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Showing posts with label movies.
Showing posts with label movies.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The star of Bethlehem? An Edison mystery in Hunterdon.

Once again, it was proven to us: travel around North Jersey and you're bound to find something related to Thomas Edison.

This time, it came when we made a left turn off Route 57 West, passing Earle Eckel's Autogiro Port on our way southward to points unknown. After an enlightening stop in Asbury (more to come on that soon), we found ourselves driving on an undulating road through beautiful farmland. We weren't quite sure where we were, except that we'd left Warren County.

The unusual two-story springhouse next to the sign
that started our mystery.
And then, there it was: a Hunterdon County historic marker. Titled "TOWER HILL FARM," it continued, "Dating back to the 1840s, this farm was purchased for Thomas Edison's storekeeper, Frederick Devonald, in 1932 and remained in the family until 1983. Unusual springhouse consists of two levels."

Devonald was a name I hadn't come across in my reading on Edison's life and career, leading me to believe that he wasn't one of the Muckers, the tight-knit group who worked closely with the Old Man on his experiments. He's not referenced in two of the latest and most comprehensive Edison biographies, nor does Mucker Francis Jehl mention him in his Menlo Park Reminiscences. Who was this mystery man?

Considering that Edison's Stewartsville Portland cement plant is a 12 mile drive away from Tower Hill, I wondered if he'd been one of the many employees who'd never worked in either Menlo Park or West Orange. And who had purchased the land for Devonald a year after Edison's death? Was the gift connected to his work service at all, or was I just reading too much into a sign author's attempt at economical writing?

Back at Hidden New Jersey HQ, we set ourselves to finding out. Checking first with Hunterdon County Parks and Recreation, we discovered that in addition to the stone springhouse we'd seen, the property hosted a farmhouse that had been built in 1848. Interestingly, the Parks and Rec website said that other Devonalds than Fred -- Ira and Margaret -- bought the farm in 1932 as a family weekend retreat, with three of them eventually making it their full time 七乐彩彩票app下载. Records of the 1920 census list Ira and Margaret as two of the eight children being raised by Fred and his wife Julia in Orange.

There went my supposition that Edison had bought the property for Devonald, but what about Fred's job? His family being from Orange made it doubtful that he worked at the Stewartsville cement plant. Was he, in fact, one of the keepers of the famous storeroom in the Building 5 machine shop at the West Orange lab? The wondrous room that Edison famously claimed to have everything from the hide of a rhinoceros to the eye of a United States Senator, all in order to speed the process of invention?

As it turns out, it's entirely possible. A search of the online archives of Rutgers'  project reveals more than 70 documents referencing or signed by Devonald, mostly related to the procurement of supplies for the storeroom. One even went directly to Edison at his Ogdensburg iron mines, asking for approval to purchase chemicals. (Edison asked for prices and said he'd see Devonald to discuss.) Another source noted that Fred once turned to Julia, herself an Edison employee, to make a motion picture screen.

And that leads us to Fred's brief star turn. While not a key employee, he was accorded a role in the development of one of Edison's most noteworthy inventions -- literally. A small room on the second floor of the West Orange labs was, in effect, the world's first motion picture studio, and the Edison movie making team needed animated subjects to test the kinetoscope technology. Hams like Mucker Fred Ott were more than happy to fake a for the cameras, and it seems that Devonald was open to participating, too. You have to wonder if he's one of the men in the brief dance scene in film. We may never know which one of the subjects he was, and he certainly didn't go on to screen stardom. But it does go to show: in the right work environment, you can have a lot of fun if you show a little personality.



Friday, June 20, 2014

Jersey Boys just off Route 22? The Four Seasons in Union

It's probably one of the most open "secrets" in North Jersey -- the legend that the singing group The Four Seasons got their name from a bowling alley on West Chestnut Street in Union. Depending on who tells the story, the quartet took the name either because their original one didn't sound as good, or because they wanted the alley's owner, who'd refused to hire them, to feel the sting of rejecting them when they hit it big.

七乐彩彩票app下载Jersey Boys, Four Seasons, Hidden New Jersey, Frankie Valli
The Four Seasons in 1971. Courtesy Union Township
Historical Society.
Though I grew up in Union and threw my share of gutter balls in the establishment in question, I was always a little skeptical of the story. Yeah, Frankie Valli grew up in Newark, a straight shot down Route 22, so he might have tried to book some gigs in Union, but really? Every town looks for a claim to fame, leading some residents to make dubious connections to famous people or events, and I figured some well-meaning Unionite had made a logical but probably false connection between the alley and the falsetto-singing quartet.

Shame on me: it turns out the story is true, according to Valli's own . His official bio states that in 1960 the band, then called the Four Lovers, "flunked an audition to play at the cocktail lounge of a bowling alley in Union, NJ, but they decided the lounge's name would make a classy moniker for a singing group: The Four Seasons."

As much as I'd like to invite you to meet me at the alley to bowl a few frames and sing a chorus of "Big Girls Don't Cry," I can't. It's not there anymore, having been torn down in 1998 to make room for a Costco. Yup, a Costco. Folks in the area may be grateful for a convenient place to score big bargains, but Union lost a very visible landmark of its incidental contribution to rock and roll history. That and a chance for a cameo role in the Jersey Boys movie.

It's not forgotten, though: in 2008 the Township of Union renamed a portion of West Chestnut Street "Four Seasons Lane" in honor of the group, complete with commemorative street signs. Given that none of the members of the group were actually from Union, I guess it's not surprising that more hasn't been done at the site to honor them, but a plaque would be nice. Maybe if Valli had scored a 300 game, things might have been different.


Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Finding the Station Agent in Newfoundland

One of my favorite New Jersey-based movies is The Station Agent, a quiet independent movie made eight or nine years ago. Some of the early scenes are in Hoboken, but the lion's share of the movie was shot and based in Newfoundland, Passaic County. Without giving up too much of the plot, the primary character inherits an old train depot in Newfoundland and relocates there. The place looks very remote, and the depot was obviously standing unused for many years, weatherbeaten and with peeling paint. A few aging train cars sit unused on a nearby siding.

This, of course, is just the kind of thing I look for, so a couple of years ago I took a drive to find the old depot and get a few snapshots.

Newfoundland had long had a special place in my mind, though I'd never actually been there. My Girl Scout troop used to make the long trip to Camp Lou Henry Hoover on Swartswood Lake, and enroute, we'd pass signs for Newfoundland. At the time I had no idea there was an actual community by that name in New Jersey, and I'd joke that we'd somehow reached the Canadian border. Poor joke, I know. I was that kind of kid.

七乐彩彩票app下载Station Agent depotMy adult trip to Newfoundland brought me up Route 23, through Wayne and Lincoln Park and northward. Eventually the commercial establishments on the road got fewer and farther between, and the Newark Reservoir came into view. Then I started seeing signs for Newfoundland, and the real search began.

Given how quiet and peaceful the depot's environs seemed in the film, I assumed I'd be wandering around backroads for a good hour or so, but I found the depot very quickly. It's actually just a few hundred yards in from the highway! 

It's also very nicely kept and well maintained with fresh paint and, when I was there, some of those nice house banners. Apparently someone either lives there or uses it as an office, but they keep up the railroad spirit by leaving the "NEWFOUNDLAND" sign on the building for the trains that once stopped there. When I watched the movie on DVD later on, I discovered that the producers had had to rough up the station's exterior a bit before shooting. For once, then, something looks better in real life than it does in the movies.