Having found myself accidentally “collecting” the graves of American presidents, last year I decided to turn it into a purposeful assignment. Unlike my mission to visit each of the 50 united states, however, this is a much more relaxed and less driven bucket list. I am certain I will never visit all of the graves but it gives me inspiration for trips and gives me another excuse (as if I needed one) to explore cemeteries.
This presidential graves project is why my husband and I took a day trip to Princeton, New Jersey. The teenagers elected to stay home. Our destination was Princeton Cemetery, established in 1757 and filled with notable people, including almost all of the deceased presidents of Princeton University. Knowing these facts, my husband was anticipating a very long walk and an arduous task in finding the graves we were interested in. He was relieved, therefore, to see how compact the cemetery is and delighted when he saw there was a map available in a kiosk at the entrance. It took us no time at all to find the graves – just as well because it was perishingly cold.
The president who was the focus of my trip was Grover Cleveland, notable for being the only American president (thus far, at least) to have served two non-consecutive terms. Another tidbit about Cleveland is that, rather than being conscripted during the Civil War, he opted to pay a substitute to serve in his stead. Thankfully George Benninsky survived the conflict. He was also the only president (so far) to get married while in office. His wife and oldest daughter are buried alongside him. The latter – Ruth who died in childhood – was purportedly the inspiration for the Baby Ruth chocolate bar though timelines suggest it was actually named for the legendary baseball player, Babe Ruth.
Among the other historic graves we sought out, we visited the grave of Aaron Burr. Burr, of course, was a prominent participant in the Revolution, a Senator, and served as Vice President under Thomas Jefferson. Obviously nowadays he is most (in)famous for killing Alexander Hamilton during a duel. Possibly more scandalous, however, was his involvement in a complicated conspiracy that led to him being tried and acquitted of treason.
I also visited the grave of John Witherspoon. Like me, he was born in Scotland and emigrated to America well into adulthood. Witherspoon was a president of Princeton but he is probably more notable as being a Founding Father and the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence.
After our cemetery wanderings, a short walk took us to the centre of the campus of Princeton University. I have never visited an Ivy League university before so perhaps this will be the start of another collection – but probably not. Talking of which, I had never actually thought to look into the origins of the term “Ivy League”. I had assumed it was something to do with the progeny of colonial families being in with the roots, maybe something about social climbing being like ivy on walls, or maybe just a reference to the very old buildings of such colleges being covered in ivy. Turns out it is because of the tradition of each graduating class planting ivy around the institution’s buildings.
I enjoyed wandering around all the buildings because I just like architecture (just as appreciation, not as one of the many things I research and read about). The focal building of our excursion, however, was Nassau Hall. It was built in 1756 making it the oldest of the University’s buildings and, at the time, the largest building in the entire of New Jersey. When the Congress of Confederation had to leave Philadelphia in 1783, they reconvened in Nassau Hall and that made it the nation’s Capitol for four months. I had read that it was possible to still see the pock-marks of canon strikes that the building received during the Battle of Princeton but between all the ivy and my eyesight I was unable to spot any signs of damage.
The majority of buildings were closed to visitors because of it being a federal holiday (Martin Luther King Jr Day) but we were able to get out of the biting cold by entering the Chapel. The word “chapel” led me to believe it would be a more modest building but it was vast enough to be a cathedral. The light was hitting the windows beautifully, highlighting both the stained glass and dappling the walls with wonderful colours. It was a very pleasant space full of wonderfully crafted stone- and woodwork.
We would both like to return to Princeton as it looks to be an interesting town with further opportunities for exploration – but with milder temperatures.
I had a birthday recently and managed to double-dip with celebrations since the actual fell on a weekend and I received my gift the following weekend.
On my actual birthday, we took a day trip to Frenchtown, New Jersey. I had read several times that Frenchtown is New Jersey’s most appealing/quaint/cute town so I have had it on my list to visit for a while. I get to impose trips on my family without their complaints or protestations twice a year: Mother’s Day and my birthday. My original plan had been to visit Frenchtown for the Mother’s Day trip but – for one reason or another – that outing kept getting postponed until it collided with my birthday 6 months later. It, therefore, became my birthday trip (and now I am contemplating which historic cemetery will be the destination for the second “no moans” trip I am owed.)
It was a perfect day for aimlessly meandering, golden Autumn sunshine and the perfect temperature, so we took our time wandering around the streets. We popped into several stores, whatever grabbed our attention. My 17 year old is a magpie whose eye is always drawn to shiny, sparkly things (one of the few things he has inherited from me) so we spent a lot of time in a gem store. My 15 year old, meanwhile, loved a hip clothing store but mostly because it had a vintage pinball machine that the store owner encouraged him to play. And the 13 year old predictably loved a candy store. I meanwhile loved spending time in an independent book store and making selections in an artisan cheese shop.
All of the stores are clustered around one main street so it did not take us long to complete our pootling around the stores. We, therefore, decided to get a late lunch / early dinner at a little Mexican place. The food was tasty but unfortunately the service was terrible but I cannot complain since any meal I did not have to cook is appreciated, especially on my birthday.
My birthday gift from my husband and kids was a surprise trip to New York to see a show. Therefore, this past weekend, my husband and I took the train into Manhattan. Despite the train being an all-stopper (and in rolling stock probably as old as I am) we arrived mid-morning so we had time to do some other things before heading to the theatre. First up, since we were right next door, was Moynihan Train Hall. I have zero interest in trains or mass transit beyond their transportation purpose so this was of very little interest to me. However, Mr Pict had been involved in the project to transform the old Post Office building into an extension of Penn Station so he was keen to see the completed building with his own two eyes.
As someone who likes the Harry Potter books and movies (November is our month for watching all of the movies as a family), I was interested to visit the store. I had heard about long lines to enter the store but that must have been when it first opened because we just walked in and it really wasn’t that busy. My only plan was to browse the store so we did not spend time even investigating any of the VR experiences or making purchases from the Butterbeer bar. Of course there was merch galore to look at but what I was really keen to see for myself was the design of the store. I was really impressed by how much thought had gone into creating a flow around what is actually a reasonably compact space and the way in which different sections were themed and structured as their own mini experiences. There were also fun details like mandrakes and dirigible plums dangling from the ceiling and a giant Nagini slithering between Ministry of Magic tiles.
The Harry Potter store is just south of the Flatiron building so from there we just had to walk about 26 blocks up Broadway in order to get to the theatre. We were going to see a matinee performance of Hadestown at the Walter Kerr Theatre. Despite having visited NYC several times, this was my first ever experience of seeing a show on Broadway. I was very excited! My husband had picked Hadestown because I am a fan of Anais Mitchell’s music and have been listening to songs from the concept album for over a decade. The show was fantastic and the performances were excellent. It was an amazing experience and I am thrilled to have finally seen a musical on Broadway.
It was getting dark when we left the theatre so we took a stroll from the Times Square area over to the Rockerfeller Center to see the lights and window shop and people watch. We had not eaten all day so were pretty famished by this juncture so we found a Mexican restaurant tucked away on a side street for dinner. It was very loud but the food was delicious, the prices were right, and the service was excellent so it was just the ticket. We then we just had to schlep all the way back to Penn Station and take the NJT back to Trenton and, from there, drive home. It made for a long day but I had a fabulous time and I very much appreciated my birthday trip. Mr Pict did an amazing job planning my surprise trip. He’s a keeper.
My 14 year old has been obsessed with capybaras for almost a year now. I don’t know the origin of the obsession but he is passionate about capybaras. He has even researched keeping them as pets even though he has been told that is absolutely not happening.
Since we were blessed with good weather and warm temperatures this President’s Day, we decided to take a daytrip to Cape May. This was because the zoo there has capybaras. I have not seen our 14 year old this enthusiastic about a day trip in years. I am pleased to report, therefore, that the capybaras were up and about and doing lots of adorable things. There appeared to be a mother and two juveniles. I was amused by how much the siblings behaved in ways entirely like our cats. They were very playful and endearing. As you can imagine, we were at the capybara enclosure for a long time.
We did visit other animals in the zoo and we all made sure we saw the areas that contained favourite beasties. My 16 year old wanted to see the primates – I think primarily because he loves the recent Planet of the Apes trilogy – and my 12 year old is cat-obsessed so we saw the various big cats. He especially loved seeing the Amur Leopard and Snow Leopard. The latter made me chuckle because one of them was lying on its back, sunning its belly, just like our three-legged cat at home. For my part, I always like the reptile and amphibian house because I like the weird looking critters.
It was a lovely day out, just the right length of time away from home to transition out of our Winter hermit ways and something that engaged everyone. I think we definitely fed the capybara obsession, however: on the drive home he was banging on about the best way to give his pet capybaras access to a bathing pool at home and figured some steps up to our bathtub would be the best bet.
A friend who owns a second home in the Poconos thoughtfully offered us the opportunity to spend a day or two at her property. We gratefully accepted her offer partly because we thought we could all benefit from a mini-break and also because we normally only take day trips to the Poconos so it meant we would have longer to explore. Furthermore, I have also wanted to visit the Delaware Water Gap since we moved here (I cannot even recollect precisely why) and having my friend’s house as a base presented us with the chance to go that bit further afield and spend an entire day poking around in that area, which is governed by the National Park Service.
On our first day, we decided to focus on relaxation and quality family time. We spent time in the house together – playing card games, watching shark documentaries – and we walked to a nearby lake to spend some time there. We had planned on going swimming but it was a little bit too chilly at that time of day even for paddling so we just enjoyed the scenery, people watching, ice cream, and playing more card games. After dinner on the shore of another lake, however, it was time to head out and go for a hike.
My husband and I visited Hawk Falls several years ago now but we have never managed to take the boys there because the parking situation has always been horrendously swamped. Because we had the ability to hike in the early evening this time, however, we found a parking spot with ease and headed to the falls. It’s a relatively easy hike to the falls – though a little steep for a stretch on the return – and I like the way the path winds through the woods and across streams. I just really like being in the woods.
There are definitely more impressive waterfalls but Hawk Falls are pleasing enough. Running water is always lovely, right? Except in relation to natural disasters or domestic pipe failures, of course. While we had met other visitors on the path, by the time we reached the falls, we had the whole place to ourselves. It was really peaceful. The boys had fun leaping around on the rocks. The 15 year old even scaled the rock wall on the opposite bank.
We had a leisurely start to the next day. We also decided to start with a big breakfast because we knew we would have few and far between (if any) opportunities to stop for a bite to eat for the rest of the day. Our 18 year old ordered a massive sandwich stacked full of any breakfast meat you can think of and slathered in sausage gravy. His digestive system is in training for that $27 a day college meal plan he had to sign up for.
I had devised an itinerary for our travels through the Delaware Water Gap and the first stop was my happy place: an old cemetery. Obviously I like to wander around in cemeteries regardless of any personal connection to the place but, on this occasion, my husband and kids actually have some relatives buried there. Only my 12 year old agreed to come and find the graves with me. Everyone else stayed in the car. You will observe from the accompanying photos that this became a common occurrence on this particular trip. My youngest son was my exploration buddy while the others opted in and mostly out of most itinerary items. Anyway, we found the two relevant Shellenberger graves with ease.
Next up on the itinerary was visiting the view points on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware. Now I had conducted a decent amount of research on the Delaware Water Gap in order to draw up my itinerary so I was surprised and disappointed to discover that the view points were, quite frankly, totally duff. The first one we visited, we literally could not even glimpse a sliver of water through the trees and across the railroad tracks. What we could see was the interstate on the opposite side of the river and the sheer face of a small mountain. The same proved true of the other two view points we visited – though I did manage to see a patch of water from one of them. What I came to realise was that the National Park Service had taken photos of the views using either drones or cranes. Therefore, any human of normal height stood absolute zero chance of seeing the view, especially since there seemed to be no management of the foliage on the river banks.
After that failure, the kids were growing ever more cynical about the purpose and merits of the whole trip. I decided we should boost up the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River and focus on all the bits and bobs on the New Jersey side I was hoping to see. Incidentally, all of the Visitor Centers and Ranger stations were closed and none of the historic buildings were open for visitors so it was just as well I had conducted all of my research in advance. What my research did not tell me was just how arduous navigating the roads was going to be.
The first stops were all fine as they were within the boundaries of still functioning towns. First there was the Foster-Armstrong House (usually open the public but not recently) which was a ferry-side tavern and inn for tired 19th Century travelers. Then there was the Minisink Dutch Reformed Church, the oldest church in the county and still going strong today. And there was the Nelden-Roberts Stonehouse.
After those three historic buildings, my itinerary took us onto the Old Mine Road. Well, this proved to be quite the challenge. The road dates from the 1600s but I had expected the surface to have been improved since then. I am obviously exaggerating but the surface was seriously bad. It was extremely crumbled, full of deep pot holes and eroded at the sides – and it was single track as it was for very long stretches – and just incredibly rickety. It got worse the further we ventured down the road and the more committed we were to just plunging onwards. It actually got to the point that Mr Pict and I were making mental note of routes for one of us hiking back off the road on foot and where the nearest lived in property was for phoning for help should the axel of the car break. I feel like we should have earned badges declaring “I survived the Old Mine Road”.
Anyway, first stop on the Old Mine Road was the Westbrook Bell House. While my oldest two sons trekked back along the road to a ruined barn my 15 year old wanted to photograph, my youngest son and I headed down a grass covered path through the woods in search of the house. It felt like a fairytale with maybe a witch’s house at the end of the trail. We soon reached the house, which is the oldest extant structure in the Delaware Water Gap, dating as it does from 1701. We were wandering around the exterior of the house and peering into barns that looked like they might collapse at any moment when I smelled and then spotted what looked to my non-expert eyes like pretty fresh bear poop. We, therefore, decided it might be a smart idea to skedaddle back through the woods to the car.
After another bone-jangling stretch of the Old Mine Road, we rejoined a proper road to visit what was once the village of Bevans. This rural hamlet has been transformed into the Peters Valley School of Craft so there were art and craft galleries and artisan workshops operating out of the old buildings.
Tempting as it was to stay on these proper roads, I was both determined (some might say foolishly) to see the other items on my itinerary and I was convinced (some might say foolishly) that the final stretch of Old Mine Road could not possibly be as bad as the stretch we had left behind. Yup. Foolish. If anything, it was worse because this stretch also involved uphill stretches. I swear I could hear our car wheezing. I think everyone was relieved when we reached the Van Campen Inn and could pull over the car and take a break from all the bumpy driving. I had spotted on one of the maps I had looked at that there was a cemetery for enslaved people in the vicinity of the inn so my youngest son and I set off trying to find it. We were wholly unsuccessful. I think mostly we were determined to try just to avoid getting back in the car for a while longer.
The Delaware View House was in a very sorry state. It had served as a hunting lodge and a hotel in its prime. Now it is clearly deteriorating rapidly. We very carefully walked around the wraparound porch before losing our nerve and getting ourselves back to solid ground.
The penultimate planned stop was at Millbrook Village. This is the site of a genuine settlement from the 1830s but the few remaining historic buildings have been expanded upon with reconstructed buildings that create the impression of what the village looked like in the 1870s. I think it would have been fun to visit at a time when visitors were permitted to enter buildings. This was probably the most engaged the boys were on the trip but they were fed up and jaded from all of the previous stops and from the nerve-shredding travels on that road so they were pretty resistant to finding anything of interest at that point.
The penultimate actual stop was at the request of my 15 year old. He has apparently inherited my love of dilapidated buildings so he wanted to take photographs of a barn that was falling apart at the seams. My 12 year old stood in the window of a gable end that had fallen, Buster Keaton style, while the 15 year old gave me palpitations by climbing over piles of planks in search of better camera angles.
We made one final pit stop in the Delaware Water Gap as one final attempt to see the Delaware. Kittatinny Point Overlook suggests being in an elevated position that provides a view out over the Delaware. Well nope. Not that we could find anyway. The best we could hope for was descending some stairs in order to be down on the shore. Unfortunately this spot was the end point for the scores of people who had rafted down the river so it was very busy and there were boats everywhere. Therefore, even that close to the water, it was nigh impossible to really take in let alone appreciate the view.
As you can no doubt tell, my trip to Delaware Water Gap was somewhat disappointing. I am sure it is a fantastic area to visit if one wants to interact with the water in some way but I don’t do water sports. I really wanted to engage with the history of the area and to take in the landscape. I believe, therefore, it was a case of too high expectations and a lack of delivery. The whole “view” point debacle really set the tone for the day. When Mr Pict gets hacked off on an excursion, things are really not going well. I happen to like old, abandoned, decaying buildings so I definitely got far more out of it than anyone else in the family but I cannot say that was worth the investment of time. The condition of the Old Mine Road was probably the nail in the coffin of the trip. It set our nerves on edge and meant there was too much focus on the function and mechanics of driving rather than taking in the surroundings. It also simply slowed us down and made a long day out even longer. I am glad I finally visited the Delaware Water Gap after years of wanting to do so but I don’t think I could recommend a visit there to anyone not wishing to float down the river and I don’t envisage a return visit.
I am sure we are not alone in having itchy feet 16 months into the pandemic. Although we are not quite ready to return to proper travel, now that our whole family is fully vaccinated, we are eager to return to some of our travel behaviours, such as day trips. Contemplating a destination that would be largely outdoors, we decided to take a trip to Ellis Island and Liberty Island.
We did not want to get caught up in New York City traffic so we set off from the New Jersey side. Liberty Park is only 1 hour and 20 minutes from our home so it was a pretty easy drive for a day trip. We had prebooked our tickets which made things much more efficient but was a wee bit of a pity because the ticket office was housed within the old train station from where newly arrived immigrants would set off across the country. Once we had gone through security, we lined up on the jetty, boarded a ferry, and set off on our first short jaunt on the Hudson.
Our first stop was Ellis Island. Mr Pict and I had visited Ellis Island in August 2001 but this was the first time the boys had visited. A lot has changed in the intervening 20 years. The guided tours have been replaced by audio tours (which we did not do) and the exhibition spaces are much more engaging and visually interesting. While the focus is obviously on the experience of the people who passed through or worked at Ellis Island, there was also a bigger story of immigration being told so there were also exhibits about forced immigration and immigration that predated Ellis Island. I was pleased to see that they no longer shied away from those darker subjects of slavery, colonization, xenophobia and racism.
As recent immigrants, it was interesting to consider the way the system and experience has changed and the ways in which it has stayed the same. Sidebar but I don’t think I ever mentioned that a couple of years ago my oldest son was set a school project where he had to research his most recent immigrant ancestor. He pointed out that he was the most recent immigrant. The teacher then had to scramble for an alternative project. As a family historian, I find immigration stories, the push and pull factors, interesting. Between us, however, we have zero connection to Ellis Island. My great-grandparents actually emigrated to the US through New Jersey but two years after the closure of Ellis Island. My Great-Gran only stayed for a couple of years before returning to Shetland, pregnant and with a toddler and baby – my Gran – in tow. My Great-Grandfather stayed, which is why I was able to visit his grave on Long Island. Meanwhile Mr Picts American ancestors literally arrived on The Mayflower and the ships that followed and his Mennonite ancestors arrived from Switzerland in the 1700s.
You may note that I am relating the ways in which I engaged with the history of Ellis Island. My kids were not really into it at all. Our youngest son paid attention to parts of it but they were all pretty checked out. At such times, I just sigh and hope that they are still absorbing something from the experiences we give them. They did enjoy acting out being the officials who determined who was being permitted to enter the US and who was being denied. Any opportunity to be authoritative and bossy.
From Ellis Island, a very brief boat ride took us onward to Liberty Island. Weirdly, I am the only member of the family who has visited this site before. Despite spending his teenage years in America, my husband had never been to see the Statue of Liberty. We did not have tickets to enter the statue – and frankly that is something I have zero interest in ever doing – so we had a leisurely stroll around the exterior so we could appreciate the statue from various angles. It’s definitely an impressive sculpture. Even my cynical, “this is so boring” boys actually enjoyed seeing Liberty up close.
Inside the museum, we watched a good quality video about the history of the Statue of Liberty, Bartholdi’s process, and the continued significance and ironies of her symbolism. I enjoyed the exhibits about the sculpting process because seeing the plaster casts and the moulds again helped me appreciate not just the scale of Liberty but also how arduous the process was and how the smallest error could have made the whole project go utterly pear-shaped. Imagine transporting all of those pieces of precisely beaten copper, the labour of several years, across the Atlantic only to find that slight measurement errors mean it doesn’t all click together like a jigsaw puzzle?
The roof terrace of the museum provided us with great views over the Hudson towards Manhattan’s Battery and of the statue in that context.
A final speedy boat trip took us back to New Jersey and our car. After a delicious meal in Jersey City, we took the turnpike home and were back by late afternoon. Not bad at all for a day trip. The boys did not properly gripe once and two even said they enjoyed the excursion and thought it was really cool to see the Statue of Liberty up close. I call that a successful day out.
Our 12 year old has an obsession with sharks. This is partly because he fears them and partly because he thinks they are fantastic creatures. This obsession has led him to becoming a bit of a mini-expert on the (in)famous 1916 shark attacks. I appreciate that some readers might think this is a bit of a tasteless topic to allow a tween boy to become obsessed with but a) we are nerds rearing other nerds and b) we encourage our sons’ curiosity and support their interests. After all, our kids are being raised by parents who are – among other things – interested in the American Civil War, zombies, pandemics, the history of sideshows, and true crime. It’s how we roll. Anyway, at the (shark) tail end of Shark Week, we decided to facilitate our little shark nerd by taking a trip to the Jersey Shore to visit sites relevant to the attacks that occurred in 1916.
While it would have been neater to visit the sites in chronological order, other factors dictated that we actually undertake the trip in reverse order. We, therefore, started our trip in the town of Matawan. The final attack actually occurred at Cliffwood when 12 year old Joseph Dunn was attacked as he was clambering out of the water. Thankfully he survived. Matawan was the site, therefore, not of the final attack but of the final fatal attack. One of the reasons the 1916 shark attacks are so notorious is because of the bizarre fact that the final attacks occurred in an inland creek and not in saltwater. It was 12 July and some boys had just gotten off work from the factory where they were employed and headed to the creek to swim. Obviously there was no way these poor kids could possibly anticipate that a shark would be present in the water and unfortunately one little boy, Lester Stillwell, was killed. The other boys alerted the folks of Matawan and tailor Stanley Fisher leapt to action. He dived into the creek to recover little Lester and was himself attacked. Heroic Stanley was quickly lifted from the water, placed onto a train to get him to hospital, but he succumbed to his injuries. My research had made it apparent that there was no way for us to access the swimming hole without committing an act of trespass and probably doing battle with poisonous plants. Our 12 year old, therefore, made do with visiting a part of Matawan Creek that had safe public access.
We then visited Rose Hill Cemetery, a lovely, peaceful, shady spot where both Lester Stillwell and Stanley Fisher are buried. Little Lester’s grave is sited near a pond that was absolutely covered in blooming lily pads. It was a pretty and serene spot. Previous visitors had left little toys and trinkets for Lester so evidently we were not the only people who had undertaken this trip. On a little grassy promontory, we located the grave of Stanley Fisher. It seemed apt that his grave overlooked that of Lester just as, in life, he had been looking out for the boy. We also stopped by to see a memorial that was placed in a park to commemorate the centenary of the tragedy.
After Matawan, we went slightly off-theme. It would be entirely off-theme except that the location is on Raritan Bay and it was in that body of water that the alleged man-eater shark was caught. I write alleged because we cannot know for sure that they captured the correct shark or indeed that only one shark was responsible for all of the attacks that happened over the course of those 12 days in July 1916. Anyway, since we were in the vicinity, we thought we would go and check out the National Park at Sandy Hook to see if it was worth making that the focus of a day trip at some point in the future. The answer is “Yes” so I won’t go into too much detail in this blog post since we plan to return and visit properly at some point. I love lighthouses so it has one of those for me and it has Fort Hancock so has some military history for Mr Pict. For the kids, it has wide open space for them to be feral and access to beaches.
Back on topic, our next location was in Spring Lake. This was where, on 6 July 1916, Charles Bruder was attacked. The poor man was so severely injured that he died on the lifeboat as it made its way back to shore. Bruder had been employed as a bellhop at the Essex & Sussex Hotel. The building is still standing, though it is now a condominium block, so our 12 year old was able to see where Bruder lived and worked as well as the section of shoreline where the tragedy occurred.
Our final location for the day was Beach Haven, on Long Beach Island. We had been to Long Beach Island previously – and even found a dead shark on the beach – but that was before our son had researched the 1916 attacks and knew of its relevance. Beach Haven was the site of the first attack, on 1 July, when a young man from Philadelphia named Charles Vansant was attacked. His rescuers pulled him from the water and carried him into the hotel where he was a guest but tragically he died. The Engleside Hotel was demolished in the 1940s but we could visit the place where it once stood as it became a Veterans Memorial Park. We then headed down to the beach. It being the conclusion of our trip and getting near the end of the day, we opted to spend some time relaxing and having fun there. Amazingly – given the theme of the day – the 12 year old with the mild phobia of water went swimming in the sea and had a wonderful time.
Next time we go to the Shore, we will commit to doing what more regular folks do.
This has been a horrible winter. It has not actually snowed much but instead we have had to contend with various pestilences and too many rainy, miserable weekends. While I do enjoy hibernating a bit over winter, cabin fever definitely set in. I desperately needed some fresh air and exploration for the sake of my mental wellbeing. This past weekend, therefore, we took advantage of a dry day to go and visit the Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, New Jersey. We had previously attempted a visit there but it was Labour Day weekend and all of the tickets for the day were gone by the time we arrived. This time we prebooked to be assured of entry, though in reality it was pretty quiet.
The Grounds for Sculpture is essentially an outdoor exhibition space for sculptures by a variety of artists. The museum was founded by artist Seward Johnson. I must confess that his was not a name I knew but it turned out I did know some of his sculptures. The one most people can probably recall to their mind’s eye is ‘Double Check’ which depicts a seated businessman looking through his briefcase. It was captured in an iconic photo of 9/11 as, covered in dust and debris, it looked no different from the real people making their way through the streets after the towers collapsed. A replica of that statue greeted us as we entered the Visitor Center.
The Visitor Center showcased some of Johnson’s other works too, such as his Marilyn Monroe based on the famous photo of her from ‘The Seven Year Itch’, a group of musicians, and a styrofoam sculpture of a reclining girl that was painted to look like it was made from marble and chrome. What was a big hit with the boys, however, was a room made to look like Van Gogh’s painting of his ‘Bedroom in Arles’. We all enjoyed the feeling of having stepped inside the painting and be seeing such a famous work from a different perspective.
The vast outdoor space contained hundreds of sculptures. Every pathway brought us to a different art work and we enjoyed the almost “treasure hunt” aspect of finding some of the statues that were partially concealed behind bushes or were only accessible by following a small path. Some statues made the kids chortle, including one of a man urinating into bushes and a very phallic obelisk. I enjoyed the variety of art works on display, from the abstract to the kitsch, from the ones hewn from natural materials to the brightly coloured ones crafted from manmade materials. We all enjoyed the oversized, three dimensional versions of famous Impressionist paintings because of that feeling of being able to magically step inside a painting. We also enjoyed the celebration of kitsch and the fact that many of the statues could be touched and interacted with as adjacent signs specified that they could be respectfully touched or even climbed on. I believe one of the mission statements of the Grounds for Sculpture is to engage more people in public art so it was great to be able to let the kids feel the texture of a bronze sculpture or hang out with Renoir’s party-goers.
The grounds themselves were lovely, very peaceful, filled with trees and plants, and peacocks. There were also some nice buildings dotted around and bodies of water and arching bridges. I can imagine that the whole place looks even more appealing in other seasons when there is more colour and leaves on the trees. Since the Grounds are spread over 42 acres, we had lots of opportunity to wander and run around and explore. However, even though we were there for a few hours, we did not manage to see everything. We will absolutely have to go back some time.
Trigger Warning: This post contains a single photo of a spider.
It was Mother’s Day last Sunday and, as my Mother’s Day treat, I wanted to go and explore somewhere new. This Spring has been totally drecih – a good Scots word for dreary. It has been chilly, grey, and wet, and not very conducive to getting out and about. Between the weather and a too busy schedule, I felt like I was getting cabin fever from not getting out and about and exploring. So Mother’s Day was the perfect day for going for a wander somewhere new. We chose to go to Batsto, an abandoned town in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. I learned about the existence of Batsto from Richard Lewis’ wonderful photography blog. Rich was actually kind enough to let me pick his brains about things to do and places to explore in the Pine Barrens. My boys are good walkers with great stamina but we have learned from experience that they enjoy themselves a lot more and whine a lot less if we provide some sort of focus to our hikes, rambles, and wanderings. I felt that exploring Batsto Village as a prelude to hiking a trail would be a great day out.
Our first port of call was the Visitor’s Center. This was primarily so we could use the restroom after our drive from the Philly ‘burbs but it also provided a useful introduction to the history of the town. Interpretative boards and exhibits informed us that Batsto was founded in the mid-18th Century – though the Lenni Lenape lived in the area before. It was a chap named Charles Read who set up the first ironworks there, using the bog ore found in the area and trees from the woodland for the smelting furnaces. That Batsto Iron Works changed hands a few times and had a boom period during the Revolutionary War as it provided a range of products, including munitions, to the Continental Army. Then, in the mid-19th Century, as the iron works declined, Batsto became a glassworking area, particularly renowned for its production of window glass. The village came under state ownership in the 1950s and the last resident left in the 1980s.
A little bit of history absorbed, we ventured outdoors to begin our explorations. We saw a pile of bog ore and the remains of a wooden ore boat, used to transport the raw ore from the lake. We also saw the ice house where food provisions could be stored. Huge chunks of ice would be cut from the lake and packed with saw dust inside the ice house so that the food could be stored there without it spoiling. I am old enough to remember some people still having cold cupboards in their houses rather than refrigerators but it was a good opportunity to explain to my kids how things were done before electricity and the advent of domestic appliances. Another outbuilding contained carriages, some of which looked like carcasses picked clean by carrion. Other barns would have housed different farm animals. In the wheelwright and blacksmith workshops, the many and various tools of the trade were on display. I could almost imagine the blacksmith and wheelwright wandering in, picking up the equipment, and setting to work.
The younger boys enjoyed playing inside the mule barn. Unfortunately, rather than taking inspiration from the actual setting and playing a game of old-timey farmers, they decided to turn it into a horror game in which they had to stay steps ahead of some malevolent ghosts who were tracking them down. There were some genuine shrieks when they found themselves squeezed into thickly webbed corners with spiders. Thankfully no other visitors were within earshot at the time. While they spooked each other, I took my time studying the Corn Crib. I had never seen such an agricultural structure before and its strange shape really appealed to me. It was as if a wonky pentagon shaped barn had had a tunnel bored through its centre. This was where corn was stored and shucked. The machinery that did so was powered by a water turbine attached to the adjacent Gristmill. This was another building the boys enjoyed exploring because there were multiple accessible levels within it. The basement layer was also thick with dusty grit which enabled them to scrawl spooky messages to each other – and any visitors who followed after us.
In the middle of all of these agricultural and industrial buildings were a mansion and a general store. I absolutely loved the architectural design of the mansion because it was so utterly crazy. There were a variety of shapes and angles on every facet of the house. There were also windows of every shape and style. Maybe I liked it because it was quirky. Maybe it was because it was the type of house I might end up drawing with no symmetry or organised pattern to the design. I would love to take a tour of its interior some time. We could go inside the general store which was fun. The interior contained a display much like customers would have encountered upon entering the store. I am a sucker for things being stored in little drawers and little pigeonholes. I have fond memories of selecting penny sweeties (candy) from wooden drawers when I was wee which might be part of it. I, therefore, particularly liked seeing the drawers of spices. Mr Pict liked the veranda outside the general store. It put him in mind of westerns. I think he could imagine sitting in a rocking chair watching the world go by from that veranda.
We took the path past the lake and a weir roaring with water. This brought us to the area where the iron furnaces once stood and the site where the glassworks would have been. Little or no trace remains of either. The sawmill was still standing, however, and we could see how the trees from the surrounding woodland would have been turned into lumber products, including shingles for the exterior of houses.
Just a little way off from the sawmill were all the remaining village houses. These were houses, built in the early 19th Century, that occupied by the village workers. A few of them were open so that we could go in and see the rooms and some mock ups of how they would have been furnished. I always like to imagine how people would have lived in the past, being much more interested in social history than industrial history.
Our intention had been to take one of the nature trails that leads off from Batsto. However, the children were getting hungry which makes them grizzlier than bears. We knew that setting out on a trek was inviting disaster that would start with grumbles and escalate to snarls. We, therefore, determined that we would walk through the woods to the church that once served the people of Batsto and is still in service today for the local community. Half way down the trail, however, we discovered that the path ahead was flooded with no obvious way around. It had rained hard all day the previous day so this was not all together surprising but it was disappointing. Mr Pict and I decided not to push our luck with the kids and their stomachs so, with a sigh, we turned around and headed back through the woods, through the village, and back to the car.
Rich had recommended a few places to eat in the area so we headed to one of these. I love to eat out for Mother’s Day as it means I don’t have to cook or clean. I love it even more if the food is especially delicious. The Vincetown Diner did not disappoint. It had the relaxing, laid back atmosphere and spaciousness of a diner but the food was a step up from regular diner food (though I am actually a fan of diner food). I had crab cakes with garlic mash and lemon aoli which was packed with flavour and stuffed me to the gunnels. My eyes were bigger than my belly and had scanned the dessert case on the way to our seats so I still went ahead and ordered the chocolate volcano cake. I was only able to eat one mouthful of it so I boxed it up and had it the next day. Still scrumptious.
We had a superb day out exploring the Pine Barrens. We will likely return to Batsto again, maybe in a different season, and we would also like to explore more of the surrounding area and trek along some of the trails. I also hope the dreary weather has ended now so that this can be the first of many weekend wanderings. We have been cooped up for too long.
A couple of weekends ago, my two youngest children got to experience sleeping on board the USS New Jersey. It wasn’t that I had tired of their antics and decided to ship them out to learn some military discipline; it was an event with their Scout troop. I did not actually go with them. I happily and wholeheartedly volunteered to stay home with the older two boys. In the past, I have spent the night in a historic prison and an abandoned farming township but this time I felt that Mr Pict should have the sleepover experience. This was not just because I wanted to stay home cosy in my jammies but also because I would have been the only mother on the trip and – quite frankly – because I did not fancy trying to sleep in a situation where I felt uncomfortable and claustrophobic.
The USS New Jersey is a battleship with a long and interesting history – well, interesting if you like military history which I don’t but which Mr Pict does (another reason why he was just the parent for the job). It was launched in 1942 and not completely decommissioned until the early 1990s so it saw action in World War 2, Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf War. I really cannot accurately relate any of its detailed history, however, as I was not on the tour and – though I did listen to my husband’s report – I did not absorb and retain the information. That’s what Wikipedia is for.
The USS New Jersey became a museum ship in 2001 and is permanently docked in Camden, New Jersey. It can be visited during the day by members of the public but getting to stay overnight was only possible because of the kids being Scouts. Soon after they arrived, the troop was taken on a guided tour by knowledgeable volunteers. They got to see a wide variety of spaces on board the ship and learn about the different eras of its history. Our youngest son even got to sit in the Captain’s chair, a position he apparently rather enjoyed. After the tour, the group dined in the mess area. My kids are cheese snobs so were not impressed by the box mac’n’cheese on offer but having to eat food you don’t necessarily love probably added to the whole naval experience. They were lucky they didn’t get hard tack. Their bunks for the night were the exact same bunks the navy personnel would have slept on when the battleship was active. The photos of the kids slotted into the narrow beds made me feel queasy so I was very glad that we had made the choice to have Mr Pict act as chaperone.
After breakfast the next morning, they got to have a daylight wander around the ship, look at the Philadelphia skyline from the vantage point of the deck, and then it was time to head home. As lukewarm as I a about military history, I think it’s a pretty cool thing for them to be able to say that the slept overnight on a battleship.
In the Summer months, it seems like the entire of Philly and its suburbs decamps to the Jersey Shore. I actually know plenty of people who also head to the coast at regular periods throughout the year. It appears that the Jersey Shore is the destination of choice for most of our neighbours. We, however, have only been a couple of times. This is partly because I don’t like sand and partly because we are contrary besoms. However, it is mostly because none of us find we can relax in crowded settings. This is even more so in beach settings because of the experience of losing our youngest child on a crowded beach several years ago. All of which preamble is to explain why it is, over three years since moving to America, we have only been to the Jersey Shore a couple of times. Since we had an unseasonably nice day for February last weekend, we decided we should expand our explorations of New Jersey’s coastline and head to Cape May.
Suspecting the beach would still be chilly, we made the focus of our trip the Cape May County Zoo. The zoo is free which appeals to my thrifty nature but had me concerned about the welfare standards. Thankfully I was wrong to be cynical as the enclosures actually seemed well designed and considered.
We headed first to the reptile and amphibian house. The kids and I always spend a lot of time in these areas at zoos so we wanted to prioritise having enough time there. We were pleased that so many of the snakes, lizards, and frogs were on display in their tanks as quite often they are tucked away in little hollows and can barely be seen. There were snakes large and small from places near and far; a variety of turtles, including one who was very crinkly and spiky looking; a large alligator; brightly coloured frogs and a chubby frog squashed in the corner of its tank; axolotls and newts; and an iguana riding on a tortoise’s back.
With the exception of the tiger, which refused to put in an appearance, the mammals too were all out and about and easy for us to see. My 9 year old was eager to see marsupials for some reason so was delighted to see wallabies lazing around in the sun, looking like they were watching Netflix on the sofa. We also got to see a brace of black bears. Aside from the baby black bear that ran across the road in front of us in West Virginia last summer, it was the closest any of us had been to a black bear since one of them was walking right along the fence line. Its companion, meanwhile, was lying on its back with one leg up in the air against a fence. In addition to seeing the lions, we heard the male roar. It was an incredible sound, only the second time my kids have heard a real life lion roar, though the sight of the lions lolling around like large moggies was a bit less awe-inspiring. There were also leopards – traditional and snow varieties – and a red panda, zebra, giraffes, ostriches, lemurs, and bison.
We didn’t see all of the animals that inhabit the zoo (there are apparently over 250 species) but because admission was free we didn’t feel like we had to push things and see every last creature. I would have kept going but the kids were rapidly escalating their hunger levels from peckish to rampagingly hangry so we decided to leave while the going was good and go in search of food.
After a very tasty sojourn in a Mediterranean diner, we headed for the actual shore. It would have been cruel and unusual of us parents to take the kids to the Jersey Shore for the day and not actually let them anywhere near the beach. The coast was decidedly chiller than even a short jaunt inland and the sky was darkening quickly but the kids were still determined to have fun. We forget sometimes that these kids were used to playing on beaches year round on the west coast of Scotland and are pretty hardy and determined as a result. They all kicked off their shoes within minutes and, while two of them did a sort of Chariots of Fire run along the sand, two of them lifted up their trouser legs to have a bit of a paddle in the Atlantic. A bit of a paddle, however, turned into a wade and – before we could even issue a warning they would no doubt have ignored anyway – two of them ended up soaked. Their answer was to just peel off their sodden trousers and continue playing in the surf. Our youngest child was, therefore, frolicking in the sea with bare legs and a winter coat. He looked hysterically ridiculous but he was having an absolute whale of a time. Sometimes the boys just really need to be feral in the great outdoors.
I couldn’t come to the coast and not see a lighthouse so our final destination for the day, as day slipped into night, was the Cape May Lighthouse. The current lighthouse was built in 1859 and is the third incarnation of a lighthouse at that spot. I guess third time was the charm. I arrived too late to enter the lighthouse so I just had to content myself with looking at it. Maybe some day I will return and force myself up the claustrophobic spiral staircase in order to see the view.
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