Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A surprise meeting in Gloucester City

I visited the Gloucester City waterfront specifically to check out the old immigration station, but as it turned out, the adjacent park had its own surprises, including a stone marker sectioned off with a substantial metal chain.

Was someone notable buried here? Had this been the site of a historic landing, or of someone's death? I checked out the plaque to find the following:

Since April 1688
The Proprietors of the Gloucester Tenth
have met annually on this spot
to elect members to represent them
in the Council of 
the General Proprietors of 
the Western Division of New Jersey

I'd stumbled upon the most treasured of all Hidden New Jersey treasures: a footnote to a historical footnote.

Who are these Proprietors and what responsibility do they have within West Jersey? The answer is rooted in the late 1600s, when much if not all of the land of the Jersey colonies (East and West) was granted to English and Scottish individuals who likely never set foot in the new world. Known as proprietors, they hired local representatives to ensure their land here was managed appropriately. Thus, the General Board of Proprietors of the Western Division of New Jersey was created in 1688, consisting of representatives of the proprietors themselves. It's arguably the oldest continuously operating corporation in the country, having taken the crown by the four-years-older East Jersey Board of Proprietors when that group disbanded in 1998. Each Board met in their respective Surveyor General’s Office (West in Burlington City, East in Perth Amboy) to discuss landholding matters and determine ownership of any land created within their jurisdictions (by buildup of silt, etc.).

As you can guess, the whole shebang became a bit of an anachronism over time, given that virtually all the land in the state is deeded to someone by now. In fact, well over 100 years ago, newspapers including The New York Times were writing about the ongoing meetings as a curiosity of the past. The former East Jersey seems to have done just fine over the past 15 years without the Proprietors to settle land disputes, but the West Jersey Proprietors continue to meet at the small Surveyor General's office on West Broad Street in Burlington City.

Why, then, is there a meeting place in Gloucester? In the late 17th century, the 21 mile distance to Burlington was deemed to be too far for the area's proprietors to travel for an election. Now it's just a matter of keeping up a 325-year old tradition, maybe mixed with a desire to avoid rush-hour traffic on Route 130. Admittedly, there's not much going on with the proprietors these days -- the job is largely symbolic -- so the Gloucester bunch are basically getting together to vote on who would have to make the schlep if, indeed, there were any business to be done in Burlington. There's not much prestige to being a proprietor, except, I guess, among history enthusiasts, but the ones in Gloucester at least have a park named for them.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Gloucester City: Philadelphia's historic immigrant port of entry

Ask just about anyone where America's "Golden Door" of immigration stood in the late 19th and early 20th century, and they'll bring up Ellis Island. Most Americans, however, don't realize that there were several other, smaller immigration facilities at ports and border crossings around the country. Among them was the port of Philadelphia station at Gloucester City, New Jersey.

Gloucester City Immigration Station Hidden NJ
The former Gloucester City Immigration Station
is now home to a port-related business.
Standing rather plainly at the city's port, the three-story, white block building lacks the grandeur of its cousin near the Statue of Liberty. In fact, if you didn't know its history, you'd have no idea that it was anything more than a very sturdily-built office building. When I visited to get a lay of the land, I had to do a quick check on the smartphone to compare an old historic photo against the building before me. No plaques or notations give the casual passer-by any indication that within this structure, new arrivals were welcomed into the United States while others were detained before their inevitable deportation.

How did the Philadelphia immigration station end up in New Jersey? It seems to be the confluence of two classic issues: insufficient funding and a well-connected property owner. Immigration officials had long inspected ship passengers at a waterfront facility owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad, expanding the building as the number of incoming vessels and immigrants grew. The city constructed a municipal inspection station at another pier as other shipping lines increased their immigrant transports.

Around the same time, federal officials were looking for ways to relieve overcrowding at Ellis Island, which was regularly seeing thousands more immigrants a day than it was designed to handle. By opening larger facilities at Philadelphia and elsewhere around the country, officials hoped to shunt some of the traffic away from New York. Only problem was, the $250,000 that Congress allocated to open a new facility at Philadelphia was insufficient to buy any of the valuable port property on that side of the Delaware.

In a stroke of dubious luck, an ideal spot was located just on the other side of the river, in (you guessed it) Gloucester City. Politically-connected, headline-grabbing entrepreneur Billy Thompson just happened to own five acres of riverfront property he was willing to sell to the government for $100,000. The self-styled "Duke of Gloucester" was even willing to throw in his own home, an extravagant Victorian mansion which was repurposed as an administration building. The federal government erected the white building to handle the day-to-day tasks of processing new arrivals: inspection, detention, hearings and deportation.

Like its counterpart at Ellis Island, the building was hailed at its 1912 opening as state of the art, with outstanding sanitary conditions and dining facilities that surpassed those in many of the nation's hotels. Detained immigrants, it seemed, would be highly satisfied with their accommodations. On the other hand, no appropriation was made for the construction of a Public Health Service hospital like the one at Ellis; one has to believe that a small infirmary was housed within one of the buildings, with more serious cases sent to local hospitals.

To some degree, the immigration department's plan was a success: at one point, Gloucester City became the second busiest immigration station in the country. However, its prominence was short lived. The start of hostilities in Europe and the onset of World War II dramatically changed the purpose of the nation's immigration stations, and Gloucester's was no exception. Enemy aliens were sent there en route to internment camps in other parts of the country. Others, including crew members of ships bearing German or Italian flags, were held at the station for the duration.

The immigration station closed at the end of the war, and Thompson's old house was torn down in favor of buildings for a new Coast Guard training facility. By 1986, the Coast Guard had moved to newer digs in Philadelphia, leaving the Gloucester City property to stand vacant. Ironically, as Ellis Island was being restored and celebrated, its cousin on the Delaware was being left to rot.

The building's fate improved slightly when the city bought the property for $1 in 1991, as one of the port's larger tenants made the old immigration station its new offices. Nonetheless, plans were soon in the works to demolish the building in favor of a port revitalization program. Alarmed by the possibility of losing a vital landmark, local historians successfully petitioned the state to add the Coast Guard and Immigration Station to the New Jersey Register of Historic Places

It appears that the designation might have actually worked. The rededicated "Freedom Pier" is now home to the schooner North Wind, and if the "Summer 2012" banner I saw is to come true eventually, there will be a restaurant there, too. With any luck, the planned revitalization will get people curious about the history of that big white building and the people who once traversed through it.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Anchors aweigh in Brooklawn: the hidden naval history of Noreg Village

Wrong turns can lead you into some puzzling places, as was reconfirmed to me recently. I was driving along Broadway in Gloucester City, looking for the waterfront and Proprietors' Park, when I overshot and ended up driving through a very compact housing area. Uniformly-designed, smallish stucco houses, both attached and unattached, stood on postage stamp-sized lots along narrow streets barely wide enough to accommodate two cars across.

The neighborhood put me in the mind of company housing, arranged on a modified grid. One road wound against the Delaware River and a small inlet, marking the outside border of the neighborhood. Other roads branched from a central Paris Avenue like veins on a leaf, with names evoking the local geography (Pennsylvania, New Jersey) and World War I (Pershing, Marne). It all seemed to have been planned to get the maximum density of housing into a peninsula hemmed in by river and creek. Might this might have been a quickly-built village for workers at the Gloucester City and Camden shipyards?

A recent look at Noreg Village housing
That, as I discovered later, was exactly the case. Shortly after the United States entered the war in April 1917, the Navy ordered 30 destroyers and other ship components from the New York Shipbuilding Corporation, prompting the company to ramp up work at its Camden shipyard. Additional workers poured into the region to supply labor, but they needed places to live and house their families.

In a strategy that would later be echoed in World War II developments like Winfield Park and Victory Gardens, the federal government financed the construction of homes for about 6500 shipyard workers in a riverside portion of what was then known as Centre Township. Built by the U.S. Shipping Board Emergency Fleet Corporation, the middle-income community was completed in 1917. New residents surged into the neighborhood, which was then called Noreg Village.

In 1923, well after the end of hostilities in Europe, the government held a massive auction of the 450 properties, including some commercial buildings and undeveloped lots. Home prices ranged from $1875 to $4000 for two- and three-bedroom properties described in promotional materials as the "ideal place of residence" for "the highest type of men and their families."

Brooklawn was officially formed as a borough in 1924 when it joined a growing number of hamlets separating from Centre Township by referendum. (Lawnside did the same two years later, rendering its parent township defunct.) Now home to about 2000 residents, its residential stock includes additional homes built to the east of Broadway, the road I'd taken to discover this little-known evidence of New Jersey's contribution to America's World War history.

Monday, July 22, 2013

That noisy college town: Somerville?

History-minded Rutgers University students (at least the New Brunswick-based ones) quickly learn the facts behind the school's origins. At the behest of officials within the Dutch Reformed Church, Royal Governor William Franklin issued a charter for the creation of Queens College on November 10, 1766, placing it as eighth among the nine colonial colleges. The school got off to a slow start due to various reasons, but eventually began holding classes at a New Brunswick tavern called the Sign of the Red Lion.

That's all true, but as we learned on a visit to Hopewell, there's a lot more to the founding of a university. Someone has to come up with the idea in the first place, and in Rutgers' case, that person was Reverend Jacob Hardenbergh of the Dutch Reformed Church. And, it seems, the idea may have come when he was living, not on the Banks of the Old Raritan, but at the Old Dutch Parsonage in Somerville.

Not Old Queens... the Old Dutch Parsonage.
Hardenbergh himself owed a great deal of his education to Reverend John Frelinghuysen, who'd tutored Jacob and other young men at the parsonage in addition to his religious duties. When Frelinghuysen died in 1754, Hardenbergh took his place in the pulpit, and while he didn't tutor students himself, he was a strong advocate for education. The College of New Jersey had been founded 20 years earlier by ministers of the Presbyterian Church's New Light movement, and the Dutch Reformed needed their own academy in which to train future ministers and provide a classical education to others. Hardenbergh traveled to England in 1763 to appeal to King George for a new college, setting the groundwork for what would be chartered as Queens College. By early 1766, he was circulating a petition for the school's creation, and by the end of the year, he'd secured the charter.

The establishment of the college was just the first step, and while the Grammar School (now Rutgers Prep) began accepting students in 1767, it took another five years for the upper school to hire a tutor and matriculate students. The first diploma was earned by the class of 1774, Matthew Leidt. Compare that against the more than 14,000 degrees awarded in 2013, and you have to believe that Hardenbergh would be very satisfied with the longevity and productivity of what he worked so hard to start.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Scratching my head on Mankiller Bay

Every once in a while, I have to throw my hands up and admit to being stumped.

As you've seen, Hidden New Jersey is dedicated to shining light on lesser known (and often lesser noticed) aspects of history, culture and nature around the state. Much of the time, we've noticed these things in our travels, and sometimes I've got to do some reading or rooting around to get to the hidden story. Even when we talk about better known people and places, it's with an eye toward sharing an aspect you might not have known.

Then there are the things that even we can't explain.

Mankiller Bay seems to be one of them. Just northwest of Atlantic City, it joins Absecon Bay with the Inlet of the same name. It even has a namesake spit of land within it, the uninhabited and likely very marshy Mankiller Island.

This is one I've admittedly been hanging onto for a while. I jotted it in my notebook during a road trip, likely enroute to Brigantine Island to look for wintering shorebirds. But try as I might, I haven't been able to discover why these Mankillers deserve such an ominous name. Old sporting guides state that the island is good for hunting, and a bunch of fishing resources cite the bay's finned bounty, but its history? It eludes me.

Any ideas, folks?

Monday, July 15, 2013

From enslavement to business mogul: Elizabeth Sutliff Dulfer

I love it when a Hidden New Jersey story reveals another, equally as obscure story about an accomplished individual who's somehow evaded widespread notice. Such is the case with accomplished 19th century businesswoman Elizabeth Dickerson Sutliff Dulfer.

You might remember her name from our story about the clay trade that once prospered along the Hackensack River. She was the first person to capitalize on the wide-scale commercial value of the local clay, purchasing 87 acres of land in Little Ferry for the purpose of mining and selling the substance. It's remarkable for a woman of that time to have the resources and ability to acquire land without a man's help, but it's an even more fascinating story when you consider her origins.

Elizabeth Dickerson was born into slavery in 1790, in New Barbadoes, current-day Hackensack. She worked in servitude for William and Polly Campbell at their home along the banks of the Hackensack River until achieving manumission in 1822. It's not known whether she paid for her freedom or whether it was granted for past service, but either way, she was free to enjoy the same rights as any woman who'd never been enslaved.

Census records indicate that following her release, she may have lived and worked as a seamstress in New York City, marrying a Jamaican immigrant named Alexander Sutler. Regardless of her profession, she must have managed her income wisely, for she started acquiring land on her return to New Jersey in 1847. She spent more than $1300 to purchase the Little Ferry property not far from her childhood home, aggregating tracts from several sellers. You've got to believe she had a goal in mind, as it took time, serious persistence and a strategy to negotiate the number of transactions she had to make to acquire the land.

Once she had the property together, the real work began. Mining clay was a tough, labor-intensive business in the mid 1800s, and she hired several employees to help her. As we saw in the case of the Mehrhofs, Dulfer counted on ships to transport her product to customers in the larger cities of New Jersey and beyond. Some accounts say that her business was one of the largest clay providers in the country; she was likely among the wealthiest landowners in Bergen County, too. That said, she still had to deal with the prevailing attitudes of the time: the 1850 census listed her husband as owner and farmer of the property, even though she herself held legal title to the land.

Following Alexander's death in 1855, Elizabeth remarried, this time to a Dutch immigrant 33 years her junior. John Dulfer joined his wife's business, and together they also tended the 50 acres designated to agriculture. Records show that the farm was successful as well, yielding potatoes, hay, butter and produce that Elizabeth sold at market in Hoboken and elsewhere.

Elizabeth's business and financial acumen served her well in her advancing age, when she capitalized on the potential of her considerable holdings. Selling the clay beds in 1867 for more than ten times what she'd paid for them 20 years earlier, she became a financier. Between 1864 and 1870, she invested more than $16,000 in Bergen County real estate and high-interest bearing mortgages.

Elizabeth died in 1880 at the age of 90. Buried in what's now known as Gethsemane Cemetery in Little Ferry, she seems to have fallen largely into obscurity, much like the clay industry in which she excelled. It's truly a shame: in her time, she defied the odds against women and African Americans to become one of the most successful entrepreneurs in New Jersey.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Saving a piece of journalism history: the Thomas Fortune house

A large, century-old house on Red Bank's Drs. James Parker Boulevard wouldn't seem to be worthy of much attention, except for two facts. First, it stands vacant, on a sizable piece of land ripe for development. Second, and more importantly, it's a National Historic Landmark that's in danger of being lost, along with the opportunity to tell the story of T. Thomas Fortune.

I first learned about Fortune from our friends Peter Primavera and Gordon Bond at Garden State Legacy, who are spearheading the effort to save the house from demolition. Their zeal piqued my curiousity: why made this little-known individual so important that his house warrants recognition and preservation?

T. Thomas Fortune
What I discovered was an accomplished publisher and civil rights activist who contributed not just to the cause of African-American equality, but to the development and advancement of issues-based journalism. He founded and ran the largest and most influential black newspaper of his day, arguably setting the standard for advocacy journalism.

The story of Timothy Thomas Fortune starts in Florida, where he was born into slavery in 1856. Coming of age during the Reconstruction Era, he got a first-hand view of the rise and fall of black influence in government and public life when his father Emanuel won a seat in the Florida House of Representatives.

Young Thomas spent a great deal of time in the Florida statehouse during his father's tenure, even serving as a Senate page. There's nothing quite like being in the belly of the beast if you want to understand exactly how government works, and he got quite an education in Southern politics. While several blacks had been elected to office in the post-war years, their efforts to gain true influence and change met with little success due to sanctioned discrimination in the halls of government. Longstanding prejudice among whites led to the eventual banishment of most black elected officials in Florida, including Emanuel Fortune.

Even as he was learning the realities of government, Thomas was spending time in printing shops and newspaper offices, picking up writing and publishing skills. Those talents stood him in good stead when he moved to Washington, DC to study law at Howard University. He worked his way through school at a black newspaper, earning a reputation as a talented writer with a distinct voice. He'd found his niche.

At the age of 24, Fortune set out on his own as a journalist, believing that the nation's black population needed a national forum. Moving to New York City, he founded a series of newspapers, including The New York Globe and the New York Freeman, later named The New York Age. He wrote broadly on interracial relations and the advancement of African Americans, advocating equal educational opportunity and women's rights. "To tell a man he is free when he has neither money nor the opportunity to make it," he wrote, "is simply to mock him."

Unlike many of the general circulation newspapers of his day, Fortune's puiblications avoided sensationalism in favor of intelligent, reasoned editorial content and high journalistic standards. He was well recognized for his ability to encourage dialogue by balancing opposing views, and is credited with giving blacks a vehicle to discuss social issues and protest inequity. Noted journalists including Ida B. Wells and Victoria Earle Matthews started their careers working at the Age.

Fortune's work atracted the attention of Tuskegee Institute president Booker T. Washington, who hired the journalist as a speechwriter and collaborated with him on several books despite their sometimes divergent opinions. Washington also provided financial support to the Age, helping to keep the newspaper afloat during difficult times. Nonetheless, Washington neglected to credit Fortune for most of his contributions, leading to a degree of friction between the two.

The Fortune house today, awaiting preservation.
Courtesy Peter Primavera.
It's not clear why Fortune decided to settle his family in Red Bank, but his move out from New York in 1901 reflected a growing trend of affluent blacks settling in the suburbs. Securing a mortgage from one of New York's first African-American banks, he purchased a 12-room Second-Empire style home located conveniently near the train station. He commuted to the city once a week, preferring to write and edit at home. The location also proved convenient to visitors; Washington often came to Red Bank to meet with Fortune.

Ideological differences between the two men ultimately led to a split, with catastrophic results for the journalist. Unhappy with Fortune's more strident public pronouncements, Washington lost faith in his writer and withdrew his financial support for the Age. Already suffering from severe depression, Fortune had a nervous breakdown in 1907 and lost the Red Bank house to foreclosure eight years later. While he eventually recovered and began working again, he never quite regained the level of influence he'd once held within the community. He died in Philadelphia in 1928.

To characterize Fortune solely as an African-American leader would be to minimize his broader role as an activist publisher and commentator. He demonstrated the power of journalism to provoke debate and influence public policy among the diverse factions of communities others might see as being of one mind. Black leaders, whether separatist or integrationist in belief, sought and valued his counsel. The issues he championed -- equal rights and equal opportunity for women and minorities -- continue to be debated today, and scores of media outlets and journalists now play the roles that Fortune and his newspapers established in his day. Every one of us, regardless of ethnic or racial origin, benefit from the example he set.

The group working to save the Fortune house has established a Facebook page to keep supporters updated on the progress of their campaign. Reflecting Fortune's interests and achievements as well as the history of the larger Red Bank community, they're building a broad coalition to widen awareness and advocacy for the site. Post-acquisition plans are still in development. The challenge now is to save the house and with it, a way to build awareness of Fortune's legacy.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Just another brick in the marsh: finding Little Ferry's historic clay industry

You wouldn't know it by the lack of traffic in recent years, but the Hackensack River and its tributaries were once important shipping routes. Well before the invention of trucks and the establishment of major highways, schooners and barges once traveled well up the river, stopping to pick up a wide range of materials and finished goods grown or made in the Meadowlands.

Along those lines, a quiet wooded park and a man-made pond in Little Ferry are among the last vestiges of an industry that helped to build many sturdy buildings in New Jersey and New York City. And the name attached to the pond and the adjacent road recall an earlier time when a German immigrant family dominated the local brickmaking business.

I was a little surprised to discover that bricks had been such a big business in the Meadowlands. As far as I'd known, the state's clay-based industry had taken hold in Central Jersey, specifically in Woodbridge and Trenton. In fact, the Woodbridge Center mall was built in a former clay pit. I guess that I never considered what might be below the spartina grass and phragmites in Bergen and Hudson counties.

Small bodies of water like Mehrhof Pond appear to be
the last visible signs of a once-thriving brickmaking
industry in the Meadowlands.
Most of the clay business along the Hackensack was centered in Little Ferry, starting in the late 1840s. Recognizing the value of the local soil, a freed black woman, Elizabeth Sutliff Dulfer, purchased 87 acres of land there to supply clay to craftspeople in Jersey City and Newark. The first business to actually produce clay products within the town's borders was a flowerpot factory. In any case, it was the ideal place for a successful clay-based business. The raw material was right there, close to the river for shipping.

By the mid 1860s, brickmaking was well established in Little Ferry, with several facilities in operation to supply the growing cities of New York and northern New Jersey. Among others, members of the Mehrhof family purchased brickyards there, enlarging until they were among the nation's largest brick manufacturers. Producing up to two million bricks a year, they even owned a fleet of schooners to ship finished bricks to customers as far away as Providence, Rhode Island. To keep up with demand, the Mehrhof companies dug a 60-foot deep pit alongside a lowland forest near the Hackensack. Continuously-operated pumps kept the nearby river and ground water from filling the pits.

Brickmaking started to decline in the Meadowlands after World War I, with the last yard closing in the 1940s. I haven't found a specific reason why, though the overall decline of New Jersey's clay industry is attributed to rising real estate values. Apparently, the clay to be mined wasn't worth nearly as much as what developers were willing to pay for the land.

In any case, the water pumps stopped after Little Ferry's brick companies went out of business, and the pits eventually filled in with fresh water. These days the largest clay pit in Bergen County is known as Mehrhof Pond, part of Losen Slote Creek Park, one of several habitat areas managed by the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission. The pond itself is fenced off, presumably to prevent the curious from swimming or boating there (I'd wager that the water there is significantly deeper than just about any other place in the Meadows). That said, you can still check it out from the far end of Mehrhof Road, or from one of the park trails. Just find your way off Route 46 and down past the Little Ferry DPW. You can't miss it.

Ivan and I seem to find ourselves at Losen Slote only to experience extremes. On our first visit, the bitter-cold January wind prompted us to walk briskly through the woods in our futile search for the much-talked-about common redpolls that never appeared for us. Most recently, we thought better of tromping through the overgrown underbrush in the 90 degree plus heat and humidity. We'll have to return sometime when the temperature isn't either topping or scraping the bottom of the thermometer. I've heard it's a nice place to check out migrants on a sunny spring or fall day.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

From Wireless to Radar: Camp Evans and the InfoAge Science Center

As you drive down Marconi Road in Wall, it's almost startling to see a military-grade satellite dish on the side of the road, across from a Little League field. Travel a bit further, and you'll see a tall antenna marked with a sign denoting it as Marconi property. Neither device has received signals for many years, but they still stand as important symbols of the site's contributions to the science of communications. Once part of the larger nearby Fort Monmouth, the former Camp Evans has been transformed into the InfoAge Science History Learning Center and Museum. That mouthful of a name doesn't even begin to represent the diversity and magnitude of the stuff there. In fact, it's hard to find a place to start describing it.

Ivan and I visited on a recent rainy Sunday afternoon, and it soon became clear that the roughly three hours until closing might not be sufficient to explore the whole place. Since the town of Wall received the property from the U.S. Army with the intent to preserve its history, a band of dedicated volunteers has been working to tell the story of military and commercial information age technology in the environment where some of it was developed. The result is an interesting patchwork of exhibits and artifacts diverse enough to interest everyone from technology geeks and TV/radio enthusiasts to military history nuts and curious kids. While there's still a lot of work to do to transform the former base to a polished learning center, I could definitely see how a receptive student could find inspiration there for a lifelong passion for technology.

The Marconi Hotel, which is now the main building
of the InfoAge Science History Learning Center
at Camp Evans.
The site itself got into the communications business just about 100 years ago, when the American Marconi Company built its Belmar wireless receiving station there. Paired with a high-powered transmission station at New Brunswick, this facility picked up the weak transatlantic radio signals from other Marconi stations as part of the inventor's worldwide communications network. As was explained to us, the building that now houses the exhibit was known as the "hotel," housing the wireless operators who provided 24/7 monitoring of the airwaves.

The U.S. Navy confiscated Marconi's operations during World War I, marking the first time the property was used for military purposes, but it seems that the site's greatest contribution to our nation's defense occurred during World War II. Evans became one of the Army Signal Corps' top communications research facilities, developing improvements to radar technology that were acknowledged by several Axis-power military officials as contributing to the eventual Allied victory. After the war, American researchers were joined by former German scientists who had been working on similar technologies for the Nazis. Their contributions resulted in Cold War advancements in satellite and microwave technologies.

As you walk down the hall from the lobby to the display area, you're invited to check out a series of posters outlining the many developments pioneered at Camp Evans. For one, a satellite designed at Evans was the first to demonstrate the value of these "eyes in the skies" in predicting weather. Apparently, when the satellite sent its first pictures back to earth, a researcher noticed a hurricane formation within one of the images.

Scattered about the photographs, signage and display cases are a variety of vintage military equipment, including beacons that were used by Allied spies to help guide U.S. aircraft on supply and bombing missions on overcast days when they wouldn't otherwise be able to drop their payloads. To make a point about the evolution of non-military uses of technology developed at Evans, our guide pointed out a "Hot Wheels" functional radar gun atop one of the displays. More advanced than anything built on site, it's now available in toy stores for less than $100.

The next stop on our visit was the Radio Technology Museum and National Broadcasters Hall of Fame. Curated and operated by members of the New Jersey Antique Radio Club, the museum features the evolution of commercial radio and recorded sound, using operating vintage equipment. In an age of MP3 players and satellite radio, club members open visitors' eyes to the days of crystal sets and consoles that required three dials to tune in a station. They've got plenty of sets from the 20s and 30's, as well as phonographs from an Edison cylinder player to a 45 RPM children's record player. Just about every recording medium is there, too, from wire to vinyl, reel-to-reel, cassette, 8-track and CD. The exhibit ends with an assortment of early televisions and a discussion of color TV technology.

There's a lot more to InfoAge than I've outlined here, and we'll be returning to share other stories in the future. That said, right now, the site even has something for birders! A portion of the property has been roped off to create a safe radius for a bald eagles' nest. We weren't able to locate the nest or see any of the raptors while we were there, but a passer-by told us she'd seen an eaglet testing his or her wings earlier in the day.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Spirit of 1776, penned in Parsippany.

Independence Day has always been one of my favorite holidays. No matter how you choose to enjoy it - a barbecue, a trip down the shore, fireworks or hearing a public reading of the Declaration of Independence - July 4 is a day to celebrate being free. What could be better than that?

Personally, I get myself in the celebratory mood a day or so in advance by watching the musical 1776 on DVD. A dramatic recounting of the months leading up to the signing of the Declaration, the movie (and the Broadway play before it) manages to do two very difficult things. First, it makes Congressional debate both interesting and entertaining, and second, it draws plausible suspense around an event we all know came to pass. Would the Continental Congress come to agreement on independence?

Given New Jersey's critical role in the American Revolution, I wasn't all that surprised to learn that 1776 was written in the state. The show's creator and songwriter, Sherman Edwards, lived in Parsippany, a few hundred yards from a road Continental soldiers trod in the midst of the war.

If anyone was going to make John Adams and Thomas Jefferson musical stars, Edwards seems to have been just the man to do it. Remember that teacher in high school who moonlighted doing something cool? Edwards was one of those guys. With a bachelor's degree in history from New York University, he taught for many years in the New York City school system, but he also had strong musical chops. By the age of 16 he was playing piano at jazz clubs, starting a professional career that led him to songwriting for stars of the day like Johnny Mathis and Patti Page. Extending to film, he wrote the score for five Elvis Presley movies.

It was 1776, however, that brought him to Broadway. He'd been researching the story and writing the songs for more than ten years when Peter Stone joined him in collaboration on the book. Together, they sought to provide a more or less accurate account of the work of the Continental Congress in the few months leading to the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

As Stone later told the New York Times, Edwards' characterizations and research were so meticulous that he (Stone) was able to use the songs to guide the dialogue, a reversal of the usual writing process for musicals. They modified events slightly for dramatic effect, and vastly reduced the number of congressional delegates for practical reasons. Nonetheless, the finished product adeptly conveys the challenges these very human men faced as they made history in an uncertain environment. Independence, the viewer senses, was not fait accompli. Rather, the declaration was a bold move by very human men with varying convictions, faults and doubts.

An ardent student of history, Edwards spent a great deal of time researching the Founding Fathers at the Morristown Joint Free Library. He cited the availability of source material that couldn't be found anywhere else, including letters from Abigail to John Adams, as one of the prime reasons why he depended on the local collection to inform his work. As for the music, neighbors at the time fondly recall hearing Edwards playing the piano as he composed.

The show premiered on Broadway in 1969 to critical praise, winning the Tony Award for best musical of the season. After a two year theatrical run, it was made into a movie starring many of the same performers from the Broadway run. Even now, more than 30 years after Edwards' death, 1776 is a popular choice for amateur and small local theater productions.

I guess you could say he's probably the most successful American history teacher ever. He made a historical event so interesting that students keep coming back for more!

A big thank you to Beth of Poor Henry's in Montville for letting us know about the Edwards/Parsippany connection!