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,
    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.”