Friday, November 15, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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