Friday, May 30, 2014

Sabotage on Sandy Hook: our oldest lighthouse's Redcoat past

Standing as it does within a decommissioned U.S. Army fort, it's difficult to imagine that the Sandy Hook Lighthouse was once the target of sabotage by loyal Americans.

How the heck did that happen? Did the government cover up some sort of invasion on the Jersey Shore? No, not quite. The pieces start to come together after you consider the history of Sandy Hook and the lighthouse itself, which celebrates its 250th birthday this year.

The oldest operating lighthouse in the United States, Old Sandy was originally conceived in the early 1760s by New York merchants weary of losing incoming cargo to shipwrecks. Approaching New York Harbor by ship can be a tricky prospect, even today, but it was downright hazardous back then. Importers lost about 20,000 pounds sterling in merchandise to the shoals in just a few years, leading them to petition the Colonial Assembly of New York for funds to construct a lighthouse on the hook. (Why didn't they appeal to the New Jersey Legislature? The borders had yet to be settled, so the jurisdiction for the Hook was up for conjecture, and the merchants no doubt went where they felt they'd have more influence.)

Drawing on a popular funding mechanism for the time, the legislature authorized two lotteries to raise the £3000 to pay for construction. Its ongoing maintenance and a salary for a resident keeper were funded through a tax on cargo entering through New York Harbor. The lantern on the 105 foot New York Lighthouse, as it was called then, was first lit on June 11, 1764. Combined with the efforts of the Sandy Hook Pilots organized 70 years earlier to help ships navigate the shifting sand bars on the approach to the harbor, the light proved to be an effective aid to navigation.

Sandy Hook Lighthouse, Hidden New Jersey, Gateway NRA
Sandy Hook Lighthouse, ca. 1937
(photo by Historic American Buildings Survey
photographer Nathaniel R. Ewan)
The tower operated peacefully for twelve years before it metaphorically landed in troubled waters. New Jerseyans and New Yorkers were starting to take sides: remain loyal to Great Britain, or advocate independence. By early 1776, rumors of a British military invasion of New York were beginning to take hold. The powerful British Navy would likely attempt to sail into New York Harbor, led by ship captains unfamiliar with the intricacies of the waters south and east of Staten Island. Destroying the light at Sandy Hook would deprive them of a vital navigational aid, leaving them prone to grounding and shipwreck.

Seizing this strategic opportunity, the independence-minded legislatures in Trenton and Albany sent troops to dismantle the New York Lighthouse lantern and remove the lamp oil, confiscating whatever they could take away. The troops, led by Monmouth County Militia Colonel George Taylor and New York Major William Malcolm, completed the task and departed the Hook, leaving the lighthouse unguarded.

In the weeks that followed, foraging parties of British sailors would periodically land on the Hook in search of fresh water, often being ambushed and captured by American troops. The British responded by capturing the lighthouse in April 1776, fortifying the grounds to repel additional attacks and ultimately repairing the light by June to welcome additional naval vessels to the bay. As further protection, the Redcoats stationed several additional ships in the waters surrounding the Hook, adding potent firepower to the defense.

Undeterred, the Americans continued their attempts to take out the lighthouse, with a half dozen or more attacks in 1776 and 1777. National Park Service historians will emphasize the sturdiness of the lighthouse's six-foot thick walls by highlighting the unsuccessful use of artillery trained on the tower, but one has to consider the relative size of the cannons to get a true sense of the threat. The patriots' six pound guns (known as such for the six pound cannon balls they fired) were small in comparison to other artillery available at the time, and likely not up for the challenge, though they did do some damage to the lighthouse's walls.

In any case, the patriots found themselves no match for British forces on the Hook, especially when the firepower of the surrounding warships was taken into account. The peninsula became a refuge for a motley assortment of New Jersey loyalists, thieves, smugglers and raiders until the end of the war. Patriot privateers would occasionally attempt foraging raids on the Hook but lacked the firepower to attempt any harassment beyond stealing British supplies.

You can get a taste of the lighthouse's revolutionary past during its birthday celebration on June 14, when Revolutionary War reenactors will be on hand with musket and cannon-firing demonstrations. Though it doesn't sound as if any NPS-sponsored smugglers and raiders will be on hand, the event looks to be a fun time for all.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Fly me to the Moon, but stop in New Jersey on the way: the incredible migrating Red Knot

Reports are that Moonbird has once again landed in New Jersey to enjoy a hearty meal on the beach in Cape May County.

Ivan gets a good look at Moonbird, the larger-than-life Red Knot
(photo was not taken in New Jersey, but I couldn't resist.)
Lest you think an extraterrestrial avian creature was discovered on the Delaware Bayshore, let me explain. Moonbird is one of a dwindling number of Red Knots, robin-sized shorebirds that visit us enroute from their winter havens in coastal Argentina and Chile up to their summer nesting spots in Arctic reaches of Canada. Estimates are that as few as 25,000 individuals remain, and scientists have been studying them for several years, tagging several of the birds to track their routes. Carrying the number B95 on his leg band, Moonbird got his nickname for the mind-boggling distance he's flown so far in his life. Over the 19 years since he was banded near Tierra del Fuego, he's traveled a distance equaling the trip from the Earth to the moon, and halfway back.

Ivan and I headed to Reed's Beach last Saturday in the hopes of finding a few Red Knots and maybe Moonbird himself. It's about the right time for them to land along the bayshore, about two-thirds of the way into a 9300 mile trek that's among the longest for any migrating species. During that kind of trip, they need a good refueling stop, and nature's ingenious scheduling accommodates well. As I mentioned in my last post, it's horseshoe crab mating season, and Red Knots are prodigious eaters of the eggs the helmeted arthropods lay on our beaches. By the time they leave for the Arctic, they'll have doubled their weight.

The endangered shorebird area at Reed's Beach.
Note light development to the left of the sign.
Reed's Beach is a smallish community, with maybe two dozen bungalows and a marina that serves recreational fishing boats up to 36 feet. Once you hit the end of the road, a walk along the jetty brings you to the bayshore. The beach is currently marked off with string and signs warning beach walkers not to stroll any farther during migratory shorebird feeding season, which is May 7 through June 7 in 2014.

Relegated to a small area, our view of the birds wasn't all that great. Though Laughing Gulls were in abundance nearby, only a few Sanderlings were visible by naked eye. Several horseshoe crabs were stranded on the beach, overturned by waves and helpless, but we couldn't cross the line to help them, not without harassing the birds.

After Ivan got the viewing scope, sighting became a bit easier, but still not optimal. A cluster of Red Knots was feeding far down the beach with a few Ruddy Turnstones, but we were really hoping for a much better look. This was my first exposure to real, live Red Knots, and I definitely wanted the chance to appreciate them in more detail. After having heard so much about the spectacle of their migration, I wasn't going to let one small sighting stand as my introduction.

Our luck was a bit better at Cook's Beach, just to the south of Reed's, where we found a small gathering of birders fixated at a spot a couple hundred yards up the shoreline. A sizeable cluster of Red Knots was enjoying their sand-bound feast, their brick-colored necks and breasts differentiating them from the Turnstones milling about with them. Ivan got the scope out for a closer look and estimated that a couple hundred of them were mixed in with the other species pecking away for their lunches. To this uneducated eye, they looked healthy and as eager to eat as ravenous passengers at an all-you-can-eat cruise ship buffet.

The Delaware Bayshore, as seen from Cook's Beach.
Houses on Reed's Beach are barely visible to the left of center.
We agreed: anything else we'd see for the rest of the day would be a bonus. New Jersey was doing its part, at least for these little guys, in sustaining and hopefully encouraging the growth in Red Knot numbers. What percentage of the total population was represented by the large group we'd seen? Small, we hoped, but the numbers aren't likely to be known for a while.

When you stand on the beach of the Delaware Bayshore, you can't help but appreciate the difference between it and, say, Long Beach Island. Sparse development along the beach leaves sufficient room for nature to exist, grow and thrive, whether it's migrating shorebirds, spawning crabs, or the gulls that wheel and laugh as they navigate the winds. Dunes are covered in grass, backed up by marshes that obscure all manners and shapes of life. And it's important for people, too: a quiet beach is a wonderful place to get reacquainted with the natural rhythms of life, and to just be. It shows us what's possible when we leave a portion of our shoreline to evolve on its own, rather than focusing on developing every last inch for human use.

After all, Red Knots travel thousands of miles to get to our undeveloped beaches. Could they know something we don't?

Friday, May 23, 2014

Getting crabby on Raritan Bay

I have a lot of respect for horseshoe crabs, in a "prehistoric creature that fascinates me" kind of way. They're survivors, having roamed the ocean floor for at least 300 million years. As other species have evolved and others have gone extinct, these helmet-shelled arthropods have largely stayed the same and managed to survive.

To be honest, though, they kind of freak me out. They're not the most attractive creatures out there, and, well, they're creepy. Most of the time, the only onshore sign of them is their molted shells, but in the spring, they're very active. Coming up the beach and out of the water, they lay and fertilize their eggs in damp sand, looking like some sort of automated armored toy as they move. I can appreciate their efforts, as their eggs play an important role in the larger ecosystem. After the crabs spawn and return to the water, the endangered Red Knot and other migratory shorebirds feed on them, regaining energy they need to continue their treks to breeding grounds far to the north. The remaining fertilized eggs develop into larvae and then baby horseshoe crabs, continuing the cycle of life.

The other day, I was just about done with a visit to Sandy Hook when I decided to check out the bayside beaches toward the south end of the hook. Out beyond the grassy dunes, I discovered nearly a dozen stranded horseshoe crabs, laying on their backs. They'd apparently been rolled over by the waves lapping up against the beach.

Since they were larger, I assumed them to be females, which made their survival all the more important. As the Bayshore Regional Watershed Council has discovered through their survey of Raritan and Sandy Hook Bays, the ratio of male to female horseshoe crabs in those waters is seriously out of whack. Where a natural ratio is about five to 10 males for every female, the bay region's population is about 20 to one. The issue becomes even more critical when you consider that they generally don't mature as adults until the age of 12, leaving them with about six years of fertility before they die at around age 18.

Scientists aren't sure what's causing the disparity in the genders, though the theory is that humans are playing a role. It's illegal to harvest horseshoe crabs in New Jersey, but it isn't in New York, where individuals can capture up to five a day for personal use. Egg-bearing females are especially prized as bait for eel and whelk fishing. Considering that Staten Island has a considerable shoreline on Raritan Bay, the answer may be right there.

As I was standing on the beach at Sandy Hook, I knew nothing about the troubling male-female ratio, just that the individuals stranded there clearly needed help. While there was a small chance of them being righted eventually by the gentle waves, it was more likely that they'd be picked at by gulls. Despite my squeamishness, I figured I had to be the one to turn them over, but there was no way I was going to pick them up. Nudging them over with my booted toe didn't seem right either, so I looked for a stick to do the trick. Fortunately a good sized driftwood branch was sitting on the beach nearby, perfectly bent to provide the right amount of leverage.

The first crab I approached was still wriggling her legs, apparently trying to build up enough momentum to roll over. Using the branch, I gently rolled her upright, and she rapidly walked back into the approaching waves. The next one wasn't as animated, but her book gills were panting, showing signs of life. She flipped over easily with a little help and was on her way. Another had stuck her spiny tail straight up, perhaps attempting to use it to right herself with no success. She was breathing, too, and responded well once I got her right-side up.

It looked as if I'd gotten there in time to help out all of the beached horseshoe crabs -- every one of them made her way back into the water after she got back on her feet.

I share this story not for any kind of praise but to share a simple way that we all can make a positive impact on the survival of horseshoe crabs and, by extension, endangered shorebirds. If you're on the beach and you see an overturned horseshoe crab, don't assume it's a molted shell or already dead. Check to see if it's alive (the moving gills are a good indicator). Then carefully flip it over by the shell, avoiding the scratchy, pointy tail. And remember: though it may look creepy, it's harmless. It's just a survivor of another age who's continuing to keep our ecosystem alive.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

At war with the natives... or was it the New Yorkers? A mystery in Montague.

Sure, it's lightly populated now, at least by New Jersey standards, but it's hard to imagine a time when Sussex County was truly wilderness, with European settlers mixed with Minisink Indians of the Lenape tribe. It was an era when settlers built forts along the Delaware River and folks were still debating whether the land was actually in New Jersey, or in New York.

Ivan and I found vestiges of the time in question, the early 1700s, during a recent drive along Old Mine Road in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. It might have been Montague, or maybe Sandyston where we pulled off the road and onto a dirt drive to read the historic marker for the Westbrook-Bell House, the oldest surviving dwelling in Sussex County. Take a look:

An adjacent plaque from the local Daughters of the American Revolution stated that two forts had been built in the area during the French and Indian War: one about a mile to the south, and another behind the barn on the Westbrook property.

So which story was true? Had fortifications been built to protect the inhabitants during the conflict with natives and the French in the late 1750s, as the DAR claimed, or to fend off land-grabbing flintlock-toting New Yorkers, as the Sussex County Historical Commission stated?  I was more inclined to go with the French and Indian War. Sure, there were disagreements about the placement of the boundary, but I'd never heard about things getting so contentious that weapons were required to defend one's property and provenance. When it comes to borders, New Jerseyans are more likely to go to court than to battle, but I couldn't be sure. We were talking about the early days and sparsely-populated territory.

Either way, there was a house to be seen. We walked down the picturesque road, shaded by a row of stately trees, until we found the small stone Dutch Colonial house, looking very closed up but still somewhat cared for. The doors and ground-floor windows were boarded up, but a TV satellite dish stood on a pole next to the home, leaving me to wonder whether someone lives there. The DAR marker had noted that nine generations of the Bell family had made the tiny house their home. Had descendants still been there when the Federal government cleared inhabitants from the land in the 1960s, when plans were underway to build the Tocks Island Dam? (For a little more perspective on that, check out this story about neighboring Montague.) Could someone have moved back in, even if only a National Park Service employee?

Back at Hidden New Jersey headquarters, we hit the books and the internet for more information. Turns out that what's now known as the Minisink Historic District has been studied fairly extensively by the U.S. government: by the Historic American Buildings Survey in 1941 and again in 1970, and then by archaeologists before the planned flooding of the area with the dam project.

HABS dates the house circa 1725, based on documentation from the Westbrook descendants who lived there at the time of the first survey. However, the Historical Commission sign may be right about the date that Johannes Westbrook originally gained possession of the land. There's some conjecture that he might have made a deal with the natives as early as 1701 but arranged for a deed decades later in an attempt to thwart possible claims or intercession by the Jersey Proprietors. In any case, the property stayed with the family until 1959, when it was finally sold to an unrelated party.

As for the fortifications and their origin, I can't find any reference to organized disputes between the colonies that rose to the level of building defensive structures. Sure, there were violent conflicts among landowners with conflicting claims to property, and New York aggressively granted ownership of land that was actually New Jersey, but were militias raised as a result? I don't see where.

Citations pointing to the need for forts to defend Northwestern New Jersey against foes in the French and Indian Wars, however, is abundant. Blockhouse forts were built along the Delaware in 1756 as a far-forward defense against possible invasion of population centers in Newark, Elizabeth and Perth Amboy. Once the local Minisink changed their alliance to the British, the forts were largely unneeded, and were reportedly abandoned.

Old Mine Road is dotted with old structures like the Westbrook-Bell House, stone and brick laid by folks who truly set out for adventure. Our earliest history of European settlement, little-known to most New Jerseyans, stands waiting for exploration and study within the boundaries of the Water Gap. It's hard to imagine that the lot of it could have been lost to the deluge of an ill-planned dam.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Happiness is a camp in Leonardo

While looking for the Conover Beacon, I found an interesting little enclave of cheerful looking one-story white buildings nestled among the suburban houses of Leonardo. They looked a lot like the kind of cabins or bunkhouses you'd find at an active summer camp, or maybe a church retreat center. Had they been more Victorian in style, or older, I'd have thought I'd stumbled on another shoreside Methodist camp meeting association, but they appear to have been built sometime in the first half of the 20th century.

The sign out front declared "Camp Happiness - NJ Blind Citizens Association." However, no tents were pitched on the property that I could see, and there seemed to be plenty of activity. Was this really a camp? And if not, what exactly is it?

To consider the need for a place like Happiness, one needs to consider the vast changes the community of blind Americans has experienced over the past two centuries, enabling them to participate fully in society. At the start, very few schools addressed the needs of blind students. Even if parents knew about the academies, many lacked the resources to send their children for a specialized education. Mobility was an issue, too. Concerted efforts to train guide dogs only began after World War I, when combat injuries left many soldiers sightless. Without thorough education and the means necessary to get to work on their own, many blind people were relegated to their homes, dependent on family and friends for assistance.

In that atmosphere, a group of Hoboken men joined forces in 1910 as the New Jersey Blind Men's Club, the predecessor organization of the New Jersey Blind Citizens Association. Their goal was to help sight-impaired New Jerseyans with training and other resources while building greater public awareness of their needs and abilities.

Two decades later, the club helped blind adults enjoy what many New Jerseyans consider to be a basic right: the ability to spend a week or two down the shore during the summer. Camp Happiness on Sandy Hook Bay was designed as a beachside haven where the state's sight-impaired residents could also build skills in independence and make lifelong friends. And with generous support from the Lions Club and other benefactors, campers could participate at no cost. For many campers, it was the first time they'd met other blind people, giving them a chance to share their life experiences with others who truly understood the conditions they faced every day.

Thanks to decades of work by the blind and their advocates, accessibility laws and greater public awareness, sight-impared New Jerseyans are more independent than ever, and Camp Happiness has evolved to stay relevant with its clients changing needs. That's why I was seeing so much going on there on a weekday in May. The Wobser Day Camp meets year-round, with a host of activities in fine arts, gardening, computer skills and fitness in a well-equipped gym. Addressing the special concerns the blind face, the camp also offers a peer support group as well as help in navigating medical issues and access to healthcare.

Finding Camp Happiness got me thinking about all of the great organizations that operate in small enclaves around New Jersey, largely hidden from broad view but tremendously effective in changing lives for the better. Who knows how many similar bastions of bliss we might find if we all looked?

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Washington back across the Delaware? Piecing out a mosaic in Titusville.

Every once in a while, we get an interesting story by means of our readers. This is one of them. It gets a little convoluted, so stick with me.

In the midst of telling the story of the first Civil War re-enactment at a recent speaking engagement, I mentioned one of the key attendees, Major General Dan Sickles. He wasn't a New Jerseyan, but his reputation as a colorful character only proved the point that the organizer of the reenactment, Sussex County's own Major General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick, threw one heck of a party. To illustrate Sickles' general attitude toward life, I mentioned that when his leg was amputated after an injury sustained during battle, he donated it to the Army Medical Museum in Washington, DC and would visit it on the anniversary of its removal.

A few of the program attendees chuckled knowingly, so I figured we had a few Civil War buffs in the audience. Nope -- even better, as I discovered when they came up to chat after the program was over. They didn't just know about Dan Sickles; they were related to him. We had a few laughs over some of the stories, and the fact that they'd admit being related to such a scamp. One thing was clear: they had a real interest in the ways that good stories become history.

Hours later, they reached out to me with a lead on a historic marker in Titusville that seems to carry a bit of mystery on its own.

Now, there's no lack of historic markers in Titusville, given the location's status as the site where George Washington and his troops landed after they crossed the Delaware in 1776. If you leave the community's boundaries without understanding how crucial the spot is in the story of our nation, there's no way you can pin blame on the locals. However, the marker the Sickles descendants mentioned doesn't explicitly mention Washington's crossing. Rather, it's a large stone with two elements: a brass plaque dedicated to the members of the Union Fire Company and Rescue Squad, dated 1976, and a colorful stone mosaic of someone we're assuming is supposed to be George Washington.

Here it is. You be the judge:

To make matters even more interesting, it stands not on the road for all to see as they drive down Route 29, but in the parking lot behind the Union Fire Company building. The artwork isn't dated, but it appears to have been completed long before 1976, and certainly well before the newish firehouse was erected. It clearly was moved from another site.

According to the Sickles descendants, that's exactly what happened. The mosaic had originally stood in front of the old Washington Hotel on Route 29, which was a resort of sorts for visitors who came by way of the Delaware-Belvidere Railroad to enjoy a few days in the countryside along the historic river. Apparently created by an experienced German-born tile maker who lived in the community, the mosaic might have been commissioned by the hotel to further honor the hero the inn owners had named their establishment for.

As the story goes, the stone and mosaic stood proudly in front of the hotel until World War I, when anti-German sentiment prompted vandals to push it off its base and roll it across the road and into the Delaware and Raritan Canal. There it sat until the 1970's, when it was fished out by firefighters and again given a place of honor.

Now, consider the ironies: honoring the memory of Continental troops crossing the Delaware to take on the Hessians in Trenton, a hotel in Titusville commissions a German American to create a likeness of General Washington. Years later, presumably patriotic Americans express their anger in war by figuratively giving the likeness the old heave-ho into the nearest approximation of the Delaware. And I hear about this from folks whose military forebear was known for his own special brand of mischief.

Whether Washington or Sickles would appreciate the story is up for conjecture, but I think we can all feel better knowing that the Father of our Country wasn't sent totally back across the Delaware out of anger against a distant enemy. One trip was enough.

Thanks to Cathy (Sickels) Fortenbaugh and Peter McGrath for the lead!

Friday, May 9, 2014

Nailing it down in Bridgeton

Like many of New Jersey's county seats, Bridgeton walks the thin line between historic and kind of rough around the edges. Some of the buildings downtown are well cared for and restored, while others just look old and a bit rickety, reminding me of what we saw during our visit to Mount Holly. There's a lot of potential in the Cumberland County city, maybe just not enough funding or consistent momentum to follow through quite yet.

To their credit, interested Bridgetonians worked to have portions of the city placed on the National Register of Historic Places, creating the state's largest historic district. More than 2000 buildings stand within the district's boundaries, with notable samples of Colonial, Federalist and Victorian architecture among them. Though they don't have the attention-grabbing quality of having been homes or workplaces of famous Americans, they're remarkable in that they represent the history of an early southern New Jersey industrial town. And with so much history having been torn down in other places in the name of progress, it's remarkable to be able to visit a place where so many older structures remain without being substantially updated, at least on the outside.

After my stop at the Garton Road Shul, I decided to make a pass through Bridgeton and explore whatever caught my eye first. That turned out to be City Park, a 1100-acre tract running along the historic Cohansey River. Though, like the rest of town, it appears to have seen better days, it's a nice spread, with pleasant walking trails, basketball courts, fishing lakes and the Cohanzick Zoo, the state's first municipally-owned zoo. It just needs a bit of the TLC that it seems many municipal budgets can't accommodate these days.

Just beyond the old-fashioned welcome sign on Mayor Aitkin Drive, I came upon an tan clapboard building that looked as if it might be an old park office or clubhouse. A marker notes that the property was the site of the Cumberland Nail and Iron Works, once one of the city's largest employers. The building was the company's office and the last structure remaining from the business.

The glass industry was a dominant force in 19th century Cumberland County, but foundries and other iron-producing ventures found a home in the region, too. Following the establishment of a similar venture in Millville, David and Benjamin Reeves founded the Nail and Iron Works along the shores of the Cohansey in 1815, capitalizing on power from a nearby dam and the availability of Pinelands bog iron.

Over the years and through several changes in ownership, the business grew to line both banks of the river, with nail cutting machinery on one side and a rolling apparatus on the other. In the late 1800s, the foundry employed up to 400 men, with an annual production of 40,000 kegs of nails and 4 million feet of piping. A 1902 directory of iron and steel works says the Cumberland Nail and Iron Works was operating 14 coal and oil-fired furnaces, along with 90 nail machines with an output of 140,000 kegs. By then, its pipeworks had been sold to another company for the production of gas tubing.

It's a challenge to imagine how the site looked when the operation was in full swing, but it must have had some attraction to non-employees, as Bridgeton residents often came onto the Nail and Iron Works property for recreation on the river and the rolling hills above. Ultimately, the city purchased the land and the office building in the 1901-1902 timeframe for use as a public park.

What ultimately happened to the company, it's hard to determine. Was it sold and moved to another location? Did it go out of business? I got no answers from the old building. Tourist guides for the area will describe it as the Nail Mill Museum, reported to hold fascinating artifacts ranging from nails manufactured on site and samples of Bridgeton glass to a model railroad setup. Unfortunately I couldn't check it out because it's been closed for the past few years, with a 2011 county notice to vacate the property still tacked to the front door.

The building may not be accepting visitors, but one of its relics remain fully visible to passers by: what's said to be South Jersey's oldest public clock. Installed in 1830, the large timepiece is embedded in the front wall of the building. It has dials both inside and outside so that company management could see it as easily as the employees hustling past to get to work before starting time. And its two faces reportedly bear the names of two different men: John Whitehead and J.C. Harris, though the Haddonfield-based Whitehead is generally acknowledged as the craftsman who built the clock. As the story goes, Harris, a Bridgeton clock repairman affixed his own name to the inner clock face when he fixed the timepiece.

My sources tell me that the clock is a longcase or grandfather-style, meaning that somewhere within the works, a pendulum helps it keep accurate time. It may have just been a coincidence, but when I was there, it was showing the correct time, taking away the extra hour we leaped forward for daylight saving in March. Even though workers are no longer checking their arrival and supervisors aren't docking for a late arrival, it seems that the spirits of Whitehead and Harris may just be keeping that timepiece running accurately.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Back to shul on Garton Road: vestiges of South Jersey's Jewish agricultural past

Drive around rural Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem counties, and you'll be struck with the number of small yet vibrant churches you'll pass on the road. One I saw on a recent visit actually had "garden angels" in its front yard: scarecrows of a sort that were dressed in pretty, almost angelic garb.

If you drive slowly enough down one particular two-lane road in Deerfield Township, you'll see another small house of worship. This tiny white box of a sanctuary is different from the others: instead of a cross, its simple facade is adorned with a blue Mogen David, or Star of David. Its official name is Beth Israel, but it's better known as the Garton Road Shul.

I first heard about the shul during a search for information on several Jewish agricultural communities that had been settled in the region in the early 1880s. Prompted by the pogroms of the time, Russian Jews fled Europe for America to avoid persecution and possible death. In a situation that's still often experienced by immigrants today, many of the refugees were educated professionals but arrived to find themselves relegated to sub-par living conditions and jobs far below their capabilities. Some took up the call to return to the soil and moved to rural areas to become farmers, aided by charitable organizations like the Alliance Israelite Universelle. (We've seen similar back-to-basics approaches taken, for different reasons, in communities like Roosevelt and Fellowship Farm.)

Unlike many similar colonies in other parts of the United States, the South Jersey Jewish farming collectives met with a degree of success. Decent soil and rail access to Philadelphia and New York meant the farmers could easily get their products to market while attracting funding and visits from benefactors from the cities. Urban "pleasurenikers" flocked to the farms during the summer to escape city heat, boarding at the farms and bringing additional income to the settlers.

The names of these once-flourishing colonies still dot maps of the region today - Alliance, Brotmanville, Norma, Zion, Mizpah, Rosenhayn - though the villages themselves have become more secular in nature, if they still exist at all. I drove through Norma to find it's pretty much a cluster of homes and a post office, and I suspect that I passed through Brotmanville and Rosenhayn though I didn't notice any real signs of towns.

If the communities are hard to locate and generally mentioned in history books as a collective group, Garton Road is both the easiest and most difficult to find. The road itself is shown on maps, but there's very little written about the colony that shared its name. Fortunately, the Cumberland County Cultural and Heritage Commission has posted a small sign at the location, with a link to more information. Between that and a few other sources, the story started to come together.

What I discovered was this: a handful of immigrant Jewish men settled on 20 acres along the road in 1888, naming their community Garton Road for local lumber merchant Henry Garton. After clearing sites for small houses and a farm, the men sent for their families, and together the community learned how to grow vegetables like corn, strawberries and beans. One of the defining characteristics of the group was their devotion to agriculture, continuing to work the farm when many in the neighboring communities turned to other ways of making a living.

Religion, of course, was an important factor of life at Garton Road, and the devout Orthodox residents walked to the Rosenhayn synagogue to attend sabbath and holiday services. The arrangement lasted only a few years; older members found the three mile trek taxing, leading the group to form its own congregation in 1890.

According to the Jewish Federation of Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem Counties, Garton Road's Beth Israel congregation met in a member's home as they saved funds to build a shul of their own. The owner of New York's Yiddish Theatre loaned them the rest of the necessary money and the building was erected. Still, though, the congregation had no rabbi of its own, counting on the wisdom of some of its more learned members for guidance.

When I stopped by to see the shul, I was awed by the fact that an entire community of devout worshipers could make do with such a small synagogue. It's hard to believe there's a balcony in there, where women attended services hidden from view by a curtain, per the Orthodox tradition. As many as 20 children at a time crowded into the building's entryway for religious instruction, and attendance swelled when the pleasurenikers stayed for the summer. Somehow, more than 150 congregants were able to worship in the structure each Sabbath.

The small building has seen highs and lows along with the community it serves, with farm foreclosures and the Great Depression reducing the population in the 30s and the influx of German Jews fleeing for the safety of New Jersey enlarging the group during World War II. By the 1970's, however, the early congregants had died and their children had moved away to build lives in more developed areas. Better road systems and transportation made it easier for those who remained to attend services in larger temples in Bridgeton and elsewhere. The little shul opened only during the High Holidays.

Today, the Garton Road Shul is cared for by members of the Ostroff family, descendants of a family that came to the community from Russia in 1898. While I was only able to see the outside of the building when I visited, I can safely say they're doing a wonderful job. The white doors and clapboard walls look fresh, clean and unweathered, as if they were recently painted, and I could easily imagine that congregants had been there just hours before for Shabbat services. Surely, if the community's founders could see it, they'd be kvelling.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Back at camp: the continuing revival at Malaga

So... I left the house this morning thinking I was on a somewhat religious journey, but I ran into something I didn't expect.

I was on my own. Ivan was out on a separate birding adventure, so I chose to do some exploring in parts somewhat lesser known. Ever since my trip to Upper Deerfield Township to learn about Seabrook Farms, I've been curious about other agricultural developments in the area, particularly a group of settlements of Jewish farmers in Salem and Gloucester Counties. Their names - Norma, Brotmanville, Rosenhayn, Alliance - are still on the map more than 100 years after their founding, but they're not as easily located via road trip, as I found out today.

Thing is, when you wander around the southern reaches of the state, particularly in those more rural counties, a wrong turn becomes another adventure all together. Looking for what may be the world's smallest synagogue, I got all turned around and ended up on Route 47 in Malaga.

Just as interesting as a tiny shul, I discovered a colony of small houses set on narrow streets that could only be one thing: a Methodist camp meeting ground. Yup, I'd found Malaga Camp, since 1869 the location of the West Jersey Grove Association. The exteriors of the homes are a bit less colorful than what we'd seen at Mount Tabor, and the narrow streets are in a grid rather than the spoke-and-wheel arrangement at Pitman Grove, but the central tabernacle made it clear that this is a place where people come to worship.

Like the other two camps, Malaga started as a summertime revival tent community. Unlike Mount Tabor and Pitman Grove, however, it's retained its original purpose as a place of reverence by strictly managing the composition of its population.

Those who purchase cottages in the camp are required to meet three requirements, as set forth in the membership process: they must give testimony of their personal salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ, be an active member of a church for at least two years, and have been actively involved in the life and work of the camp meeting for at least one year. References are requested and checked, and applicants must undergo an interview with a committee of members. When approved, an applicant can purchase a cottage, leasing the property below from the camp association. 

Only about half of the 140 houses are kept as year-round residences, allowing the camp association to maintain the small-town feel by avoiding overcrowding. Bylaws forbid property owners from renting to non-members, but a guest house on the property is available for visitors, families and retreat groups. As I was driving around the community, I constantly had to stop at four-way intersections at the end of short blocks, so I wasn't surprised to learn that many people use golf carts to get around during summer months.

After a little bit of exploring by car, I felt I needed to let Malaga back to its peace for a spring Saturday. I'd seen one person -- another motorist who approached an intersection the same time I did -- and she'd kindly waved me forward ahead of her. Having found these tiny houses on a small tract on the side of the road, and maybe gotten a little heavenly nudge in the right direction, I headed off to find that little shul.