place. After visiting the snowy owl a few weeks ago, Ivan and I wandered the area near the Marine Academy of Science and Technology (MAST) and found something quite different: a set of American holly trees larger than any either of us had ever seen.

I'd long heard that the Hook is home to the largest holly forest on the East Coast, but I'd yet to see any of the actual trees, fully laden with berries. Here some were, standing innocently next to buildings. What of the forest?

Taking its slow growth into account, this holly tree on
Sandy Hook's MAST campus is likely well over 100 years old.
To find that, you likely need to go on a guided tour with a National Park Service ranger. Sandy Hook's holly forest includes several trees estimated to be more than 200 years old and 70 feet high, and is, perhaps, the country's largest stand of virgin holly forest. Its caretakers want to keep it that way, carrying on a tradition that once went as far as to include armed guards.

Yup, you read that right. The forest has a somewhat unlikely benefactor to thank for being preserved at all: the United States Army. The Hook's military history stretches back to the Revolution, when American forces raided the lighthouse to take the whale oil needed to light the then British-controlled beacon. And as speculators built entire seaside resorts along the length of the Jersey Shore, the establishment of the Sandy Hook Proving Ground and later Fort Hancock in the late 19th century cemented the peninsula's "off limits" status for developers. As a result, the trees, along with the other local plants, were free to thrive as their counterparts to the south were replaced with beach houses and boardwalks.

This female holly is already a great food source for wintering
birds, including cedar waxwings, cardinals and mockingbirds.
The New Jersey shoreline is an ideal place for holly, as it turns out. Native to sandy soil, its glossy leaves resist the corrosive saltwater spray that would decimate less hardy leaves. Still, ocean frontage takes its toll. While holly is normally slow to mature, many of the Sandy Hook trees grow only about an inch every ten years, their unsheltered boughs stunted by the force of wind and unrelenting sea spray.

While the Sandy Hook forest has enjoyed a reprieve from development, it hasn't gone entirely unmolested. By past tradition, area residents would sneak onto the Hook to grab a few sprigs of holly to decorate their homes during the winter holidays, prompting the Army to station armed guards to protect the trees. You have to question the motives of the fort's leadership on that one: officers' wives usually didn't have much trouble securing local holly to add to their own Christmas displays, and requests from dignitaries were reportedly filled. Rank has its privileges.

Sandy Hook may be home to the largest natural occurrence of holly in the state, but other New Jersey communities rank in the annals of Ilex opaca, too. Rutgers Gardens in New Brunswick contains one of the nation's biggest collections of bred hollies, while Millville in Cumberland County became known as the Holly City after the New Jersey Silica Sand company planted a 50 acre, 2800-tree orchard there in the 1920s. I haven't visited the Millville property yet, but if my research is any indication, that installation may have fallen victim to a real estate development called -- wait for it -- the Holly Orchard Estates.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Get your kicks on Route ... which Route is this?

It should come as no shock that we Hidden New Jerseyans spend a lot of time on the road, whether it be for birding or to scout out more obscure history. From time to time, we've highlighted a couple of those roads, like the Pulaski Skyway and the White Horse Pike, and of course, the mighty Turnpike, but we've never talked much about the numbered roads, with the exception of the shortest one.

Between us, Ivan and I are at least reasonably conversant about the highways that criss-cross the state, so when we led a talk at the Sussex County library this past summer, we felt pretty confident in answering an audience member's question about the road system in place during the Cat Swamp hijacking of 1921. But as only lifelong residents can, another audience member clarified, "Route 46 was Route 6 then."

Ah, yes. Forget about traffic: our roads have the power to confuse on a whole different dimension.

A treatise on the history of New Jersey's road system could go on for thousands of words. Suffice to say it's been a continual work in progress since the Lenape discovered that spending the summer down the shore was a pretty great idea. With the arrival of European settlers, some of the natives' paths became carriage and stagecoach routes and eventually some of the roads we know so well today. Others were forged by the newcomers, using the best technologies of the day to surmount environmental challenges that had frustrated earlier efforts. Paterson Plank Road in the Meadowlands, for example, was paved literally with wood planks that prevented horses and carriages from sinking into the murky marsh.

Corporations were initially chartered in the early 18th century to build a series of turnpikes, but over time, investors shifted their money into canals and railroads, leaving many roads underfunded. By the dawn of the 20th century, the state had assumed ownership and maintenance of the derelict pikes. The 1916 Egan Good Roads Bill established funding for 13 numbered state highways, with routes largely linking the state's larger cities. Additional legislation the following year established two more roads and a state highway department; one more road was added in 1921.

At that point, the barn door was open. The increasing number of motorists wanted a decent road to drive on, and the business community was clamoring for well-maintained highways to get raw materials to factories and finished product to market. I don't know if frustration with state bureaucracy had anything to do with it, but local politicians started to take matters into their own hands. By 1930 the miles of paved road in New Jersey had doubled, engendering confusion along the way. In their zeal to get roads into service, local authorities had started numbering them with no regard for how other highways in the state were labeled. As a result, drivers could drive one Route 18 from Camden to Toms River, another 18 between Penns Grove and Atlantic City, or from Hoboken to Alpine. A realignment in 1923 helpfully added "N" or "S" to some road designations, but seriously? This was supposed to make sense?

Yet another law in 1927 sought to regain some order statewide, renumbering roads within a system that added logic to the mix. Routes 1 through 12 were in the northernmost part of the state, 21 through 28 originated in or near Newark, 29 through 37 started in Trenton, 38-47 radiated from Camden, and 48 through 50 were in the southernmost reaches. Still, though, Route 25 eventually spawned a series of roads called S-25, 25-A, 25-AD, 25-B, 25-M and 25-T.

Then there was the confusion between the state highway numbering system and the federal designations. State 29, at one point, shared pavement with U.S. 22 for several miles before the two routes diverged. It wasn't till 1953 that the mess was finally settled with a set of rules that forbade giving a state road the same number as a Federal road, assured that numbers matched when New Jersey roads flowed into New York or Pennsylvania, and declared that roads could not have both a state and Federal number. And clarifying another issue brought up with the new "superhighways," neither the Garden State Parkway nor the New Jersey Turnpike would have route numbers, though they'd earlier been assigned the numbers 400 and 100, respectively. The now-familiar "black square surrounding white circle" state road sign design was also introduced starting in 1954.

We often joke about needing to be 'from here' to know where the roads go, but imagine the confusion launched 60 years ago by all of the changes. Cartographers raced to make the necessary changes to their products, with the State Highway Department spending 250 staff hours updating the official map. Officials had already coordinated with the gasoline companies and motorists' clubs to ensure that their courtesy maps reflected the new reality of New Jersey roads.

The old state highway signs are long retired, but you can still find vestiges of the old numbering system on some of the aging bridges of the earlier highways. Look for the aggregate cement structures along the outer shoulders of the road, and you might see an unfamiliar road designation set, literally, in stone.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Vineland wine that wasn't: the evolution of Welch's Grape Juice

With increasing frequency, a drive around New Jersey countryside will have you riding past a vineyard or two, particularly in the southern part of the state. We're not talking big, Napa Valley-sized productions, but several viniculturalists are making a decent living producing and selling wine here.

Historically, though, the most famous product of our vineyards isn't wine at all.

It's hard to think of a time when unfermented grape juice didn't exist, but 160 years ago, it didn't. Sure, you could make the juice, but you couldn't store it very long without ending up with, well, wine. This was a problem for the many 19th century churches that advocated temperance: it was difficult to promote a life free from alcohol when your own ministers were providing wine at each Communion service.

Thomas Bramwell Welch, Welch's Grape Juice, Vineland New Jersey
The father of grape juice that doesn't ferment:
Thomas Bramwell Welch
It was especially problematic in Vineland, which had been founded as a utopian, dry community by Charles Landis in 1861. In an apparent contradiction, after discovering that the region's sandy soil was ideal for vineyards, he promoted the community as a worthy spot for Italian grape growers.

While not a viniculturalist by profession, dentist and ardent Methodist Thomas Bramwell Welch cultivated grapes in his Vineland backyard. He and his church's minister, Rev. A.K. Street, were both troubled by the presence of wine during services, and in 1869 they agreed that Welch would produce enough juice from his grapes to supply an alcohol-free Communion.

Welch harvested grapes from his own vines, squeezing them by hand to get the juice. The near-term issue was solved, but what would they do when the grape growing season was over? Even if he were able to bottle enough juice to supply the church for the winter months, they'd eventually end up with wine.

Ever the experimenter, Welch turned to new developments in science for an answer. He'd read about Louis Pasteur's experiments with wine, in which the liquid was briefly heated to about 140 degrees to kill the microbes that cause unwanted acidity. Perhaps modifying the process would eliminate the alcohol-creating organisms entirely, thus allowing pasteurized juice to be bottled and stored for long periods without the danger of it turning to wine.

After more experimentation, Welch hit upon the ideal process, and a new industry was born. Word of the "unfermented wine" quickly spread through the Methodist community, and Welch soon found himself struggling to keep up with the demand. He'd had no intention of starting a business but soon found himself building a small factory, purchasing machinery and incorporating the Welch Fruit Juice Company.

Welch himself didn't seem too impressed with the prospect of growing the business much further, but his son Charles saw possibilities beyond dry Communion. Buying his father out in 1873, he started on an ambitious promotional campaign that encouraged people to buy the drink for home use ("unfermented wine: it's not just for church anymore"?). He even exhibited at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, where thousands of people got their first taste of New Jersey grape juice that wasn't fermented. Welch's Grape Juice was a big hit.

Though its "dry" beginnings and sandy soil were fertile ground for the start of the business, Vineland was the victim in Welch's success. When the demand for grape juice exceeded the ability of the surrounding farms to produce enough fruit, Charles moved the business to upstate New York, which was better able to supply the crop. It's since expanded its product line and become a staple of the American household. The company dutifully outlines its New Jersey roots in its website, but I'll bet few people actually realize where this quintessentially American beverage got its start.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Well preserved: the birth of the Mason jar

Few realize it, but New Jersey's southern counties could take a legitimate place among the pantheon of influential sites in preserved food technology. As we learned this summer from our visit to Upper Deerfield Township, Seabrook Farms was a pioneer in flash freezing vegetables and became America's largest frozen food processor. However, the groundbreaking work of Clarence Birdseye and C.F. Seabrook was preceded by another technology that helped millions of homemakers preserve the bounty of their farms and gardens without refrigeration.

Yup, the Mason jar was born in New Jersey, invented in 1858 by a Vineland native named John Landis Mason. To be fair, he was already established as a metalsmith in New York City when he came up with a practical way to extend the shelf life of preserved produce, but he returned to his native state to bring the concept to reality. It wasn't loyalty, just practicality that brought him back: he needed a good jar, and South Jersey's glass industry was in its heyday, with several factories using the local sand to turn out a superior product.

Mason was building on the work of Frenchman Nicolas Appert, who, nearly 50 years earlier, had theorized that the act of heating food would sterilize it to prevent spoilage. It wasn't known why -- Louis Pasteur wouldn't perform his groundbreaking work in germ theory until the 1860s -- but inventors quickly sought ways to capitalize on Appert's findings. The tin can was introduced as a storage option a few years later, but the technology wasn't practical for those who wanted to preserve their own food, nor was the food inside the cans visible. Others had come up with canning methods using cork and wax, both of which proved problematic.

Going a step farther, Mason designed a porcelain-lined zinc lid that would form a protective seal as the food cooled within the glass container. That, however, required a jar that could receive the lid effectively. Mason chose to work with Samuel Crowley, whose glassworks were on the Mullica River not far from Batsto. Outlining his concept, Mason asked if Crowley could make a jar with a threaded mouth that could accept a screw-top lid. Not long after, master glassblower Clayton Parker produced the prototype jar, and a month later, Mason received the patent for the jar that bears his name.

Having proven that the practicality of his concept, Mason returned to New York and went into business with partners there to manufacture his new invention. He eventually returned to New Jersey, moving his family to New Brunswick and working with the Consolidated Fruit Jar Company, which gained rights to his invention. According to the Encyclopedia of New Jersey, he later patented a soap dish and a life raft, but to my knowledge, those have fallen into oblivion.

Today, "Mason jar" is one of those iconic names that has stuck to a group of products, despite the fact that other manufacturers have become far more prevalent. Some still use them for canning, others as beverage glasses. However you come upon them next, take a moment to raise a drink -- or some preserves -- to the man from Vineland who made them possible.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Hamburg's castle made of wheat: the milling history on Wheatsworth Road

Most Northern New Jersey explorers know about the Gingerbread Castle in Hamburg. Some even remember visiting the whimsical structure during its heyday as the centerpiece of an amusement park between 1930 and 1978. It's one of those places that tends to stick in your mind -- a fanciful fairy-tale castle replete with characters like Humpty-Dumpty and arch-backed black cat, among others.

The Wheatsworth factory, as seen from a HiddenNJMobile.
In near total contradiction to the whimsy of the castle, a large, forbidding concrete building casts a shadow over the abandoned property. A few small turrets and balcony-like structures break up the monotony of the facade, but it's not a pleasant looking place. The windows that aren't boarded up are mostly broken, evidence of a lengthy abandonment. A posted sign informs visitors that an environmental cleanup is in process, not surprising after you notice the traces of painted lettering atop the building which seem to spell the word "synthetic."

Why in heck would someone put something so ugly next to something so adorable ... or was it the other way around? Unfortunately, New Jersey has more than its share of juxtaposition of beauty and industry, but why, when there's so much room in Sussex County, would these two be so close?

A first clue can be found on the old stone gateposts nearby. They're adorned with Arts and Crafts-style Flint Faience tiles depicting idyllic scenes of fields and mills. One even features a steaming bowl of hot cereal, a comforting start for a chilly Sussex County morning, and a millstone is embedded in a nearby wall. Each scene is labeled "Wheatsworth Mills."

Wheatsworth? Like Nabisco Wheatsworth crackers? Absolutely.

Turns out that the Gingerbread Castle's less-than-attractive industrial neighbor was just the last of the wheat-related ventures operated on that spot in Hamburg.

Today, the Wallkill River flows unimpeded past the building and under Wheatsworth Road, but in the day it was harnessed to power a waterwheel for the industry of the day. Joseph Sharp, Jr. built a stone grist mill there in 1808, replacing an ironworks that had made cannonballs surreptitiously for the British during the Revolutionary War. Sharp's mill, by contrast, ground local wheat into flour for American troops during the War of 1812 and no doubt benefited from its location just off the Hamburg Turnpike (now Route 23) after it opened in 1795. That mill was lost to fire in 1834 but was partially rebuilt.

Moving forward to the 20th century, New York-based F.H. Bennett Biscuit Company purchased the site in 1921 to supply flour for its bakeries across the Hudson. Six years later, the company changed its name to Wheatsworth to capitalize on the popularity of the brand name under which it sold biscuits, flour and other bakery goods. Around the same time, the company substantially enlarged the mill building, erecting a taller concrete structure that basically swallowed up the old Sharp mill.

An old sign with a valuable message.
As the story is told, F.H. himself was inspired to add the Gingerbread Castle to the factory campus after seeing a production of Hansel and Gretel at New York's Metropolitan Opera. He hired the opera's set designer, Austrian architect Joseph Urban, to create what became the centerpiece of a children's amusement park where Grimm's fairy tales came to life. Reflecting Bennett's business, the castle appeared to be constructed of cookies and crackers, and after its opening in 1930, visiting children were told that if they touched the building, the appealing treats would turn to stone. 

The National Biscuit Company (Nabisco) purchased Wheatsworth in 1931, taking ownership of the factory/mill building but not the castle. After operating there for six years, Nabisco sold the plant to Canterbury Mills, the last operator to use the building for baking-related purposes. The final owner, a wire coatings manufacturer called Plastoid Corporation, took possession in 1943. While they eventually moved production to another location, Plastoid's corporate offices remained in the building until sometime in the 1980s.

Together, the mill building and Gingerbread Castle were listed on Preservation New Jersey's Most Endangered Historic Places list in 2012. Not surprisingly, the castle attracts the greatest interest and has benefitted from partial restoration and a brief reopening in 1989. The far less photogenic mill/factory building seems ignored by all but adventure seekers despite its arguably more historic past. Reportedly suffering from a collapsed roof and internal deterioration, it would no doubt take a lot of effort to make it habitable again, but who knows? And with the Gingerbread Castle and Wallkill River on either side, the view from any of the factory's windows would be a welcome site for anyone who chose to work or live there.

It's a thought...

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Bang, zoom, straight to the moon, Diana!

If there was intelligent life on the moon, the first call it would have gotten was from New Jersey. Wall Township, specifically.

More accurately, the call was a microwave radio signal, and rather than expecting a message back, scientists were trying to create what became known as moon bounce, or earth-moon-earth (EME) communications.

The Diana antenna, made from four
existing conventional radar antennas.

Known as Project Diana, this classified work was based at Fort Monmouth's Evans Signal labs, birthplace of dozens of 20th century technological advancements. Its urgency was driven by the success of the revolutionary German V1 and V2 guided missiles during World War II. After the United States proved the effectiveness of nuclear weapons in 1945, the fear was that the USSR would combine the two technologies with disastrous results. We clearly needed a way to identify and track the missiles before they entered U.S. airspace.

Colonel John DeWitt and his Camp Evans-based team were charged with the task in the closing months of the war. Before they could work on detection, however, they had to prove that a radio signal could pierce the earth's atmosphere as the V1 and V2 could. A few years earlier, a British communications scientist had theorized that existing technology would be capable of bouncing microwave signals off the moon which, at 238,900 miles away, would serve as an ideal target.

In September 1945, Evans Signal Labs personnel got to work designing and building the necessary equipment: a sufficiently powerful transmitter and receiver along with an antenna array to capture the return signal. (If you're an engineer, astronomer or physicist, you might enjoy reading a more technical description and schematics written by one of the participants.) Three months later, their initial tests were hampered by a series of malfunctions and outright equipment failures.

A new year and heavily redesigned equipment brought better results. At moonrise on January 10, 1946, they succeeded, receiving a return signal 2.5 seconds after transmission. It took some time to determine the right conditions to repeat the achievement, but Evans professionals had made theory a reality.

The first experiment in radio astronomy, Project Diana's impact reached far beyond national defense. Many consider that first successful radio bounce to be the true birth of the space program. Had scientists not proven that human-created radio signals could leave our atmosphere, people on Earth would not have be able to communicate with astronauts in orbit or on the moon. Skylab and the International Space Station would have been pipe dreams. Nor would we have been able to receive signals from long-distance spacecraft like Voyager I and II, which have been returning information to us by radio since their launches in 1977.

And, of course, this experiment on The Big Bang Theory would have been totally impossible.

The original Diana antenna no longer exists, but a support building remains at Camp Evans, now the site of the InfoAge Science History Learning Center and Museum. As we discovered during our visit last July, the expansive yet utilitarian-looking property holds a wealth and breadth of history well worth exploring.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The right to vote, and beyond: the legacy of Florence Eagleton

If you're a follower of New Jersey politics, you've no doubt heard of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. Located on the Douglass College campus at Wood Lawn, the Institute conducts research on the state's political climate and serves as the University's educational arm on public policy. Countless numbers of state policy makers, journalists and elected officials have benefited from the Institute's programming and resources, whether in undergraduate or graduate-level classes, or seminars targeted to segments of the public.

I've always wondered who it was named for and why it happens to be headquartered on the campus of Rutgers' women's college. As I found from my research, both the setting and the focus of the Institute makes perfect sense once you learn its origin.

The name and the heritage traces to a classic New Jersey Woman With Moxie who wasn't content to simply live the life of a member of late 19th-early 20th century Newark aristocracy. Rather than simply settle for luncheons and charity events, she became one of the state's leading advocates for women's rights in a time when change was neither guaranteed nor completely supported within her social stratus.

Florence Peshine Eagleton was born in 1870 to parents whose families traced back to the earliest days of Newark's founding. Following her education at one of the city's exclusive finishing schools, her parents arranged her marriage to Henry Riggs, who at more than twice her age was already widowed and the father of a 20 year old son. According to Lives of New Jersey Women, their marriage, though without passion, resulted in one son, and they divorced as friends several years later. Though Riggs thought well enough of Florence to name her a beneficiary in his will after their separation, her own family disapproved of the divorce and considered her to be a fallen woman, in the parlance of the day.

Her second marriage was far more successful. At the age of 43, she married Newark neurosurgeon Wells Phillips Eagleton, a far better match, both in age and mutual affection. They were an accomplished pair: he as a well-regarded and often-published physician and she as a philanthropist and advocate for social change.

Florence had come of age during a time when the fight for women's suffrage and access to family planning were coming to a fever pitch. Already having helped found the New Jersey Birth Control League, she dove headfirst into the movement to ratify the 19th Amendment. As leader of the state's Women's Political Union and vice president of the New Jersey Woman Suffrage Association (WSA), she drove a hugely successful petition drive in Newark, prompting the state legislature to vote to make New Jersey the 29th state to ratify the amendment. That achieved, Eagleton became the first president of the Newark League of Women Voters, the successor to the WSA which is dedicated to educating voters about public policy issues. Under her leadership, the LWV conducted a series of "citizenship schools" to help women make better educated decisions at the polling place.

The leap to the Eagleton Institute, then, becomes easy to understand, but why the Rutgers connection?

An advocate of women's education, Eagleton was an early board member of the New Jersey College for Women (now Douglass College) and later became one of the first women to serve as a trustee at Rutgers University. She no doubt became intimately familiar with the school and saw a fertile field in which her life's work could continue well beyond her death.

In her will, she bequested $1 million for the establishment of the Wells Phillips Eagleton and Florence Peshine Eagleton Foundation, directing that the funds go toward "the advancement of learning in the field of practical political affairs and government [so] that a knowledge of the meaning of democracy may be increased through the education of young women and men in democratic government." Further, she wrote, "It is my settled conviction that the cultivation of civic responsibility and leadership among the American people in the field of practical political affairs is of vital and increasing importance to our state and nation ... I make this gift especially for the development of and education for responsible leadership in civic and governmental affairs and the solution of their political problems."

Florence Eagleton died in 1956 and the Institute was organized not long after. Now the home of the Center for American Women in Politics, it continues her efforts to build and enhance women's influence on the public policy stage, even as it broadens its scope to study immigration, the role of the governor in American states and a host of other issues. Perhaps Florence is little known today, but more importantly, her mission continues.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Piscataway's brush with anarchy: the Stelton Modern School and Ferrer Colony

A few weeks ago we explored the Stelton area of Piscataway to tease out the history of early 20th century settlement there. You might recall we were trying to figure out the differences between Friendship Farm, the Ferrer Colony and an unnamed (at least to us) community of chicken farmers.

Distinguishing one from the other proved to be a little bit of a challenge, as many sources refer to Friendship Farm and the Ferrer Colony in the same breath. In truth, they were quite different. While Friendship Farm was largely the province of formerly-urban and taciturn German transplants, the Ferrer Colony took a decidedly anarchist turn, fostered by adherents of Spanish educator Francisco Ferrer.

Well-known for his political beliefs, Ferrer had founded the Escuela Moderna in Barcelona in 1901 as a means of promoting the tenets of anarchism. After he was executed for his alleged participation in an insurrection, free-thinkers around the world, including some in New York, sought to perpetuate his teachings through additional Modern Schools.

Relief sculpture on the side of the Goldman house
in the former Ferrer/Modern School Colony.
The prompt for the Modern School's move to Stelton came through two sources: a vision and a bomb. Troubled by the "evil influences" of the city, founders of the New York Ferrer movement theorized that they'd be far better able to effect social change if the school was physically cocooned within a supportive community of like-minded individuals. Meanwhile, students from the school's adult classes were linked to a 1914 explosion that was said to be a bomb intended for the Rockefeller family. Overall, Manhattan was turning out not to be such a great place to be an anarchist.

Not long after the blast, one of the Ferrer group leaders was visiting friends who lived at Friendship Farm when an a solution materialized. Dissatisfied with the Farm's conservative environment, one friend suggested that the New York group could purchase the adjoining land and start their own settlement in New Jersey.

One of the Ferrer Colony's remaining tiny houses.
Compared to a cramped existence in Manhattan, the Stelton farmland must have appeared as nirvana. The Ferrer group bought 143 acres of land and subdivided it into one- to two-acre plots to be sold at a profit to individual members. Sale proceeds would be used to construct roads and other shared facilities. Like their Friendship Farm neighbors, the Ferrerists built their own homes; many were, by today's standards, ridiculously small (as in, they make the classic Edison concrete houses look like McMansions). The land itself was reportedly treeless, dusty and devoid of a water source. Roads were meant to be built as a communal effort, which didn't work quite as cooperatively as the founders had envisioned. Common facilities, like a dormitory for students coming in from New York, were only completed after severe financial difficulties.

Through it all, the ever-important Modern School attracted the support and attention of parents who wanted their children to benefit from a progressive, if not revolutionary education. The school had no curriculum or study requirements, supporting the community's belief that allowing students to make their own choices would result in responsible adults. After a brief morning gathering, kids could experiment with several options, including outdoor games, woodworking and art. Traditional academics were available but not forced; oral histories note that some children didn't learn to read until they were nine or ten years old.

The school and community persisted through the lean years of the Great Depression, losing many students whose parents couldn't afford tuition or had become communists. World War II seems to have struck the death knell; the construction and operation of nearby Camp Kilmer reportedly brought crime and hostility to what had been peaceful farmland. Nonetheless, the Modern School managed to stay open until 1953, most of its few students reportedly around kindergarten age.

Today, the only overt sign of the Modern School is a plaque erected on the site where it once stood, 79 School Street. Though many of the common buildings have been torn down and replaced by retail establishments, some of the small houses still stand in the general area, including the Russian, or Goldman house, notable for the bas relief artwork on its outside walls.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Sunbathing on the beach in November? In New Jersey?

Apparently the tundra-like atmosphere that makes our beaches appealing to only a hearty few New Jerseyans in November also makes them a favorable sunbathing spot for rare visitors from the north.

No, I'm not talking about the Benny, the much-maligned city dweller come to give the Jersey Shore a bad name. I'm referring to a much more refined creature, the snowy owl. Two were reported to be in various spots on Sandy Hook last week, and Ivan and I made our way there to check them out.

Owling -- as birding for owls is known -- is generally a distinctly different art than the search for, say, songbirds. It's got its own traditions and etiquette, and birders rarely report the exact location of one of these iconic raptors, for the owls' safety. Active largely at night, most owls obscure themselves during the day to avoid attack from predators. If they feel harassed by individuals or groups of people standing within a certain range of their roosting spot, they're likely to attempt to find another secluded perch to rest on, and in the process, reveal themselves to predators.

Snowy owls differ in that they tend to be 'out' during the day, often roosting on the ground or a low perch. The only other one I've seen was actually on some distant riprap at Round Valley Reservoir a few years ago. Thing is, if they've gotten as far south as New Jersey, there's a good chance they're exhausted from their long journey from the Arctic and deserve a good, solid rest without being hassled by a bunch of people. Thus, while general locations are often shared, birders generally know to give the owls a wide berth, observing from a hundred feet or more away.

The snowys at Sandy Hook had been reported from several locations along the ocean beach, from just north of the park's entrance gate, to the most currently accessible northern end of the hook at Fisherman's Trail. We figured we'd scope for birders from the hawk watch platform at Battery Peck and adjust plans from there.

Our view from the deck yielded some success, but not the kind we really wanted. A large group of birders was on the trail, but headed back toward the parking lot, having not seen either owl. We continued scanning for a few minutes from our elevated perch but saw no signs of the birds.

The next stop, on North Beach, was the spot, as we could tell from the many cars in the nearby lot. As we walked along the sandy path toward the beach, we started seeing small clutches of binocular-toting people in various areas, all facing in the same direction, some with spotting scopes, a few with cameras.

Snowy Owl, Sandy Hook, Hidden New Jersey
One of the Sandy Hook snowy owls, perhaps trying to
catch a little nap on the beach. A big thank you to
 Lisa Fanning, This Great Planet, for this digiscoped
and cropped photo
"Looks like the owl is here," Ivan said. More or less in the center of the rough circle was what, by bare eye, appeared to be a white and gray lump or small sand dune. Focusing through binoculars brought a clearer view of a relatively dark snowy owl, head turned away from us. Occasionally it would shift position slightly, or turn its head to face us before looking away once more. The other reported snowy was nowhere to be found.

By day's end, we heard that there were two other snowy owls spotted in New Jersey -- one near Barnegat Light and another in National Park, along the Delaware. Why are they here, and so many? Opinions vary. It's possible that there's a shortage of their normal prey of lemmings in their traditional wintering grounds in Canada. Or perhaps so many owlets were born this spring that adults are forcing the newcomers south to find winter territory. In either case, snowys are rare but not unheard of in New Jersey, so we can enjoy them, from a distance, for a brief period of time.

And apparently Sandy Hook's Canadian visitors are learning the pleasures of visiting our shores without the frustrations of having to purchase a parking pass or, farther south, a beach badge. They'll be long gone and home before anyone stops to check.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Montana mystery of Warren County... part one

We like to say that Hidden New Jersey is often a scavenger hunt. Sometimes we know the quarry when we set out on our journey, as when we're seeking out a rare bird reported at a certain location. Other times, we find history along the way and end up discovering much more during the follow-up research days or even months later. Sometimes we unearth interesting coincidences, other times mysteries.

This story is a little of both.

It all started on a trip to the cemetery in Belvidere in late summer. Ivan and I were wandering around when I noticed interesting inscriptions on two stones, one a family marker and another for one of the family members, erected nearby.

Given the detailed description, the place and circumstances of Lieutenant Loder's death appeared clear. He'd taken part in the U.S. Army's repeated battles with the Sioux Indians, served gallantly and apparently perished in one of the skirmishes, his remains returned to his birthplace in New Jersey. It also appeared that his family called him Howard, perhaps to differentiate him from another Samuel, maybe his grandfather, buried nearby.

Then I found this grave marker, not far away, noting another individual's birthplace in Montana, NJ.

I was left with two stories to work out. First, how did Lieutenant Loder die, and second, where in heck is Montana in New Jersey? Was this just an odd coincidence, or do the two have anything to do with each other?

Finding cursory information on Loder proved to be reasonably easy. After graduating near the bottom of his class at the U.S. Military Academy in 1877, he was sent west and eventually assigned to Fort Logan in frontier Montana. At the time, clashes with Native Americans were regular occurrences in the area, with opportunities for injury and death. Several sources note the April 1879 conflict with a small group of Lakota Sioux at Careless Creek near Ryegate, Montana. According to government records, Loder, 18 men under his command and two Gros Ventre Indians confronted eight natives who were said to be connected to Sitting Bull. A 90 minute battle ensued, in which all of the Lakota were killed.

None of the accounts of ensuing conflicts in the area make mention of Loder, which seemed rather strange. If he'd performed so heroically at Careless Creek that the local white settlers presented him with a gift, wouldn't he have led other battles? Had he died some way other than through combat? The 1880 U.S. Army Register notes simply that he died at Fort Benton, Montana on June 30, 1879, with no further explanation. Could it have been illness that did him in? It's well known that in many wars, disease killed more soldiers than weapons did. Did frontier outposts suffer the same issues? Could there have been an outbreak of some sort that led to Loder's demise?

Unfortunately the circumstances of his death were tragic in another way. A July 6, 1879 New York Times article reported Loder's suicide as the lead in a story chronicling several people around the country who had died by their own hands. He'd shot himself in the head while in his tent at Fort Benton; the Times noted that "It is asserted that he had been drinking freely of late." It could have been an accident or intentional, we don't know. The details remain a mystery, perhaps buried somewhere in a report deep in old Army records, if not only with Loder himself.

The grateful people of the Smith River Valley in Montana territory didn't have the opportunity to show their full appreciation to the lieutenant before his death, but they made sure his family knew what he'd meant to them. A year later, they presented a ceremonial sword to the Loders, along with a letter eulogizing the young lieutenant. The sword was inscribed, "Presented to Lieut. Samuel Loder, Seventh United States Infantry, by the citizens of Smith River Valley, for especial gallantry in his fight with the Sioux Indians on Careless Creek, Montana Territory April 17, 1879." Hopefully their regard brought some measure of comfort to the Loder family, who clearly wanted their son's achievement to be known for perpetuity.

As for the mystery of Montana, New Jersey? I'm still working on that one... story to come.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Newark, Bamberger's and the rise of radio

It's hard to fathom now, but 90 years ago, commercial radio was little more than a novelty. Barely past making a sizable investment in a phonograph player, many families were wondering whether it made sense to buy a receiver to listen to one of the few broadcast stations on the air. People got their information from print newspapers and magazines, or from their friends, and the concept of hearing the words of a far-away singer was mystifying. Why would they sink more money into a new gizmo they didn't really need?

Businesses were facing a similar quandary from the opposite side of the transaction -- a chicken-and-egg dilemma of sorts. Retailers couldn't sell radios if there was nothing being broadcast for people to listen to, and owning a radio station was a risky proposition unless a good number of people had the instrument to pick up and follow your signal.

A few brave entrepreneurs, however, decided to take the plunge, among them Newark's Louis Bamberger, owner of New Jersey's largest retail establishment. Already selling phonographs and recordings when commercial radio was introduced in the early 1920s, he saw the potential for radio to be just as big, perhaps even bigger. After all, it could deliver inexpensive entertainment that would never get boring. Unlike a phonograph that required the purchase of new recordings from time to time to stave off monotony, radio offered the prospect of free and varied programming once consumers purchased the receiver.

Bambergers' Newark flagship store,
sporting the massive WOR antenna.
Supplying that programming was the next step in the equation. Imagine how easily Bamberger's employees could sell receivers if the store were to operate its own radio station! Even better, what if it was so close that the signal couldn't help but come in loud and clear?

Bamberger decided to find out, in the process founding one of New York City's most enduring radio stations. From a small studio on the sixth floor of its flagship Newark store, Bamberger's made history on February 22, 1922, broadcasting Al Jolson's "April Showers" on a 500 watt signal on radio frequency 833 AM. Rather than getting the "WLB" call letters he had hoped for, the new station was assigned "WOR," the letters previously designated for the ship U.S.S. California.

Within a year, WOR was demonstrating the power of radio so successfully that Bamberger considered shutting it down for fear it would hurt phonograph sales. Others suggested that he should take a broader view, encouraging him to consider the broadcasting industry as a growth opportunity in its own right. WOR opened studios in New York to supplement its Newark facilities and eventually expanded its reach with a 50,000 watt capacity. The Bamberger Broadcasting Service became a key member of the Mutual Broadcasting System, broadening the influence of radio nationwide during the mid-20th century.

WOR left Newark for good in 1941, and few people remember its New Jersey roots. Bamberger's itself was sold to Macy's in 1929, eventually taking the corporate name in 1986 and closing the Newark store in 1991. Interestingly, in the years since, the old flagship location has returned, in a way, to the business of dispatching information. Its sturdy construction makes it an ideal site for telecommunications equipment and computer server farms, an unintentional though apt link to the early days of much simpler though still astounding means of sharing information.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Wisdom in Woodstown: finding the meaning of life at Earl L. Erdner's warehouses

Bad planning is often the route to an excellent road trip. Usually when I head out on my own, I aim for one key location, anticipating that other equally interesting finds will pop up along the way. When planning the Paulsboro trip, I cheated a little and researched a few more possible destinations before I left Hidden New Jersey headquarters. Well, it's not cheating as much as preventing future remorse: there's nothing quite as frustrating as coming back from a road trip, only to discover you were two blocks from something totally astounding.

I was hoping a little extra prep would pay off. At the very least, I figured I'd find the places and decide whether they warranted further research and a return visit.

So, before I left on Veterans Day, I got GPS coordinates from the trusty Historical Marker Database, printed out the directions and took off without reviewing them. Only thing was, the addresses were missing and I'd neglected to write down the names of the destinations. When I got to what I thought were the sites in question, the markers seemed to be obscured, or even missing, so I was left idling in front of some very nice, very old houses as I paged rapidly through the WPA Guide the New Jersey, hoping not to arouse the neighbors' suspicions. (Not that I was doing anything suspicious, mind you. I'm just sensitive to the hypervigilance of the Gladys Kravitzes of the world.)

Those opportunities blown, it was time to riff. Shaking off my gaffe, I buzzed past the diner where I'd had the Taylor ham/pork roll debate, through Mullica Hill and then southwest. Signs started pointing the way to towns with familiar names: places I'd been past, but never through.

Woodstown fits into that category. I'd seen plenty of signs pointing in that direction on my many trips through Salem County, but in my mind, it was just a collection of farmland with no discernible population center. It was time to find out what's there.

I hit paydirt before I got into town. At the intersection of Route 45 and Bypass Road, I saw a cluster of white cinderblock buildings, low and long. The short end of the building closest to the intersection was labeled with faded painted lettering reading "EARL L. ERDNER. WAREHOUSE No. 11 CANHOUSE BROKERS."

What's a canhouse broker? Given the farmland I'd just driven through, did it have something to do with the local harvest? Had these been processing facilities and storage for canned food?

The mystery got even more curious as I continued driving. The long side of the building, running along the road, held faded lettering, looking much like calligraphy. Rather than the loopy ramblings one sometimes sees in roadside signs, these sayings seemed to be life lessons, perhaps coined by Mr. Erdner himself. No one would ever confuse the plains of Southwestern New Jersey with the Himalayas, but had I stumbled upon the works of a Garden State Guru, the Sage of Salem? I pulled over to take a look, and a few photos.

Turned out I'd come upon Erdner's Busy Corner Warehouse. As the story goes, Erdner erected the buildings in the 1940s and soon started using their walls as a canvas to express his approach to life. He continued to paint the sayings on the walls well into the 1960s, adding the collected wit and wisdom of friends and family to his own. Among them:

"Life is like an exciting book and every year a new chapter."
"Anyone who thinks he is indispensable should stick his finger in a bowl of water and notice the hole it makes when he pulls it out."
"Keep your troubles to yourself and make people believe you're having a wonderful time."
"Rise to the occasion. But know when to sit down."

As you can see from the photos, the paint is fading, the sayings along with it. Erdner died years ago, apparently without finding someone to maintain his wise sayings. Who knows -- maybe he'd have preferred it that way, allowing his words to fade from memory as if they'd never been written.  

For the time being, at least, they're there for passers-by to read if they want to take the time to stop and hunt them down around the property. Whoever now owns the property hasn't whitewashed the wisdom over, and I'm told that many more sayings can be seen if you walk around the buildings to look. Maybe they don't reveal the meaning of life, but you could do a lot worse. And they're a thought-provoking welcome to what's a very lovely town.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Refining Gloucester's Revolutionary history: Paulsboro's Fort Billings

You wouldn't know it from its neighbors, but a small park tucked between two oil refineries on the banks of the Delaware River has a very distinct place in American history. Not only is it the site of a Revolutionary War fort, it was the very first land purchase made by the United States Government. Fittingly, I decided to visit on Veterans Day.

On first glance, Paulsboro wouldn't seem to be the place for an 18th century historic site. Downtown has seen better days, houses are tightly packed together and as you get closer to the riverfront, you're addressed by the sights and smells of the refineries that sit on the shoreline. I'd heard somewhere that years ago Standard Oil had placed a monument at the site of Fort Billings on or near its own property, so I was hoping that it was now a publicly-accessible site.

That it is, and well marked. Heading westward from downtown, I reached the end of North Delaware Street to find this sign at the entrance to a park.

In the distance, beyond a small playground and pavilion, I could see a flag flying in the breeze. Getting out of the car, I was immediately hit by refinery odors, but as I walked toward the flag, the smell dissipated in the breeze. Maybe it wouldn't be so hard to imagine the fort, after all.

Fort Billings' memorial flagpole.
Fort Billings is essentially a small but integral part of the story of the little known Battle of Red Bank and, ultimately, the defense of Philadelphia during the Revolution. The site was originally purchased from the Paul family (of Paulsboro fame) by the Council of Safety of Philadelphia and billed to Congress on July 5, 1776. Less than a year later, Fort Billings (or Billingsport, depending on your source) was built under the guidance of General Thaddeus Kosciusko in his first engineering assignment from Congress. Located four miles south of Red Bank's Fort Mercer, it was one of three installations built to protect Philadelphia from a British naval invasion. Soldiers stationed at the fort submerged obstacles called chevaux de frise strategically in the river to damage the hulls of any enemy ships that might try to venture up the river. Billings also maintained a signal cannon as part of the American army's system to warn other forts of an approaching British attack.

Fort Billings' history was relatively brief but notable. Thinking twice about the substantial obstacles blocking their entry by water, British forces approached Philadelphia by land instead, eventually taking the city on September 26, 1777. They still had one major problem: as long as the Delaware was inaccessible, supplies couldn't reach the city. General William Howe, commanding the British forces, ordered the destruction of all American defenses along the river, and Billings was the first target.

Though New Jersey militia fought bravely, they were unable to stop the British approach on Billings a few days later. General George Washington ordered the evacuation of the fort, and on October 2, Continental Marine Lieutenants William Barney and Dennis Leary safely brought the 112-man garrison and its ammunition on board the Andrew Doria for transport across the river to Fort Mifflin.

To ensure that the British wouldn't be able to easily capitalize on the fort's strategic position, a small group stayed behind to render the cannons unusable and burn down the fort. Close to finishing their duties when the Redcoats arrived, the Americans exchanged gunfire with the enemy briefly before jumping into the last rowboat to make their way to safety.

There's not much at the site now to tell the full story or connect it with the better-curated Fort Mercer site in National Park. One memorial notes the presence of the fort, while another recognizes Leary and Barney for leading the evacuation of 112 men but says nothing of the impact in saved lives. A third plaque from the Copernicus Society notes Kosciusko's contributions as a military engineer. Though all evidence of the fort itself is gone, we can be happy the name and these few acknowledgements are on site to pique curiosity and interest among those who don't know the story.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Bicycles and bigamy: the colorful life of Hezekiah Smith

New Jersey's 19th century industrial history seems loaded with stories of quirky people who built communities around their factories. Such was the story of Eastampton's Hezekiah Smith.

Part inventor, part manufacturer, Smith came to New Jersey in 1865 from New Hampshire, seeking to start an ideal company town. He found a fertile site at Shreveville, Burlington County, a former cotton spinning and weaving factory town that had gone belly up, its water-powered mills rendered obsolete by the introduction of the steam engine. Seeing a good deal, Smith purchased 45 acres of the property from the Shreve family for $20,000. Within 10 years, he'd incorporated the H.B. Smith Machine Company and created housing and amenities to accommodate 250 people. The new community of Smithville included housing, a school and stores in addition to a foundry and factories to manufacture tools and woodworking machinery. Resident workers could enjoy a number of civic and cultural events and resources around town.

Smith must have been a fair employer and a well-regarded member of the community, albeit a bit unconventional. In 1878 he won a seat in Congress after campaigning on a carriage pulled by a moose.

Wisely seeking to diversify the business, Smith cast about looking for additional industries to tackle. On the advice of Smith Machine board member J.J. White (of cranberry fame), he entered into a licensing agreement with Hammonton native G.W. Pressey, who'd recently patented a revolutionary adaptation to the high-wheel bicycle. It literally turned cycling in the opposite direction, with a ratchet drive that put the larger wheel in the back and delegated the smaller front wheel to steering. The arrangement was said to provide greater stability, a selling point Smith later advertised by paying a demonstrator to ride the bike down the steps of the U.S. Capitol.

Suddenly, cycling was the focus at Smith Machine, where the newly-formed American Star Bicycle Company perfected Pressey's design and modified the factory to make the new product. Smithville became New Jersey's Bicycle Town as orders poured in for the cycles. Meanwhile, employees enjoyed an innovative new way to get to work. Arthur Hotchkiss developed the world's first bicycle railroad between Smithville and Mount Holly, where many Smith workers lived. The 1.8 mile system was essentially a monorail, with the bicycles hanging from a rail suspended about four feet above the ground. Given the lack of paved roads at the time, the system probably gave a much smoother ride than they would have had by traditional means.

Several hundred of the Pressey-inspired bicycles were made before production halted in 1886, but Smith continued to develop new transportation technologies until his death. Besides innovations in standard bicycles, he invented a steam-powered version (motocycle), roller skates and even a helicopter. It's also said that he invented a steam-driven wagon but deemed it too modern for contemporary tastes.

Smith's story, so far, is one of a driven businessman who built a prosperous community and likely helped improve the lives of many. Perhaps the moose and Capitol stunts indicate a bit of showmanship, but not so much as to be quirky, as I described him in the opening words of our story. What, then, could warrant calling him quirky?

Maybe the best way to start is to note the brevity of his Congressional career: just a single two-year term. It seems that as soon as Mr. Smith went to Washington, ghosts of his past came to haunt him, a scandal that would warrant tabloid headlines even today.

Smithville residents knew his wife to be Agnes Gilkerson Smith, the woman who'd moved to New Jersey with him from New England. Some might have even known that Smith had funded Agnes' education at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, but likely very few if any were aware that Smith had also sent her to a finishing school before that, having met her when she worked in a mill in Lowell, Massachusetts.

Agnes was, in fact, Smith's second wife, and he'd never bothered to legally divorce the first one. He'd met Eveline English in Vermont, and it's not clear whether the pair had ever actually married; some accounts say he'd brought up the idea to her parents a few times but never quite got around to arranging a ceremony. When he decided to seek his fortune in New Hampshire, he took Eveline along, and three months later their first child was born. About a year later, Eveline moved back to Vermont, and the couple never lived together again, though they had three more children over the following seven years. In that time, Smith moved to Massachusetts to open a machine shop.

Smith's relationship with the Vermont family eventually deteriorated to the point where it was based mostly on financial dependency; the timing suggests his meeting Agnes played a big role there. When she returned to Lowell from Philadelphia, the pair began living together, much to the disapproval of their neighbors. They were shunned and excluded from social functions, making life in town pretty miserable. The best option, it seemed, was to start a new life elsewhere. Shreveville, in South Jersey, must have looked ideal: it was far enough away that no-one would know Smith's past, and there was sufficient room to build an entire industrial community.

Before leaving for New Jersey, Smith made one last visit to Eveline, this time to demand a divorce. She refused outright. Lacking her permission to take the legal route, he devised his own very creative approach to severing the relationship. If he couldn't get the papers proving they were divorced, he'd expunge all evidence they'd ever been together. He burned every letter she'd ever written him and then went to her sister's house to cut every reference to their marriage and children out of her family's Bible. Whether it was to buy her silence or out of common decency, he signed the family house over to Eveline and opened a bank account for her in her maiden name. Then he was off to New Jersey.

Smith's bigamy might have stayed a secret forever had he not run for national office, but within two weeks of his election, the word was out. Newspapers carried interviews with Eveline and some of their children, and despite the overwhelming evidence, Smith chose to simply deny everything. The hubbub over the discovery eventually dissipated, but his constituents declined to return him to Washington in 1880.

Then again, voters might have been more forgiving than the election results indicate. Some historians have noted that his Democratic party affiliation could have foretold his defeat in a year when the Republicans regained control of the House of Representatives. And three years later, he was elected to a single term in the New Jersey Senate.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Exploring the Joyce Kilmer house

To many people, the name Joyce Kilmer means one of three things: the poet who wrote Trees, a rest area on the New Jersey Turnpike, or an army base that once operated in Edison. If you've lived or gone to school in New Brunswick, a certain street might come to mind, too. And if you've walked down Joyce Kilmer Avenue, you might have noticed a small cream-colored house with a plaque saying, simply, "Kilmer House." Its first floor now the home of the city's Dial-a-Ride program, the upper portion of the house quietly remains a shrine to the poet and World War I hero.

The Kilmer birthplace
The facade of the house is a puzzle, with no indication of whether any aspects of the family's life there have been preserved, or when one might be able to return to learn more. A bit of sleuthing revealed contact data for New Brunswick Historian George Dawson, who kindly agreed to meet me there and share some insights on the family and the house.

As advertised, the entire first floor is the domain of city employees, yet there are still nice touches befitting a 19th century home. I climbed the narrow stairs to the second floor, walked down a slightly wider corridor and found myself in the room where Kilmer was born. It's uncertain whether any of the furnishings in the room belonged to the family, but the bed, rattan chaise, mantlepiece decorations and wallpaper were all reminiscent of the era when the Kilmers lived there. The rooms farther back contain memorabilia like a chunk of the aged Kilmer tree, the mighty oak on Rutgers' Douglass/Cook campus that was considered by some to be the inspiration for his famed poem. (The tree succumbed to age and disease and was cut down in 1963.)

Alfred Joyce Kilmer was born in the front bedroom of the house in 1886 and was baptized at Christ Church, his first name taken in honor of the parish curate and his middle name from the Episcopal rector, Rev. Elisha Brooks Joyce. His parents, Frederick and Annie, had moved to the house at 17 Codwise Avenue a few years earlier, and Fred operated a pharmacy downtown until 1889, when he joined a new company called Johnson & Johnson as its first scientific director.

Taking the job at J&J appears to have been a wise move for Fred; when Joyce was just five years old, the family moved to a larger house on College Avenue. (Regrettably, that house was demolished in 1960 to make room for the uninspired architecture of Brower Commons.) Fred went on to develop the company's iconic baby powder and contribute to several other advancements; check out J&J's informative Kilmer House blog for more on his fascinating career.

After completing his primary and secondary studies at Rutgers Preparatory School, the younger Kilmer attended Rutgers College, where he was an associate editor of the Daily Targum and a member of Delta Upsilon. Writing came easily to him, math not so much. At the time, college regulations required that students pass all of their subjects before being allowed to move to the next year's studies, and poor grades in sophomore mathematics meant he'd have to retake all of that year's classes before advancing. Instead, he chose to complete his studies at Columbia University, where, it might be presumed, the policies were a little less rigorous.

From his earliest years, Kilmer was deeply spiritual and eventually converted to Catholicism, prompted by his interest in Irish heritage and nationalism. He's also said to have told friends that Catholics write the best poetry. He married Aline Murray in her home Episcopal parish in Metuchen in 1908, but by 1913, the couple were members of New York's Roman Catholic Church of St. Paul the Apostle.

Kilmer graduated from Columbia in 1908 and taught English and Latin at Morristown High School while working to make his mark in New York's literary community as a reviewer. Stints at publishers eventually brought him to the New York Times Sunday magazine, even as he published several volumes of poetry. He and Aline moved to Mahwah, where they welcomed a son and daughter, and where he's said to have written Trees.

This representation of Kilmer
hangs on the wall in the room
where he was born.

Having joined the New York National Guard's 69th Regiment in 1914, Kilmer became part of the regular army after the United States entered World War I. His feelings about war were evident in his poem The White Ships and The Red, published by the Times after the sinking of the Lusitania. Despite his college education, he chose not to pursue an officers' commission and went in as a private. He shipped out to France in October 1917 and was promoted to sergeant five months later. On July 30, 1918, he was killed in action, shot in the head by a sniper. Only 31 years old at the time of his death, he was buried in a military cemetery at Fere-en-Tardenois and remembered by his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel William Donovan, as "a cool-headed solider... full of eagerness at all time to give his full measure of service." The French awarded him the Croix de Guerre posthumously in recognition of his valor.

Back in New Brunswick, the local American Legion post wanted to honor Kilmer, the local enlisted man who'd served so honorably. The Codwise Avenue house had passed through several owners since Fred and Annie sold it in 1903, and the Legionnaires felt it would be an ideal home for their post. They bought the property in 1929, dedicating it the next year with a blessing on the birthplace room from a Christ Church rector. It was henceforth known as the Joyce Kilmer Shrine.

Declining membership, vandalism and rising maintenance costs forced the Joyce Kilmer Post 25 to sell the building to the state as a historic site in 1969, and local historians created the Joyce Kilmer Birthplace Association to drive restoration. The city of New Brunswick took possession in 1983, with the stipulation that the second floor shrine be maintained.

Few people visit the house, as evidenced by the number of signatures in the guest book. You'd hope that local schools would arrange field trips so kids could learn a bit about a local writer and war hero, or that Rutgers might encourage English or Journalism students to stop by. In any case, if your curiosity is piqued, mark December 6 on your calendar. The house is open every year on Kilmer's birthday, and you're more than welcome to stop by and learn more about this hidden but not really hidden New Jersey notable.