Sunday, March 31, 2013

Seabrook Farms: history and diversity through vegetables

Sometimes in our travels we drive through places that just feel as if they have a history but don't give it up with historic markers or preserved buildings. Their stories are so obscure that even if they've been documented and presented somewhere nearby, that place is hidden from casual view.

Such is the case with Seabrook, deep in Cumberland County. Despite the countless hours I've spent banging around back roads and farmland, I'd never found a single sign of its fascinating history. In fact, without knowledge that the community is part of the larger Upper Deerfield Township, it's hard to find Seabrook at all. I knew that somewhere in that flat expanse had been a unique place that had made agricultural history and achieved a level of cultural diversity few rural communities could boast.

After some investigation, I found the story in the basement of the Upper Deerfield Township Municipal Building. The volunteer-run Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center does an amazing job of telling the community's story, from the technological advances made by the Seabrook Farms company to the factors that brought workers of many ethnicities to a remote part of the state to work together.

Photo ID badges 
First, the business of the Seabrook Farms company. Started by Albert P. Seabrook in 1870, the farm really hit its stride under the leadership of A.P.'s son Charles F. (also known as C.F.). Among the agricultural firsts at Seabrook was the use of overhead irrigation and gasoline-powered tractors. In the early '30s, C.F. partnered with Clarence Birdseye and General Foods to quick-freeze vegetables, which subsequently enabled Seabrook to become the first major produce supplier for the U.S. military. At one point, the company operated the largest processing plant of its kind, supplying 20 percent of the nation's packaged frozen food.

Providing that kind of output requires a sizeable workforce, and the need became especially acute during World War II. Migrant laborers, Caribbeans and college students traditionally worked the fields during the summer, but many were called to war, leaving a severe labor shortage. Japanese-Americans who'd been placed in internment camps at the start of the war were eventually permitted to move to other parts of the country for work, and many chose to try Seabrook. German prisoners of war, held in nearby Centerton, were sent as additional labor. Displaced Europeans from Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Hungary and Germany also found their way to Cumberland County and the farm. During the 1940s and 50s, 32 ethnicities were represented within Seabrook's workforce, with more than 20 languages being spoken around the farm. By 1947, the community had the highest concentration of Japanese Americans in the country, representing the largest ethnic group to work for a single U.S. employer at the time.

A representation of part of Hoover Village
With so many new people coming to the community for work, C.F. also realized it was necessary to provide living accommodations. The Japanese named the housing Hoover Village, and exhibits recall the crowded and drafty buildings, with communal bathroom facilities.Whether the housing was better than that at the internment camps isn't said, but it most likely fell far short of the homes they had originally been forced to leave. On the other hand, workers' spiritual needs were addressed with new Japanese Christian and Lutheran churches, as well as what was probably Southern New Jersey's first Buddhist temple.

Many of the WWII-era arrivees chose to stay in Seabrook after the war's end, and the Educational and Cultural Center highlights their contributions to community life. Displayed next to the scout uniforms and sports trophies are various traditional ethnic crafts and artifacts, demonstrating how residents retained their cultural identities even as they became more Americanized. For those who want to learn more, the center maintains scrapbooks of newspaper and magazine articles about Seabrook, dating back to the 40's.

C.F. sold Seabrook Farms to another operator in 1959, and though it remained as a subsidiary for several years, the company name eventually left store shelves. However, if you drive down State Route 77 today, you'll see a small sign pointing to Seabrook Brothers and Sons Company. C.F.'s grandsons have brought the family back to the frozen vegetable business, right in the community where their great-grandfather started it all in 1870.

And the Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center? Its friendly volunteers continue to collect artifacts and oral histories as they work to establish a permanent home for the collection. The museum may be a bit off the beaten track (and hidden, at that), but it's well worth the trip.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Victory Gardens: a tiny town with an interesting past

Our tour of tiny enclaves continues with Victory Gardens, which is not only the smallest and most densely populated, but the youngest municipality in Morris County. Created by an act of the state legislature in 1951, the borough also has the distinction of being perhaps the only New Jersey community whose electorate voted against seceding from its host municipality, but got cut adrift, nonetheless.

How did this confusing turn of events happen to be?

As you might have guessed from the name, Victory Gardens was born during World War II as housing for workers who were employed at nearby Picatinny Arsenal and other private defense contractors manufacturing war goods. It was built quickly: the Federal government determined the need shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and within six months, it had constructed 300 housing units, streets and supporting infrastructure on about 90 acres of land in Randolph. The community was named for the victory gardens that loyal Americans were planting on their own property to free up farmers' crops for the war effort.

The influx of new people in Randolph seems to have caused some discomfort among longtime residents, which was allayed somewhat by the Federal subsidies that came to the town in exchange for the new construction. However, the climate changed after the government payments ended along with the war. A great many Victory Gardens residents were Democrats in what was otherwise a very Republican area, which made some Randolphers uneasy. Looking toward separating the newer community from its host, Randolph officials held a referendum in September 1951, and voters narrowly agreed that Victory Gardens should be spun off.

This has to be the most cost- and space-efficient
war memorial out there. 
Only problem was, the folks in Victory Gardens overwhelmingly wanted their neighborhood to remain in Randolph. Out of 513 votes cast in Victory Gardens, just 30 approved of the secession plan. Cast from their municipal home, the community approached neighboring Dover with the idea of affiliating there, only to be turned down. Thus, they were on their own.

Victory Gardens continues, looking a lot like a housing development off of South Salem Street, not far from Route 10. Its compact homes are clustered on streets named after a few presidents, most of whom are predictable (Washington, Roosevelt) and a few that aren't (Polk, Garfield). A condo complex was added to the town in the late 80's, but the community remains small, at around 1500 residents.

In researching, I found three other defense-related communities in New Jersey -- Audubon Park and Bellmawr Park in Camden County, and Winfield Park in Union County. They differ from Victory Gardens in that they were created by the Mutual Ownership Defense Housing Division of the Federal Works Agency. All still exist today. We'll be taking a look at Winfield, specifically, in a future Hidden New Jersey report.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Free Acres is the place to be...

If it hasn't already become obvious, I'm intrigued by planned communities. There's something fascinating about an enclave where people choose to live together based on a common noble belief, as long as it's benign.

Such is the story of Free Acres, a 70-acre residential community nestled in the Watchung Mountains. Roads barely wider than a driveway will bring you through a peaceful wooded settlement of homes, some bungalows, others the size of an average subdivision house. Just inside the boundaries from the outside road is a two-story red farmhouse, which serves as the community gathering place.

Founded in 1910 by a preacher's son named Bolton Hall, Free Acres was started as an experiment of the "single tax" philosophy of Henry George. A writer and economist by trade, George believed in the common ownership of land for the community's benefit. Or, as the association constitution says, "all shall be mutually helpful and free from all forms of monopoly of natural resources, in order to secure to all equality of opportunity and a full reward of efforts." Land was considered a mutual birthright of humankind, to managed democratically.

Hall purchased the Murphy farm on the border of Berkeley Heights and Watchung, dividing it into lots that homeowners lease from the community association. Residents aren't required to be advocates of the single tax concept, only to adhere to community rules. Land-based regulations have been modified from the Hall concept over the years, but the general concept remains. Each lease is a 99 year contract, which resets every time a lot is transferred to a new lessee through inheritance or purchase of the home on it. Lease fees go into into a fund to maintain common roads, the farmhouse and community pool, as well as paying local property tax on the 70 acres. If costs of managing the community rise, the annual fee goes up for each renter, regardless of any improvements made by the lessee on his or her lot. Homeowners pay local taxes to the municipality, based on the value of their houses.

The common ownership concept has some interesting byproducts: residents are forbidden to build fences, and no trees can be cut down without permission from the association.

Business aside, Free Acres started as a summer colony with an artsy feel, with about 50 people summering there by 1920. Performers like Victor Kilian and a then-unknown James Cagney joined writers like journalist Konrad Bercovici and fantasy novelist Thorne Smith, raising tents in what must have felt like a heavenly respite from the sweltering New York summers. Borrowing from the theories of Arts and Crafts designer William Morris, residents created guilds to manage their many dramatic and artistic pursuits within the community.

Eventually, as we've seen from our travels to Mt. Tabor and Pitman, residents started building small shacks, many of which were winterized during the Great Depression. Though there was no common religious belief as there was in those other communities, Free Acre-ites enjoyed good fellowship and an enjoyment of their surroundings. In fact, it may be that the lack of a stated ideology was what keeps Free Acres vibrant to this day, while so many other utopian communities have organized and disbanded in New Jersey.

When I drove through Free Acres last week, I found the enclave surrounded by, yet separate from, the suburban community that's grown up around it. The feel was very much like a small summer community somewhere in the Poconos. Narrow roads and a 15 mile per hour speed limit definitely slow things down, but you really don't feel in a hurry while you're there. And even with the trees still lacking leaves, the embrace of nature brings an almost magical feeling to the place.

The reality of late 20th century development has had its mark on the community, though. Several of the bungalows have clearly been expanded substantially, and some residents have started from scratch and built larger homes that look as if they'd be better suited to the surrounding tract developments. Unfortunately, the property was also affected by the construction of Route 78; a buffer of woods and a sound barrier do their best to tamp the audible rush of traffic in the distance.

Still, Free Acres has its nirvana-like aspects and surely has a calming effect on those who live there. If you want your home to be a placid retreat within an easy commute to Manhattan, it's hard to imagine where else you could settle. It may no longer be a place where free spirits go to avoid the woes of a flawed world, but it's one place where you can have good neighbors without fences.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Drink it in: the Guinness Collection of Instruments and Automata

Before the days of digital music players, compact discs, cassette tapes and even the phonograph, people were entertained by mechanical music makers in their own homes. And before television, many relied on automated toys for amusement. The nation’s largest collection of such machines – and one of the largest in the world – was assembled by brewing heir Murtogh Guinness, and it’s at the Morris Museum.

About 150 pieces of the 700 object collection is on view in a specially-constructed exhibit space, with the rest housed in a viewable storage area downstairs. Every afternoon, from Tuesday to Sunday, museum docents offer a history of mechanical music makers and automated toys, as well as a demonstration of a few of the museum’s pieces. I was fortunate to attend as Guinness’ former neighbor, Steve Ryder, explained the history of the collection and the technology behind it.

One of the many automata
in the Guinness collection.
Courtesy Morris Museum.
As we learned, the rudimentary principles of the classic music box were discovered centuries ago, but it took until the 1800s before they were produced in quantity. Jewelry and watch makers were among the first to make these smaller devices, given the delicate and exacting nature of the work. At first, Switzerland was the epicenter of the industry, but eventually Germany got into the mix, too.

I was tickled to learn that the mechanical music story has a New Jersey angle. As we learned several months ago from another Hidden New Jersey story, Garwood’s own Aeolian Company was a giant in the player piano trade of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Just a few miles away and around the same time, several music box companies settled in New Jersey. The U.S. government had placed a tariff on music boxes imported from Germany and Switzerland, and the companies got around it by shipping the musical components to the States and assembling them within boxes made here.

The Regina Company of Rahway, in particular, made a series of models for home use. As the phonograph gained in popularity, Regina adapted by creating a dual music box/record player. Ultimately the company gave up on musical devices, shifting its manufacturing might to vacuum cleaners.

Items in the Guinness collection range in size from large beer-hall orchestrons to tiny music boxes housed within a woman’s ring. Steve played two of the larger instruments for us, and if you didn’t know better, you’d think a small band was performing. In essence, it was, since the orchestrons hold drums, pipes, the guts of a piano and even violins. They’re simply amazing!

Impressive as the musical portion of the collection is, I couldn’t wait to see the automata. These are mechanical toys that entertain visually as the music boxes do aurally. Though the vast majority of the automata are too fragile to be demonstrated on a regular basis, museum visitors can watch brief videos showing how several of them work. Steve was kind enough to set two of them in motion, and even to these 21st century eyes, there’s still something very magical about them. I was especially taken with the clown whose head disappears, only to reappear beneath the box he lifts.

While you can visit specifically for the demonstration and lecture, there’s plenty to see and do at other times. Various stations around the exhibit space give you a chance to learn about the mechanics of the instruments, and even to do a little playing around yourself. It’s an especially nice touch for smaller children who may not have the patience for a history lesson.

Many thanks to Hidden New Jersey friend Andrea Marshall for alerting us about these amazing relics of musical, industrial and New Jersey history!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The question of the Newton silk mill -- maybe an answer?

A few weeks ago, our discovery of the Cat Swamp Hijacking revealed a bit of a mystery: why was there a silk factory in Newton?

I think I might have found a viable answer during my visit to the Botto House. It may not be the complete reason Thomas Bentley moved his Paterson operations 45 miles away to Sussex County, but hey, it's a possibility.

As the silk industry became increasingly mechanized, mill owners started looking toward women and children to work the looms. The theory was that their smaller fingers and hands were better suited to the delicate silk work. Some enterprising manufacturers realized that they potentially had a ready workforce in communities where men were already at work in factories making other things. Paterson may still have been the capital of the American silk industry, but mills began rising in new towns.

Newton in the early 1900s would have fit the bill quite nicely. Hay forks, shoes and boxes were already being manufactured there, drawing male workers who inevitably would have wives and children. Bentley must have felt that with a bit of training from Paterson silk workers, the locals would be able to catch on to the trade fairly easily.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Botto house: uniting the workers of Paterson

It’s hard to imagine, but an unassuming century-old house in a cramped Haledon neighborhood was once the epicenter of a broad movement to improve industrial working conditions. The Botto house at 83 Norwood Street is now the home of the National Labor Museum, memorializing its role in the 1913 Paterson Silk Strike. On my recent visit I learned why silk workers stopped work and why Haledon became the nexus of the labor movement.

Botto House, Paterson Silk Strike, Haledon, Hidden New Jersey, labor unions
The Botto house on Norwood Street in Haledon
When I walked up to the porch and through the front door, I was struck by how cozy and welcoming the house is. Its original owners, Pietro and Maria Botto, were skilled silk workers who came to the United States from northern Italy in the 1890s. First settling in Union City, they bought five 25x100 lots in Haledon in 1908 to build their own house. The structure consisted of a ground floor with bedrooms, a parlor, kitchen, dining room and bathroom as well as a central hall. Upstairs, two railroad-style flats of three rooms and bathroom each were constructed to provide the family with rental income. A door at the front end of the upstairs hallway led outside to a porch that afforded a nice view of then-undeveloped land. The backyard included an arbor for grapes, plus a chicken coop, pigeon cage and rabbit hutch for meat and eggs.

While Maria inspected silk at home, Pietro worked in the Paterson mills, which were easily accessible via the Belmont Avenue trolley a few blocks from the family's house. The factory environment was a new experience for him, as most European weavers owned their own looms and consider themselves to be craftsmen rather than factory workers. 

Botto House Haledon Hidden NJ Paterson Silk Strike
The porch where labor organizers spoke to crowds
as large as 20,000
Labor unrest had a long history in Paterson, with strikes occurring as far back as the early 1800s. When mill owners converted to high-speed power looms in the late 1800s, they sought to increase productivity by having employees manage two of the new looms rather than just one. In 1913, the workers walked out when owners sought to double production once again, expecting weavers to manage four looms rather than two. The strikers called for improved conditions, an eight hour work day and an end to child labor. More than 23,000 employees left the factories, including broadloom and ribbon weavers, and dyers.

If all of this was happening in Paterson, why, then did Haledon play such a vital role in the strike? Over time, Silk City had become increasingly more hostile to worker protests, with the police becoming more allied with the mill owners. The mayor forbade the strikers from assembling within city limits, and the police were poised to enforce his will with violence, if necessary.

Haledon, however, was a far friendlier environment. Its mayor, William Bruekmann, was sympathetic to the mill workers, and the town had but one police officer, who was described by one newspaper account as “a slip of a man.” The strikers had already committed to a non-violent work action, and Haledon seemed to be an ideal place to gather.

Botto house, Paterson Silk Strike, Haledon NJ Hidden NJ
Striking workers brought
their message to New York
through a pageant at Madison
Square Garden
Already familiar with labor struggles from his youth in Italy, Pietro Botto invited the strike organizers to hold rallies at his home. The house’s upstairs balcony made a great platform, and the land beyond was a natural amphitheater. Strikers could easily travel from Paterson on the trolley for the weekly rallies. The strike became a cause celebre for Greenwich Village intellectuals and union organizers. Speakers like Upton Sinclair, Big Bill Haywood, Carlo Tresca and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn gave rousing speeches before crowds of up to 20,000 supporters, speaking in German and Italian as well as English. The gatherings often took a festive air as singers and musicians performed between speeches.

After five months, the workers went back to the mills, lacking the funding to support their families any further. Though the manufacturers denied their demands for an eight-hour work day, they agreed to limit the workers to two looms. The strikers had achieved a great deal, nonetheless: they proved that non-violence and a democratic approach to labor organizing could bring them the visibility and progress they sought.

There’s a lot more to the story than we have room to spare. The American Labor Museum is holding a series of events to recognize the 100th anniversary of the strike, the perfect time to learn about this fascinating element of our immigrant and labor history. Check the museum's website for details.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Forget the first robin: Woodcocks announce spring at the Great Swamp

I've talked before about the surprising amount of life it's possible to find in the depths of winter, even as it seems the weather will never get warm again. Walking around with open eyes and ears can clue you in to the ways nature is preparing to renew itself as the days get longer. Check out your own neighborhood, and you'll see that in some ways, spring is already here.

And as I discovered last weekend, there's a lot going on in other places, too. With sunset approaching last Saturday evening, Ivan and I met up with about a dozen folks from the Fyke Nature Association to watch for woodcocks at Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. These long-billed shorebirds prefer damp grassy marshland, and one spot at the refuge is well-known as a mating season hotspot.

What makes the American woodcock so fascinating that a bunch of people will stand around in a swamp at dusk waiting for it? Well, it's always interesting to witness courtship behavior, but the woodcock's routine is pretty distinct for birds that nest in New Jersey. If you were to relate it to that of young humans, we were about to see the avian version of a nightclub in a college town: pick-up lines and a bit of dancing, with the males hoping to impress the ladies. The dance, in particular, is an improvement over what most other local birds tend to do: stand around and sing their version of "hey baby, hey baby, hey baby."

The male woodcock announces the start of the ritual with a short, adenoidal buzzing noise that is usually described with the mneumonic "peent" (or, for others, electronic flatulence). If you didn't know better, you might confuse it for an odd out-of-season cricket, or maybe a frog of some sort. He will continue "peent"ing from his well-obscured spot on the ground until he takes flight. Rising 40 feet up in the air, he performs an aerial display of dips and climbs, his wings whistling all the while. For a sampling of these sounds, check out Cornell University's All About Birds page on the woodcock.

The woodcock: big eyes, long bill, short legs.
We waited patiently for twilight to settle, noticing that early-season moths were beginning to come out for the evening. In the waning moments of light, we started to hear the buzzing calls in a brushy area. One brave individual started a series of calls, a little erratically spaced. He was totally obscured on the ground among the taller grasses and shrubbiness, so it would be harder to see as he rose in flight. With so many eyes on the lookout, chances were that at least some of us would get a glimpse. Soon a few other individuals started making noise from other areas, giving our guy a little competition.

Patience is your friend when birding, and waiting for woodcock is a prime example. You can't hurry them up, and when they do rise, you're sometimes following the sound overhead more than a visible body. After a bit of peenting, our guy ascended and flew around like a stunt pilot on adrenaline, his wings twittering the path of his speedy and looped flight. He dropped back to the ground as quickly as he'd risen, and there was silence for a few moments until we heard....


"Well, I guess that didn't work," someone said, and we all laughed. All that work and the woodcock had come up short in the new girlfriend category. Time to start from scratch again.

Our first woodcock flight seen, more sounds began to emerge. You expect a lot of nature noises on a warm summer night, but early March has its songs in the swamp, too. Now that I wasn't so focused on hearing every peent, my ears opened to the rushing sounds of ducks (and geese) flying to their nighttime settling places. Ivan even spied the sound of what might have been a bullfrog croaking in a pond several yards away.

Peenting became more frequent and from other quarters, and we were startled when two separate woodcocks flew past us, just a few feet overhead. With their large, dark eyes, it was surely easier for them to see us in the darkness than the other way around. Things were livening up, for sure!

Then we had an even bigger surprise visitor -- two, actually. The larger bird coming toward us had a much deeper wingstroke and more substantial body, flying purposefully past us toward a wooded area, its partner not far behind. Heard calling earlier by a few in our group, the great horned owls were out for the night, no doubt looking for a meal. Seeing them was a nice little bonus, unexpected but not out of place.

Birding at dusk has its limitations, of course: you can only watch so long before natural light is extinguished, and artificial light won't help your cause. Nature had been good to us that evening, and the only thing left to do was find our way to our cars without incident.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Trotting along the White Horse Pike

Where in heck did the White Horse Pike get its name? Not being a South Jerseyan, I've long wondered why that particular nomenclature stuck to a road that runs east/west from Atlantic City to the Ben Franklin Bridge in Camden. As far as I knew, the area wasn't home to a herd of albino horses, and the equine population is Camden County isn't particularly high.

Perhaps there was a racetrack nearby?

Maybe a European settler had ridden a white horse down the road in the early days of West Jersey?

Or maybe it's a ghost horse, the Camden County equivalent of the Jersey Devil?

The answer, as I discovered, came from much farther back than the opening of the Garden State Park Racetrack in Cherry Hill (which was on another road, altogether). Chartered as a toll road in 1854, the White Horse Pike originally ran about 14 miles from Camden to the village of White Horse, which had taken the name of the tavern at its center. The White Horse Inn had been built in 1740 along a footpath the Lenapes had reportedly used as their road between the Delaware River and the Atlantic Ocean. It's been theorized that the inn's owner, Elizabeth Bates, named her establishment for the natives' horses.

I drove part of the Pike after my visit to Lawnside, prompted by the WPA Guide to New Jersey. The guide claimed the Inn was operated by the same family for nearly 200 years, with the original sign, complete with a picture of a white horse, still hanging from the porch. Granted, I was counting on a 70 year old description of the place, and lots of things can happen in that stretch of time, but I was cautiously hopeful the inn would still be there. It had, after all, been an important stop on the stagecoach route and the stimulus for the growth of the village. Maybe it wasn't in a county seat, as Mount Holly's Mill Street Hotel and Tavern is, but it sounded as if the White Horse was equally worthy of preservation.

Scanning the roadside at highway speed can be daunting, even when you have to stop occasionally for traffic lights. I saw a muffler man hawking tires in Clementon, but beyond that, it was the usual assortment of chain drug stores, fast food joints and assorted mom-and-pop emporia. Some of those looked pretty old, but nowhere near colonial-era old.

The Quaker Store in Stratford. Nice porch!
Then I saw what I thought could have been the White Horse Inn, sitting at a triangular-shaped plot of land formed by the intersection of Route 30 and Berlin Road. The building looked old enough but had signs stating "Friendly Quaker Store." As I later found out, it's the oldest surviving building in town, having been built in the 1860's on the foundation of the 1740's-era general store. Local preservationists have been working to restore it, and long-time Stratford residents still remember the proprietress and her kindness toward those who needed a little credit until payday.

Still, though: if the Quaker Store was the longest-standing building in the community, that meant the White Horse Inn wasn't to be found. Indeed, later research revealed that it was torn down in the 1970s to make room for a strip mall, likely the one where I stopped to take the photo above.

White Horse Farm Hammonton NJ Hidden NJ
The White Horse, in Hammonton
Disappointed not to find the White Horse, I kept driving toward Atlantic City, toward Hammonton. Development along the roadside got progressively less commercial and increasingly more rural, with farm fields replacing retail buildings. I'd stopped to grab a sandwich earlier, but I didn't pull into one of the rare parking lots to eat it; there were so few cars in the restaurant lots that I felt it would be rude to take up a spot for a repast I hadn't bought there.

The road had gotten really quiet by the time I drove reached the town limits of Hammonton, the self-proclaimed Blueberry Capital of the World. Traffic undoubtedly picks up substantially during growing season, but in early March there wasn't much going on. When I pulled into the lot of the quiet White Horse Farms to take a photo, I saw a red-tailed hawk dive toward the center stripe of the road and swoop up to perch on the adjacent roadside utility line. Something tells me he does that a lot, without consequence.

At least I found the White Horse, even if it wasn't the one I expected to see. And I discovered quite a few targets for pick-your-own during blueberry season. Elizabeth White would be quite satisfied.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Lawnside: a Free Haven in history

If you drove through the Camden County borough of Lawnside, you'd be excused for thinking it's no different from any other small town in New Jersey. The typical appearance of its shops, schools and modest homes belie its history as the first independent self-governing African-American community north of the Mason-Dixon line.

According to the Encyclopedia of New Jersey, people of African descent began settling in what's now Lawnside in the 1700s. Both freedmen and escaped slaves were drawn to the community, and as the anti-slavery movement grew, Philadelphia abolitionist Ralph Smith began purchasing land in the area. To encourage further settlement in the place he called Free Haven, Smith divided the acreage into lots and sold it to blacks at reduced prices. When a group of former slaves from Maryland joined the community, it became known as Snow Hill, after their former home. The current name of Lawnside was coined in 1907 when the Pennsylvania and Reading Railroad built a station stop there.

All the while, the community was part of the larger Centre Township, with representation on the town council. As it grew to have its own school, churches, shops and distinct culture, it was clear that Lawnside should stand on its own. Through an act of the New Jersey Legislature, Centre Township was disbanded and Lawnside officially became a borough in 1926. To this day, Lawnside's population continues to be predominantly African American and extremely proud of its heritage, as evidenced on its borough seal.

Considering its roots, it's not surprising that the community that became Lawnside made its own contributions to the freedom effort. Nearly fifty men joined the Union Army during the Civil War, likely in the 22nd US Colored Troops that mustered out of Philadelphia. The hamlet was also a stop on the Underground Railroad, and its respected resident minister an agent. Preacher Peter Mott's house was the station, and it's been restored by the Lawnside Historical Society.

Lawnside New Jersey, Peter Mott House, Underground RailroadWhen I drove into town, I saw brown historic signs leading to the house, and I wasn't sure what to expect. Over the years, I've come to accept that historic sites aren't always in central locations or even where it might seem logical. Sometimes 20th century development pressures have transformed the acreage around an old farmhouse into the site of compact tract housing. That's what I found when I pulled to the end of a townhouse-lined cul-de-sac to find the Mott farmhouse. Not far away, behind a buffer of woods, traffic on the Turnpike whizzed by. Clearly, a lot has changed since Mott and his wife Eliza bought the property from prominent African-American dentist and Underground Railroad conductor Jacob C. White, Jr. in 1844.

The house is only open on Saturdays, so I wasn't able to go inside, but an informative sign related the facts that local historians have been able to glean about Mott and his property from census records. Listed in 1850 as a laborer, Mott apparently was well-off enough to build a two-story house and hold property worth $600. A respected member of the community, he founded the Sunday School at the Snow Hill Church, which is now known as Mount Pisgah A.M.E.

As I left town for other adventures, I realized that the completely typical appearance of Lawnside demonstrates the success of its founders' vision. More often than not, when people seek equality, they're just looking for the same chances everyone else gets, no more, no less. When it came to Free Acres, it was a place where free-born and formerly enslaved people of African descent could establish a home and raise a family in peace.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

It's Spring-time in Haledon!

I was on my way into Haledon when I came upon a sign for the National Spring Company. It seemed a little odd there would be a water spring in such a highly-developed area, but, well, I was driving along the ridge of the Watchung Mountains. There's a wooded area at the peak, so maybe there's a geologic reason the water would be better there than somewhere else.

My destination was the Botto House, now home to the National Labor Museum. I've meant to get there for a while, but the timing never seems to work out. Somehow I screwed up again and it wasn't open, so I found myself knocking around as I considered my next destination.

Then at the corner of Tilt Street and Southside Avenue, I saw something very out of place in a residential neighborhood: a white cinder block building set within a grassy park. It had what appeared to be two spigots and a trough, as well as a couple of official-looking signs. To me it looked like a larger version of those old milk-dispensing machines I vaguely remember from my childhood.

Of course, I needed to check it out. What I found was the Tilt Street spring house, owned by the Borough of Haledon.

The mention of a spring house usually brings up the vision of a little shack in the woods, or maybe in the back field of a farm, but here was one in the middle of a tightly-developed area. The signs outlined the operating hours (7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.) and restrictions (four gallons, drawn into one gallon containers). It didn't look particularly hygienic, but then it didn't look all that grody, either. And of course, there were no handles to the faucets. To control access, those would be issued by the borough to residents.

When I looked into the history of Haledon a little, the presence of the spring house and National Spring made a little more sense. Founded in 1908, the borough was originally part of the now-defunct Manchester Township, and developers promoted the community's fresh air and good water as compelling reasons to settle. Despite the proximity to Paterson, it was a clean, peaceful respite from the city's noise and congestion.

The Belmont Avenue trolley offered convenient access to the mills, attracting many of the skilled workers who were immigrating from Europe to work in the silk industry (and leading to the Botto House's role in the Paterson silk strike of 1913, but that's a story for another day). Land along the flatter part of town was separated into 25x100 foot lots, providing a respite from congested city living. Larger tracts farther up the mountain were developed with villas for the wealthy. The estate of Garret Hobart, U.S. Vice President under McKinley, was in Haledon and eventually became part of William Paterson University.

So... what of the spring? There's basically nothing about it on the borough website, beyond a 2007 notification of the presence of coliform bacteria at a testing of the spring. You'd have to wonder about the continued purity of the water, given how built out the area is. Most springs are within a large buffer area of undeveloped land, and even a well known natural spring in Essex County's South Mountain Reservation has been closed off due to concerns about water quality.

 Anybody know what's become of the Tilt Street spring?

Sunday, March 3, 2013

You'll never take it alive: Copper in Watchung Reservation*

Union County's Watchung Reservation is well known among New Jersey adventurers as home of the Deserted Village, but it holds other surprises that aren't as evident, even when you practically trip over them.

If you take a right turn after the trail head near the Trailside Nature and Science Center, you'll eventually come upon a bunch of ravines. They look entirely natural, but one isn't quite what it appears to be. In fact, it's the last remnants of a very old copper mine. You'll know you found it when you come upon the interpretive marker (if it's still there) or a four-by-four post with a pink stripe around it (if it's not). Oh, and you might notice some rocks with a slight greenish tinge on them, that being the traces of very low-quality copper.

The area isn't as well known for mining today as other parts of the state are, but its history goes far back. Park literature theorizes that the First Watchung Mountain ridge may have been scouted for copper by the Lenape as far back as 500 years ago. Another source noted that the area was first settled by English miners in the 1600s. Either there was really something there, or speculators were highly motivated to take a chance at making a big strike in the New World. I'm betting on the latter more than the former.

The more interesting story, in my book, is what may have happened there during the Revolutionary War. It's believed that Hessian prisoners of war were held in what's now Mountainside, and brought to the mine site to dig for copper for military use. The famed Schuyler Mine in the North Arlington area was closed at the time, and perhaps the Continentals thought they could hit pay dirt farther south along the ridge. In any case, the Hessians only got about fifteen feet in before digging was halted; the ore they found was deemed not to be worth the time to extract, transport and process. If there were any other mining attempts within the current reservation borders, they're not evident today.

As I was researching the Reservation's mining history, I found the usual apocryphal mine stories: deep underground rooms haunted by a kid who got lost and trapped by a cave-in, you name it. All that tends to go out the window when you see the actual location. If there's someone stuck in there, he's been there for an awfully long time.

*Apologies to Jimmy Cagney for mangling his quote from Public Enemy.