Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Three states, one step: setting the New Jersey/New York border

North and South Carolina have Pedro and South of the Border.

New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania have a cemetery. Well, kind of. A few weeks ago, intrepid Hidden New Jersey reader Craig Walenta contacted us to share the location of the marker that shows the point where the boundaries of the three states converge, at the confluence of the Delaware and Neversink Rivers.

Naturally, we were intrigued. Longtime readers are aware of our interest in boundaries, whether they be the ones that separate East and West Jerseys, or the several disputes over our northern border with New York. Considering that of the 487 mile borderline of New Jersey, only 48 miles is on land, the state has had a remarkable amount of squabbling with our northern neighbor about acreage. (Click on the "NJ/NY border dispute" tag by the timestamp on this entry to get to a few of the stories we've written on this.) The battle over Ellis Island became so contentious that the U.S. Supreme Court was compelled to settle the longstanding disagreement, and that's actually a Federal property! Every fight is worth it: being the fourth smallest state in the Union in terms of land mass, we can use all the acreage we can get.

Ivan and I agreed we'd investigate the northwestern marker next time we were near Montague, and luckily we found ourselves at Sunrise Mountain in Stokes State Forest this past weekend. We were in pursuit of a golden eagle or two; they're not incredibly easy to find in New Jersey, so the best bet is often to head to a hawk watching site at the right time of the fall, and wait. After about 90 minutes of vultures and other assorted raptors, we were pretty well assured there'd be no goldens flying by in the near future. That's when I remembered the boundary marker. We were in the neighborhood; why not stop by?

Craig warned us that unless we wanted to take a swim, we'd have to dip into New York State to get to the destination. That, to me, made it all the more interesting. The directions were basic enough: cross into Port Jervis from Montague, make a left, cross a bridge and head into a cemetery. We soon found ourselves passing through the gates of Laurel Grove Cemetery and admiring many 19th century gravestones. How would we know a boundary marker from all of these other granite monuments?

Then, looming before us, high above, we saw two broad highway overpasses. Craig had helpfully noted that Interstate 84 skirts just north of the border between New Jersey and New York, never actually touching the Garden State. We saw a small parking area and a rectangular granite marker. This had to be the place. I jumped out of the car to inspect the stone. Yup, this is it.

Inscribed on both of the broad sides, the six-foot high marker is actually a witness stone that directs the explorer to another, smaller stone down the hill on a peninsula between the Delaware and the Neversink. That stone is meant to show the actual border and the point at which New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania meet. We scrambled down to check it out and take the obligatory photos of each other standing on the boundary as the two rivers flowed below us. After all, how many chances does one get to stand in three states at once? (Especially without paying a toll!)

A similar inscription on the other
side notes the New York
commissioners and directions to
the true border marker.
As if that wasn't enough, the visit got even better. A half mile or so up the cemetery road, our path back into Port Jervis was blocked by a small truck, a handful of people and a dog. One of the people walked over and told us an eagle was in a tree not 20 feet away, overlooking the Delaware. Sure enough, we looked, and there it was, perched and patiently tolerating our admiration. While it didn't make up for the lack of golden eagles at Sunrise, it was definitely a welcome sight.

Once back at Hidden New Jersey headquarters, I checked into the history of the marker and discovered, for one thing, that the boundary it shows isn't quite accurate. We hadn't actually made it into Pennsylvania. Had we really stepped on the point where the three states meet, we would have been several feet to the west, wading in the waters of the Delaware. Eh, close enough.

More interesting is the story why the boundary marker was placed in 1882. The original stones had been set in 1774, over a century after the Duke of York had granted New Jersey lands to Lord John Berkeley and Sir George Carteret. Many of those markers had disappeared over the years, prompting State Geologist George H. Cook to seek permission to resurvey the boundary in 1872. With the blessing of the state Geological Survey Board of Managers, he sent surveyors out to find the markers and map the true line described within the Berkeley/Carteret/York agreement.

What they found was disturbing to any good Jerseyman or Jerseywoman. The straight, diagonal border line was, in fact, bowed slightly in New York's favor, presumably because the original surveyors' instruments were affected by the heavy iron ore content of the Sussex and Passaic Highlands. In all, New York was enjoying about 10 acres of what was supposed to be New Jersey. Cook dutifully recommended to the Survey Board and Governor Joel Parker, "Some joint action should be had... by which the line could be straightened, and made to accord with its original definitions and descriptions."

It was time to bring in the lawyers. Prominent Newark attorney Thomas McCarter and former Attorney General Abraham Browning joined Cook as border commissioners for New Jersey; their New York counterparts included Congressman Elias Leavenworth, former State Senator Henry Pierson and New York Central Railroad counsel Chauncey Depew. Though the New Jerseyans strongly recommended redrawing the line according to the Duke of York's original decree, New York balked, and the two states' legislatures agreed to maintain the 1774 boundary markers. Accordingly, in 1882 terminal markers were placed at Port Jervis to the west and at the Palisades near the Hudson to the east, with additional markers placed at one mile intervals in between.

One could say that New Jersey got more than its 10 acres back when about 24 acres of Ellis Island was deemed part of the Garden State in 1998, but there's still something vaguely dissatisfying about the whole thing. What do you say, folks? Wanna go for a land grab?

Friday, October 25, 2013

Fellowship Farm: a social experiment in the exurbia of Piscataway

Over the past couple of years, we've found a host of planned communities and colonies that were built around New Jersey. They're usually pretty well defined geographically, off on their own in places where land was once inexpensive, and clear signs of them are evident.

Then there are the two in Piscataway whose vestiges lay somewhat obscured. Concealed in suburban neighborhoods just a few blocks from Rutgers University's Busch Campus, evidence of the Fellowship Farm cooperative and the Ferrer colony and Modern School is limited to a plaque on a rock, a couple of small homes and an interestingly-named grade school (whose playground sports a rock that seems to have once had a plaque on it).

There might even have been a third community in the town that had once been mostly farmland and undeveloped acreage. About a year ago, Ivan and I found a curious historic marker just off Busch Campus. It memorialized the site of a poultry farm once run by a Jewish community that had settled there courtesy of Baron Moritz von Hirsch, a philanthropist who had set up a trust fund for Jewish immigrants in the U.S. Initial research revealed nothing, and it's been on my long-term "to research" list since then.

Instead of getting to the bottom of the Middlesex County poultry mystery, I've found bits and pieces of information on collective chicken farms that were organized in more southern and remote parts of the state, well worth a visit and future coverage in Hidden New Jersey. In the process I found information on the Ferrer Modern School, a social anarchist educational system that was once the center of a colony organized in Piscataway. Could this be related to the von Hirsch-sponsored chicken farms? I wasn't sure, but it was enough of a lead to warrant a search for the marker Ivan and I had found. The Ferrer group had settled in the North Stelton section, near Busch Campus. It had to be the same place, right?

Maybe, maybe not. The info I had on the Ferrer colony advised that members had built tiny houses in an area just off Stelton Road, and that a few still survived, along with a plaque marking the site of the Modern School. I found the houses, but as I was wandering around, I found something else that got my curiosity up. Very close to those little houses, but on the other side of Stelton Road, was the Fellowship Farm School. That name was just a bit too, well, communal-sounding not to have something to do with a collective of some sort.

It was, indeed. It seems that in 1912, German Socialists living in New York City had seized upon the ideals of Unitarian minister and emerging commune organizer George Littlefield, who had promoted the creation of several Fellowship Farms around the country. Advertisements for the New Jersey outpost encouraged city residents to "get back to the land," and a small group heeded the call. Together, they raised $8000 to buy a total of 162 acres in North Stelton, dividing it between a large communal plot and separate one-acre segments to be purchased by individual members. Plans called for each potential member to purchase a $10,000 subscription and pay a $50 per acre fee for their land, as well as a $5 monthly installment.

In theory, the plan sounds rather nice. Income would come from farming, as well as proceeds from raising poultry, hosting summer tourists and undetermined work that residents would do in their own homes. Members could also choose to take on part-time employment in businesses outside the community.

The reality seems to have been quite different. As is often the case in utopian communities, the founder's dream seems to have downplayed or ignored the fact that the romantic desire to 'work the soil' doesn't automatically convey the skill to raise crops. Rather than farming their land, many of the former city dwellers built small bungalows and continued to work at their jobs in New York, perhaps raising chickens on the side. Even the bus line and market that had been communally operated were transferred to private operators over time as colonists recognized that representative governance isn't the best way to run a business. The one community enterprise that seems to have worked well was a cooperative garment factory that prospered during the Great Depression.

Confusion over the relationship between the Fellowship Farm and Ferrer colonies is evident in much of the reference material I've read, but they were definitely two very distinct groups despite their proximity to each other. The largely German-speaking Fellowship Farm members were described as moralistic and staid, repelling freer-spirited socialists who sought entrance to the community. It seems that the Ferrer group settled nearby merely because the land was available.

I've found very little information on the demise of Fellowship Farm, but I'd venture to guess that life changed greatly in the area during and after World War II. Nearby Camp Kilmer was a major training and embarkation station from 1942 until the end of the war, spurring development in the surrounding area. Increased activity shattered the peace and calm so many community members valued.

In any case, all indications are that Fellowship Farm wasn't, as I'd hoped, the same community memorialized by the blue historic marker Ivan and I found last year. That one remains a mystery to be investigated. And what of the Ferrer Colony? We'll be telling that story in a future installment.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Red-headed Woodpecker goes industrial

Some of my favorite nature preserves are the ones in densely populated places. There's something refreshing about a relatively small tract of land carved out of what might ordinarily have been industrial properties or, let's face it, Superfund sites, especially in some of the most heavily-used portions of the state.

Needing no introduction,
the red-headed
Aside from numerous spots in the Meadowlands, Linden's Hawk Rise Sanctuary has become my favorite go-to refuge nestled within industrialization gone wild. A swampy marsh and wetlands forest adjoining a landfill not far from Route 1, this 95-acre slice of nature yields a wonderful array of birds and other wildlife, made all the more notable by its unlikely location.

My last foray to Hawk Rise came last week, after the report of a red-headed woodpecker working the woods. Striking birds with (yes) entirely red heads, white bodies and block black and white wings, these guys aren't the easiest to find in New Jersey and, indeed, have suffered due to habitat loss. This year, however, there have been a few sightings of red-headeds in Northern New Jersey, and Hawk Rise seemed like as good a place as any for them to be. Though I've seen them in other places, this would be a first for my New Jersey life list, and I was especially tickled by the prospect of cataloging them as a find in Linden.

Unfortunately that trip was a bust, but hope wasn't lost: a host of red-headed woodpeckers was reported less than three miles away, at the Oros Wildlife Preserve in Woodbridge. This site was a new one for both Ivan and me, so we had no idea what to expect. Given the location between Route 1 and the Turnpike, I was hoping for another less-than-typical haven for birds escaping the rigors of urban life.

That it is. Administered by the Woodbridge River Watch, this 99 acre swath of land rests not far from East Jersey State Penitentiary (Rahway State, for old timers), in a light industrial/residential neighborhood. It's easy to reach, but hard to park near, as the curb is yellow-lined for several yards near the entrance. Once you're there, though, you're welcomed by a pleasant butterfly garden and a large map showing the breadth of the refuge. There's even an aerial photo showing trails and the possible location of the first settlement in Woodbridge.

Following directions provided on the American Birding Association's New Jersey bulletin board, we headed down one trail, then the next, soon walking between thick stands of phragmites. (This path wasn't nearly as narrow or daunting as the one I encountered on the search for white pelicans in the Kearny Marsh.)  We were looking for a stand of dead trees within the preserve's 40 acre pond. Well, there were plenty of dead trees standing in the pond, but a specific set seemed to be the favored pecking ground for the visiting red-heads. They certainly had their pick of a good assortment, so, not hearing any characteristic drumming or calling, we surveyed the trees both near and far.

It took a few minutes for us to find the first one, and he wasn't far off. A juvenile, he sported a chestnut colored head rather than the bright red his parents wear, but the pattern was unmistakable. He pecked calmly near the top of a dead tree several yards away from us, looking for brunch. Another came by a little later, close enough to watch bare-eyed, while farther in the distance, an adult flew from tree to tree. Ivan counted four our five in the half hour or so we were there, confirming Woodbridge as a potential hotspot for this usually rare sighting in New Jersey.

I walked away pleased: not only did I have a new bird for my state list, but we'd been introduced to another hidden natural gem. No doubt we'll be back often, as it's a short crow's fly from Hawk Rise and there are more paths for us to explore. Who knows what other rarities an intrepid birder might come across?

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Exploring the nation's first county park... in Newark

As we've traveled the state, we've been impressed by the consistently good quality of New Jersey's county parks. In the more urban areas, particularly, they offer residents a place to enjoy open space, recreation and perhaps a bit of nature not far from their own front doors. You could say that they're a common community back yard.

What I didn't realize was that the nation's very first county park is in New Jersey. The land that's now Branch Brook Park in Newark's North Ward was dedicated to its current use in 1895, instantly turning an old Civil War Army training ground into the forerunner of the open spaces we all enjoy today.

Well, "instantly" is a bit of an exaggeration. The original plot was partially a marsh called Blue Jay Swamp, which had become both a source of drinking water and a dumping place for sewage after it was deemed unsuitable for development. Further adding to the rather depressing scene, the tract was hemmed in by crowded tenements. This was balanced, somewhat, by the addition of a more pristine 60 acres that the City of Newark sold to the county for park use. Before the land transfer, it had been known as Reservoir Park in recognition of the basin that had supplied water to the city's more privileged residents.

The concept of a great park had actually been hatched in 1867, when the New Jersey Legislature created a Newark Park Commission to determine a place for open space within the rapidly-developing city. Already well known for their work in other cities, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux recommended using much of what's now Branch Brook Park, but it took several years before the idea could come to fruition.

A small sample of the famed Branch Brook Park
 cherry blossoms
During the initial planning phases, the county hired landscape architects John Bogart and Nathan Barrett in 1895 to design a park replete with formal gardens, but that plan was scrapped just five years later when the Olmsted firm was hired. Though its founder had already retired due to poor health, his sons shared his more naturalistic approach to park planning, evident in Branch Brook's lovely meadows, fields and rambling paths. Several prominent Newark residents contributed adjacent land, growing the park to its current size of almost 360 acres. Brewery family scion Robert Ballantine added his own flourish with a grand entrance gate at Lake Street and Ballantine Parkway.

The most notable gift, however, is the one which continues to draw thousands of people specifically to see it every spring spring. It's the park's stunning array of nearly 4000 blossoming cherry trees, a collection larger than that planted along Washington D.C.'s Tidal Basin. Caroline Bamberger Fuld, a member of the city's department store dynasty, started the display with a gift of 2000 Japanese cherry trees in 1927. Planted in the same motif as they would be arranged in their native country, the Branch Brook trees stand beautifully against the park's sloped terrain. While several succumbed to the elements over the years, they've been replaced and augmented with even more trees since 2006, raising the total to nearly 4000.

Whether you decide to go during the cherry blossom festival or another time of year, the four-mile long, quarter-mile wide park offers beautiful views and a nice walk on a weekend afternoon. Its charms are well-recognized, too: the American Planning Association recently named Branch Brook Park as one of the Great Public Spaces for 2013. And if you decide to take a look for yourself, you can get there easily via another Hidden New Jersey favorite, the Newark City Subway.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Japanese at Willow Grove Cemetery: revealing New Jersey's role in modernizing a nation

Last week's visit to New Brunswick's Willow Grove Cemetery brought to mind a legend I had heard about seven Japanese citizens who were buried there. According to random scuttlebutt around Rutgers, the unfortunate dead were exchange students who had fallen ill during an epidemic. Thing was, a marker in the Japanese section notes that one of the deceased was living in Brooklyn at the time of his death. Another was a child. I think it's pretty safe to assume that they weren't commuter students. Who, then, were these people, and what was their relationship to New Brunswick?

While getting to the bottom of the story, I discovered Rutgers' little-known contribution to the modernization of Japan in the mid 19th century. I also came upon an interesting American "first" attributed to the university.

The Japanese section at Willow Grove Cemetery today.
One question is easy to answer: only one of the buried people, Kusakabe Taro, attended Rutgers College, though a few of the others had attended Rutgers Grammar School (now known as Rutgers Preparatory School, no longer affiliated with the University). The students were among the first to travel to the United States to gain a Western Civilization-style education. How all of them got here is a little more complicated, as are the reasons why so many lay in rest at Willow Grove.

Kusakabe Taro, Rutgers graduate,
first Phi Beta Kappa from Japan.
Courtesy Rutgers University
The admission of Japanese students to Rutgers has its roots in the opening of relations between the island nation and the United States in the mid 1800s. Commodore Matthew Perry's historic visit to the island country marked the beginning of the end of Japan's isolation from the western world. More than 200 years earlier, however, the Netherlands and Portuguese had established relations with Japan, and while the Portuguese were eventually told to leave, a small Dutch contingent was allowed to stay on a separate island as a trading outpost. That Dutch influence eventually played a large part in Rutgers and New Brunswick establishing enduring relationships within Japan.

Originally founded by leaders of the Dutch Reformed Church in America, Rutgers held tenuous links to the religious institution well into the 19th century. Church missionary James Ballagh and Rutgers alumnus Robert Pruyn traveled to Japan to establish contact and encourage young samurai to come to New Brunswick as part of an exchange program. They believed, quite astutely, that the best way to strengthen relations between the two nations was to expose their future leaders to both cultures. Their plan eventually led to two brothers, Yokoi Sahaida and Yokoi Daihei, attending the Grammar School to learn English and learn about American culture. The pair apparently returned to Japan after several years of study in the U.S. but both died at young ages from diseases they had contracted while living here. Coming from a place where Western contact had been limited, they'd had no immunity to illnesses that Americans had built resistance to.

Japanese students attend Kusakabe's funeral.
Courtesy Rutgers University Libraries.
Several other Japanese followed the Yokoi brothers to Rutgers in the years following the Civil War, with four graduating between 1866 and 1876. An informative article published by the Rutgers Libraries notes that it's not clear exactly how many Japanese studied there at a given time, but it's quite evident that at least some of them blended well into campus life. For example, Matsukata Kojiro is seen in a photo of the 1885 football team.

A native of Fukui, Japan, Kusakabe Taro came to Rutgers on the recommendation of alumnus William Griffis, who'd traveled East to teach science and build on interests sparked by his friendships with Japanese students in New Brunswick. Kusakabe soon distinguished himself as an outstanding student in both mathematics and sciences, eventually becoming the first Japanese to gain acceptance to Phi Beta Kappa. Sadly, just a few weeks before his scheduled 1870 graduation, he died from tuberculosis. His degree was awarded posthumously, and the Japanese Consulate arranged for his burial at Willow Grove.

Between 1870 and 1886, the cemetery section received seven other Japanese who lived in New Jersey or New York. It's unclear how many attended Rutgers College or the Grammar School, but one in particular is known to be a small child whose parents were Japanese.

Today, the gravesites are well tended, but they were once victim to the same vandalism suffered by many of the others around the cemetery, obelisks broken and knocked over. The citizens of Fukui, now sister city to New Brunswick, contributed funds to restore the monuments and purchase a headstone for the buried child.

While the preservation of the Japanese section is important and worthwhile, the lasting friendship between Rutgers, New Brunswick and the people of Japan is even more notable. Educational programs continue to foster understanding and offer priceless opportunities for students. The world is a lot smaller than it was when the Yokoi brothers first arrived On the Banks, but the lessons learned from cultural immersion are no less valuable.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Deciphering the dead: New Brunswick's Willow Grove Cemetery

I know... I know... we find ourselves in cemeteries a lot, probably more than anyone who isn't a funeral director, horror groupie or purveyor of dark arts. Truth is, you can find a lot of history in graveyards. Close examination of monuments and grave markers can give you remarkable insight into a community's past and its evolution to what it is today.

New Brunswick's Willow Grove Cemetery is a case in point. Nestled in a lot behind the city library, its wrought iron fencing is barely visible from busy George Street, where I often spied it while riding the Rutgers campus bus. It wasn't until recently that I got around to investigating it, and it took a bit of doing to get there. Morris Street, its actual address, is one way flowing toward George Street, so I had to navigate a couple of blocks of side streets before I found the right way to get access. Fortunately, there was plenty of curbside parking, often a tough find in downtown New Brunswick.

Two things struck me as soon as I got a good look at the graveyard. First, it was obviously once a very desirable place to rest for eternity. Several tall monuments marked railed-off family plots, and I recognized some of the names as notable citizens of New Brunswick and/or Rutgers leaders.

Second, the cemetery is in grave need of restoration. While the grass is reasonably short in much of the acreage, other areas are overgrown with weeds and just plain untended. An aerial view indicates what appear to be a pile of gravestones dumped in the southeastern portion of the property. Easily half of the stones still in burial areas are off their bases, either knocked over or moved. And the back side of a large obelisk inscribed with the cemetery's 19th century trustees is tagged with graffiti.

There's no signage to tell you the name or history of the cemetery; in reality it's actually the conglomeration of three burial grounds. The oldest portion, closest to George Street, was consecrated in 1837 when the Presbyterian Cemetery was moved from Burnett Street (largely replaced by Route 18, this street pretty much ran along the Raritan). Willow Grove officially began in 1851 in the portion of the cemetery closest to Livingston Avenue. The land between the two was opened as the Central (or Cheesman) Cemetery in 1868.

One of the reasons I wanted to check out the cemetery was because I'd heard that some Japanese exchange students were buried there in the 1800s, having perished in New Brunswick while they were attending Rutgers. If memory served, the legend was that there'd been some sort of epidemic that lead to their deaths (My research is pointing to a few different stories, which I'll share in a future post.), and I suspected that this cemetery was their final resting place.

Often, the farther back you go in old cemeteries, the worse the damage is, but fortunately the Japanese section is an exception. Six obelisks stand in memory of the deceased, with Japanese inscriptions on the shafts and English translation of their names and dates on the base. Another base sits alongside, having likely met the same fate as so many of the other monuments around the graveyard that have been tilted over. A more modern, round-topped stone memorializes a child, while another newer granite slab lists the names of the seven adults and their dates of death. It appeared that some sort of remembrance had happened recently, as dried flowers were laid at some of the stones, and several foil-lined coffee cans stood in one corner, smudged with carbon from candles or incense that might have been burned in them. In any case, the shrubbery and bonsai-like trees around the plot lead me to believe that it's being well-cared for.

Not far from the Japanese section, I found a curiously new marker with a fresh American flag stuck in front. Adorned with a shield, the inscription notes the death in line of duty of William Van Arsdale of the New Brunswick Police Department in 1856. Research indicates that Officer Van Arsdale was patrolling the coal yards near the Delaware and Raritan Canal when he fell, broke through the icy surface of the canal and drowned. The next morning, a worker found the officer's hat, frozen into the ice next to the hole his body had created. He left behind a wife and six children.

The easternmost portion of the cemetery is easily the least kept portion, to the point where it's disturbing. In some portions, it appears to be in a successional phase, where shrubs will soon overtake the weeds and grass if left undisturbed. A few obelisks poke out of the tall brush to mark the graves of prominent citizens, while a sloped area appears to be full of discarded gravestones. Climbing in to check it out didn't seem wise, but it also appeared that there'd been a concerted effort to move the stones into a pile. This couldn't have been done surreptitiously by malevolent forces.

The mystery was solved, to some extent, when I checked in with a New Brunswick librarian, who confirmed that the stones had, indeed, been moved intentionally when the graves' contents were transferred to Van Liew Cemetery in North Brunswick. Further research shows that 520 sets of remains were relocated in 1920 to make room for new construction. Perhaps the expense and hassle of moving the gravestones with the remains was too great for consideration; I'll have to make a visit to Van Liew to see where they ended up and how they're marked. In any case, many of the headstones still rest in the Presbyterian Cemetery section of Willow Grove, jumbled and marking nothing.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Little house on the move in Mountainside

So often we find interesting stories because of a proposed, epic change to a historic property. Earlier this year, we learned about a groundbreaking African-American journalist through the campaign to save Red Bank's Thomas Fortune House. And just recently, we were introduced to the surprising, lifesaving history of the Levi Cory house, which now stands on pilings on its longtime lot in Mountainside.

I'll admit to having driven through the intersection of Mountain Avenue and New Providence Road countless times without giving much thought to the small brown house on the northwest corner. Sure, it looked old -- perhaps Colonial vintage, but so do a lot of other houses in New Jersey whose only claim to distinction are their ages.

Thus, I was a bit surprised to pass by recently and find the house elevated and festooned with several banners. One, in particular, caught my eye: a sign proclaiming the simple structure to be the original home of the Children's Country Home, now better known as the Children's Specialized Hospital which operates just down the road.

Now that's pretty distinctive.

A bit of research found that the house was built in 1810 by a prominent Elizabeth resident, Jonathan Woodruff. His family lived there until 1851, when the property was sold to Levi Cory, who also owned a farm about a mile down Mountain Avenue. Influential in his own right, he became the first mayor of Mountainside when the community separated from Westfield in 1895.

Before that separation, though, Cory played a supporting role in improving the lives of countless children. Moved by the plight of poverty-stricken boys and girls living in the slums of New York City and Newark, several Westfield residents organized to offer them a summer respite. Cory rented the house to the group, and by 1892, the Children's Country Home was welcoming needy kids for two weeks of fresh air, sunshine, nature and plenty of room to play. Nearly 60 youngsters stayed at the home that first summer, and when they went home, they brought new clothes and shoes back to the city along with their memories.

It didn't take long before the home's managers realized that many of their guests needed more than a break from city stress. Coming from poverty, many of the kids required medical attention, and several local doctors and nurses volunteered their services. The need was so pronounced, in fact, that when the home was incorporated in 1893, its leaders defined its purpose as "the care, nurturance, and maintenance of sick, injured, infirm, indigent, orphaned, and destitute children and the training and education of persons, both male and female, to act as nurse."

The need for medical care among these children soon outgrew the Cory house, prompting the Home organization to buy property a few hundred yards down New Providence Road and build a proper hospital. Known as the Children's Specialized Hospital since 1962, it's still changing the lives of boys and girls for the better.

As for the house, it's changed several times since Cory's widow Harriet died in 1905, most recently housing a realtor and an interior decorator. The desirable corner property was sold to a developer who fortunately agreed to give the house to the Mountainside Historic Restoration Committee, provided they could raise the funds to move it.

Mountainside is no stranger to historical structures on the move, having witnessed the relocation of the 1760's era Deacon Andrew Hetfield house in 1985. When the Cory house leaves its longtime lot, it will cross Route 22 to join the Hetfield house and the Borough Library on Constitution Plaza. Once it's there, the Historic Restoration Committee plans to honor the spirit of the Cory house's most notable contribution to the community: serving children. Instead of providing medical care, though, it will be home to a museum dedicated to telling the story of the town's kids, from scouting and sports to education and, yes, the role of the Children's Country Home.

If you've ever been interested in seeing a house travel down a road, you still have a chance. The house's planned October 5 move was delayed due to structural issues that came to light less than a day before it was to happen, and the Committee will be announcing the new date on its website. In the meantime, you still have a chance to contribute to the move and the eventual restoration.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Audubon - the man and the town

Many brief biographies fail to mention it, but one of America's earliest and most famous naturalists spent a fair amount of time in New Jersey. As we've knocked around some of the southern counties, I've been pleased to see John James Audubon's name pop up from time to time, along with descriptions of his findings and the illustrations he painted based on the specimens he collected.

John James Audubon,
perhaps recalling his days in New Jersey
If his diary is any indication, he was a bit of a fan of the state, himself. "Dawn in New Jersey in June is worth a better description than I can furnish," he wrote. "Except for the Florida Keys, Great Egg Harbor probably affords the naturalist as varied a field as any part of our Atlantic seaboard." His explorations influenced his drawings of species of owls, warblers, flycatchers, finches and thrushes that have been enjoyed by generations of bird lovers in his Birds of America.

What I didn't realize, though, was that he lived on Cooper Street in Camden for a few years, between 1829 and 1832. Besides making the cross-state trip to Atlantic County, he found his own birding patch about six miles from home, along a stream in what was then Haddon Township. For some reason, short biographies of him don't mention this, despite the fact that he grew up at his father's estate across the river in Philadelphia.

Nearly 100 years later, the community around Audubon's Camden County stream hangout separated from Haddon Township and formed its own government, taking the name of the man who explored its woods and chronicled its wildlife. The great naturalist probably wouldn't recognize his namesake town or what's now known as Haddon Lake as his old stomping grounds, but no doubt John James Audubon would be touched by the honor.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Breaking the Color Barrier at Shady Rest

There seems to be something about Union County and historic golf courses.

First, there was the Oak Ridge Golf Course in Clark, whose grounds and clubhouse witnessed portions of the Battle of the Short Hills during the Revolution.

And recently I discovered the Shady Rest Golf and Country Club, now operating as the Scotch Hills Golf Course in Scotch Plains. While portions of its clubhouse date back to the 1700s, it's notable for two distinctions far more recent: its status as the nation's first African-American owned and operated country club, and as the home course of John Shippen, the first African American golfer to play in the U.S. Open.

Originally owned by Ephraim Tucker and later the site of George Osborn's Tavern, the house and surrounding 31 acres of rolling fields were purchased by the Westfield Golf Club in 1897. The organization converted the farmland to a nine-hole golf course and renovated the farmhouse/tavern into a clubhouse, opening the club in 1900. While the course was popular with its members, the surrounding neighborhood was equally as attractive to the growing African American community that settled there, reducing the acreage available when the club wanted to expand its course to 18 holes. Rather than getting into land disputes with its neighbors, the WGC chose to merge with its Cranford counterpart in 1921, relocating both organizations to the current site of the Echo Lake Country Club.

Seeing an opportunity to organize a country club for the regional African American community, the Progressive Realty Company stepped in and bought the property. What resulted was Shady Rest, marketed as a place "where respectable men and women can come and enjoy the real and outdoor life, and indulge in wholesome, healthful sports, as Golf, Tennis, Croquet, Horseback Riding and Shooting.”

It didn't take long before the club attracted the cream of both the athletic and artistic worlds. Well before she broke the Grand Slam racial barrier with her win at the French Open, Althea Gibson won the club's mixed doubles championship with her coach Sydney Llewellen. The club also became well known for its entertainment, drawing jazz legends including Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughn, Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald, who enthralled club members while others enjoyed the music from outside Shady Rest's gates.

Perhaps most notable, however, is its association with John Shippen, the first American-born competitor in the U.S. Open. A 16 year old self-taught golfer, he'd broken the sport's unspoken color line in 1896 when he played in the Open at the course where he caddied, Long Island's Shinnecock Hills. Later playing in four other Opens, Shippen was nonetheless denied membership in the Professional Golfers Association due to its exclusionary policies. Their loss, however, was Shady Rest's gain; he served as the club's pro from 1931 until 1960. (More information on Shippen's life and achievements is available on an informative website maintained by a foundation organized in his name.)

Like many other organizations, Shady Rest experienced financial strains during the Great Depression, and the town of Scotch Plains acquired the property through a tax lien. Assuming operation of the club in 1964, the town converted it to a public course, which it remains today. To the eyes of this very novice duffer, the rolling hills of Shady Rest appear to be a nice challenge for an afternoon on the links, and the greens fees are more than reasonable, even for non-residents. There's even a very attractive miniature golf range for those who would rather limit their frustrations to a minimum.

If recent events are any indication, the people of Scotch Plains know the treasure they have in Shady Rest. Listed among the state's 10 most endangered historic sites by Preservation New Jersey in 2008, the course and clubhouse were recently granted nearly $140,000 by the township council to finance repairs. While the old farmhouse is unrecognizable beneath the renovations and additions made since Tucker and Osborn owned it, it's well worth preserving for what it represents: the social and recreational pursuits of the black middle class in New Jersey.