Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Field Day: A Day with Tom Carroll from a Guest's point of view

 This past spring, Perkins Center for the Arts held a fundraiser called A Toast to the Past: Celebrating Evergreen Lawn's Centennial. At this fundraiser, one of the items in the silent auction was A Day in the Life of a Folklorist. The following is a recounting of the experience of the winner of that auction item, 18 year old Zachery Finio.

October 25, 2011 - Field Day with Tom Carroll

We left Collingswood early in the morning and headed south to meet with two glassblowers; one had his studio within a shop where he sold his wares, the other’s studio was outside his home. Each showed us the furnaces and talked about the craft.

Our next stop was a Hindu Temple. We sat outside for awhile, unsure of whether it would be intrusive for us to enter. A teacher from the Temple invited us inside. We took off our shoes and talked with him for some time. A young man spoke to us as we were leaving, and gave us each an apple.

Then Tom took me to visit a collector who had old, unusual tools in his shed, and rare glass was displayed throughout his home.

As we drove along, Tom noticed an older man sitting in a field. Tom said, “I’ve never seen anyone here before, let’s go talk to him.” We stopped at the side of the road and approached the man. At first he seemed timid and unprepared for discussion. Tom asked some questions about the man’s farm and the surrounding community. He explained about his folk life interests and recognized the farmer’s Jamaican accent. At this point, the farmer relaxed, he and Tom began to talk about Jamaican food and cooking. In a short time the farmer was showing us his vegetables - banana-size Jamaican okra and some peppers that he warned us were “very hot” - we tasted an English star pepper that was tangy/sweet. As we left, Tom and the farmer planned to meet again to talk more about the farm.

Tom has an amazing way of putting people at ease and expressing his interest genuinely. It’s like seeing an artist take a blank piece of paper and draw an image - Tom starts up a conversation and a story emerges.

Our day ended at the edge of the Delaware River, talking with some local fishermen. I’ve lived in Southern New Jersey my whole life; in this one day I learned what folklore is and realized its significance in connecting us to one another.

-Zachary Finio

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


As I've mentioned in previous posts, I've done a fair amount of fieldwork in and around the Repaupo area, Gloucester County.  This area lies along Repaupo Creek just south of Gibbstown, between Route 44 and the Delaware River and between Route 44 and the Repaupo town center, which is just a small crossroads.  I've found this area to be rich in history and culture, and interesting in terms of the people who live there.  Among those who come to mind, I've written about some in these pages, for example, Calvin Fisler, and I've mentioned others from the Flood Gates area of Repaupo, such as Joyce Vanneman.  When I visited Joyce this past summer, a friend of hers named Boots Hughs stopped by.  Boots and I talked a bit that day on Joyce's deck, beside Repaupo Creek, and later that very afternoon, I drove over to Boots's house and spoke with him some more.  I was interested in pursuing our conversation even further, and went there again the following day, to spend several more hours with him.  Though it's taken me a while to get around to it I first visited Boots this past June), I want to take some time here to focus on Boots and his work.

"Desperation Market" Sign in Front of Boots Hughs's Home

I believe that Boots was born and raised in the Repaupo area, near the crossroads east of Route 44, at a time when most of the land there was being farmed by local families.  The local farms have suffered an array of interconnected fates in the years since Boots was coming up, succumbing to flood and the vagaries of weather in some cases, but more generally to shifting economic conditions, and perhaps especially to government policies and politics that do not favor family farms.  When I first met Boots, he was eager to have me visit him at his place.  He wanted to show me his shop, his handiwork, his collection of tools.  He also wanted to talk to me about the place where he's lived all his life, and share with me his sense of how his work and his place, his sense of past, present, and future time, form a seamless whole.

I've been fortunate to meet a number of people over the years with just the sort of quiet enthusiasm that emanates from Boots.  In my experience, such people hit upon some sort of work that may at first simply please or interest them, but they soon discover that it has meaning beyond the activity itself.  They thus persist in doing such work, often against heavy odds.  Odds arising from the need to make a living, from family interests and demands, from neglect or disinterest of the wider community.  They persist despite these obstacles, and fortunately, they're often eager to share and explore the significance of their work with others, especially those interlocutors with enough time and interest to invest in the twin and deeply related processes of dialog and inquiry.  I can't say I know everything there is to know about Boot's work, nor do I fully understand why he does what he does.  In fact, my grasp is very slight, my knowledge admittedly slim.  But in speaking with him, and with others about him, I've caught intimations of the value of Boots's efforts, and I trust that these friendly ghosts will guide my hand as I write this post. 

Ostensibly, Boots's activity focuses on care of his property, and care of his collection of tools and other artifacts.  The tools, especially, reflect historical experience in the Repaupo farmer and forester communities, as well as the history of tools and the work that they do more generally.  Boots is an avid collector of old tools, and he has a special way of showing them off.  To do that, he leads you through the back door of his house, down a concrete path that leads toward the rear of his property, and on to the door of an old weather beaten shed, that's maybe fifty feet long.  He unlocks the door of the shed, finds a light switch on a cord by reaching into the darkness and feeling his way through an intricate web, a myriad of hanging appurtenances, electrical cords, spiderwebs, cobwebs.  A web somewhat more weighty and substantial than a spider's but by human standards, just as busy and as intricate.

Once the room is lit, Boots invites you to follow him inside.  As your eyes adjust to the light, you see that there are pieces of equipment everywhere, shelves loaded down and bent under the weight of materials -- paints, tools, artifacts and artifact fragments of various sorts --  and amidst the woodworking machinery, lying on every surface and covering nearly all available floor space, there are scraps of wood, sawdust, bits of leftover material from a recent or maybe even a long ago wood or metal working project. We pass through this area and into the rear of the shop, where there are still more power tools, looming out of the half darkness, mysterious shapes until Boots locates the cord of a drop light and presses the switch.  All these power tools are in good working order, of course, despite the clutter.  Boots climbs over some piled up material and dodges around a piece of equipment, scrabbles around in a corner, and produces and passes an old metal artifact along to me.  "Do you know what that is," he asks, handing one tool over, and then another, and another.  Soon, we're absorbed in talking about old tools, and the people who used them, for whatever task they were designed for. 

Like Calvin Fisler in Flood Gates -- another part of Repaupo -- and like a number of other people I've met in this area, Boots is a collector.  He wants to tell the story of industry, of farming, of timbering, in this part of the world, and he tells it through the vast assortment of tools he's gathered and collected.  Like Fisler, Boots is a historian of sorts, or perhaps even a historic preservationist.  He's a steward of this local history, told through the shapes and angles, the shafts and edges, the blades and heads of his seemingly vast tool collection.  As with Fisler's collection of river booty, Boot's collection rises, or so I believe, to the level of an original composition.

Stepping into Boot's shed and shop, I was reminded of a visit I made earlier this year to a woodworker in Burlington County, in the town of Pemberton.  That place was vastly more "open" than Boot's place, that is, had much more total space than Boots's shed, but was even more cluttered, and featured a much greater distance between floor and rafters.  The effect was a little bewildering, and a little disconcerting.  There was wood, and timber, and furniture piled everywhere, punctuated here and there by a standing power tool, with scraps of wood strewn all about the floor, and sheets of plywood along with stacked cut timber piled on either side of pathways that had been more or less kept open to allow for movement from one section of the shop to another.  But these had all overflowed and, despite all good intentions, had covered over those hoped for pathways, making stepping and proceeding in any direction a most difficult and dangerous preoccupation.

Power tools and woodworking equipment scattered everywhere through the main shop, an old sawmill in a shed adjoining that building, at the rear, and attached to the shop, to one side (east, I think) yet another building, a sheet metal shed formerly part of a local Agway facility, disassembled and hauled from that place and reconstructed at its current site.  At the owner's invitation, we crept along the overgrown pathways, wading through an ocean, it seemed, of fallen and overflowing wood, eventually made our destination.

We hauled open the door to the 100 foot long, fifty foot high shed, and were met with an extraordinary, even breathtaking sight.  There were huge slabs and boards stacked everywhere, rough cut on the old mill next door, and placed here, stood on end, stacked and piled on the floor to form vistas, it seemed, stacked high above our heads on a system of lofts, huge thick slabs from what must have been giant, ancient trees, cut into longish shapes with their bark still visible and running along the edges, some of them forty or more feet long, some four or five or more feet wide, some several inches thick.  They filled the shed.  Altogether a truly breathtaking sight.  It was a cathedral of wood.  Cathedral.  Really.  An act of love on the part of a Piney whose great passion, and overarching interest, is the pine and oak forest, a passion extending to each and every tree, apparently, of that native place.  Someone who can't let a fallen tree lie.  A salvage expert.  A historian and conservator of cut timber.  This is something to do justice to in a separate post, at some future time.  But for now, back to Boots.

It wasn't possible to take photographs of most spaces in Boots's work shed.  The light was much too dim, though I was able to get shots of some items in situ.  I carried other pieces outside and posed them for photographs.  Boots showed me a number of axes, hatchets, adzes, and related tools.  He often buys only the heads, because that's all that has survived, and in many cases will carve a new handle and affix it to the head.  I carried a number of these items outside, into the light.  The axe handles are interesting, not at all a casual piece of work, but shaped to the hand and arm, shaped for controlled flight.  There's that poem by Gary Snyder, "Axe Handles":

"...And I hear it again:/ It is in Lu Ji's We Fu,  fourth century/A.D. "Essay on Literature" -- in the/Preface: "In making the handle/Of an axe/By cutting wood with an axe/The model is indeed near at hand."" 

Snyder concludes:  'My teacher Shih-hsiang Chen/Translated that and taught it years ago/And I see: Pound was an axe,/Chen was an axe, I am an axe/And my son a handle, soon/To be shaping again, model/And tool, craft of culture/How we go on."

There is wisdom here, I think, which applies to Boots and his work, and which he in turn reflects back onto the world.  His tools, artfully gathered, extend arm and hand toward the production of new objects, which express his own culture and perception of that culture.  Farmers, foresters, builders.  Boots makes decoys among other things, which reflect the historical milieu of decoy carving and duck hunting in his area.  His decoys lie within the Delaware River carving tradition, featuring elaborately carved tail feathers, and with more detail carved into the body of the decoy.  I don't believe that Boots hunts ducks.  Instead, his decoys are part of an effort to impart some meaningful thing about the history and culture of Repaupo.  They express and preserve that history, and make homage to its traditions.
Unfinished Decoy by Boots Hughs
Boots has an inquiring mind, always seeking ways to provide an articulate response to the passage of time, and make sense of the shifting location of culture.  I mentioned that Boots is a collector, in the sense that collecting is a cultural and historical assertion of some sort.  Sitting inside his home, sipping coffee, I noticed a display cabinet against a wall of Boots's kitchen.  It's filled with historical glass artifacts he's collected over the years, some from local glass makers long out of business.  I asked about a special arrangement of some glass artifacts, all of different colors.  Boots went over to the cabinet and opened the door, handed out some pieces, explaining that they are his "chakras," in reference to the ancient Hindu system of seven colored prisms, arrayed from the base of the spine to the top of the head, which direct and harmonize the flow of cosmic energy through the physical and spiritual body.
Boots Hughs's "Chakras"

I'll note here that there's a Hindu ashram and temple just a few doors down from Boots's home, and that he's had numerous conversations with the spiritual head of the temple.  I asked Boots whether he learned about chakras from the Hindu priest, and he answered no, he hadn't.  He knew about chakras, he said, long before the temple was established here a couple of years ago.

The Hindu temple is yet another indication of the shifting nature of the place, of all places in the region and elsewhere, really, and of the ongoing and further enrichment of this particular locale.  Boots embraces "change," while operating within the deeper currents of "tradition."  Pass it along.  Keep it moving.


Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Random Notes

Margot Kohler Spinning Alpaca Wool
Mullica Hill Quilting Group
 Delia Dungan Quilt Detail
Delia Dungan Quilt Detail
Karen Dever with Quilt (Back)
Hand Made Quilt by Delia Dungan
Detail of Toone Long Rife
I've been traveling quite a bit recently, mainly out of state, and haven't had much time to review my notes and photographs and assemble a new post.  This post is therefore a place-holder of sorts, to provide a map of future entries while also attempting to address what has become a long gap between posts.

As my work in the project region has progressed, I've been able to make contact with a number of people working in the area of textile arts -- spinners, quilters, embroiderers, as well as people who raise animals for wool -- and I've visited many of those people, interviewed them, and taken photographs of their work.  There is an extraordinary range of such work, made mainly though not exclusively by women, and much of these pieces are of very high quality.  I've included some textile-related photos here.

I've also included a few of the photos I took when I visited Richard Toone in Burlington County near Pemberton.  Mr. Toone is a fine craftsman who makes reproductions of historic artifacts for museums and historical societies as well as for the community of historical reenactors.  I'll be exploring and reporting on his work in more detail in coming months.   Meanwhile, you can learn more about his work by visiting his website, which has many fine photographs and descriptions of Mr. Toone's work,.

As noted in previous posts, I've committed to working more intensively in selected places in the project region, which includes Gloucester, Camden, and Burlington Counties and parts of adjacent counties as well.  During 2010-2011, I've spent quite a bit of time in Gloucester County, but toward the close of that fiscal year, I branched out and did fieldwork in Burlington County, and in Camden County as well.
Richard Toone Maker's Mark
Long Rifle Hand Crafted by  Richard Toone

The fieldwork I was able to do in Camden County was a follow-up to work I'd been doing in Burlington and Cumberland Counties with the Nanticoke-Lenape tribal peoples.  I'd like to develop one or two blog posts on that community at some point, once I've had the chance to work more closely with individual members, and have begun to understand and become sufficiently sensitive to the details of their tribal history and culture.

In Camden County, there's a small but enduring community of Native Americans living in parts of Pennsauken Township, who are associated principally with the Powhatan Renape Nation.  This community has important historical and cultural ties to the Nanticoke-Lenape people further south, who are centered in Cumberland and Burlington Counties and parts of Delaware.  Each of these tribal communities is a significant part of the cultural history of our region, though their activity has been somewhat hidden from public view.  As a result, their preeminent contributions to regional history and culture has not been adequately grasped or understood by the broader public.

I'll report on my work with these Native American communities in future posts, as that work develops.  Meanwhile, you can read the full text of a Nanticoke-Lenape tribal history, written by tribal leader John Norwood, online at --www.NativeNewJersey.org  or www.Nanticoke-Lenape.info.  A separate publication focusing on the history of the Pennsauken community in Camden County is titled Morrisville, A Native Hidden Community, by Nemattanew (Chief Roy Crazy Horse).  That work was published in 2002 by Powhatan Press in Rancocas. 

As I began to explore the Native American communities of the project region, I continued working along the Delaware River and its tributary creeks, meeting and speaking with many individuals in and around the Flood Gates area.  I've reported on that community in this blog, and as I continue my work there, that story will continue to unfold.

As I worked in Flood Gates, however, I began to feel that I wanted to identify other communities along the river where I could dig in and explore their cultural history more fully.  In Gloucester County, there's such a community settled along Woodbury Creek, in the town of National Park.  The Woodbury Creek community is very different from the Flood Gates community, but there are similarities too.  Both communities are situated along creeks that feed into the Delaware River, and in both places, a special relationship to the river and creeks has evolved and been developed and maintained in both places.  I plan to explore these relationships in the different river communities more fully in coming weeks and months.

Further upriver, there is a tract of land owned and occupied by the Taylor family, a family of Quakers, who settled on the river near Riverside, and have occupied the site for several generations.  That family has made arrangements to keep the land open by participating in a farm preservation program.  They have developed public programs, and an organic farming operation which sells produce to the public.  As a result, their land has achieved new status as a community resource.

The community at Newton's Landing, a little further upriver near Delanco, provides an interesting and possibly important contrast.  The land in that area, which had been occupied by several important farming families for generations, was sold to a developer, who built a private residential community there.  Some of the old original farm buildings remain on the site, though they are not open to the public and their history is not interpreted in any way that I'm aware of.  There is also an Indian burial mound on that site, located near the river and now situated close to the swimming pool that now services the contemporary residential community.  It's marked off by a low white fence, but it too is not otherwise explained or interpreted in any meaningful way.
Sarah DiPietro Redrow's painting of a garvey built by her father, Winfield Scott Feldman, with wood he salvaged from the Delaware River

These four river communities present interesting contrasts, and possibly also interesting continuities, which I hope to explore further as fieldwork progresses in the next fiscal year.   Meanwhile, I'll pursue other leads in the region, with the community of spinners, embroiderers, rug makers, and quilters; with the Native American communities I've mentioned; with local artists whom I've discovered scattered throughout the project region; and as mentioned, I'll also continue my work in and among the four river communities I've alluded to here.  There are other project initiatives underway as well, which I'll be reporting on in future posts.

I've scattered various photos throughout this post, not always strictly related to the adjacent text, hoping to whet your appetite and rouse your interest in learning more.  I'll be back with another post soon.
Boardwalk to Music Cabin at Flood Gates
Vanneman Musicians

Vanneman Music Cabin at Flood Gates
Jersey Devil Junk Sculpture by Chris Giberson, near Pemberton


Monday, July 25, 2011

Fieldwork and Discovery

Google Earth Image of Flood Gates Area, Greenwich Township, NJ

...some preliminary notes on fieldwork...

As I look around and take stock of the contemporary state of fieldwork, my feeling is that "fieldwork" has become an overused term, probably because its applicability has been broadened, and it is employed in so many different settings, by so many different people, to so many different purposes and ends.  Political canvassers and pollsters who go door-to-door in neighborhoods, or set up in shopping malls, say they're doing fieldwork, as do oral history interviewers who visit people in their homes or places of business to conduct interviews.  Social workers also claim to do fieldwork, as they make the round of site visits in order to deliver needed services.  I think of fieldwork differently -- as a form of very deep engagement with a place and its people.  It takes a fair amount of effort to achieve depth of engagement, however; among other things, it requires a certain amount of "stick-to-it-iveness," and lots of patience.  But the results of such hard and persistent work can be rewarding, and may even prove to be significant  in some cases.     

When I first began working in Gloucester County, I made some initial guesses about the place in order to formulate a plan of work there.  Looking at a topographical map of the county, I saw that there are a number of small cities and towns – Woodbury, Paulsboro, Glassboro, Swedesboro – along with many smaller settlement areas too.  In some cases, the developed spaces were interspersed with sizable chunks of what appeared to be sparsely developed, relatively open territory.  I guessed that there would be an element of cultural diversity in the larger towns, though of course, these days, there’s a growing cultural diversity in suburban and rural areas too.  As I went over the map, I made a mental note to visit the towns, and take a look around.  

Repaupo Creek, June 2011
Still looking at the map, I noted that the Delaware River is a major geographic feature of the county, along with the system of creeks and streams that flow into the Delaware.  I guessed that when the area was first settled, the river and its drainage system were an important part of social and economic activity in the region, and that they played a role in the formation of local culture too.  I decided that I would spend some time puzzling out the interrelationships of history and culture in those places.

Studying local maps is an important part of planning for fieldwork.  Following that preliminary work with maps, my next step is to actually get out into the field.  Someone once described fieldwork as radically placed-based.  I embrace that definition.  The only way to do fieldwork is to physically go to the field site, and establish a temporary residence there, or establish a pattern of ongoing and regular visits.  Residency or return visits help establish a pattern of work that should lead to deep engagement.  I understand fieldwork to be a process of tuning into the hidden or undisclosed realities of a place, and its people.  Life in any given area is far richer than our assumptions would suggest, more so than our standard sources of information, accessed at a distance, would allow us to believe.  

Getting out and doing fieldwork involves loosening the ties that bind us to our own everyday lives, while striving to become open and connected to other people and places.   

I woke up early one day last week, thinking about fieldwork and especially about how to write about it effectively.  I struggled with that for a while.  Fieldwork is challenging.  If you read between the lines of this post you can probably see why.  You enter unknown territory, where you yourself are an unknown person.  You begin your work.  As you go, you find that there are good days and bad days.  There are days when you feel that it isn’t working, that you’re not “getting it.”  There are days when you can't "land" anywhere, or find anyone to talk to.  They’re either not available, or there are no "sparks."  Such days are mercifully few, but they happen.  Day by day, though, fieldworkers have to find ways to keep the process moving, even when the work seems to bog down. 

Persistence is usually rewarded, however.  At some point, the world seems to open up, and you may then find yourself in a luminous setting, in a truly shining place.  I often think of what it must have been like for the explorers who discovered the prehistoric cave paintings in places such as Lascaux or Chauvet, in France.  You enter a dark and unfamiliar space.  You traverse a narrow passageway, sometimes on your hands and knees, or on your belly.  It’s confining, and disorienting.  Then at some point there is a shift of conditions, and perception.  You feel a draft of air, and suddenly, you sense the openness.  You stand up, light your torch, and hold it aloft.  Hwaet!  The paintings leap and dance in front of you.  There all the time, but unknown until just that moment. 
Cave Painting at Chauvet, France

I think of fieldwork that way, though in less grandiose terms, of course.  As far as I know, there are no cave paintings to discover where I usually work.  But there are significant Native American sites throughout the region.  During a recent conversation at Newton’s Landing in Burlington County, standing poolside and talking to one of the residents of that development, he pointed out that I was standing beside an Indian burial mound.  The mound had been identified by developers, and was protected by a low white fence.  Such sites are common throughout the region, and they have great meaning and significance.  Which is to say that, there is a wealth of hidden-in-plain-view arts and artifacts throughout the region, along with related narratives and understandings, and deeply significant spaces and places, that nourish and enrich the lives of people and communities everywhere.  Every community possesses underground streams of meaning, repositories of  historical and cultural significance, wellsprings of beauty.  The fieldworker’s job is to get out there, establish a position of openness, and begin the process of exploration and discovery that will uncover and make sense of those resources.  There's more to it than that, but I'll let that discussion develop and take shape in the context of ongoing field reports via this blog.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Flood Gates

After meeting with John and Lois Ferguson on Kings Highway in Mickleton [see my "River Rats" post], I decided to drive down to Flood Gates.  John Ferguson had mentioned the place to me, in connection with someone named Calvin Fisler.  He said I should look Fisler up – Fisler knows all about the river, he said.  He fishes, he’s a trapper, he’s interested in local history.  But mainly he knows the river.  They get flooded out down there sometimes, down by the river, he added, but the community hangs on. When I expressed genuine interest in talking with Mr. Fisler, the Fergusons explained how to find him – drive through Gibbstown going south, then look for a road on the right that leads toward the river.  Fisler lives somewhere down there, maybe at the end of that road, they told me.  The Fergusons suggested that I look up Fisler’s sister, who works as a hairdresser outside of Paulsboro.  She’d be able to tell me exactly how to find him, they said. 

But I was interested in finding Calvin Fisler on my own.  This impulse doesn’t necessarily reflect stubbornness on my part.  It’s more a matter of allowing for serendipity.  For one thing, doing fieldwork means doing fieldwork.  Pardon the tautology.  But effective fieldwork demands that you turn aside from the routines of everyday life, get out into the community, and look around.  Once there, you try to establish some grounding, all the while working to identify and gradually enter the social networks of a given community.  In this case, I wanted to find the place and see it for myself, making my own way there.  When I do that, I invariably learn something.  Each impression, each smidgen of interaction, contributes to the cumulative learning experience. 

So I drove from Mickleton to Gibbstown, passing through that town and continuing south on Route 44.  I drove right past the “Flood Gates” street sign, doubled back, turned down Flood Gates Road, and headed for the river.  I noticed a large pump company -- Godwin Pump -- on the left hand side of the road, and a cement facility a bit further on.  Further down on the right, there’s Bridgeport Speedway, and then a propane gas tank facility.  Soon after that, the road becomes thick with woods on either side, and then what look like meadows or fields, before leading onto a small bridge with a dirt and gravel surface that crosses over Repaupo Creek.  There’s a small settlement of what appear to be winterized summer homes clustered on either side of the creek, then more woods, and then the road empties out onto a broad raised dike.  That dike is another story, to be taken up again at another time.  

Earlier, as I crossed the small bridge and passed over the creek, I noticed an arrangement of objects set out in a front yard and hung up in trees, at a house just past the bridge.  It occurred to me that I should stop to ask about the display, but I drove on, wanting to see where the road ended.  But in fact, I was also following a long-established practice of registering, and absorbing, what I see, and waiting a bit before plunging in to learn more.  Of course I wanted to find out more about the yard art, but I also wanted to see where that road ended up.  So I drove to the end of the road.  Flood Gates Road dead-ends at the Delaware River, at a large, raised dike. It's a nice spot, with views of Center City Philadelphia just upstream, and with Philadelphia International Airport also visible across the river.

Dike at Flood Gates, Delaware River

I took in that view for a while, and briefly explored the area around the dike.  Then I put my back to the river, retraced my route along the road, and stopped at the house with the yard art.  As I got out of the car, a man approached me, asking what I wanted.  I said I was looking for Calvin Fisler.  And he answered, "You found him."  I explained who I was and why I was there, and told him that I'd like to talk with him about the neighborhood.  We talked for a few minutes, and I took some photographs.  Calvin explained that the yard art, centered around a large piece he calls his "wind chimes," is constructed mainly out of of metal objects and other artifacts he's salvaged from the river and nearby areas.  As we talked, he told me that his family emigrated from Holland sometime during the second half of the 17th century.  They gradually made their way to the Repaupo area, he said, after coming ashore in North America somewhere around New York.  We agreed to talk about that some time, too.  

Mr. Fisler explained that the land between the Delaware and Route 44 in that area lies below river level.  The dike, and the flood gates that preceded them (and which were later incorporated into the modern dike), were built to protect local farmland and houses against flooding.  This flood control system was supplemented by a network of sluices and ditches that were maintained by local landowners.  The early development of this system dates back to Swedish and Dutch presence in the area.  I was intrigued, and we set a date to meet again.   

I'll provide more information about that second meeting with Calvin Fisler, and report in more detail on my experience in the Flood Gates community, in future posts.

View of Calvin Fisler's "Wind  Chimes"

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

River Rats

Fort Billingsport, 1785

In a previous post I wrote about Ray Miller, a decoy carver and self-taught artist who lives in a house on the Delaware River.  It turns out that Ray's house is very close to the site of the former Fort Billingsport, a Revolutionary War era fort that was built at a strategic location on the Delaware, on the very first parcel of land purchased by the colonies following their Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. In fact, that purchase of land was made on 5 July 1776!
Map showing location of Fort Billingsport

The fort was constructed at a strategic location on the river in what is now Paulsboro, at the narrowest point on the Delaware River, to provide defense against a possible British attack from the south.

There are no surviving remains of the fort itself, but during the 19th century, the site was developed into an amusement park called Lincoln Park, with access from Philadelphia via ferry.  Remnants of the various park structures and installations are still visible at low tide today.
    Poster for Lincoln Park

    As I talked with Ray Miller, who lives near the site of the fort, and explained my growing interest in the history and culture of the river communities, he suggested that I talk with a man named John Ferguson, who grew up on the river, in a houseboat that was moored close to where Ray now lives.  Ray said that Ferguson knows a lot about the river, as much as anyone else would know.

    Houseboats are an interesting subject in their own right.  They were used variously as seasonal or permanent dwellings, and as hunting or fishing cabins.  Some were later adapted to other uses, mostly on land.  All, as far as I know, were built by local people.  You can still see some old houseboats on low ground near the river dike at Flood Gates, in Greenwich Township.
    In fact, there were a number of houseboats at Flood Gates at one time, nicknamed "floating cabins" by locals.  These cabins sat in the water just offshore during mild weather, but as the weather changed, they were hauled up on the river bank to ride out the winter.  The floating cabins are no longer in general use, but there is one on display in Greenwich, near the Cohansey River at Hancock Harbor Marina.  That particular cabin was used on Stow Creek on the Salem-Cumberland county line, not far from its present resting place.

    Floating Cabin on Display at Greenwich
    Anyway, after talking with Ray, I tried calling John Ferguson, but couldn't reach him.  After a little time had passed, on a day when I was in the area, I decided to knock on his door.  John and his wife were at home just then, and they invited me inside.  We talked for more than two hours that day, and as we talked, John brought out various things to show me, to illuminate our conversation.  Mementos of life on the river.  The couple also showed me a photograph of the houseboat that John Ferguson grew up in, which now hangs on their living room wall.   

    Ferguson Family Houseboat

    As we talked, John Ferguson more than once mentioned the "River Rats," a group of kids living in Paulsboro when he was growing up during the 1930s and 1940s.  I expressed interest, wanting to know more.  When I did, John disappeared into another room, and returned in a moment carrying a framed painting of the river rats, and another painting depicting a scene on the river at Paulsboro during that time.  The paintings were made by a man named Rob Miller (no relation to Ray), who worked as a sign painter for the Mobil refinery in that town.
    River at Paulsboro by Rob Miller

    (I'll discuss more of Rob Miller's work in a future post.)  Ranged around an oversize central tree -- which seemed to me like the axis mundi of world mythology -- there are houses, the Front Range Lighthouse (center rear, behind the tree), the lighthouse keeper's house, and an inset showing the river rats gang, gathered together there for all time, grinning out at viewers who peer into this evocative painting.  A snapshot of river life, painted by a local man.  I don't feel that there is nostalgic content in this painting.  But there is an element of playfulness.  I really love the directness and simplicity of Rob Miller's image.

    Just before I left the Fergusons, John showed me a cannonball he'd found while roaming around the river shore one day.  Scavenging is a common pastime among people all along the river and the local creeks, and is taken very seriously.  Not necessarily done for personal gain, it's a recovery operation to supplement and illustrate local memory, and preserve local history.  I think John said he found the rounded hunk of iron embedded in the river bank, or half-submerged in river mud, in the flats at low tide.  It's hard to imagine that heavy ball airborne; harder still to think about the harm it can do.  Anyway, once he got it home, John set the cannonball up on a piece of driftwood, also salvaged from the river.  It was a simple but mindful gesture.  The result, I think, is greater than the sum of its parts.

    Monday, June 6, 2011

    Ray Miller's Root-Head Decoy

    Ray Miller with Driftwood
    Ray Miller lives on the Delaware River in Paulsboro, and growing up spent a lot of time on local creeks and rivers. But he carves decoys in the style of the New Jersey coast.  Based on my conversations with him, I believe that Ray chooses to work in the coastal style because he's attracted by the simple elegance of the coastal forms.  I should add here that Ray doesn't hunt ducks.  This bit of information might be relevant, because if he were to hunt, and hunt as hunters do along the western shore of New Jersey, then Ray's decoys look more like other decoys from that carving region.  
    Ray Miller thus occupies an interesting position in the decoy world.  He carves decoys, but he doesn't hunt; he lives and works on the Delaware River, but he carves in the coastal style.  Ray is nevertheless deeply interested in local history, and the river is a focal point of that interest.  Ray makes regular forays along the river shore, and on the river flats at low tide, to salvage driftwood, scraps of metal, and other materials that he can adapt to his work.  With that in mind, I want to focus here on one of the artifacts Ray has produced using materials found along the river shore.
    Ray Miller's Root-head Brant Decoy
    Ray calls it his "root-head brant."  Ray has made only three of these decoys.  He’s sold two of them, but the third is not for sale. Ray used driftwood salvaged from the river for the head and neck of the root-head decoys -- the shape of the driftwood suggests the shape of a duck's head and neck.  Hence the name -- "root-head."  As I understand it, Ray used this wood pretty much as he found it.  He didn't do much more than sand it, attach it to a brant decoy body, and paint the head and neck to resemble that species.  The body itself was made in the usual way, from two hollowed-out blocks of Atlantic white cedar.  
    Carvers often attach a weight to the bottom of their decoys, to provide stability and to balance the decoy so that it rides true in the water.  Although he doesn't hunt, Ray puts all of his decoys to this acid test -- do they float nicely? do they look good and ride well on the water? do they list to one side or roll?  Which is to say that once they're completed, all of Ray's decoys take a ride in the Delaware before they're stored or sold.  As far as Ray is concerned, the decoys he makes are "working" decoys; they can be used as hunting tools, or they can be put on a shelf for display.  But the word "working" suggests a key component of their authenticity.  
    Spike weight on bottom of Root-head Decoy
    Ray fixed part of an iron spike to the bottom of his root-heads.  He found these spikes embedded in pieces of timber that floated by his house. The spikes are old, were probably used in the construction of docks and piers or for some other use on the river.  The water smoothes and shapes and ages the wood, and imparts character as well as form to the root-heads.
    By salvaging these materials and reconfiguring them, Ray is combining river history and local history to create a unique but recognizable artifact.  He puts history and decoys to work, blending them into a culturally significant form. You want to look at the decoy for its simple beauty, but what you can actually see is much more than might appear at first glance. It seems to me that Ray’s sensitivity to history and his commitment to locale is more deeply grounded and more productive for him than whatever stylistic decisions he might make as a carver.  River or Coast?  In this case, that choice doesn't matter quite so much. 
    I should add that Ray is also a self-taught painter.  He's drawn and painted a number of lighthouses, many of them local lights, which he prints and puts up for sale, or donates for fundraisers. You can see images of the lighthouse paintings, and more images of Ray's decoys, by visiting Ray's website, woodncanvas.com.
    East Point Lighthouse by Ray Miller

    Driftwood Bird Stands
    Whatever their particular style, Ray Miller's decoys are a form of river art.  They are inspired by the river and by the river's role in shaping the history and culture of the area where Ray lives and works.  As demonstrated here, some of Ray's decoys are literally crafted out of materials found along the river shore and on the tidal flats.  In addition, many of Ray's bird carvings, especially his decorative birds, are mounted on stands fashioned from driftwood that comes out of the river.  The impulse to make use of these materials is not merely decorative.  It's a resolutely historical decision, fed by Ray's historical awareness and by his special brand of cultural practice.   
    As Ray Miller noted in an interview,  “You know, it's nice that people are interested in what we're doing.  And you know, what's happening out along the river, and the history of what's been in the area, and up and down the river here.  And what I'm doing with decoys.  And, what, you know, what me and a lot of other people are doing with decoys.  It's just keeping the history alive.  It's all part of the region's history.  And, we're part of it.  And, as time goes on, we hope there's others to step in and do what we're doing.”