Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Focal Points II

Stud Barn at Helas Stock Farm, by Earl Akins, Jobstown
Earl Akins was born and raised in Jobstown, and still lives in that town, in a house not far from where he grew up.  As we talked, a place called the Helas Stock Farm entered our conversation, and loomed.  The stock farm played an important role in New Jersey horse racing history.  Thoroughbred horses were raised and bred at the farm, which was owned and operated by a succession of colorful characters.  They erected what have become iconic buildings on the site, which continue to inhabit the local imagination.  People in the area have vivid memories of the stock farm, even though, or perhaps because, race horses are no longer bred and raised there.  The farm was established in the 19th century by a man named Lorillard, was later purchased by a man named Sinclair (of oil company fame), and then by Helas, a company based in Louisiana.

Helas Stock Farm is a fabled place in local worldview.  Mr. Akins worked and played there as a boy, and that experience may have influenced his lifelong interest in horses, and horseriding.  I'll provide more detail about Helas Stock Farm, which is a good story in its own right, in a separate post.  For now, I'll note that memories of his experience on the Helas property have given rise to a series of  commemorative paintings.  These paintings embody personal memories of the buildings, the horses, and activities on the farm.  Earl Akins's paintings mark the stock farm as a focal point of the Jobstown area and surrounding communities.

Some of the original structures on the stock farm have been lost to fire, or were considered "attractive nuisances" by the owners and were taken down.  There was a bath house, located on a part of the farm right across the street from Earl Akins's home, which by all accounts was a splendid building.  A few small cottages stood near the bath house, and these were destroyed too -- all but one, that is, which was moved to a site on Saylors Pond Road going toward Wrightstown, where it now serves as a private residence.  The pretty little cottage is evocative, I believe, of the original bath house complex.

Relocated Bath House Cottage

To make a segue here, I learned about the cottage from Raymond Gaskill, whom I met at Creekside Glass one Saturday morning.  Creekside Glass in Pemberton is owned and operated by Lester Gaskill -- Raymond's son -- and members of his family.  Raymond Gaskill grew up on a farm in Jobstown, and he has memories of Helas Stock Farm too.

Creekside Glass is a place where community members gather to talk about local history, events, and people.  It's also the home of a very significant collection of artifacts -- bird and fish carvings, mounted trophy fish, and an array of signs collected from local shops that have gone out of business over the years.  The sign collection commemorates those businesses in a unique and interesting way.

Mr. Gaskill has gradually put this collection together, which reflects the business history of Pemberton and nearby places.  Some of these businesses were cultural businesses -- Bill Lucas comes immediately  to mind.  Some of the old signs have an artistic quality as well, which heightens the impact of the collection, and suggests the relationship between history and culture.  The signs are an inventory of local business history, abstracted from their original setting and brought into a new focus.  Bill Lucas's shop sign, which stood on the edge of his property in view of passing traffic, has recently been added to the collection (Bill died in December 2011, but his business activity had ceased some time before that).

Another very intriguing artifact on display at Creekside Glass is a hand-drawn map that was created by a fishing guide in Tuckerton.  Tuckerton is located to the east of Pemberton, just 30 miles or so as the crow flies, at Little Egg Harbor on the Atlantic coast.  I mention this because I believe that the fishing map, appearing as it does in a Pine Barrens setting, suggests the complex and enduring relationship between the Piney woods and the coast -- connections which aren't always obvious but are deeply significant.  I'll explain more about this relationship in a future post.

Fishing Map drawn by Capt. Russ Albertson

I said I'd mention one more place, and I want to do that before closing this post.  Ken Davis at East Street Art led me to Earl Akins, but besides that, Ken is also a member of a Pine Barrens hunting club, with property and a hunting camp located deep in the woods in Pemberton Township.  Ken arranged for me to contact a longtime member of the club, who goes by the name of Bones. Bones and I talked briefly on the phone one night a couple of weeks ago, and made a plan to meet.  We met in Whiting on a Saturday soon after that, and after brief introductions, climbed into Bones's truck and drove off to visit the camp.

BBB Hunting Club, Pemberton Township (rear view, with bonfire fuel in foreground)

I can't take time or space here to discuss the camp in detail (I'll try to do that in a future post), except to say I believe the club is an indication of the highly significant hunting culture of the Pine Barrens, one which, due to lack of interest on the part of local youth, may be weakening and perhaps even slipping into decline.  The BBB Hunting Club is trying to buck this trend. The club is a focal point for people who continue to participate and respect local hunting ethics and traditions. Club members and their guests gather at the camp during the various hunting seasons, they gather there for shooting practice and shooting competitions, they gather there to socialize.

An especially important feature of the club, apart from the fact that the members hunt collectively using a method called "driving", is that they involve young people in their activities, train them to the hunting life, teach them the appropriate use of firearms, and enforce strict safety regulations.  These factors combine to create an atmosphere of cooperative endeavor in pursuit of -- in pursuit of what?  Bones says the object is not to kill deer, and his statement rings true.  I've heard as much from other hunters here and in other parts of the country.  In my view, I think the "game" being played here is the enactment of local history, the preservation of a deeply significant feature of the local culture, and the maintenance of the social life of the community. And for a community who value the natural world as much as Pineys do, it's finally all about getting out into the woods.


Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Everyday Art

I was driving on Route 537 near Columbus one day late last year, when something strange and colorful caught my eye.  I looked in time to see a decorated car in a driveway, with hood up, and a man working beneath the hood.  I looked for a place to turn around, and drove back straightaway.  As I pulled into the driveway and put my car into park, the man realized that something different was happening.  This stranger -- me! -- wasn't simply using his driveway to make a U-turn.  He was stopping to talk!

I got out of my car and walked toward him, talking aloud as I made my approach, smiling, and all the while exclaiming about his car!  The man let the hood of the car drop, and turned toward me.  I realized then, and have realized over and over again on so many fieldwork occasions, that it takes a moment to decipher situations that are a little new, a little different, a little unexpected.  I think it was so in this case, as we both strove to get into position for an interaction.  But by the time I'd reached him and we stood next to each other, we had both relaxed, having somehow -- through body language, and no doubt too, our separate thought processes -- arrived at a mutual understanding and were already beginning to talk.

The object of my interest and attention was the man's car.  Here's a photo:

Hand-painted Car by George Roberson
I'm sure that this photograph doesn't do this car justice.  But driving down the road, unassuming and unaware, let me assure you that it was a truly arresting sight!

George Roberson, the owner, said he himself had painted the car, just because he felt like it.  He said that he'd bought the car when he lived in South Carolina, and that he's left some Carolina features on there, just to demonstrate its provenance: inspection stickers, a license plate label, and so on.  Under the hood there's a 283cu small block V-8 Chevrolet engine, which is a classic.  George lifted the hood so I could take a look, explaining that the engine is original, and unmodified except for the dual chamber Holley carburetor that he installed, to provide a little extra lift for acceleration, for getting started in today's faster traffic.  Otherwise, he said, he hasn't touched the engine (except to service it, of course).

George told me that he painted the car on a whim.  I think my first question was to ask if he'd painted other cars, or if he does that sort of thing for a living.  He said that he didn't, on both counts.  I mentioned Ed Wiski, and asked if he knew him.  Ed is an artist I'd met in Barnsboro, outside of Pitman, who's developed what's become a legendary style of wraparound art that he paint onto cars and trucks, and on murals in various places around the region.  George Roberson's art, though one of a kind and a one-off production to boot, reminded me very much, in concept at least, of Ed Wiski's work.  (Ed goes by his last name only -Wiski -- which is pronounced like "whiskey".)  This isn't just a decorative racing stripe or wave painted onto the sides of the car, it's wraparound art covering the entire vehicle.  It's conceptual art.  And it's a stroke of genius, in my book.  

George told me that he used Rust-Oleum paints to decorate his vehicle, which he applied using spray cans -- working sort of like a graffiti artist works!  He painted free-hand as well; no stencils or other guides were used.  That blue color, the car's base color, was sprayed on from cans of Rust-Oleum.  Really amazing!  Art is indeed all around us.  We need only look.

George Roberson and his Hand-Painted 1962 Chevy


Independent Village and Company Town

Roebling village was a company town, but there is a closely-related "independent" town located nearby.  In Roebling as in other places where I've done fieldwork over the years, the company owns and operates the residential village, usually located adjacent to the company mill or mine.  The independent portion is just a small distance away, though the two parts are probably within sight of each other.  Despite their separate status, however, the two communities function interdependently.  Worker housing is located on the company side of town, along with the work site itself and other key facilities functions such as medical services and community center.

Worker Housing in Roebling

In my experience, the so-called "independent" part of town will probably be located beyond a topographical barrier such as a river, or across a road or thoroughfare, or more likely, on the other side of the railroad tracks that service the industrial site.  Ethnic churches and ethnic social clubs are likely to be established within the sphere of the independent village, though they serve the communities on both sides of the tracks.  

This two-part pattern had developed in Roebling too, with the company-controlled and administered village lying to the west of Hornberger Avenue (named after the company doctor); which is to say, west of the tracks that separated it from the independent side of town.  By the way, these tracks are now used by the RiverLine, which has helped stimulate new growth and vitality in Roebling Village.

Street Scent at "Independent" Roebling Village
The Roebling company recruited workers from various countries in central and eastern Europe, who probably arrived here through the very common pattern known as "chain migration".  Family or community members already here would report on conditions and encourage others back home to join them.  Whatever their path from old world to new, immigrant workers from Hungary, Romania, the former Czechoslovakia, Poland, and other parts of the old Austro-Hungarian empire gradually filled the streets of Roebling, settling in houses provided by the company.  Meanwhile, various businesses and churches, usually ethnic in nature, were established on the other side of the tracks.  In Roebling, there's a Hungarian church on the other side of the tracks, and a Romanian church, along with ethnic clubs and taverns, many of which date to the period when the Roebling mill was in operation. 

Hungarian Church, Roebling

Ethnic cultures are an important component of the human fabric of Roebling Village, and I believe they continue to influence the character and self-identity of the contemporary community.  The company town that Roebling established, which provided housing, health, and other basic services to workers, contributed to the development of community identity and solidarity.  The shared ethnic heritage of workers and their families, their labors and recreations, breathed life into village history, and enlivened the company history as well.  

Ethnicity was an important component of the industrial workplace.  During the industrial period, workers were often assigned to a particular job or section of a given mill based on their ethnic background.  The more dangerous and dirty the job, the lower the social status of the worker; ethnicity was a factor in determining these rankings.  By all accounts the Roebling company was a benevolent and community-minded employer, but that may not have influenced the organization of work within the company or the culture of the workplace itself.         

To be sure, ethnicity was indeed a factor in the layout of the village, which reflected the ethnic and class differences among Roebling company employees.  The Swedes and English who worked for the company were assigned housing located at a distance from the mill site.  Their houses were grander, and the streets in their part of town were wider and more open than those where the mill laborers lived.  In addition, people of northern European background tended to have management or administrative positions in the company, rather than laboring positions in the mill.  It's likely that this general pattern filtered down from the company offices to the lowest levels of the mill, and influenced class structure and social relations in mill and village community alike.   

Whatever the case, ethnic identities have persisted in Roebling, and I'm interested in learning more about them.  At a recent Christmas celebration held in the Roebling community center, foods reflecting Eastern European ethnic origins were on sale.  Haluski (noodles with cabbage) and kolaczki (cookies filled with apricot or poppy seed paste) were available for lunch that day, all prepared by the women of the town.  

Wood Marker, Hungarian Cemetery
The cemeteries in Roebling also reflect the ethnic roots of the village community.  For example, many of the gravestones within the Roebling cemeteries are shaped in the form of the Russian or Orthodox cross.  Other grave markers are of a much humbler sort, sometimes made of concrete with names scratched into the surface before the slurry had set, or are simply made of wood, with the name of the deceased carved into the surface.  These cemeteries are cultural artifacts in their own right, and cast a poignant light on the ethnic past (and present) of Roebling Village.  

 Romanian Cemetery Scene

Monday, February 4, 2013


Roebling Bridge at Riegelsville (Wikipedia Photo)
In December 2012 I traveled to Roebling to meet with George Lengel, whose family settled there in the early 20th century, in connection with his father's work at Roebling Mill.  George is a key figure in the Roebling Museum that now operates on the site where the mill once stood.

The Roebling works have an interesting history.  Roebling was a noted bridge builder, whose projects included design and engineering of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, and design and manufacture of the cables for the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.  In fact, Roebling bridges can be seen in many places around the country, and range from the iconic grandeur of the Brooklyn Bridge, to the more humble but characteristic structure that spans the Delaware River between New Jersey and Pennsylvania at Riegelsville, as pictured here.  Another Roebling bridge and aqueduct is located further upstream on the Delaware, at Minisink Ford, New York, where a small museum provides information for visitors.

The Roebling's Sons Company was founded by John A. Roebling in the 19th century, and had located in Trenton by 1848.  The company was known for its steel rope cables, and of course for its bridges.  At its peak, the company employed as many as 8,000 workers.  John A. Roebling died in 1869 while overseeing construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, but his sons carried on with the business following their father's death.  Now a part of Florence Township, the village was a private community in Roebling's day.  In order to maintain that status, the village was roped off for one day each year by stringing chains from small obelisks located at the ends of the streets, forming a symbolic barrier against entry to the village.  Some of the obelisks used for this purpose are still standing on street corners in Roebling.

Obelisk indicating the once-private nature of Roebling village
The company ceased operations in 1974, rather suddenly and without warning, according to residents and former millworkers.  But the village that was built to house company employees has persisted, with the sturdily-built Roebling housing increasingly attracting newcomers to the village today.  These days, however, the houses built by the Roebling company are owner-occupied, and of course none of the houses in the village are company-owned.  

Don Jones, Artist's Conception of Roebling Museum
Once the Roebling company ceased operations, the industrial infrastructure of the site was gradually dismantled, so that none of the original buildings remain except for a portion of the original guardhouse, which stood at the entrance to the mill site.  Several years ago, village residents and former employees of the mill formed a committee to raise funds to establish a museum, which has adapted the old guardhouse into office and exhibit spaces.  

Don Jones, a local artist whose father had been employed at the Roebling company, became part of the museum development process.  He contributed his own special skills to the effort, by painting an image of the museum as he imagined it might look once it had been re-purposed.  His artist's rendering provided additional motivation and inspiration for the planning committee, and played an important role in the fundraising process.  The museum, now open, is operated by local people, many of whom had some connection to the company -- if not a direct connection, then through a family member.  Information about company history and about programs and exhibits at the museum can be found at the Roebling Museum website. 

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Focal Points I

The new fiscal year is underway, and as noted in my last post (far too many days ago, sorry to say!) I've resumed doing fieldwork in the Perkins Center Folklife Project region, following up on established leads and contacts, while also exploring new ground.  In January my work took me back to Pemberton, and also to Florence, Jobstown, and Wrightstown among other places.  A primary objective has been to continue exploring woodworking traditions and follow-up on my interest in what I've come to call the "legacy" of Bill Lucas.  I don't know whether this term is accurate or appropriate just yet, for for now it will function as a placeholder of sorts, until I'm able to learn more and make a better judgment.  Unfortunately, I've had to postpone important follow-up activity I'd planned to do in this connection, partly due to the current round of flu virus, which has bitten more than one person I've tried to reach in this new year.  That situation should improve, however, as winter (influenza's favored season) begins to wind down.

Meanwhile, this post will focus briefly on some aspects of my work in the region as it's begun to take new shape in this new year.  I'll say for starters that, having done fieldwork for a number of years throughout the northeast and beyond, I'm always amazed at the wealth of cultural production going on in communities everywhere.  This activity of cultural production isn't always obvious, is sometimes done on a casual basis, is sometimes pitched at a very low-key.  (That's why fieldwork has become such a "necessary" activity.)  But artists and artisans who choose to operate in what I'll term a "vernacular" framework, whatever their mode of working or style of work, are almost always concerned with expressing something significant about a place -- something that usually relates to historical experience and cultural awareness as these unfold locally.  Perhaps that's all the definition we need for the moment, for the term "vernacular" -- at least as I understand it.

I recently visited a framing gallery in Columbus called East Street Art, where the proprietors, Ken and Mary Davis, host a weekly gathering of artists, in addition to conducting all other regular business of the shop.  Needless to say, the artist gatherings and shop business are interrelated.  I happened to visit there on a frigidly cold morning in January, which held attendance down to what Ken described as a historic low.  There were a few artists in attendance, however, and they were patient and friendly as I played the role of interlocutor, looking over their shoulders as they worked, asking questions, and all the while engaging in on-again off-again conversation with Ken.

East Street Art, 24595 East Main Street, Columbus

Based on my limited experience in the shop, I'd say that East Street Art is a significant focal point of its community, where different kinds of energy come into alignment, and work together.  I think that cultural production of various kinds arises in just such settings.  When you walk into East Street Art, you at first notice the equipment and supplies connected to the framing business.  You next notice that there's artwork hanging everywhere, some of it for sale, some of it framed and set out to be picked up by customers.  But Ken Davis is also a collector, and his collection, which he has on display in the shop, consists mainly of a variety of old farm tools, which were gathered from the surrounding area as well as from Ken's trips to Vermont.  Most, though, are from the area we define as our folklife project region.

Ken has placed the tools up above, in the rafters of the shop, where they are displayed in a kind of "open storage" system -- something akin to how it's done at the Mercer Museum in Doylestown.  Of course, nothing but the most general comparison can be made between the two places; for one thing, the Mercer collections are vast!  But Ken's collection of tools and implements has substance, and presence, and I think it transforms the shop from mere business setting to cultural artifact in its own right.  The collection, and by extension the shop, is a touchstone and reference point, reflecting local agricultural history but also, and more importantly, providing a space for meaningful and memorable encounters with local history and culture.

Memory Painting by Don Jones, Florence

It makes me think of paintings I've seen by an artist named Don Jones, who lives in nearby Florence, and whom I've already mentioned in a previous post on this blog.  (Don is the person who first suggested that I visit with Ken.)  Don is an artist who since retiring from his job as a graphic designer, has begun to explore local history through the lens of art.  Don grew up on a farm in Florence; his memories of that experience, and of the people he knew as a boy, are finding their way into his paintings.

Speaking with Ken, asking about art I saw on display in his shop, and talking about the Pine Barrens hunting club he belongs to, I learned about another local artist, living in nearby Jobstown.  Ken suggested I look him up, and I was able to do that soon afterwards.  I'll return to East Street Art in another post.