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.