Wednesday, August 19, 2020

“The Iceman” and other Local Murderers (and Murders)


Ron Dupont

Now playing at a theater near you--”The Iceman,” a new movie telling the story of Richard Kuklinski (1935-2006), the North Jersey mob contract killer and freelance murderer whose arrest and conviction made such a splash back in the late 1980s. 

Kuklinski was a true Jersey boy--lived in Dumont, and worked for a variety of New York and New Jersey crime organizations, as well as committing murders for fun and profit on his own. It is this last part that advances Kuklinski from the category of mere hitman to the level of serial killer.

What isn’t well known about the Kuklinski story is that for a brief time he was a resident of Vernon Township.

Kuklinski’s career of crime and murder spanned nearly 40 years, from the late 1940s until his arrest in 1986. In that time he killed lots of people--somewhere between 100 and 250, though the higher number might be bragging on his part. 

He got the moniker “The Iceman” because of his fondness for popping his victims in a freezer chest for up to a year or more, then dumping their bodies in various remote places. The time delay made it harder for authorities to tie him to the crime.

It was towards the end of his career that Kuklinski was hanging out with two accomplices in crime, Gary T. Smith, and his roommate Daniel Depner, both of whom lived in Highland Lakes. Kuklinski lived with them on and off for a while. Kuklinski was evidently worried that Smith was going to rat him out, so he talked Depner into helping murder him. 

While they were at a North Bergen motel, Kuklinski put cyanide on a hamburger Smith was eating. Depner than finished the job by strangling Smith. They stuffed his body under the bed, where it was found on December 27, 1982.

If Depner couldn’t see what was coming, he should have. Worried that Depner too was going to become a turncoat, Kuklinski finished him off two months later in the exact same way as Smith. Depner got the deep-freeze treatment. It wasn’t until months later, in May 1983, that Kuklinski dumped Depner’s body on (appropriately enough) Clinton Road in West Milford, famed for its creepy legends. 

Depner’s body was discovered by a passing cyclist a week or so later. But police knew they were onto something when they discovered that while the outside of the body was badly decomposed, the heart was still frozen solid (as any decent cook knows, you always defrost in the fridge, never on the countertop.)

This misstep on Kuklinski’s ultimately part proved fatal--they were able to trace the crime back to him, in time, and a little less than three years later, he was arrested. He spent the last 20 years of his life in prison and died there (oops, I guess I gave away the ending of the movie. Sorry.).

While “The Iceman” was not, strictly speaking, a Vernon murderer, there have been (sad to say) many other Vernon murders and Vernon murderers. What follows is an account (going backward in time) of some of the more famous Vernon murders, and I’m quite sure I’ve forgotten others.

Most recently, Ryczard Gorski of Highland Lakes was arrested and charged in January 2012 for the shooting murder of his friend Maret Lacki. A real or imagined affair between Lacki and Gorski’s wife seems to have been the motive. This sad case is currently working its way through the courts. 

In August 2008, pipeline worker David Haulmark, 36, got into a fight with fellow workers, brothers Jarrod Gentry, 27, and Jacob Gentry, 30. All three were staying at the Legends Hotel in McAfee while they worked on pipeline construction up in Warwick, NY. The magic combination of alcohol and an argument involving a woman led the Gentry brothers to assault Haulmark outside the hotel. Haulmark was left unconscious on the sidewalk and later died. 

Jarrod Gentry pled guilty, was sentenced to five years, but later released with time served. His brother Jacob went to trial, was found guilty, and sentenced to 30 years in state prison. He is pursuing appeals. 

The 1994 case of Baby Jacob Gerard may not be a murder in the usual sense of the word, but it amounted to murder and is classified as such by the prosecutor’s department. Parishioners arriving at Holy Counselor Lutheran Church on Sand Hill Road on the cold morning of February 21st of that year were shocked to discover that a baby had been left next to a window around the corner from the entrance to the church.

Nighttime temperatures had been in the teens, and it was immediately clear that the baby had died from exposure during the night. Church members and the county prosecutor named the infant Jacob Gerard. Ongoing investigations have yet to reveal who left the infant there or why, and the case is still being actively pursued by detectives. Because they have DNA evidence to work , investigators feel strongly that this case will eventually be solved. Baby Jacob Gerard is buried in the North Hardyston Cemetry.

A shocking murder occurred on Baker Road, off Drew Mountain Road, in May 1993. May Jane Dickson, 76, a retired social worker and well-known good samaritan, was murdered in her sleep. Investigation revealed the culprit to be Anthony Szadorski, 20, a troubled young man whom Dickson had tried to aid by employing him around her house to do work. Szardorski’s life had been one of mental illness, crime, and drug abuse, but he had been trying to stay clean and employed, and regarded Dickson as his “second mother.” 

During a relapse into drugs and crime, Szadorski murdered Dickson, stealing money and her car. He was captured in Philadelphia, charged, and convicted. He has spent the last 20 years in East Jersey State Prison in Rahway, and will not become eligible for parole until 2025. During his prison years, he has become a chess expert, playing and winning prison tournaments. In days agone, the criminal justice system would have had other plans for him.

Few who lived here at the time can forget the case of Lisa McBride, the popular and well-liked 27 year old woman who lived in Highland Lakes. An executive secretary at a local bank, she was last seen alive on June 27, 1990, when she had gone out to a concert with friends and never returned. The exhaustive search for the missing woman consumed the citizens Sussex County for months in the summer and fall of that year. Local and State Police and the F.B.I. worked the case, and over 400 people were interviewed and 850 leads followed, all to no avail.

Sadly, the search for Lisa McBride  ended on October 6, 1990, when a passing hunter found her naked and decomposed body, nearly a skeleton, in the woods way out near the Old Mine Road in Sandyston Township. Forensics indicated that she had likely died the night she disappeared. No cause of death has ever been revealed No arrest or conviction was ever made in the case, which remains open and active. Lisa McBride’s case fills two filing cabinets at the County prosecutor’s office.

A string of burglaries had plagued the community of Barry Lakes in the summer of 1979. Unfortunately for Edward Baker, a 37 year old husband and father of two, he likely interrupted such a burglary at his own house on Barry Drive North on the evening August 9, 1979. A neighbor later found him dead from a gunshot wound to the head. Sadly, no arrests were ever made in this case either, and it remains an unsolved “cold case.”

The community of Lake Wanda saw a murder in March 1970. A North Jersey motorcycle gang called “The Choppers” had set up housekeeping in a small Lake Wanda bungalow. They were, neighbors recalled, actually a quiet bunch, except for when their motorcycles came and went. That quiet ended one night when one gang member, Albert Leeper, 19, of Warwick, NY, was shot to death. Arrested and charged in his murder was fellow gang member Martin Perrera, 32. 

It made a splash in the headlines at the time, with photos of the shaggy-haired Perrera being hauled away in handcuffs by State Troopers. Our county paper, however, committed the common newspaper sin of headlining a story when it was fresh and then forgetting about it. I have found no information on whether Perrera was ever convicted or not. If any of you old-timers out there know, tell me!

One of the most bizarre murders in Vernon (or Sussex County) history occurred on September 5, 1965. It was early on the morning of that day that Joseph James Hyland, 48, had taken his dog for a walk. He lived in the Sun Valley Estates development near McAfee. Returning home, he found a glass jug filled with liquid on his porch with some kind of burning wick in it; there were also sticks taped to the jug.

Hyland called to his wife and gave the jug a kick, which turned out to be the wrong thing to do: it was filled with gasoline, and the “sticks” taped to it were pipe bombs. The improvised bomb went off with a tremendous explosion and engulfed Hyland in flames. He died a few hours later. Police investigations into who might have placed the bomb came up completely empty-handed. Was it a prank gone horribly awry? Was the bomb actually meant for somebody else?  These remain open questions nearly half a century later--another unsolved cold case.

A murder from the days of Prohibition occurred here  in 1931. One Sunday afternoon, Robert Babcock of Echo Lake took a drive through the Vernon Mountains with his wife. He pulled off Route 515 into a little side road (we don’t know which one, exactly,but it was near where Lake Conway is now) in order (he told his wife) to pick some bittersweet berries. Hmmm. Mrs. Babcock stayed in the car while Mr. Babcock strolled around a bend in the road.

A moment later Mrs. Babcock heard a shot, and shortly after a car with two men drove by. She asked them if they had heard the shot; they did not reply. She walked to the nearby Conway farm for help, and she and Charles Conway then went looking for her husband. They  found Mr. Babcock, dead, with a load of double-O buckshot in him.

The subsequent State Police investigation revealed that two local men had been operating a still in the area (this was the days of bootlegging, remember) and Babcock had previously had a run-in with them. Was he going to complain about a bad jug of hooch? Or to buy some more on credit? In any event, he wasn’t the first guy to discover the perils of messing with trigger-happy moonshiners. 

Once again, our county paper put this case in the headlines and then abandoned it. I have found no further information on it turned out. The two local men were arrested and questioned, but at least one of them was still a free man in 1940 (according to the census) so the final disposition of the case remains a mystery--thus far.

 A rather pathetic case of murder occurred during the construction of Canistear Reservoir in 1896. The East Jersey Water Company, in charge of building the reservoir, had a team of 1,500 workers housed in a shantytown near the dam construction site. Almost 70 percent of the workforce was Italian immigrants, who worked 24 hours a day in two shifts. The work was hard, dirty, and dangerous, the pay was poor, and the living conditions squalid. This, combined with the fact that most of the workers carried weapons of some kind, made for a volatile situation. 

One day in August 1896, two workers started feuding. The Water Company did not bother with the real names, but assigned them numbers, like prisoners. Workers 2,828 and 2,570 (later determined to be Joseph Morello, 45, and Joseph Lugrippo, 22) had been arguing for days, and it finally reached a boiling point. Morello pulled out a revolver and shot Lugrippo three times, killing him.

There was almost no case to be tried: Morello’s guilt was clear, and as he claimed it as a “fit of passion” and was remorseful, he was sentenced to only 13 years in state prison. His victim, Lugrippo, was buried in the Stockholm Methodist Church cemetery.

For sheer notoriety however, few murders can compare to the one that occurred in Vernon on June 5, 1879. Frederick Crill, in his 60s, with his wife Elizabeth was living with their daugher and son-in-law, Eliza and William Babcock.  The Babcocks were tenants on the farm of Stephen Smith on Pochuck Mountain, south of Hamburg, and the Crills, Mrs. Babcock’s parents, had lived with them for four years.

Fred Crill had been a small-time lawyer in his day--what they used to call a “pettifogger,” back in the days when you didn’t need a law degree to argue certain lesser cases in front of a judge. In this capacity he was held in some respect.  But he was also known for his volatile temper and disturbing eccentricities. By modern psychological standards, it could be that Crill was actually paranoid delusional or even schizophrenic. 

Crill and his daughter had a prickly relationship, arguing frequently. One day in June, 1879, the extended family sat down for their midday meal. Afterward, Crill got down his shotgun to go hunting. His grandchild was playing with a half-bushel measure (a large, potentially fragile ceramic vessel for measuring). Crill took the measure away from the child, saying he might break it, and then headed out the door to hunt.

As he went to leave, Crill’s daughter Eliza took the measure and gave it back to the child, and said he could play with whatever he wished. Crill turned, leveled the gun at his daughter’s head, and from a distance of three feet pulled the trigger.

Most of Eliza Babcock’s lower jaw and much of the back of her head was blown away, and death was instant. Crill initially tried to claim his daughter had been seized with a fit and died, but this shallow lie fooled no one. He was arrested and jailed, and in no time at all every newspaper in the region (including the New York  Times) was covering this sensationalistic and lurid crime. After a trial, Frederick Crill was found guilty. He was hanged at Newton on April 24, 1880.

During his incarceration at Newton, Crill had a peculiar habit. While in his cell, he would pace in a circle around the room, stopping at each cycle to open the door to the little stove that heated the room, then closing it (in addition to his other oddities, he seems to have had a pretty good case of O.C.D.)

In later years, after his hanging, a number of prisoners in that same cell reported that during the night, in the dark, they could hear the footsteps of someone walking in circles around the cell, stopping to open and close the stove door every so often. That Fred Crill’s ghost thus haunted the county jail was convential wisdom for the next twenty years, until the old jail was torn down. 

And if, after this grim recital of bloodshed and tragedy here in Vernon Township, you are  tempted to pack up, sell the house, and head for safer ground, well, don’t bother. Because the reality is that for the last decade (and for many, many decades prior to that, I would bet) Vernon Township has in fact been one of the safest places in the United States. 

During the last ten years, Vernon’s violent crime rate has been 79 percent lower than the New Jersey average, and 84 percent lower than the national average.  I am betting those figures have been right about there for the last century-plus. In other words, there’s a lot of violence out there, and thankfully, most of it ain’t around us.  Stay safe and play nice.

Monday, March 22, 2010


The column of two weeks ago regarding Stockholm's "monster" (actually a huge feral pig) caused several folks interested in local history to ask me if I had ever heard of the "Devil's Footprint," another piece of Stockholm folklore.  I was happy to reply that I had, and a very bizarre bit of folklore it is.

In several newspaper articles and histories of the late 1800s, there are cryptic references to something called the "Devil's Track" at Snufftown (which was the pre-railroad name for Stockholm).  Inquiries a dozen years ago to local historians about exactly what the "Devil's Track" was came up empty-handed until my friend (and Sussex County historian) Kevin Wright came up with the following article, from a Sussex County newspaper dated December 12, 1872.  The article, submitted by a correspondent who identified himself only as "W.R.", explains what exactly this fiendish-sounding phenomenon was.

The article begins "About forty years ago [c.1832], I was at a time wandering through the highlands of Jersey, in the region of New Foundland and Snufftown, for the purpose of noticing the geological features of the hills and rocks of which I passed.  I called one morning for breakfast at the Snufftown Tavern, which was then kept by Mr. Lewis, a Welshman, if I recollect right. 

"While at table with several other men I inquired if there was in that neighborhood anything interesting in the way of minerals and fossils.  I was immediately replied to, by the question whether I had ever seen or heard of the Devil's Track, which was in that vicinity on a flat rock.  I expressed an anxiety to be shown the specimen. 

"Very quickly we were on the tramp to visit the above named Track.  We passed northward along the turnpike about a quarter of a mile, then turning to the right through a pair of bars, we entered enclosed but uncleared ground; thence we proceeded through trees and bushes ten or twelve rods, when one of the party passing, pointed his finger to the ground and observed, "there it is."  

"And there it was sure enough, on a rock in situ.   "The rock was cropped out three or four inches above the ground, the track appeared identical with that made by a large human foot; the impression of each of the five toes, the uprising to fit the hollow of the foot and the spoon-like indentation of the heel--all were as perfect as a person could make with his foot in soft clay; the whole impression was an average depth of three quarters of an inch, and smooth and without flaw as if cast in a mould.  To be certain that what I believed was a reality, I bared my right foot and placing it in the track, stood with my weight upon it.  It was a complete fit in length, breadth, and in every minutiae. 

"While I stood here my companion laughingly said, "Your other foot will not be fitted so well by the other track."  "What other track?" said I, "The one the old gentleman made with his cloven hoof," was the reply.  And observing, about a foot forward of the track of which I stood, I saw the other resembling that of a cow; the latter resemblance was not near so good as the former, yet it bore a considerable likeness to the track of a cleft-footed animal.  These tracks were indented in a solid gneiss rock or grey stone, as commonly called. 

"These mysterious, even beautiful, tracks interested me so much that I determined to employ a stone-cutter and have the impressions chiseled out in a block to ornament my cabinet.  Long years passed away and I found no opportunity to carry my determination into effect.  At length about five or six years ago I wrote to a young gentleman living near Snufftown by the name of Lyon and requested him to inform me if the Devil's Track was still preserved in his neighborhood.  Mr. Lyon upon receiving my letter immediately proceeded to the locality and found the specimen.  But to my great disappointment he forwarded me the unwelcome intelligence that the track was so mutilated and broken up that it no longer merited my care or attention.--W.R."

Who  "W.R." was remains a mystery, but the other elements of the story ring true.  Mr. Lewis's Snufftown Tavern (long gone) stood on Route 515 in Stockholm, only a short distance from the former Hardyston Municipal Building.  In 1992 I attempted to retrace the steps of the short expedition of the early 1830s with my good friend George P. Sellmer, a retired Upsala College professor and a devoted local historian.  We followed the route described in the story, which is fairly specific, to find the Devil's Track.  Several hours of effort proved fruitless.  The Devil's Track--whatever it was, whatever its origins--was gone, or at least unrecognizable, just as Mr. Lyons had said so many years ago.

It's important to note that folklore of footprints of the Devil (or various other supernatural beings) is pretty common in both the United States and in Europe.  You don't need to poke around much to find out that such "Devil's footprints" are a semi-generic part of old-time folklore.  You can look at the phenomenon as an anthropologist would, and say: it reflects the strong religious beliefs and superstitions of an earlier era (combined with a lack of understanding of geology).    Or you can look at it as a student of the paranormal, and say: man, the Devil really did do a lot of stomping around. 

So . . . did he?  In Stockholm, at least, the evidence has vanished.


(Ron Dupont can be reached at





Wednesday, January 6, 2010


Ron Dupont

In the frontier days of the Jersey Highlands, a monster stalked the mountains near Stockholm in Hardyston.  The hulking beast was reported to have long tusks, a bristly hide, beady eyes and a fearsome cry.  It terrorized local farmsteads, and villagers lived in fear of it.  Finally, the townsfolk banded together, hunted it down, captured it, and finally killed it, ending its reign of fear once and for all. 

A relative of the Jersey Devil, maybe?  A local Sasquatch?  Or maybe a North-of-the-Border version of the notorious El Chupacabra?  Well, no.  It was a pig.  A big pig.  A really big pig.  A Really. Big. Pig. 

The story is brought to mind by recent news reports about the killing of "Monster Pig," a 1,051-pound hog shot by an eleven-year-old boy in Alabama this past May.  The story was promoted as a brave young lad tracking down and killing a vicious, wild boar.  In fact, it seems it was an extremely large domestic hog that was sold to a hunting club and killed for sport in a fenced-in tract—an act decidedly less courageous and considerably more dubious. 

Still, domestic pigs that have escaped and gone wild –"feral," to be precise—are somewhat notorious in rural America.  Another recent example was "Hogzilla," a wild hog shot in Georgia in 2004 that weighed over 800 pounds.  Left to their own wits and with enough time, pigs can grow to enormous sizes. With their considerable intelligence and a mean streak that can be a mile wide, they are not to be taken lightly.   One such case occurred right in our back yard over 200 years ago. 

The story comes down to us from a piece in a January 1883 edition of the old "Sussex Register" newspaper.  The "Register" was printing a series of articles entitled "Historical Sketches of Stockholm."  The author was anonymous, but was most likely our old friend J. Percy Crayon.  Born Joseph Percy Crane in 1841, he was a Stockholm native who became a noted regional journalist, historian, and genealogist (and schoolteacher, photographer, and traveling salesmen of typewriters, pump organs, insurance, books, newspapes and magazines!)

The series of articles is filled with the kinds of interesting old tales that young Crane would have heard sitting around the fireside as a child; many of the families mentioned in them were his relatives.  The area he discusses in this particular story is not quite in what we today know as Stockholm.  Rather, it occurred in what is now the Pequannock Watershed lands along Route 515 as you head toward Route 23 and Stockholm. 

The story begins "During the months of July and August 1799, the Seward, Ford, and Card farms had no little damage done to their growing crops.  In the dark woods, twenty-seven wild hogs had taken up quarters, and their visits to the fields of the farmers were most unwelcome.  This army of swine soldiery consisted of three broods marshaled by a big general of masculine persuasion. To take the enemy alive was no easy task.  The hogs were extremely wild and always fled to the dense forest whenever a white man appeared on the scene of havoc." (If you sense our author's prose tends toward the purple, you're right.)

How such a band of hogs came to live in the woods is no surprise.  We tend to think of pigs living in pens or other enclosures, but in these early days, when it was sometimes miles between farms separated by deep woods, pigs were commonly allowed to free-range.  This worked for a simple reason: though they may roam hither and yon as they please, at the end of the day pigs almost always return home for one simple reason: it's where their supper is (they share this characteristic with husbands and children.)

Sometimes, though, the hogs decide they like their freedom. The writer speculates that this particular band of hogs had been living in the woods for four or five years.  Such a group will breed, producing offspring that have never known captivity. And so you get a band of feral pigs like the one mentioned, wild, aggressive, and destructive.  And dangerous. 

The writer continues: "It was at last resolved to form a band of citizens for the purpose of having a general chase. Twenty men were raised, and a dozen hounds and bulldogs secured.  The big hog had withstood the storms and tempests of several winters, and his tusks had grown to the length of four or five inches.  It was now the first day of September, a bright and refreshing day, that the men and their dogs started in pursuit."

The men and dogs tracked down the hogs, which retreated into the dense woods.  The first day's chase, hindered by thick forest, yielded no results.  By midday on the second day of the chase, the men and dogs had captured four of the smaller hogs, but the big monster hog remained on the loose.  "Before night," the writer continues, "the faithful canines brought him in bay, having him surrounded on two sides by an unsurmountable stone wall, and hemmed in front by the men.  But to take such a hog alive, even in this position, required great strategy."

"After several severe struggles," he goes on, "resulting in the killing of three dogs and the wounding of one man, the wild general of the swine soldiery was taken captive.  It is extremely probably that this is the only wild hog chase that ever happened in New Jersey."

It is tempting to portray this episode as a case of struggling frontier farmers protecting their crops and homes from a destructive nuisance.  Yet if simply eliminating the big hog was their concern, they could easily have shot him once he was cornered.  That they went to great lengths to bring him back alive suggests that for the men involved the whole hunt had a definite element of sport. 

And though the "general of swine soldiery" didn't meet his doom right away, he was destined to become a Christmas ham (probably a pretty gamey one).  The author notes: "A hog pen, a little less than mountain high, was erected for the home of the big hog. He never became domesticated, nor would he eat food in the presence of anyone.  At the holidays, he was butchered. He dressed near six hundred pounds."

It's worth noting that if the hog's dressed weight (i.e. weight after his organs were removed) was six hundred pounds, then his original weight would have been something close to 750 pounds.  That's a pig that's almost twice the size of most of the black bears you'll see around hear, and nearly as big as the biggest black bear on record.  With some tusks and a bad attitude, you can see why he struck fear into local hearts. 

(Ron Dupont can be reached at






Thursday, September 3, 2009


(from June 2007)

Ron Dupont

A major nor'easter hit New Jersey on the night of Sunday, April 15. One victim of the ensuing flood was the historic Steuben House in River Edge, on the Hackensack River, owned by the State of New Jersey DEP. Featuring the collections of the Bergen County Historical Society, the Steuben House is used to flooding, with artifacts and antique furniture routinely moved to the upper level during heavy rains and storms.

This time, someone dropped the ball. The Historical Society's collections were not moved until long after flooding began, resulting in an estimated $1.5 million in damage to priceless historical artifacts. The Society blames the DEP for ignoring warnings and taking action too late. It would not, unfortunately, be the first time the State Park system was accused of mishandling a museum collection.

Most people know about the demolition of the Kuser Mansion at High Point State Park twelve years ago. The century-old landmark was torn down after fifteen-year-long struggle to get the DEP to repair and rehabilitate it. Fewer people know that before the razing of Kuser Mansion came the demise of the museum it once housed. And that makes the story even sadder.

A museum at High Point? Most old-timers recall that when visiting High Point State Park and stopping at the “Lodge,” as Kuser Mansion was called, you weren’t just visiting a big old mansion that served as park headquarters. It was a museum, too. From the very earliest days of the park in 1923, people donated interesting objects, adding to the furnishings and items that the Kusers themselves donated with the mansion. It began as “a gradual collection of curios,” as one local newspaper described it in 1924. By 1930, it was called “the second-largest museum in the State,” exceeded only by the State Museum in Trenton.

That may have been a boast, but it was clearly an amazing museum. Park Executive Secretary John J. Stanton, publisher of the old SUSSEX INDEPENDENT newspaper, printed regular columns on High Point Park and the museum. From these we know that by the 1930s, the High Point museum included an amazing array of items (see Sidebar for details).

High Point's museum included Native American artifacts, geological specimens, mounted birds and mammals of many varieties, and reptile skins. It featured American artifacts from the Colonial times to the early 20th century: farm tools, Civil War weapons, historic firearms, oil portraits and paintings, and model ships. It also included a varied array of artifacts from across the world: South Seas island trinkets, shrunken heads, jade and ivory statuettes, and walrus tusks.

There were also exhibits of tremendous local importance, including items associated with Sussex County notables like Governor Daniel Haines, General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick, and famous trotting horse Goldsmith Maid. It was a broad-ranging collection, to say the least, an eclectic museum of the kind beloved by P.T. Barnum, but not so much by modern curators.

To some degree we have to guess exactly what was in the museum, but it was no mystery back then. Park officials had the collection catalogued by Mrs. Richard Redhead, curator of the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton (which also provided display cases for the High Point Museum). Alas, that catalogue—along with a great deal of the artifacts it documented—seems to have vanished long ago.

Eccentric though it was, visitors to High Point State Park from the 1920s through 1970s loved the museum in the Lodge. And there’s no doubt that the Lodge and its museum, if still there, would provide a fascinating glimpse into the kind of old-curiosity-shop museums of yesteryear. But as we know, Kuser Mansion is gone. So the question is: WHAT HAPPENED TO ALL THAT STUFF? That sad story is rather complex.

Retired New Jersey Parks and Forestry curator Paul Taylor sums up the fate of High Point's museum: "not a pretty picture." Another retired DEP official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, was more blunt. He asserts that the disappearance of cultural and historical artifacts from the park system hasn't just affected High Point, but other parks as well. It amounts, he argues, to "corruption and criminal activity" that "deserves the attention only a special prosecutor would give it."

The demise of High Point's museum occurred over a period of years. After John J. Stanton retired as executive secretary of High Point Park in 1934, the museum was somewhat de-emphasized. The trend in museum education and interpretation in the 20th century was to establish collections and exhibits with a focus on local natural history, geology, and history. To be sure, a good deal of what was in the High Point museum had nothing to do with anything local, or even North American (shrunken heads?) This kind of old-fashioned “sideshow” museum, comprised of all manner of collections, fell out of favor as park management became more professional.

But more to the point, High Point State Park and Kuser Mansion increasingly suffered from a lack of funding and staffing in the 1960s and 70s (and has fared no better since). The museum and its collections suffered, too. But most of the items remained on exhibit for decades, until the fateful day in 1979 when Kuser Mansion was finally closed to public use.

The former DEP official recalls visiting High Point as a child in the 1950s and seeing many items whose whereabouts later became a mystery. Among these were five-foot-long models of the ships Aquitania and the Ile de France. Loaned to a local elementary school for a time in the 1950s, the ships were later returned to High Point. When the former DEP official asked about them in the 1970s, he was informed they were "in storage." Later, he was told in confidence that the ships were now in the private collection of a high-ranking State employee.

Surviving information doesn’t always make clear what items the park owned, and what things were merely on loan. It seems clear that some items, like Franklin Mayor Elwood Delos Shuster’s mineral collection, were probably on loan, and were later returned. This may have been the case with some other items, as well.

Some of the items from the old museum are in fact still on display in the park. Both the park headquarters and the Interpretive Center feature exhibits of various kinds—Native American artifacts, stuffed and mounted birds and mammals, portraits of Colonel Kuser and others. Many of these items once comprised part of the High Point Museum.

Other items that were once part of the museum are simply in storage at High Point, which has—unknown to many—a rather fine collection of historical photographs, artifacts, and ephemera. Park Superintendent John Keator notes "we probably have one of the biggest collections [in the State Park system] without having an historic staff member assigned." Perhaps as years go by, more of these items will be dusted off, restored, and find their way out of storage and into public view.

A good deal of stuff, it seems, was simply destroyed. The former DEP official recalls that when he started working in the system in the mid-1960s, he was told that a large quantity of old stuffed birds and animals, along with lots of records, documents, and reports from Kuser Mansion, had recently been sent to the park incinerator for burning. At the same time, lots of other things were no longer to be found.

Other items were transferred to different units in the State Park system, most notably, it seems, Ringwood State Park, where a variety of artifacts from High Point were (at least in recent years) still either in storage or on display. Paul Taylor notes that c.1980, a considerable number of oil portraits of the Kuser family were transferred to storage in Ringwood. Strolling through Ringwood Manor today, you’ll see at least one massive, throne-like antique chair. It looks quite appropriate in Ringwood Manor, but in fact it came from Kuser Mansion. No sign or note indicates this fact.

It’s also true that some artifacts have been loaned to other institutions. The portrait of Goldsmith Maid, the famous Sussex County trotting horse of the mid-1800s, is on long-term loan to the Trotter’s Hall of Fame in Goshen, New York. A display of minerals originally donated by the New Jersey Zinc Company is currently on loan to the Franklin Mineral Museum.

Research on High Point a decade ago turned up paperwork in old files in Parks and Forestry headquarters in Trenton. These regarded what to do with the collections at Kuser Mansion, then recently closed. They discussed a variety of objects like grass skirts, seashells, etc., which appears to have been what was left of the Harold C. Burnett collection. State officials at the time apparently regarded most of these items as touristy junk, and they were thrown out (or sent to the park incinerator).

Other items of greater concern at that time included the Bamberger/Fuld collection of precious jade and ivory carvings. In the mid-1970s, visitors could rent a room in Kuser Lodge for the night. But budget limitations meant that between midnight and 6 AM, there were no park personnel in the building, and visitors could essentially have the run of the place. It was suggested that some portion of the jade and ivory collection might have been stolen by members of the public at these unsupervised times.

State Park official chose a number of items from the building and had them, by one account, transferred to the State Museum in Trenton, including the jade and ivory collection. Subsequent attempts by park personnel to learn what was transferred met with no results. State Museum officials have no record of any transfer. The jade and ivory collection also might have been transferred to Ringwood Manor or Grover Cleveland Birthplace Historic Site, depending on who was asked.

Frustration over the whereabouts of some of these missing items is felt not least by present park management, who in large measure inherited these problems. Superintendent Keator notes: "I have heard the many stories over the years and have tried to locate many of the items over my career." It's not an easy task, he says: the subject "brings back many bad feelings, almost as if an open wound is festering."

Unfortunately, it seems it wasn’t just the public walking off with items. After Kuser Mansion was closed 1979, more things vanished. Some years back, the author gave a talk at High Point, and afterwards a woman in the audience came up to chat. Out of a canvas tote bag she produced a beautiful, gilt-frame antique photo of the old High Point Inn. She said she had been a seasonal employee at High Point in the late 1970s, and the “word had gone out” that the Lodge was probably going to be torn down, or might just burn down, and so if employees saw anything they liked, they should take it.

It is impossible verify such statements. They may not be true. One would hope that no State employee would ever assert such a policy. But this is what was told. In any case, there is no question that some items that were once part of High Point’s museum can today be found in the collections of local people.

Other missing items in the late 1970s included Civil War General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick’s sword and ring. A 1980 memo in State files concluded that these items had, indeed, most likely been stolen. One local collector notes that a Kilpatrick sword was sold on Ebay about three years ago for $5,000. The former DEP official recalls two spiked Prussian helmets, along with sets of caribou and stag antlers, being loaded in a State vehicle bound for Trenton. For a time the items decorated State offices in Trenton. When those offices moved, the items disappeared.

It wasn’t just little things that walked. The two bronze Civil War cannons, weighing over half a ton apiece, also vanished. The late Jim Flynn, High Point’s Chief Ranger fifteen years ago, reported the cannon were stored in an unlocked park maintenance garage in the early 1970s. Employees came to work one day, he said, and found them gone without a trace. These historical artillery pieces, which had been donated to the park and graced both the lawn of the Lodge, and the approach to the Monument, have never been seen since, though Elvis-type rumors about them are heard (they might be at Washington Crossing State Park, Fort Mott State Park, or a park in Port Jervis, depending on which dubious theory you hear.)

This seems incredible, but perhaps not, given that this is the same park where the bronze door to High Point Monument itself was stolen. Paul Taylor notes that today, in this age of enthusiastic Civil War re-enacting and collecting, such original cannons are worth something like $50,000-$80,000 apiece. It seems safe to say, he rues, that they're "gone for good."

In the 1980s, a baby grand piano belonging to High Point State park was loaned to another park. The former DEP official questioned its whereabouts after a period of years, and was informed that the piano had been discarded as no good. He knew this to be untrue, and pressed the matter further, to be told that the piano had been "loaned" to a private individual, and further inquiries into the matter would do his career no good.

The anger over the loss of Kuser Mansion is still pretty palpable these days. There are cynics who suggest that the demolition of Kuser Mansion was pursued early on because the disposition of its contents had been such a scandal. With the building gone, the question of its collections indeed became a moot point. Many people mourn the mansion's absence, and its destruction has in fact become a symbol of the need for greater funding for State parks. But sadly, it wasn’t just the building that was neglected, ill used, and ultimately lost. It was also much of its contents.

And while what happened at High Point may be a worst-case example, the sad reality is that New Jersey's state park system is still to this day filled with important historic sites that are gravely underfunded, understaffed (or not staffed at all), and have an uncertain future. Waterloo Village is the most notable example, but just one of many. In a day and age when many States have seized upon heritage tourism as an important economic engine, bringing in tourists and their dollars, many critics say that New Jersey legislators and public officials still seem to regard parks and historic sites like a poor stepchild. The recent passage of stable-source funding for parks may alleviate or alter that attitude, but it won't help Kuser Mansion, which is "gone for good."

But is High Point's museum gone for good, too? A ray of hope shines on that subject. Superintendent Keator notes that with the historic park Interpretive Center newly restored, and with new exhibits, "we are getting many historical items and artifacts being donated and/or returned to High Point." Is it possible that the public will begin returning things that disappeared from High Point's museum? On that subject, park Naturalist Kate Foord has a message to convey to the public: "if they have any of the museum items and would be willing to return them, we'd be grateful and wouldn't ask questions."

DEP employees are also having more luck tracking down items lost within the park system. High Point Naturalist Foord notes that the jade and ivory collection has recently been located in storage at Ringwood State Park, and plans are underway to return it to High Point for display.

With efforts progressing to locate missing artifacts, and renewed interest in exhibiting them at High Point, perhaps the story isn't a tragedy altogether. Superintendent Keator is optimistic: "there is still light at the end of the tunnel."

SIDEBAR STORY: What was in High Point's Museum.

In the 1930s, High Point's museum was catalogued, and the catalogue published. That record, however, seems to have vanished. Based on old newspaper accounts, photographs, and recollections of people who either visited or worked at High Point, we can come up with a list of the various items that comprised the museum at Kuser Mansion. Almost all were there from the early 1930s, when the museum was at its most popular, until the 1970s, when the collection began to be dispersed. The collections included:

--Two 1,200 lb. bronze Civil War "Napoleon" cannons (called "twelve-pounders" for the weight of the cannonballs they fired) with their carriages and limbers. These were donated to the park in 1924, along with the uniforms, flags, and regalia of the Sussex Battery, a ceremonial brigade of Civil War veterans formed by Captain Daniel Bailey of Glenwood in 1879.
--Two bronze bear statues from the Bear Mountain Inn, donated by the Palisades Interstate Park Commission.
--The mineral collection of Elwood Delos Shuster, Mayor of Franklin and noted mineralogist and historian.
--A display of minerals donated by the New Jersey Zinc Company.
--An original oil portrait of Hamburg native and New Jersey Governor Daniel Haines (1801-1877).
--The four-volume set of William Beebe’s A MONOGRAPH OF THE PHEASANTS (1918), a large and richly illustrated limited-edition work that was the result of a round-the-world expedition funded by Colonel Kuser. Original copies today fetch thousands of dollars.
--A collection of mounted bird and animal specimens presented by James K. Smith of Hamburg in 1924.
--Two full-mounted Canadian moose, as well as mounted moose heads.
--Python, snake, and alligator skins.
--A ring and sword owned by Civil War hero and Wantage native General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick.
--Mounted birds and animals presented by many Sussex County residents.
--A collection of large-scale model ships, boats, and steamships, many with working lights, as well as models of a Norse longboat, a Madagascar boat, and a native Philippino boat. These included models of the famed steamships RMS Aquitania and SS Ile de France.
--Portraits of U.S. Senator John F. Dryden (Kuser’s father-in-law) and of Governors George Silzer and A. Harry Moore.
--Two cabinets of mounted birds presented by Mrs. C.R. Holmes.
--The Harold C. Burnett collection of curios and items, which included javelins, masks, war items, large crabs, and beads from his travels through the South Seas and South America, and sixty walking canes, riding crops, and swagger sticks from Japan, India, and the Philippines.
--Prussian spiked helmets.
--A 100-year-old red silk embroidered Chinese mandarin coat,
--A stuffed elephant’s foot,
--Two shrunken human heads from the Jivaro Indians of Tierra Oriente in the Amazon.
--A collection of antique Sussex County fireplace tools and farm implements.
--Two life-size wooden statues of Native Americans carved by famed local folk artist Louis Larsen in 1930.
--A life-size portrait of Senator Wayne Dumont, Sr.
--A collection of seashells called the “finest in the U.S.”
--Various Native American Indian artifacts and relics, some donated, some found at High Point itself, including arrowheads, spear points, axes, netsinkers, and pottery fragments.
--“Big Tom,” a full-mounted deer that had been the park’s oldest living deer.
--A gun room containing a collection of firearms used by New Jersey soldiers from every war in U.S. history from Colonial times through the First World War.
--Portraits of U.S. Vice President and New Jersey native Garrett A. Hobart, and Governor John W. Griggs.
--Oil portraits of Col. Anthony R. Kuser and other members of his family.
--A collection of hippopotamus teeth, walrus tusks, whale teeth, an armadillo tooth, and porcupine quills.
--A gold nugget and a silver bracelet from South Africa.
--A brass artillery spotter's scope.
--Early firefighting artifacts from Sussex County, including examples of the first helmets and the first silver fireman’s trumpet.
--“A mummified woman of Endore” (whatever exactly that may have been.)
--A “Chinese mermaid” that had been exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution.
--A “Cathedral clock” (i.e. a large gothic-style clock).
--A collection of ivory and jade statuettes donated by Newark department store magnate Louis Bamberger, and his brother-in-law Felix Fuld.
--A full-mounted black bear.
--A collection of fourteen paintings that had formerly hung in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, by famous artists of both America and abroad.
--A scale model of the first State House in Trenton.
--A portrait of Dryden Kuser.
--A portrait of Goldsmith’s Maid, the famous trotting horse born and bred in Sussex County in the mid-1800s.
--A collection of local fossils.

Monday, August 3, 2009


Young people have their coming-of-age milestones—getting a car, going on their first date, heading off to college—and young communities have such milestones too. Among the most important milestones for a young town: getting its own post office. We speak of this because the Vernon Post Office was created exactly 200 years ago this month, in May 1807.

Historically there are few developments which better say that a place is important than getting a post office. Because it is a function bestowed by the Federal government, it's a kind of stamp of approval that says once and for all: this town is for real, this place is here to stay (well, maybe). But basically, it's a big deal.

By 1807, Vernon had grown enough to warrant its own post office. Previously, people had to schlep all the way to Hamburg or Warwick to get their mail, so having a post office in Vernon Village was good news. It was an economic boon, too: where you went to get your mail, you also did some shopping, had your horses shod, carriage fixed, etc. And so the village grew even more.

The first postmaster was William Winans, the tavern keeper whose tavern stood right near the traffic light of Routes 94 and 515, until it was replaced by Burger King a few years back. The post office was in his tavern, which was a kind of de-facto community center. Winans was appointed by the Postmaster General on May 12, 1807.

Today, we are used to post office employees who are career civil servants, and post offices that stay in the same building for decades. In the 1800s, quite the opposite was true. Starting in 1836, the job of local postmaster became an appointed position, nominated by the local U.S. Senator, voted on by the Senate, and approved by the President. In short, it was a patronage job, a plum political appointment that was often, if not always, based on political reward.

The effect was that postmasters often served only brief tenures, based on which way the winds of politics were blowing, and the post office changed locations accordingly. Today, a postmaster might well serve for twenty-five years in one post office. Yet in the twenty-five years between 1835 and 1860, Vernon had no less than nine postmasters. One of them, John DeKay, served for a mere two months in 1845.

Local postmasters were frequently village merchants. The advantages were obvious: when the post office is in your store, it makes for good business. In Vernon Village, postmasters over the years included innkeepers, shopkeepers, blacksmiths, a wheelwright or two, and others. In 1827, merchant Richard S. Denton bought William Winans' tavern, and with it evidently came the postmaster job, which Denton held for ten years.

Denton started a veritable postmastering legacy in Vernon: his son, Richard S. Denton Jr., was postmaster from 1851 to 1856, his grandson Solomon S. Denton held the post from 1882 to 1886 and again from 1890 to 1895, his great-grandson Richard D. Wallace was postmaster from 1898 to 1925 (almost twenty-seven years, probably a record for the Vernon Post Office), and Wallace's wife Ethel held the post from1928 to 1934.

All together, various members of the Denton/Wallace family held the job of Vernon Postmaster for nearly sixty years. During most of those years, the post office was in Denton's (later Wallace's) General Store, which stood on the site of the Lukoil Gas Station, and was moved to Church Street in the 1960s, where it presently serves as the Mixing Bowl Restaurant.

Other notable Vernon Postmasters of the 1800s include Sylvester Given (served 1860-71), blacksmith George I. Wood (1871-1882), and farmer and millwright Aaron S. Blanchard (1886-1890).

In 1987, Vernon Township police officer and postal history enthusiast/collector Steve O'Conor compiled a history of Vernon's post offices. In it he notes that in the late 1920s, the Vernon post office was moved to Harden's General Store, which stood on Vernon Crossing Road near the railroad tracks (now gone, the building stood near the concrete ruins opposite Place by the Tracks Deli). In 1934, the location of the Vernon post office was changed once again, this time to the home of the new postmaster Alvin E. Mott on the corner of Route 94 and Pond Eddy Road, now Brookside Florist. Mott was postmaster until 1952, and was followed by his niece, Allena M. Baldwin, mother of Bob and Warren Baldwin, noted town businessmen/farmers.

In the late 1950s, the post office was moved to Lozaw's Store, which stood in what is now the exit to the VFW Post. Throughout the years of all these moves, the office of postmaster remained a political appointment. This state of affairs did not end until 1969, when President Nixon eliminated all political appointments in the postal service. In 1972, the Vernon Post Office was moved to the small strip mall now occupied by Bo Ya Palace Chinese restaurant, where it remained for ten years. In 1982 it was moved to D & S Plaza on Route 515. None of these locations were viewed as being ideal, and discussions to relocate the Vernon Post Office went on for years, until fairly recently, when it moved across the street to the A & P shopping center, where it will presumably remain for some time.

The next-oldest surviving Post Offices in Vernon Township, at North Vernon (Glenwood) and McAfee Valley (McAfee) weren't established until more than sixty years after Vernon's, in the 1860s. The Highland Lakes Post office, established in 1951, is a youngster. At 200 years old, after some thirty postmasters in a bunch of different places, Vernon's Post Office deserves to stay in one place for a good long while. Congratulations!

(Ron Dupont can be reached at

Friday, July 10, 2009

A Family Cemetery—and a Family's Story

In 1724, Col. Thomas DeKay of New York City purchased 1,200 acres of frontier land along Wawayanda Creek, in what are now the towns of Vernon and Warwick. Settling on his property in 1731 (the first European settler in the town of Vernon), he camped out the first night on a sandy knoll overlooking the creek, in what is now a remote area of the Price's Switch neighborhood of northern Vernon. He slept so well (says family lore) that he declared he would be buried on the spot.

And so he was, in 1758. Over the next one hundred and seventy-five years, scores of his descendants were born and raised in Vernon Township, and some of them were buried alongside him. Today, some five hundred Americans carry the last name DeKay, and all of them are descended from our Colonel Thomas. But in Vernon, at least, the DeKay name had pretty well died out by the late 1930s, with his descendants moving elsewhere. The old DeKay family burying ground became weedy and overgrown.

Neglected, perhaps, but never forgotten. In 2006, one of Col. Thomas DeKay's great-great-great-great grandsons, Earl DeKay of Naples, Florida, came back to Vernon to check up on things. Even after 270-odd years, it seems, the DeKays have Vernon in their blood.

Earl, a retired Union Carbide engineer born in Bloomfield, was tracking down some bits of family history and genealogy. He was particularly concerned about the state of the family's ancestral burying ground. His brother Dick DeKay had visited the site in 2005 and was distressed by its sorry state. Earl's subsequent efforts on behalf of the cemetery have resulted in its recent restoration, removing decades of vegetation and repairing much deterioration. For a full account of that effort, check out Jessi Paladini's column elsewhere in this week's AIM Sussex County.

It's easy to look at such a small country cemetery and regard it simply as the last resting place of one particular family. But it's more than that. If you read the stones, they collectively tell the story of that family.

It is a sometimes-cryptic story, complicated by the fact that in such cemeteries, headstones and other monuments rarely mark all the graves. It seems clear that many—perhaps half or more—would have received only an inscribed wooden cross or other marker, which in time deteriorated. So we only have part of the story. But it still tells a lot.

Col. Thomas DeKay set aside the parcel as a burying ground, but he wasn't the first to be buried there. Sadly for him, it was his son George, who died in November 1757. This was during the French and Indian War, and George had attained the rank of Major. He died either fighting Native Americans, or from "fatigue and exposure," depending on which family genealogy you consult. Whatever the cause, it was a tragedy, as George DeKay left behind a twenty-two year old wife, a two-year old daughter, and a two-month old son.

He was not the only occupant of the cemetery for long: his father, Colonel Thomas, died little more than a month later, on New Year's Day 1758. Surviving gravestones testify to no further burials here for another twenty-six years, until 1784, when the Colonel's seventy-seven year old widow, Christiana, was put to rest next to her husband. Son, father, and mother were the only marked burials here for the next forty years. Their tombstones are elegantly carved from the kind of reddish-brown sandstone found in the Newark basin. Rather dour looking cherubs gaze down from them, a common decorative element of the time.

The apparent disuse of the cemetery from the late 1780s through the 1820s probably reflects the fact that the DeKay family multiplied and spread out, and the Colonel's original farmstead—and burying ground—simply saw less activity. One of the Colonel's sons, Capt. Thomas DeKay (1731-1810), settled and was buried just over the line in New Milford, New York.

But Captain Thomas's son, Thomas DeKay Jr., commonly known as "Squire" or "Bucky" DeKay (1759-1830), settled on his grandfather's original farmstead, and became one of the best known of the Vernon DeKays. With Bucky DeKay setting down new roots on his grandfather's original farm, the old family burying ground again came into use. Among the first of the next generation to be buried here was William DeKay, one of Bucky's sons, who died in 1825, aged forty. Another of Bucky's children was Mary DeKay, who married Charles Welling of Warwick. Their son, Thomas Welling, was buried here in 1829, aged twenty-two. In 1830, old "Squire" Bucky DeKay died at age seventy-one and was buried here, followed the same year by his son-in-law Charles Welling, aged forty-five.

By this time, another of Bucky's sons, Thomas B. DeKay (commonly known by his militia title, Major) was likewise settling near the old homestead, known in old deeds as the Wawayanda Homestead Farm. In 1827, Major Thomas B. (born 1792, same year as Vernon Township) built a big new house not far from his grandfather's frontier home (which subsequently fell to ruin). This house still stands on DeKay Road (it has big white columns now). The Major's young wife, Clarissa Sharp (of Sharpsborough, later Hamburg) was the next to be buried here, dying in 1828 at age thirty. Major Thomas B. and his second wife, Sarah (some eighteen years his junior) saw more than their share of heartbreak, as recorded in the tombstones here.

In April 1835, Major Thomas and Sarah buried their little daughter Sarah A. here, aged just over two years old. Less than a month later, their little one-year-old daughter Emma C., likewise died and was buried here. And in December, Major Thomas's sister, Catherine, who had married Henry W. McCamley, had an infant daughter, who died aged three days and six hours, and was likewise buried along with her little cousins. The little cemetery never saw so many burials in one year again.

In 1842, Alanson Welling, another one of Bucky's grandsons via daughter Mary, died at thirty-six and was buried here. A year later came Ross Welling, aged sixteen (possibly a son or cousin of Alanson). And in 1846, Major Thomas and Sarah buried yet another child, William T., aged eight. And in 1847, their granddaughter Georgianna, aged 8, daughter of their son Thomas S. and his wife Elizabeth, died and was buried here.

In 1848, old Bucky's widow, Hannah, died at age eighty-five, the oldest person buried here. In 1850, Elizabeth DeKay, wife of Thomas S. and daughter-in-law of Major Thomas and Sarah, died (evidently in childbirth) at age thirty-two. The girl she gave birth to was named Elizabeth, but the baby sadly did not outlive her mother by long, joining her and her sister Georgianna here in the cemetery just over a year later.

At the same time Major Thomas and his wife Sarah were seeing grandchildren buried, they were still raising (and burying) children of their own. Their son Willie C., aged six, died and was buried here in 1853, and in 1861 their daughter Julia, aged eight, died and was buried here. All together, Major Thomas B. DeKay and his wife Sarah saw five of their children die.

In 1863, Major Thomas B. DeKay himself joined his children in death and was buried here. In 1866, his daughter Christina, aged twenty-three, joined him. The tombstones from the mid-1800s all reflect the materials and styles of those years: all marble, some slabs, some obelisks, some decorated with weeping willows, some with urns.

By the 1870s, old family burying grounds like this were being replaced in popularity by "Incorporated" cemeteries like Warwick Cemetery and Glenwood Cemetery, which had perpetual maintenance, as well as elegantly landscaped grounds. From then on, the DeKays of this branch were buried mostly in Warwick Cemetery.

But one last person, Sarah DeKay, widow of Major Thomas, chose to be buried here in 1890. Her husband's first wife had been buried here sixty years before, her husband twenty-seven years before, and she no doubt wanted to be buried here instead of the fancy newer cemeteries to be with her husband and her five little ones who had gone on before.

As far as we know, Sarah DeKay was the last person buried here. The cemetery was used for 133 years. It's worth noting a grim statistic: of the twenty-six people buried there for whom there are inscriptions, roughly forty percent were children or adolescents. That was no fluke: childhood mortality was high in the 18th and 19th centuries, even among well-to-do families like the DeKays.

Though it fell into disuse, the historical significance of the DeKay Cemetery as one of the region's oldest burial grounds was noted early on. In 1925, Rev. Warren P. Coon recorded its inscriptions, and a lucky thing, too. Pollution and acid rain has badly weathered some of marble inscriptions from the 1800s (ironically, the tombstones from the 1700s, carved on sandstone, were not affected by this, and are far more legible than the newer inscriptions on marble).

You might imagine Reverend Coon to be a country parson with an interest in genealogy, but he was quite a bit more. Minister of several large Methodist congregations in the Newark area in the early 1900s, he was also a decorated World War I Army Chaplain who served in the trenches at Verdun. Aside from being a prolific recorder of old cemeteries, he was a serious genealogist, and a popular speaker who gave numerous lectures. As if that wasn't enough, he served two terms in the New Jersey State Assembly.

A visit to the DeKay Cemetery today is like stepping back in time—the area looks much as it did in the 1ate 1800s, remaining profoundly rural. Reading these inscriptions on sandstone and marble, it is easy to be saddened by the record of young lives cut short.

But it is wrong to suppose these people were morbid or death-obsessed. Rather, they were profoundly aware that our time on earth is brief and fragile. These monuments were expressions of love, and remembrances of this hard fact. These people—as many today—viewed death as not an end, but as a mystic doorway to something beyond. Visiting a cemetery was supposed to remind you of just this. Or as stated by one 1860s Vernon epitaph:

Behold & see as you pass by--
As you and yours, so once was I.
As I am now, so you must be.
Prepare for death and follow me.

Friday, November 7, 2008


(from January 2007)

Ron Dupont

On Evans Street in Franklin stands a building built some 117 years ago as a school for the children of Thomas Edison's workers. It was moved a century ago and became a vital church for Hungarian miners. In spite of these connections with our area's rich industrial and ethnic heritage, it's slated to be torn down. But not if the Franklin Historical Society can help it.

Thomas Edison was one of the world's great inventive geniuses (no surprise there). Many folks know he lived in New Jersey and did some of his most important work here. But far fewer know that one of the most remarkable chapters of his career occurred right here in Sussex County, up on Sparta Mountain overlooking Ogdensburg.

In the 1880s, Edison worked on a method of pulverizing iron ore and magnetically separating the good stuff, iron, from the rock mixed with it. In 1887, he located the perfect spot for his enterprise: the mountain above Ogdensburg, at Ogden Mine. It had rail access, and lots of the iron ore he needed. In 1890, his first magnetic separating mill there went to work.

The site soon became known simply as "Edison." The New Jersey & Pennsylvania Concentrating Works (as the facility was known) there was a massive complex of ore houses, crushers, stock houses, mills, engine houses, stores, offices, pump houses, and some fifty dwellings for workers. At its peak, the plant employed nearly 400 men.

Those workers had children, and children need to be educated. Hence a school was built at Edison, too, a few hundred yards south of the giant concentrating works, on the west side of Edison Road.

The story of Edison's concentrating works is an epic one. I recommend getting your hands on a copy of Rodney Johnson's excellent, superbly illustrated 2004 history of the site, Thomas Edison's "Ogden Baby": The New Jersey & Pennsylvania Concentrating Works, which can be purchased at, and at local bookstores.

Edison perfected the process of pulverizing boulders into dust, magnetically extracting the ore, and baking it into waterproof briquettes. But he couldn't compete financially with the new iron mines of the Mesabi Range in Minnesota, and by December 1900, the works were closed and being dismantled.

Many of the smaller buildings at the Edison works were sold off and moved by their new owners down the mountain to Ogdensburg and Franklin, where most still stand, used as houses and stores. Bigger ones were scrapped or allowed to go to ruin. One of the last standing was the Edison Schoolhouse. In 1908, that found a home, too.

In that year, Franklin's Hungarian population set out to establish a church of their own. The mines of Franklin and Ogdensburg had long attracted and employed a dizzying array of nationalities (more than twenty-one), but none more so than Hungarians. They represented twenty-seven percent of the mine workforce, outnumbering every other nationality, and native-born Americans, too. Hungarians were a third of the general population. In many a Franklin household, the operative phrase (like the old Strauss polka) was √Čljen a Magyar! (Long live the Hungarians!)

But miners back then had limited income and means, and for a long time the area's Hungarians made do attending local churches where English was used, or borrowing space in other churches for services. Hungarian is from an entirely different linguistic family (Finno-Ugric) than most other European languages. The Hungarians of Franklin clearly felt a strong desire to hold religious services in their own church, and in their familiar native tongue.

According to Rev. Herbert Justin Allsup's 1934 history, A Brief History of Church Life in Franklin, New Jersey, the Hungarians of Franklin received permission to use the Franklin Presbyterian Church for services in Hungarian in 1900, but this arrangement didn't last long. They had also used the Baptist church for services.

In 1908, a meeting of Hungarian churchgoers was held at the Franklin home of George Antalics. The Hungarian Reformed Church of Alpha, NJ, under Rev. Janos Ambrus, agreed to act as "mother church" for a Franklin congregation. The New Jersey Zinc Company, the Alpha and Omega of most things in Franklin and Ogdensburg, was asked for help establishing a church and parsonage, and agreed to donate a plot land on Evans Street.

For a building, George Antalics purchased the old Edison School and donated it to the congregation. The men of the congregation gathered after work to construct a foundation for the former school, and "practically rebuilt" the structure in the process of moving it from Edison down to Franklin. Retired New Jersey Parks & Forestry Regional Superintendent and Sandyston resident Lou Cherepy, whose family roots with Franklin and the church run deep, recalls his grandfather George Szabo helped disassemble the school and move it down the mountain with mules and wagons. In 1909, the "Franklin Furnace Hungarian Reformed Church," as it was officially known, opened, deed in hand, with the original school bell still up in its belfry.

The Rev. Janos Ambrus, of the Alpha Church, and Rev. Bela Chekes, of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, were the first pastors to serve the church, which was part of the Eastern Hungarian Classis in America of the Synod of Hungary. Though a Reformed church, it was open to Hungarians of all faiths, and became a kind of de-facto Hungarian community center. The First World War caused the severing of relations with the mother church in Hungary (Austria-Hungary was allied with Germany and Turkey), and likewise a loss of financial support. But the church persevered.

The next minister was the Rev. Laszlo Szabo. Cherepy recalls that Reverend Szabo was "by far the most famous of the Franklin Hungarian pastors, and was highly respected and honored in Hungary as both a servant of the church and its people and a great Hungarian poet." Reverend Szabo, notes Cherepy, wrote a poem, "A Magyar Templom," ("The Hungarian Church"), which summarized the importance of the church to the local community: "A Templom egy darab Magyar fold"—"This church is Hungarian soil."

But by the late 1960s, the Franklin Hungarian Church's congregation was literally dying off. The newer generation was less interested in services in their ancestral tongue, and migrated to other churches. The church was finally closed in 1972 and sold to a private homeowner who used the adjacent rectory as a private home. But the church itself has sat vacant since, becoming dilapidated.

According to Lou Cherepy, interest in preserving the old Hungarian Church was first sparked in 1998, when New Jersey Parks & Forestry officials were drawing up plans for a Wallkill Valley Heritage Trail (still a developing project). Though Parks & Forestry expressed interest in preserving the landmark, the property owner was not interested, and thus ended that effort.

More recent news that the one-time Edison Schoolhouse and Hungarian Church was now to be demolished reached members of the Franklin Historical Society, who launched a campaign to rescue the structure. They soon enlisted the leadership of local historian and author Bill Truran. An avid historian and preservationist with a can-do attitude, Truran (a professor at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken) has published several excellent photographic histories of the area in recent years.

Truran and the Franklin Historical Society have secured several grants, including $1,000 from the Franklin-Ogdensburg Mineralogical Society (FOMS), $2,500 from Wal-Mart, and $10,000 from the Kirby Foundation. They are also working on loan applications with SussexBank and the United States Department of Agriculture. In addition, they are working toward leasing a parcel of land from the Borough of Franklin. As planned, the Edison School/Hungarian Church would be moved a short distance to the site of the (lamentably demolished) Franklin Neighborhood House. There it would become "The Heritage Center for Social and Cultural Study."

In its new role, the landmark would serve as a museum preserving the myriad cultures that played a role in the region's rich mining and industrial history. Truran is emphatic about the importance of Franklin and Ogdensburg's industrial heritage: "The confluence of over twenty nationalities to this world-class endeavor over a century ago contributed to winning two world wars, and is a facet of history that has significant impact on the America that we know today."

The Heritage Center would also highlight the under-appreciated importance of Thomas Edison's role in Sussex County's history. "The connection to Thomas Edison," notes Truran, "who more than any other person made the modern world—is a link that, along with the immigrants' hardscrabble life, is a story worth telling the next generation: a tale of hard work, perseverance, and ultimate success with society-changing results."

Truran is optimistic that the Heritage Center is on track to become a reality. But it still needs funding and help. This is where you come in. To donate time or money to make this exciting and important project happen, contact Bill Truran at, (973) 729-1471, or the Franklin Historical Society at 95 Main Street, P.O. Box 332, Franklin, NJ, 07416, (973) 209-1232.

Franklin's history has taken some serious hits in recent years, with the demolition first of the Neighborhood House, and more recently the old Franklin Hospital, both landmarks from the glory days of the mining era. With help and lots of hard work, the Edison School/Hungarian Church won't meet the same fate, but will survive to honor the region's rich history. Bill Truran sums it up: "By saving the structure and building the Heritage Center we can ensure a lasting presence for Franklin's rich past accomplishments."

(Ron Dupont can be reached at