This article, by Jane Vilmar, was first published in the “Old Station Timetable” in September 1982.
“The Land of Health & Happiness” was the theme of a brochure advertising Cragmere Park back in the early 1900’s. With a beautiful panoramic view of the sprawling Ramapo Mountains to the west, the scheme was to develop nearly 200 acres of land with homes similar to the old English estates. The selling agents, Van Fossen-Bugg Co., located in New York City, maintained strict guidelines in setting up the Cragmere Park Association. Its purpose was to maintain the beautiful park-like character of the property.
A paragraph in the brochure became a reality, in part. “Cragmere will have its own artesian water system of the purest water and electricity and telephone service will be installed.” Another interesting highlight is the description of Oweno Lake & Park that is now the site of Betsy Ross School and Education Center off of Malcolm and Mahwah Roads. It reads in part, “Oweno Lake and Park in the center of Cragmere has been dedicated in perpetuity to the use of the Cragmere Association as a place of recreation. Here the children may sail their boats, everyone may bathe, and a club house and tennis courts may be established.”
Although this landmark has gone there are still folks around who have fond memories of good times there.
The brochure goes on, “Schools, churches and stores are conveniently located, and one has the benefit of living in the real country with all the comfort of modern conveniences.” Although it’s not what I’d call “real country” any more, the area does feature lovely homes on spacious land. Going further in the brochure, you will shake your head when you read that a comfortable home can be built for as low as $2,5OO on a half-acre site!
Although the Cragmere Park Association is no longer in existence, the beautiful park-like atmosphere still prevails. The area is located on the hill east of Franklin Turnpike and is bordered by Airmount Road and Miller Road and extended eastward to East Mahwah Road.
This unattributed article was first published in the Old Station Timetable in May 1982.
One more of the rapidly disappearing old family burying grounds in Mahwah has been found. It is located on the property of Dr. Donald Lord on the Ramapo Valley Road. Although there is evidence that it may contain many graves, a diligent search revealed no more than the one stone still standing. This is marked as the burial of Elizabeth B. Willis, daughter of Jon S. and Susan Bartholf, born July 6, 1791, died April 2, 186.6, age 75 years.
Her husband should be buried beside her and children also may be interred here, as well as others of the Willis family.
Further research might determine whether this was a Willis farm. There are Willis stones in the Wyckoff Cemetery as well as in other local cemeteries, so the family has been in the Ramapo Valley for some time.
Dr. Lords adds that there were other stones there when his family first moved to Mahwah.
Any help from readers will be appreciated.
This unattributed article was first published in the “Old Station Timetable” in October 1981.
A recent story in our newsletter about the Theusen House, later the Education Center, that had been a landmark in Cragmere Park for’ many years was of particular interest to Charles E. Ellis Jr. who still lives in the house his parents built back in 1915.
“Just north of our house at the corner of Armour and Mahwah Roads stands the ruin of the Miller Reservoir whose overflow was the water that fed Oweno Pond. The reservoir next to our house was supplied with spring water by the Miller acquaduct which-crosses the northeast corner of our property and flowed without interruption from about 1875-1978.”
“The water from the reservoir fed the dairy cooling brick double-arched structure whose ruin can still be seen’on Malcolm Road across from the Betsy Ross School. The stream continued to flow west through the Theusen place and fed Oweno lake,” explains Mr. Ellis.
The Ellis family, who had rented their home while at the shore, once stayed temporarily in Mrs. Theusen’s Boarding House until their house tenants moved out. “I remember particularly the afternoon sun shining across the clean white table cloths of the dining room and sparkling on the well-silver (plate) on the tables being set up for the evening meal by young waitresses in black skirts, stockings and shoes, , and white starched blouses with collars. On their heads, they wore some sort of white starched fabric head piece common to the day. A jolly scene, prim and clean, and complete with flowers”, Mr. Ellis said.
Oweno Lake was designed for ice making, as well as ornament. It was located just east of Oweno Road near the corner of Mahwah Road where the baseball field is at Betsy Ross School. It was served by an iron conveyor belt and chains, running from the ice house to the lake. However, the conveyor had ceased operation and was a rusting ruin when Mr. Ellis was just a young boy.
The stream feeding the lake ran into a ditch, still seen today, under the conveyor, now removed, and featured watercress in season.
The building at the north end of the lake was not the “Summer House” but was a boathouse without windows, according to Mr. Ellis. It was from there that Hiawatha, a beautiful darkhaired maiden played by the late Mrs. Euroka Bugg, would annually set out in a white canoe at the Cragmere Association’s yearly Forth of July celebration.
Mr. Ellis concludes “The summer house, so called, was an octagonal roofed and floored open structure on a little island in Oweno Lake at the east side of it near the lake intake. It was reached by an arched bridge which can be seen in photographs of the Miller Estate in the Mahwah Public Library.”
This article, by Charles Anderson, was first published in the “Old Station Timetable” in October 1981.
The Term “Floating Teeth” is still in use today and the tool for doing it is still called a “float”. It is a coarse single cut file used to rasp rough or irregular edges of a horse’s teeth. Unless done when necessary the horse’s mouth.would develop sores, he would go off his feed and food would be inadequately chewed. Among the local farmers in earlier times there were a few who were skillful in floating. After wedging the mouth open (securely) the job could be done quickly. A hundred years ago the term would not have puzzled anybody.
From Country Home Antiques.
Another tool not seen around today is the mill bill. Every grist mill operator was familiar with the tool and knew the tedious and painstaking work involved in using it. It consisted of two parts. The “thrift” looked somewhat like half of a squared rolling pin with a hole cut through the roller part to accommodate an iron or steel bit held in place with a wedge. The instrument was used to deepen the worn furrows in millstones. A dull stone was said to destroy the quality of the grain resulting in a sticky product in the baking process. Both. the nether (lower) and the runner (upper) had furrows chisled in them which initially served to rip away from the center to the outer edge and admitted air to prevent a dangerous build up of heat. The actual grinding was done by the flat surface between the furrows called the “land”. Both terms are typically agriculturally oriented. As the surface and edges became worn the mill bill was used to restore the depth of the furrow and angle by chipping the stone. Mr. Ackerman of Wyckoff Ave. worked in the family grist mill and well remembers working on the stone.
A mill stone at the Plimoth Plantation.
The Ackerman grist mill was located near the outlet of the pond on Wyckoff Ave. It was originally owned by Alyea. Since Wyckoff Ave. used to run on the west,side of the pond the door was located on that side. The grain was taken down a ramp and under an endless chain of buckets that lifted it to the hopper in the upper part of the mill. Power was provided by water turning an undershot wheel.
Old grinding stones were made of local materials. Granite was a favorite and was used in the Ackerman mill. Elsewhere a quartz shot sandstone was used or more expensive burr stone which came from Europe in pieces that had to be filled, cemented together and then banded with hoops. Early millstones have been found in which the furrows were cut in spirals but most of the stones were cut with straight furrows. The patterns varied. When the milled flour fell from the furrows it was caught in a finely woven cloth sieve which was rapidly agitated. Wooden shovels were used to move the flour because of the danger of combustion.
This article, by Charles Anderson, was first published in the “Old Station Timetable,” in February 1982.
Richard Snow is on the tax rolls of Woburn, Mass. in 1645. A record of his will is recorded 1676, and he died in 1677. It is believed he arrived in the Colonies in 1935 as a young man on the sailing ship, Enterprise. He is the progenitor of a vast family network that is scattered across the country, as far as Texas and California. A great number of the early family members were born and lived around Colrain, Mass. In 184), Asaph Snow was born, he enlisted at the age of 18 and fought through several campaigns during the Civil War. After the war, he stayed in the south working as a United States claims agent. While stationed at Camp Dennison in Ohio during his training, he married Teresa McKinney and they lived in Tazewell, Tenn. where he was the postmaster. He died on his farm nearby in 1899.
His son, Elmer John Snow, was born in Tazewell in 1869. He came to Hillburn, N.Y. in 1884 to work for the Ramapo Iron Works owned by a relative, William Wait Snow (1828-1910). This firm manufactured car wheels and other railroad devices. Mr. Snow also bound the first Webster Dictionary! Naturally, Elmer John Snow met W.W. Snow’s daughter, Clara Amanda, and married her in 1892. The iron works later became the Ramapo Wheel and Foundry Company.
W.W. Snow had been trained in the foundry business since boyhood, working for various employers in Massachusetts. With financial backing, he started his own business near the Hudson River and later bought land from the Suffern family in Hillburn. This included a mill, 20 houses and a store, and that is how the town of Hillburn started.
The Worthington Pump Company employed Elmer John in 1899 to put up a large pumping station in Hawaii. Returning to the mainland, he again joined his father-in-law serving as superintendent in charge of design and construction for a new brake shoe factory -now known as Abex – and part of Illinois Central. As director and a member of the board, he had a great deal to do with the growth and prosperity of the business. The Snow houses in Hillburn were destroyed when the N.Y. Thruway was built.
Mrs. Peter D. Ash (Oliver Snow) lived in a house off Miller Road, now in the Oak Hill Estates in Mahwah, N.J. Of her sons, Peter is living near Mt. Snow in Vermont and, Charles lives in Litchfield, Conn. A home on Olney Road, once occupied by Elmer Snow, is still in the family. Mr. Howard D. MacPherson, whose late wife was Mildred Snow. lives there now. She was a great-granddaughter of W.W. Snow.
The Snow family recognized the poverty and deprived conditions under which the mountain people lived years ago. They were forefront in starting a school on the mountain, a one room building with a huge fireplace. A nurse, Miss Mack lived in a comfortable house not far from the school. She provided medical help to the neglected families. Her expenses were paid by the family.
Although the Snow family is no longer prominent in local affairs as “Snow”, the line is carried on under other family names. These include MacPherson, Bristow and Vilmar, just to name three of them. Another great-granddaughter, Mrs. Dorothy Snow Vilmar, lives in her uncle’s house (Homer H. Snow) on Mahwah Road. Her sister, Eugenia Snow Averill, lives in Willbraham. Mass. Her brother’s (Douglas Snow 1934-73) children live in the New Paltz, N.Y. area. How many more area residents can trace their heritage back to William Wait Snow?
This article, by John Y. Dater, was first published in the “Old Station Timetable” in April, 1980.
Chet Billings was a lonesome dweller of the Ramapo Mountains. He lived in a cabin at the Bear Swamp, as I recall, and he made his living by catching rattlers and copperheads for the New York Zoological Club. The venom brought a good price because it was used for medicine in those days. He always claimed he was a Wampanoag Indian, which was a Connecticut tribe.
The snakes he caught he put in a white oilcloth bag, a material used in the old days to put on the kitchen table. Chet would come to Ramsey occasionally when he took his snakes into New York. I have seen him dump the bag on the Main Street sidewalk, and people would gather fearfully to see them. He carried a four foot stick with a crotch in the end, and if he had trouble picking up a snake, he would pin its head to the walk and then pick it up with his hands.
This story he told me. One day (about 1910) he saw a copperhead go into a cleft in the rocks and he reached in to catch it. As he did so, he saw another copperhead right near by and close enough to bite him. While watching this snake, the first one turned in the cleft and bit him. Copperhead venom can cause blood poisoning, while rattlesnake venom affects the nerves. Chet said he was kind of knocked out by the bite, but after a week, he felt all right. This bite probably caused his death, as the account states.
Chet had a great habit of going in swimming with all of his clothes on. He would empty his pockets of matches (wooden), lay his cigarettes on the bank and jump in.
One summer day, probably in 1910, he went through this routine at the old mill pond back of the Darlington School. I used to swim there myself and others from Ramsey. A little later, Chet was seen floating face down and no movement. His companions found he was dead. Someone managed to phone Charlie Rhoades, the undertaker and plumber in Ramsey. I was sitting on the lawn with my parents that afternoon when we saw Charlie’s wagon go by. I inquired and found out that it was Chet. Having no family, he was
buried in an unmarked plot in the Ramsey cemetery. They said there was money in his cabin, but I never heard what became of it.
This unattributed article was first published in the “Old Station Timetable” in February 1981.
The late Frank Scherer told Gordon Miesse during an interview in 1974 he remembered coming to Mahwah as a young man back in 1900. He referred to this area as “Vacation Country.”
Hiking seemed to be a favorite past time for the younger generation. Mr. H. O. Havemeyer, Sr., also invited the young people to his home on Route 202 three times each summer for an evening of dancing.
He recalled Franklin Turnpike was paved in 1915 -the year he moved here permanently.
Mr. Scherer reminisced about Charles Bacon and Charles Ellis who were among the first officers of the American Legion Post: Frank Rothhaupt who was the first fire chief, and Raymond Dator who served as the first police chief.
He was a senior director of the Mahwah Savings & Loan Association, and spoke about Albert J. Winter who was president and David Hopper who served for more than 50 years as Sec.
This unattributed article was first published in “The Old Station Timetable” in Fall 1987.
Following his retirement from office in 1857, N.J. Governor Rodman Price and his family moved to Mahwah in 1862 and established a dairy farm, “Hazelwood on the Ramapo.” Price became so involved in farm machinery and the ensilage system of feeding cows that the American Agriculture and Dairy Association called him a leading agriculturist. In 1866, he owned 250 acres, which later increased to 400. Hazelwood was one of the earlier large estates in the Ramapo Valley, noted for its beautiful gardens and European art and furnishings. Price remodeled the house in 1881 and the “Bergen Democrat” wrote, “It is a magnificent place.”
The map at right, from the 1876 “Atlas of Bergen County,” shows Price’s home, west of the Ramapo Valley Road and Ramapo River. To the north is “Valley Farm,” (near the intersection of Ramapo Valley Road and present-day Darlington Ave,), owned by A.B. Darling, who came to Mahwah in 1872. Further north, the properties of Bockee and Petry eventually became part of Theodore Havemeyer’s “Mountain Side Farm.” Havemeyer came in 1878.
Price died in 1894, and his wife Matilda in 1897. Eventually, the property was annexed to the Kohler estate to the north. The house was rented out and fell into disrepair. In 1942, Hazelwood and part of the Kohler estate were acquired by Fred and Margaret Wehran. who named the property “Sun Valley Farm.” They removed the third floor of the house and substantially remodeled it. In 1964, the house was torn down and replaced by another.
The photo above is from a 1942 “Previews” real estate brochure (collection of Carol Greene), and is the only photograph of the original Price home known to exist. Badly damaged and written on, it was restored by Sieglinde Lehmann of Oakland.
This article, by Dick Greene, was first published in “The Old Station Timetable” in Fall 1987.
Blandina Bayard, Mahwah’s first recorded non-Indian settler, the Hoppers, and the Dutch and English farmers that followed, had a very local market for their harvested crops, livestock and dairy products. After satisfying their family’s need for sustenance, residual products were traded or bartered with other settlers or at local trading and general stores. Erskine’s “Belgrove Store”, near the original Lutheran church on Moffat Road, did a brisk business with local farmers.
Farm products were hard to transport over rutted, muddy roads, and markets were often over a day away. Settlements along the Hackensack and Passaic Rivers had the advantage of water transport, but the scenic Ramapo offered inadequate depth for anything larger than a canoe.
The coming of the NEW YORK AND ERIE RAILWAY to New Antrim (Suffern) and “Ramapo (Iron) Works” gave a new method of transport to New York City via the railroad’s boat dock and steamship line at Piermont on the Hudson River, south of Nyack. Local farmers began to expand their production for shipment of cash crops over the tracks of the new Iron Horse.
The young PATERSON AND HUDSON RIVER RAILROAD commissioned George Allen as its chief engineer and surveyor with. the task of charting and building a railroad line from the company’s terminus in bustling Paterson to the New York State line in the Mahwah section of the then Hohokus Township, just one mile short of a connection with the NY&E (ERIE) at Suffern’s Tavern in New Antrim. Service began in 1848, connecting Mahwah with Jersey City over the tracks of several railroads.
The New York State Charter of the NY&E prohibited its leaving the boundary of the Empire State. An exception was made along the Delaware River west of Port Jervis where terrain mandated use of the opposite bank, but no station-stops were allowed. The NY&E terminals were at Piermont- on the Hudson, and Dunkirk- on Lake Erie, where the line connected with steamboats which provided regularly scheduled shipping of freight and passengers.
These water connections allowed great flexibility of distribution up and down the Hudson River, over the Great Lakes and throughout the extensive barge canal system which the railroads were to doom to oblivion. Dependence upon water routes slowed travel to a point of placing the NY&E at a competitive disadvantage when parallel railroad lines were constructed by the PENNSYLVANIA RR and Vanderbilt’s amalgamation of small upstate lines into his NEW YORK AND HARLEM RIVER RR, to form the gigantic NEW YORK CENTRAL SYSTEM.
Passengers traveling east or west soon earned that connections by stage coach could be made between Mahwah and Suffern’s that could cut several hours off the longer boat ride on the Hudson.
Giving in to public pressure, the New York Legislature approved a mile-long line to connect “Suffern’s Tavern” to “Mahwah” — THE UNION RAILROAD COMPANY. By 1852, the NY&E had reduced traffic to Piermont to but one train each day, and the passenger steamboat was abandoned. Mahwah was now on the main line of a major railroad system connecting New York with Buffalo, then Chicago and the west.
September 10, 1852, saw the inception of the ERIE Lease of the PATERSON AND HUDSON RIVER RAILROAD (P&H) and its wholly owned subsidiary, the PATERSON AND RAMAPO RAILROAD (P&R). Things were not easy, as the ERIE had heretofore steadfastly clung to its broad gauge of 6′-0″ (the distance measured between the rail heads) while other roads, including the P&H (which had already converted from their original 4′-0″ gauge) and the P&R, utilized the accepted standard of 4′ 8-1/2″ — the width established by the Romans a millennium before as the gauge for all the carts used by their Legions, in order that they could follow in each others ruts.
A third rail was laid alongside the P&R tracks to accommodate the wider ERIE engines and rolling stock, while the acquired P&R and P&H cars and those of other railroads using “standard gauge” would use the original rails. The three rails remained from 1878 to 1881, when the conversion of the ERIE to “standard” was completed.
In 1854, the first “through train” from Jersey City to Buffalo steamed up P&H Chief Engineer George Allen’s track route without so much as a toot for Mahwah. Mahwah had no regularly scheduled “station stop” for passengers on the newly reorganized ERIE RAILWAY COMPANY timetables until 1874 — three years after the station was built, which obviously only handled traffic as a “flag stop” the train stopped when the stationmaster hung out a flag indicating a revenue pickup of either passengers or freight.
Local shipments of farm produce were handled at “Ramsey’s” and “Suffern’s” on the ERIE, with some Valley farmers finding it easier to go to Oakland and Fardale farmers to “Campgaw” on the NEW JERSEY MIDLAND RAILROAD. This line was incorporated in 1866 by the Wortendykes of Midland Park and promoted by Rodman Price of “Hazelwood on the Ramapo” (see accompanying article, this issue).
When an enterprising ERIE conductor from Goshen began bringing fresh milk to Jersey City in the baggage car to be sold across the River by a ferry boat captain, the milk industry all along the ERIE grew to tremendous proportions within a matter of years. The milk sold in New York had been “local” milk from tethered cows fed slops and washed fermented grain from breweries. The taste was reported as being “like drinking bad, white beer”. Fresh Jersey and Orange County (NY) milk tank cars were familiar sights on ERIE passenger trains into the mid-1950s.
The famous Sheffield Farms had their beginnings in Mahwah on Route 202 at what is now the Devonshire School. The Darling and Havermeyer farms delivered daily loads of milk to the depot in Mahwah, built in 1871 (now the Museum at 1871 Old Station Lane, across from Winter’s pond).
It wasn’t only outgoing shipments that improved life in Mahwah; but coal, lumber, kerosene, and goods from all over the country were brought right to, the front door of the Township at Winter’s Coalyard and Store, where the present Post Office now stands.
At the other end of the Valley, railroading was flouNew York and Orishing, also. New Jersey residents subscribed $100,000 to have the NJ MIDLAND pass through Hackensack which was accomplished in 1972. Within one year, interconnected trackage went as far as Ellenville, NY.
In 1880, the NJMRR combined with the NEW YORK & OSWEGO MIDLAND RR to provide owned-trackage to the north, into the rich blackdirt farmlands of Sussex (NJ) and Orange (NY) Counties. In 1881, the name was changed as a reelection of more grandiose plans, to the NEW YORK, SUSQUEHANNA AND WESTERN RR. The trains never went to New York, ending at Edgewater and Jersey City; nor did the trackage ever reach the waters of the Susquehanna River, much less anything western.
The Scranton area (Gravel Place) became the western extent of the NYS8.W tracks as coal from the mines of northeastern Pennsylvania quickly became the mainstay of the line’s revenue, but milk and fresh produce from New Jersey and Orange County dominated the fast trains that sped the goods to New York markets. The siding at Campgaw received produce in cars that were connected to passing milk trains and fast freights headed for interchange at Jersey City.
The NYS&W passed through many economic cycles over the years, being operated by the ERIE from 1898 onward, until spun off in the 1940s when coal and Jersey produce traffic waned. This began a downhill slide to near oblivion for the NYS&W, only to be revived in the past few years by its new owner, the DELAWARE & OTSWEGO RR, of Cooperstown, NY — those masters of operation of the short line. Container trains are now running the restored roadbed on a regular basis. “Peddler” freights deliver freight cars to a few industries along the line, but no longer are farm produce and dairy products loaded from the valley of the Ramapo.
It was the railroad that brought prosperity and improved standards of living to Mahwah’s farmers; and, eventually, it brought the commuter and the developer who bought up the farms, built homes and transformed the rural landscape of the 1880s into a suburb by 1950. ABEX, long Mahwah’s major industrial complex, was originally the “Ramapo Wheel and Iron Works”, building railway equipment parts. It later became “The American Brake Shoe Company”.
The single-track P&R line of George Allen (for whom Allendale is named) grew to the 4 track mainline of the “high and wide ERIE” by the turn of the century.
The ERIE, like most of the great iron roads of the east, fell into hard times at the hands of government regulation, taxation, union strife, and competition from highway trucking and airlines. The CONSOLIDATED RAIL SYSTEM — “ConRail” — has preserved most of the routes in New Jersey of the ERIE, the P&R and P&H, as its main line. Modern equipment, electronic signaling, long-welded rail, and renewed emphasis on speedy, efficient service has given the railroad industry new life. Renovation of trackage through Mahwah has been underway for three years. NEW JERSEY TRANSIT — RAIL OPERATIONS now operates the passenger service from Port Jervis through Suffern and Mahwah to Hoboken, and continues the tradition of the commuter that started over 100 years ago.
Those scenic farms in summer and the lonesome wail of the steam whistle on a still, cold night are now gone, but they will remain a wonderful memory and integral part of the history of Mahwah.
This article, by Carol and Dick Greene, was first published in “The Old Station Timetable” in Fall 1987
The American tradition of the “family farm” lives on in Mahwah because of one tenacious holdout — Alvina Pelz Frey. She is Mahwah’s last true “farmer.” A farmer, by popular definition, is one who produces most of what he (or she, in the case of Alvina) sells.
In the past five years, urban and industrial growth in Mahwah has raised the population from 10,000 to 14,000 and, in another five years, this figure may reach 20,000. The wonderful farms, barns, fences and cultivated fields of the rural past are almost all gone. Yet on 16 acres of land on Airmont Avenue in Masonicus, Alvina Frey raises vegetables and flowers, and takes them to market in New York City twice a week. Can this small, gentle woman, stylishly dressed, who smiles with enthusiasm while expounding on farming really be what she claims? “I used to sell at the wholesale market in Paterson or from a stand here on the farm,” she said, “but, now, the best place is the bestes online casino. (This is a public casino for small players set up by the Environmental Council of N.Y.C.). I get up at 4:00 A.M., load the truck and drive into the City twice a week. I finish selling by early evening. My annuals go fast, because I arrange them into beautiful bouquets…”
The newsworthiness of the ten-hour days Alvina puts in cultivating, dusting, irrigating, and harvesting crops, as well as her success and popularity at the Greenmarket, has not gone unnoticed. She has been written about in the New Yorker Magazine (7/3/78), Working Woman (2/79), and various trade publications and newspapers including the New York Times, the Daily News, and the Record. At the astounding price that an acre of land now brings, most Bergen County farmers have sold out and retired. According to the New Yorker article, there were only 48 farms left in Bergen County in 1978. Today, that number would be drastically less. What could possibly keep Alvina on the land, choosing her tractor over a golf cart, her hoe over a tennis racquet…?
Judy Pelz Coughlin is Alvina’s “great-cousin” and, like Alvina, a native of Mahwah who grew up on a farm. Judy, blonde-haired, green-eyed and perennially cheerful, didn’t become a farmer, but one look at the property on Miller Road where she lives with her husband, Don, confirms the love of the land that she shares with Alvina. From one corner to the other, Spring through Fall, the Coughlins’ yard is a profusion of beautiful flowers and healthy vegetables. Presiding over all from year to year, in the middle of a row of cabbages, is “Oscar,” a grinning, denim-clad, straw-stuffed fellow who may well be Mahwah’s last scarecrow. (In 1984, the Coughlins’ garden was featured in a Mahwah Historical Society Garden Tour).
The farm Alvina operates once belonged to her grandmother, Alwine Deitzman Pelz. Alwine and her husband, Franz, were immigrants from Saxony (Germany) who came to America about 1896. They had twelve children, some of whom were born in Germany and some here. (Alvina’ s father, Frank, was born two months after the family arrived in America). “Grandpa got a job as a loom-fixer at the silk mills of industrial Paterson,” explained Alvina, “but Grandma wasn’t happy in the city. She had grown up on a farm in Germany and that’s what she wanted for her family here, so they looked around and finally found fifty-five acres in Mahwah.” Their first house was small and close to the road. A fieldstone well, built for irrigating the crops, is all that remains of that homestead. Later, they built another house further back from the road. on the hill, which was enlarged a number of times as the family grew. (That house, #177 Airmont Avenue, was torn down in 1968). They also built a large fieldstone barn. It is deteriorating, the area around it is developing, and its future is uncertain; but, nonetheless, it is one of the most beautiful turn-of-the-century barns left in Bergen County.
“Grandma was only 4′ 8″ tall and weighed 98 pounds,” marveled Alvina, but there wasn’t anything she couldn’t do. She bought, sold and traded her own livestock, raised chickens, gathered eggs, made butter, and cultivated the fields. She raised all kinds of vegetables, and had an apple orchard and several acres of strawberries.” Labor, with a handful of strapping sons, was no problem. At least twice a week, the bounty of the farm was sold at the Island Market in Paterson. “Grandma drove in by herself with her horse and wagon,” Alvina said. “My grandfather was willing to help, but she didn’t trust him not to stop at the taverns along the way. I know it wasn’t liquor she was against because she made her own — it was spending the money. Grandma bought stale bread for fifty cents a barrel at the Paterson market, because she couldn’t possibly bake for so many children. After working all day, she knitted their clothes at night.”
Eventually, the children all married and left home, except for Frank (Alvina’s father). He took over·the farm. Alwine stuck by her horse and wagon, but good-naturedly gave her blessing when Frank insisted upon buying himself a truck. In 1929, when Frank was 34, he met Mildred Oeser, who was 39. Mildred, like Frank, was the child who stayed home, and was taking care of her mother. She had given up thoughts of marriage, but Frank persuaded her that the time left to both of them would be best spent married. “Either marry me or don’t — but make up your mind right now!” he said one night. Mildred decided on life with Frank, and they moved into the farmhouse with Franz and Alwine.
“Two women in the kitchen didn’t work out at all,” said Alvina, “especially since Mildred was as set in her ways as Grandma.” Mildred thought she and Frank should move to Paterson, but he loved the farm too much to leave it. As a compromise, they bought the adjacent Fisher farm over the Ramsey line, where they could have their own house. Alwine and Franz didn’t like the lonely feeling of a big house with empty rooms, though, and offered to sell Frank and Mildred the farm if they would come back. They did, and harmony was restored even in the kitchen. In 1931, Franz died; and Mildred and Frank’s first child, Alvina, was born. A son, Frank, was born in 1936, and arlother daughter, Elsie, in 1941.
“I helped Grandma out in the fields,” remembered Alvina. “She loved working on the land, growing things, and talking about the changing seasons. She was always cheerful. No matter what the weather, she wore the same thing all the time — long sleeved blouses, skirts and aprons that hung down to the ground, a kerchief on her head, and high men’s sneakers that were a size too big. Walking in from the fields, she looked like Charlie Chaplin. Her face hardly had any wrinkles. As long as I knew her — I was 22 when she died — she looked the same.”
“My father had a cider mill with a one-cylinder engine in those days,” continued Alvina. “Grandma told me that when it was running the other side of Cragmere could hear the racket, and people were constantly complaining. (I knocked the mill down 15 years ago, but kept the steps). Grandma didn’t think much of the cider, but she really got involved in homebrew gin during Prohibition. She didn’t just use corn, but added peaches, cherries, potatoes, raisins…and she taught my mother how to make delicious potato wine.”
With a grimmace, Alvina described her childhood fashions: “Grandma knitted clothes for me, Elsie, and Frank. German things …they were awful! There were high stockings with horrible garters to hold th’em up, and long, limp knitted dresses … When I started first grade, the Cragmere children made fun of me. We spoke German at home and I could barely speak English, so I couldn’t even fight back. I wanted so badly to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches like the other kids, but my mother was scornful. “That’s no food!” she said, and made me great, big ham and bologna sandwiches on pumpernickle bread. The other kids traded with me, though, to have something different.”
“Except for her style of dress, which she never changed, Grandma accepted progress,” said Alvina. “When I became a teenager, she never criticized me for my rock music, bobby sox and large, circular skirts. She got along with everyone.”
“Grandma didn’t expect me to be a farmer,” explained Alvina, “but my father did. I was the oldest child, and I must have been selected in the crib to carry on the family tradition. By the time I was twelve, I had become my father’s “right-hand girl,” plowing the fields with the tractor, dusting the crops arid everything.” If Alvina had felt free to choose a career, she would have become a musician. All through childhood and adolescence, she studied piano and loved it. It was her father who introduced her to music. He played the violin beautifully, and had a teacher who came to the house from Paterson. But music didn’t pay, he insisted, and discouraged Alvina. “Farming was hard work, seven days a week, and I didn’t like it,” admitted Alvina. “Frank and Elsie left home. I stayed, and the farm became my life. I can’t remember exactly when I grew to love it, but eventually I did. Grandma didn’t stop working until six months before she died in 1954, at the age of 91.” As for Alvina’s music, it is still a part of her life. She is known for her ability to play the piano beautifully.
In 1953, Alvina married Anthony “Tony” Chodowowski. They worked on the farm together, raising peaches, strawberries, corn, cabbage, cauliflower, beans, tomatoes and peppers. Tony had been in the lumber and construction business, but he grew to love the farm — and everyone loved Tony. Local people began to call the place “Chad’s Farm.” Tony and Alvina spent thirteen wonderful years farming. Then in 1966, on the very day they opened their stand, Tony had a heart attack. Three years later, at the age of 46, he died. To this day, the sign saying “Chad’s Farm” stands on Airmont Avenue, next to the old fieldstone well; and the fieldstone barn was recorded in a 1985 Bergen County Historic Sites survey history as “Chad’s Barn.”
At the time the Chodorowski’s ran their farm, the other farmers in Masonicus were Walt Rozanski, John Sudal, John Werling and Ed Litchult. However, the farmers were rapidly dwindling in numbers. Authors Bischoff and Kahn’s, in From Pioneer Settlement to Suburb: A History of Mahwah, New Jersey 1700–1976 (page 333) explain why:
The census listed 222 farmers and farm workers in 1940 and only 33 in 1970. Although the market for food was growing, local farmers found it increasingly difficult to compete with the large farms and the corporate agribusiness of the South and West. Roadside stands were still popular, but the farmers no longer had the political power to resist increased regulations and taxes … Thus one farmer after another decided to take advantage of rising land values and sold their land, mostly to developers…It was a rare farmer like Frank Pelz who kept his farm operating until recently by selling small parcels of land each year to pay for taxes and operating expenses.
“It isn’t correct that my father had to sell land to stay in business,” said Alvina. “The one and only sale he made was in 1964, because of rising taxes.” Frank Pelz sold the Ramsey portion of the farm to the McKee Brothers. (Then McKee sold to the Ramsey Industrial Park Corporation, where Minolta and Oakanite are now located). The remaining land, 58 acres in Mahwah, he kept. Two years later, Frank Pelz died at the age of 70. After that, Alvina’s mother had the old house torn down and built a new one at #297 Airmont Avenue. (This was on the site of the old house, where Alvina and Tony built their stand in 1966).
In 1970, Alvina married Edward Frey, her present husband. His business was sewer connections and excavating — and he had no inclination to farm (but wait and see… ). So, Alvina continued alone. Labor, as always, was her biggest problem. She has no children of her own –no one to carry on the family tradition, and would they, anyway? “You couldn’t get adult farm workers in Bergen County,” explained Alvina, “except for migrants, and then you’d have to house them. I never got involved in that, like the Secors and some of the other farmers did.”
Instead, she hired young people, because she likes them – -and because she thinks its important to share her love of the land. At the most, she employed three young people at a time. “Once,” she said, “I had a 21-year old bearded hippie from a rich family. He was well-educated and had· even been on an archeological dig in Egypt. But he was mixed-up and suicidal. One day, I found him lying flat on his face in the parking lot. “What are you doing?” I shouted. “Meditating,” he mumbled back. I pulled him to his feet and made him go out in the field and pick eggplants. I never knew what was coming next with that guy. He was a vegetarian and ate a lot of nuts, but he kept them in the stand and I wound up with mice. Then he wouldn’t help me kill the mice because “they hadn’t done him any harm.” I finally had to let him go because he was such a worry, but we parted friends. He said working for me had been a great experience.” And no doubt it was. The young people who worked for Alvina will one day tell the tale of “Mahwah’s last farmer.” And they’ll remember the sweet smell of the earth, and the feeling of well-being they had cultivating its bounty. It’s an experience that simply cannot be duplicated at the produce department in the supermarket.
For the past five years, Alvina has been growing beans, tomatoes, corn, peas, peppers, strawberries, blackberries, and currants. Recently, she made a connection with a food broker in New York who persuaded her to grow french beans, which are quite profitable. As are cut flowers –zinnias, marigolds, dahlias, snapdragons, and so forth. There are about 30 “Greenmarkets” in the City, set up on street corners or in school lots. The biggest one is on 14th St. at Union Square, open Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays; and another popular one is at 67th St. by Sloan-Kettering Hospital. Some markets became unsafe, like the one at 175th St., near Broadway and Wadsworth Street. “My sister, Elsie, used to go into Brooklyn with me,” said Alvina,”but that has become the worst neighborhood of all.”
Launching into her favorite subject with the down-to-earth assurance of an old pro, Alvina explained the business of farming from her point of view: “Years ago, markets would take only large quantities, like a bushel, and you had to sell at wholesale prices. I stopped going to Paterson because the quantities they deal in are so large that I couldn’t produce things as cheaply as they sell them. Now, there are the Greenmarkets where you can sell either wholesale or to the public, and it doesn’t matter if you have only three squash or a pound of beans. Without the Greenmarkets, small farmers like me couldn’t survive. One year, I devoted an entire greenhouse to herbs and sold them out immediately, but the minute something becomes successful everyone starts doing it. I’m one of seven people who have lasted ten years at the Greenmarket.”
Last year,” continued Alvina, “I closed the stand because I couldn’t find anyone to manage it. Besides, I sell more in a day at the Greenmarket than I did in a week at the stand. I miss dealing with local people, but I’ve made a lot of friends in the City. Very often, customers invite me to lunch or dinner. They can’t imagine a woman farming, and they think I’m a character. Actually, as the article in Working Woman points out, a lot of women today are operating small farms –but those farms are mostly in the south and midwest.”
Alvina’s husband, Ed, gave up the excavating business recently for health reasons and started raising house plants. (What took him so long?) He recently built two greenhouses behind the stand, on the site of the old house. “He finally found something he likes to grow!” said Alvina cheerfully, “and his plants are beautiful. He and I make four trips a week into New York: I go alone on Wednesdays, we go together on Saturdays to two different markets, and he goes alone on Sundays. He sells his plants, and I sell the produce.”
In 1983, Alvina, her brother, Frank, and her sister, Elsie, sold 21 acres on the west side of Airmont Avenue (opposite the stand), which is scheduled to be developed under the project name, “Beaver Creek.” When Alvina’s mother died in 1985, the family sold 11 more acres on the west side of the road to pay the estate taxes. Three contemporary homes were built on that site. Alvina still owns 16 acres (where the stand is located), and is in the process of selling 9 acres to the south towards Ramsey. “I intend to keep’ farming,” she said, “because I don’t know what else I’d do — I couldn’t stand to sit home. In fact, I already look forward to Spring coming. It makes me happy. It’s like being reborn, and I love it…I always will.”
Judy’s grandfather, Max, was one of Franz and Alwine Pelz’s twelve children. He was born in Germany, prior to 1896 when the family emigrated ‘to’ America. In 1914, Max married Mae Shuart. a local girl, and moved into a house on the east side of Airmont Avenue. (This house, 1107 Airmont Avenue, dates back to 1861). Judy’s father, Stanley, was born in 1916, and was Max and Mae’s only child. In 1918, Max· and Mae bought the 3 acre Doremus Farm to the north; (The house. #168 dates back to the late 1700’s. It is opposite the Athletic Field at the intersection of Airmount Road). Stanley was 17 when he took over the family farm. He married Arilla Bobb (whose mother was a Wanamaker of Suffern, N. Y.), and bought 40 more acres. Stanley and Arilla lived in the house between 1168 and 1107. They had two children, Patricia and Judy. In 1949, Stanley and Arilla built a ranch house across the street (1104). In 1969, they moved to 1168, and named it “Blue Spruce Farm” because of the tall blue spruces surrounding the house. Judy said, “My father lived his whole life within a four-house radius!”
Judy vividly remembers the harvests, the rewards and rigors of her father’s life. “He had a wonderful disposition and loved the farm, in spite of the hard work,” Judy said. “He raised peaches and apples. He harvested the peaches from July through September, and took them to the “day market” in Paterson, which opened at 4:00 P.M. He harvested the apples in September, and packed them in the cold storage barn for sale during the winter and early spring. The barn was equipped with a conveyor belt and grates for sorting the fruit. Throughout the fall and winter, Dad sorted apples during the day and packed them in various size boxes. Then he slept a few hours, brought the fruit to the “night market” in Paterson which opened at 11:00 P.M., came home, slept a few more hours, and returned to work in the morning. It was a grueling schedule. By March, all the apples were sold. Then came pruning and dusting, and caring for the trees and grounds. Migrant help, which was all he could get, was a constant problem because the men kept leaving him for jobs in the city. In 1962, he dug up the orchards and began raising vegetables. He didn’t need as much land for that, and sold 38 acres to Mrs. Currans, a Mahwah resident.” (This land is now the Orchards development).
The hard work of framing took its toll on Stanley Pelz, and he began to complain of not feeling well. In 1968, Judy and her mother opened a stand, so Stanley wouldn’t have to go to market. Nonetheless, he kept up his routine of working by day and selling by night for another year. Then for the next four years he relied entirely upon sales at the stand, which Judy and Arilla operated. “I worked in the fields and got used to picking vegetables in the hot sun,” said Judy, ·we had corn, cabbage, eggplants, peppers…” At this time, there were three other stands on Airmont Avenue: Chodorowski’s, Litchult’s, and Werling’s “Peach Hill Farm.” Just over the border in Ramsey was Sudal’s on East Crescent Avenue, and Secor’s at the intersection of Route 17 and Lake Street. “There was plenty of business for everyone,” recalled Judy. “I loved the stand because we were dealing with people on a one-to-one basis. There was a lot of laughter and talking, about families, recipes, everything…It was as friendly a place as the old corner candy store — so different from the large-scale farm markets of today.”
In November, 1973, Stanley had a fatal heart attack, and Judy and Arilla closed their stand.
In 1974, Arilla Pelz sold 21 acres of her farm to Charles Secor, whose family still operates the gas station, produce store and nursery in Ramsey. The Secors use the land they bought from Arilla to grow strawberries, raspberries, cabbage, beans, cauliflower and peaches. They also raise crops on Route 202 in Mahwah and Upper Saddle River. Charles, the father, lives in Upper Saddle River and Daryl, the son, lives in Mahwah. Daryl Secor is the only other person in Mahwah besides Alvina engaged in farming, although relative to what he sells, it is on a more limited basis. (The Secors, like the Pelz family, established farms in the area in the 1800’s). “Alvina and I are fifteen years apart in age,” said Judy. “In fact, she used to babysit for me. We share so many of the same memories. I remember my Great-grandmother Alwine — so tiny, always working outside, and bent over with a little hoe in her hands. She was very kind and loving.”
If Alwine Deitzman Pelz were alive today, imagine how proud she would be of her granddaughter and great-granddaughter…
Judy Coughlin has three daughters, Christine, Connie and Bonnie, who live at home with her and her husband, Don. Alvina’s brother, Frank, has two children, Robert and Laurie, from his first marriage, and he and his wife, Sue, have a daughter, Stephanie. They live in Ramsey. Elise and her husband, Steve Wickenheisser, live in Sussex County.