Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Walk like a New Egyptian

Put enough mileage on your car, and you're likely to find some unexpected animals in New Jersey farm fields. I've learned to go with it: if northern lapwings have found their way from Europe all the way to Central Jersey, and they happen to be hanging out with a couple of sandhill cranes, who am I to say they shouldn't settle down among a pasture of grazing longhorn cattle in New Egypt?

Longhorn cattle? Here? If you adhere to the truism that everyone has a relative in Jersey, why should they be any different? For whatever reason, a farmer on Brynmore Road decided to bring a little bit of Texas back East, and there we go.

Ivan and I first found them in January, when the lapwings were first reported. True to the accounts on the American Bird Association bulletin board, the avian visitors were lingering on the ground looking like plovers with crests, navigating through the firm mud churned by the longhorns. The cranes, a bit easier to spot from a distance, were farther backfield, not getting as much attention from the scrum of birders congregated at the edge of the narrow two-lane road. The cattle themselves looked a bit wary; we gave them wide berth, even with a wire fence separating us. I couldn't help but think that a rare discourteous birder could find himself on the business end of those horns pretty quickly if he were foolish enough to hop the fence for a closer look at the rare visitors to New Jersey.

In any case, Ivan and I got our life lapwings, plus a curious new place to check out. We'd passed through what looked like downtown New Egypt on our way in and made a mental note to return when we had more time to explore. An impressive-looking former bank building labeled "Welcome Center" in big letters is a focal point in the small business area, so I figured some of the locals would be ready and waiting for us when we got back.

New Egypt - or Plumsted Township - has the distinction of being in the geographic center of New Jersey, but if you're trying to find it, it feels a little more like the middle of nowhere. County roads bring you there from the Parkway or 195, and if you're not sure how long it should take, well, it feels like a long drive. You're rewarded with rather pleasant scenery - farm fields and some woods along the way, punctuated by housing developments here and there.

Longhorn salad bar, from the safety of the car.
Before I checked out downtown, though, there was the matter of the longhorns. I returned to find them at the salad bar. Who knew bovines were into mixed greens? One was even bellying up to the bar, resting his front legs upon the flatbed holding the food, looking much like a tired laborer hunched over his beer at the corner tavern after a long shift.

Back in town, I was disappointed to find that the Welcome Center was closed, with no hours posted for when it would be staffed. The town was not giving up its secrets so quickly, so I had to do a bit of research after returning to Hidden New Jersey headquarters.

First, there's the matter of the town's rather curious name. I saw no deserts or pyramids on my visit, so why Egypt? Legend has it that the community was once called Timmons (or Kimmons) Mills, until General George Washington made a fateful quip. He'd sent soldiers to search for supplies for his hungry army, and one returned with food, Washington quipped, "Here is Joseph, returned from Egypt with wheat." When the revered father of our country affixes a label to your town, it tends to stick.

Another story has a similar theme, with different details. A man named Kimmons would store corn during high-yield harvests, and when lean years came, people would go to his farm to buy grain and corn. Referring to the Bible as Washington was said to have, people would say they were going to Egypt when they went to Kimmons' mill for grain. The "New" was added, as the 1930s WPA Guide to New Jersey stated, "to differentiate it from other Egypts." Other Egypts? In New Jersey?

The name was changed to Oakford in 1869 at the behest of a real estate developer who said he'd pave the roads with brick if the town agreed to make the change. Apparently the locals had a change of heart when the railroad refused to change the name on its timetables: they reverted back to New Egypt a few weeks later.

Besides the uniqueness of its name, New Egypt established its place in history for agriculture. It's said that the town was where the berries for the world's first cranberry sauce were grown, though I didn't see any bogs when I was there. The community was also once host to the world's largest egg hatchery.

Outside of farming, New Egypt was a resort area for a time in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, made more accessible by the arrival of railroad service. More than two dozen inns and boardinghouses sprung up to accommodate those who came to enjoy the countryside, including the Duchess of Windsor. Visitors could swim or boat on Oakford Lake, hike in the nearby woods, or take in a leisurely picnic, just to name a few of the activities available to them. Predictably, many businesses also took root downtown, meeting just about any need a visitor might have.

These days, things seem a lot quieter. There's no longer a train bringing visitors -- that ended with the advent of the automobile, shore attractions and other distractions. If anyone's visiting New Egypt, it's either for the flea market or the speedway, or perhaps to pick their own vegetables at one of the local farms. Maybe it's better that way: the community retains a rural, small town feel that's a true respite from the overcrowding that's endemic to more highly-developed parts of the state.

It's nice to know that at its heart, New Jersey can still maintain a quiet, peaceful core.



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