When I first started writing these stories, my intention was to recall as much as I could about what life was like growing up in Rochelle Park in the 50's. In the process of looking back, I became interested in the history of our area before I was born, and out of curiousity, started reading about the early settlements, the development of roads, and the changes that have taken place in the everyday lives of people who lived here in earlier times.
Last week, my wife and I took our kids to Lake George for a vacation. It was the first time we got to spend an entire week up in the mountains with everyone together, and it couldn't have been a nicer experience. It was also the first opportunity I had all summer to read an entire book. I had made a small list of choices, based on the most recent best-sellers, and before I had a chance to pick one out, my wife had bought me a copy of 1776, by David McCullough. It's a fascinating look at the early days of the American Revolution, and after reading the first few pages, I knew it would become a big part of my vacation plans.
We had never been to the cottage we rented, but as soon as we had the car unloaded, the food put away, and a moment to look around at our surroundings, I headed out the front door and across the grass to a pair of Adirondack chairs sitting at the base of a giant maple tree. To tell you the truth, I expected an Adirondack chair to be very uncomfortable, judging by the looks of it, but as soon as I sat down and opened my book, I suddenly realized why they are so popular.
I found myself sitting out in the same Adirondack chair every morning, with my first cup of coffee, reading as much as I could before the kids got up and we started our day.
In one of the chapters, Mr. McCullough describes Washington's retreat across the Hudson after the British invaded New York, and quotes a letter from one of the Loyalist troops who described New Jersey as the "Garden of America." After reading that, I had to stop and think about it for a few minutes before going on.
"Garden of America," "Garden State," the connection was both historical and descriptive, and I tried to imagine what Bergen County must have looked like through the years when farming was such an important part of life in our area. I remembered reading somewhere else that Paramus was known as "The Celery Capital of the World," and that on both sides of Sprout's Brook, the farms of the Dutch and German settlers ranged anywhere from 20-50 acres. It's hard to imagine that now, because after World War II, most of the farms were sold to developers, and the rural quality of northern New Jersey quickly disappeared in the race to build houses, factories, shopping centers, and highways as the economy changed, and the area grew into what we know today.
From what I've been told by one of the "oldtimers," there were also farms in Rochelle Park, between Central Avenue and Oak Street, and on either side of Forest Place. Both of them had disappeared by the time I was born, and the only two that I remember from my childhood was Behnke's Farm on Paramus Road, and Eugster's Dairy on Passaic Street.
We used to have our milk delivered from Eugster's. A small aluminum "milkbox" sat outside of our back door, and sometime during the early morning hours, the milkman would drive up and deliver 2 or 3 quarts in heavy glass bottles. In those days, milk and cream were not separated, so the cream would rise to the top of the bottle, and be poured off as needed. The earliest bottles had a small bulge in the neck which made it easier to pour out the cream without diluting it with the rest of the milk, and whenever we finished a bottle, it had to be washed out and placed in the milkbox to be picked up during the next delivery. It was probably one of the earliest examples of recycling, along with refundable soda bottles.
Eugster's barn ran along the west side of where Woodland Street is today. If I remember right, Woodland Street was a dirt driveway leading into a parking area for people who came to pick up their milk, and at one time, a "milk machine" sat at the end of the parking lot close to Passaic Street where a gallon of milk could be bought for 50 cents in much the same way we now buy soft drinks from machines. The property next to the barn, where the telephone company is located today, was owned by the Swiss Chalet, and the pond, which used to be much bigger (the island was once in the center), was a favorite palce to catch catfish in the summer, and go ice-skating in the winter..
Every once in a while, a cow would wander away from Eugster's Dairy and wind up in the woods behind our house on West Oldis, but one summer day, a bull had escaped, and when word got around that it was dangerous, or deranged, and had to be destroyed, all of the kids on the block were told to stay out of the woods. By mid-morning, a small group of men had gathered down the street in front of Deron's house, including several police officers, to map out a strategy for what to about the bull. One of the officers--I believe it was Bob Diamond--carried a Thompson sub-machine gun, like the kind seen in old gangster movies, with the round clip attached to the bottom. We watched a bit nervously as he walked down Deron's driveway, and disappeared into the woods, and after a few minutes, we heard several shots in quick succession.
Not long after that, George from Vets' Texaco, pulled up with his tow truck. He backed it into Deron's driveway, and he and several of the men walked the cable into the woods so they could drag the body of the bull to the street, and hoist it on to the back of one of Eugster's trucks. From the moment the excitement began, we knew what was going on, but there wasn't much for us to see, since we were huddled together in front of our house, not too far away from the front door--in case we had to make a run for it. After it was all over, we went back to playing again, content that the adults would keep us safe from any danger that might come along in the future.