Vanishing Mahwah Farms: An Interview with Alvina Pelz Frey and Judy Pelz Coughlin
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.