side banner

Historic Preservation Committee

Oral History -- Josie Pitcher

Josie Pitcher was interviewed by John Grossmann in her Franciscan Oaks apartment on December 19, 2006.

JG: Iím going to begin by asking you -- so people will get a sense of your family history before Mountain Lakes -- when you were born and where that was?
JP I was born April 17, 1925 in Totowa Borough, New Jersey.
JG: When was it that you first came to Mountain Lakes?
JP We used to go to dances at Rockaway River Country Club, so when we sold our house in Totowa Borough, Charlie said letís look in that nice town past the pillars that we would drive through. Then we got really interested and we bought that lot next to Schlott Realty on Crane Road.
JG: What year did you move in?
JP October 27, 1953.
JG: And you and Charlie had been married how long at that point?
JP We were married at 20 and we were 27 then.
JG: What did Charlie do?
JP Charlie was a salesman for Industrial Resin Corporation in Whippany and then he went to Cargill.
JG: What did you like about Mountain Lakes, what made you decide to buy the house that you did?
JP We bought the property and Charlie built the house himself. It was $1,800 for the property. We always said later, Oh my goodness if only we had more cash, because there wasnít a lot at that time that was more than $5,000. It would have been an opportunity.
JG: How many years did you live in that house?
JP Twenty-two years. Then in 1975 we sold that house and moved to 48 Ball Road.
JG: When was that house built?
JP 1952, the year before we built in 1953. We bought it because it had a two-car garage and my husband turned it into a family room and a second bath. It was built by Doris Hunter and Marcia McCurdy on spec. It sits on 3/4 of an acre. After driving all those years to the schools, I could push Laura and Michelle out the door -- our other kids were gone by that time.
JG: Tell me about all the children.
JP Well, we had Joann, who died of ovarian cancer 11 years ago. And then we had Robert. And Kathy. She died of ovarian cancer in May. And Mary Lou, Michelle, and Laura.
JG: Six by my count.
JP Right. Five girls and one boy.
JG: Joann was born in what year?
JP We were married in í45. She was born in í46. Robert in í48. Kathy was born in í50. Mary Lou was born in í51. Michelle was born in í58. Laura in 1965. Joann was a freshman in college when I knew I was pregnant with Laura.
JG: Six children in the 50s. That wasnít even necessarily a big family in Mountain Lakes, was it?
JP No, when we moved here with four children. People said: "What is the matter? Donít you like children?" There were the Scribners, who had 10 children. They lived on the hill. The Girdlers and the Pettittes -- all big families. At least eight children.
JG: So people joked, "You donít like children?"
JP So I accommodated them.
JG: That says something about what the town was like back then, with so many kids. Tell us about that.
JP It was wonderful. It was a town for children. The biggest motivator of us coming here was Wildwood School was being built and Robert was going into kindergarten. Joann was going into second grade. And it was innovative. It was on the news because it was the round school with a period room right in the middle and classrooms all around it.
JG: Which news? TV news?
JP Yeah. NBC and several others covered it. It was a new phenomenon. We saw Briarcliff school and the high school was going to go up, which Joann went into in seventh grade. The school system was always tops.
JG: Talk a bit more about Mountain Lakes being a town for families and for children. How else did that manifest itself besides the schools?
JP I think that most everything we did was geared around the kids. Our friends were the swimming friends in the summer. And then Charlie was president of Little League and they had a team. It was either baseball or swimming all summer long. And that involved taking your kids, picnics, everybody together.
JG: That was Birchwood Lake at the time?
JP Yes. Charlie put all of those turnarounds in. You know he was the first recreation commissioner in Mountain Lakes.
JG: When did he take that job?
JP 1960. We helped the police department so much, because they tested the lakes at the time and we spent all winter ice skating. Charlie would call and say, "I think the lake is safe, why doesnít somebody test it." So they gave him the job.
JG: So it started with that?
JP Yes, and he loved it. He built so much in this town.
JG: Iíve had people tell me what happened in the 30s and 40s when the lake were tested -- they flew a Flag with a red ball inside.
JG: But then that was stopped during World War II, because it looked like a Japanese flag. When Charlie was doing it, how did he post that the lake was safe to skate?
JP The same way.
JG: The flag went back up?
JP Yes. Everybody knew there was a designated spot on the Big Lake. Wildwood. And even Birchwood.
JG: Each lake had its own flag?
JP Yeah. And then they did away with the flag and had a skating number you could call to hear a recording to learn what lakes were safe.
JG: He was the one for many years who actually tested the ice himself?
JP I used to make him go and get one of the policemen when he was going to test Birchwood by himself. "Donít go up there alone." Iíd tell him. So the cops would go up with him. Heíd drill a hole. It had to be four inches. Four cold nights was pretty productive for four inches.
JG: How long did he hold the position of recreation commissioner?
JP Oh a long, long time. He went from president of Little League then he did the recreation commission. He put the boat dock in and all the turnarounds up at Birchwood. He just loved accomplishing things for the town. Helped put the pool in at the Mountain Lakes Club. He and Pete Haas fought to get that.
JG: What about golf? I understand he was involved with trying to get a golf course in town?
JP He wanted to buy the property on Fox Road where thereís a church and everything in there now. He wanted the town to buy that and make it a nine-hole course. And he also had plans for across the street from where the borough hall is now. A recreation center for the kids, self-run by high school seniors or whoever, that would have to volunteer. A place for kids to hang out. That didnít go. He did get the train station for a while and got people to donate ping-pong tables. They had ping-pong tables downstairs. I think Friday nights were the biggest nights. Like a canteen type thing. Refreshments.
JG: You think that was the 60s?
JP Oh, I think so. We bought the shore house in í72 and this was all prior to that, cause once we bought that the energies went down there.
JG: Had the train station been empty for a number of years?
JP Yes.
JG: When did Phoebe Snow Restaurant go in?
JP That was after.
JG: What else do you remember about Charlie heading the recreation department?
JP Just that it was a full time job. In fact, we finally had to get an unlisted phone number. Between Little League and recreation commission we never could sit down to a meal. "Is the game canceled, Mr. Picher?" "Are we still having the swimming races?" So we finally got an unlisted phone telephone number. We were still on Crane Road then. He loved every minute of it. He wouldnít have been that involved otherwise. He loved the town and loved everything he was doing.
JG: Back in your early years in Mountain Lakes where did you tend to shop for food and clothes?
JP There was an A&P in Denville, where the Denville Hardware Store is.
JG: What was in the Market in the 50s?
JP That was a market. Fresh meats. We just couldnít afford to shop there. People had charge accounts there and I didnít want to get involved in any of that. And it was a place the kids used to hang out and get stuff after school.
JG: And for clothes?
JP Gosh, Iíd have to think, cause we didnít even have the Rockaway Mall then. There was a wonderful department store in Patterson called Meyer Brothers and I had shopped there as a kid. Thatís an area I had worked as a young girl and I was familiar with the area and I liked that store. I never became a Morristown shopper and I donít know why. The parking was always horrendous.
JG: Iím sure your kids did plenty of swimming in the lakes. Not Laura. But the other girls did and most of them dove, too. Joann was a diver. Robert was and so was Mary Lou.
JG: Did you and Charlie swim in the lakes as well?
JP Oh sure.
JG: Did most parents swim, too?
JP Oh, yes. Birchwood was a gathering place. You took the children up there. You had your lunch up there. I didnít have a car when we first moved here. So I would walk to Island Beach with the children and when Charlie came home from work he would pick us up. It was such a wonderful thing to have a place to swim all summer. And then they built Birchwood for the teenagers, but the minute the parents went up there with children the teenagers went back to Island Beach.
JG: Is that what happened?
JP Absolutely. The Hellers, they had a big family. They were always there. The Rikers. There was a whole bunch of people that used Birchwood.
JG: Things were a little different then?
JP I think so.
JG: I donít think you see as many adults swimming in the lakes anymore.
JP Well, you donít see a lot of kids doing a lot of things, either. Robert and his son Michael came to get me last year to go ice skating. I thought, you know, youíre 80 years old. You havenít had a broken bone. Letís have a little discretion here. Donít do this Josie. But cooler heads prevailed. Still, I was heartbroken, because we used to spend our whole winter ice skating. And Robert said, "You know, Mom, when weíre skating on Wildwood there are kids in watching TV watching us skate." It didnít use to be like that. As soon as the ice was safe we were on it.
JG: Tell me about the skating. What are your memories of ice skating?
JP We skated maybe 15 hours in a weekend. The little ones were on a sleigh. We bundled them up and we would pull them around, usually off the Morris Avenue cove, cause Crane Road was right there -- and continue out on the Big Lake when it was frozen.
JG: How often in the 50s and 60s do you remember the Big Lake freezing?
JP Oh, a lot.
JG: Weíve been in town 10 years and the Big Lake has frozen once I think, when you could really skate for as much as a couple days.
JP We used to skate on that Big Lake all the time. I see people skating in Rockefeller Center and think, how could I skate with that mob of people. There was nothing like opening up and skating all the way to the Club and back down to The Cove.
JG: In the real old days, they had lights at night and they played music. Did you also have night skating?
JP Oh, sure. Charlie and Tom Boyd used to clean of Grundenís Pond, at the corner of Crane Road and the Boulevard. That would freeze early because itís such a small area. The Grundens owned a lovely house right there. So we spent a lot of time skating there too.
JG: Iíve been told that in addition to hockey that probably the boys would play...
JP Well Charlie played.
JG: And some of the dads. Do you remember curling on the lake?
JP No, maybe that was before my time. Mike OíDonnell used to call Charlie and say, "Mr. Pitcher, if you would put the flag up, Wildwood Lake is safe? And weíre playing hockey at 10 oíclock," or something like that. He thought he was a kid, so off heíd go with the boys. He was probably mid-thirties at that point. He skated all his life as a kid. He was brought up in Little Falls and they had places up there. We skated all our lives, living in this climate.
JG: But this climate isnít as conducive to skating anymore.
JP I have a grand daughter who will be 12 and sheís never been on ice skates and she doesnít know what sheís missing. That Big Lake was wonderful.
JG: Besides skating and the swimming was there other recreation that you remember the family doing or other families doing?
JP We did a lot of picnicking at Birchwood and at Island Beach. We would have a big picnic with all the lifeguards after the Sunday Races. After several weeks of maybe a couple families, it became 70 people. Everybody would bring their own hot dogs and hamburgers and salads and stuff. Those are memories my kids have. They just had wonderful time growing up here. You know, you didnít have the money to do anything else. It was family. It was here. And the taxes were nothing compared to what they are now.
JG: What about the major holidays. What did Mountain Lakes do for the 4th of July?
JP There were the fireworks and the swimming races. Fourth of July in Mountain Lakes was always like New Yearís Eve. It was the biggest thing that happened here.
JG: What memories do you have of different 4th of Julys? You always spent them here in town, right?
JP We were always here, because Charlie ran the races at the Club. Everybody on the lake had picnics and they lit those flares -- and now Iím thinking -- all the kids with asthma, how bad that was for them.
JG: Flares?
JP Everybody on the lake was given a certain amount for their property frontage and they lit them. These were flares that Charlie got from the Fusee Factory. It was just beautiful. The whole lake. They would burn through the fireworks, just about.
JG: Where did everybody watch the fireworks?
JP We used to have about five invitations to different houses on the lake. And the Mountain Lakes club. And the last few years, after all our friends on the lake sold, I would have a party at my house and then weíd walk up to the boat dock and watch there. Iím still going to do that next year. Take my chair and go to the boat dock.
JG: Would anybody watch from canoes or boats on the lake?
JP They did, but the kids used to have beer in the canoes and it drove the cops crazy. So then they stopped the boats. Joe Spinozza, our chief of police said: "I canít patrol the water, too." Oh, was he a character.
JG: That raises another question, and why donít we start with him. What people do you remember, besides Charlie, who made Mountain Lakes special?
JP He was not chief of police when we first moved here. Wes Brimlaw was chief and then Joe took over for him in the late 50s.
JG: What made him so memorable?
JP He was a character. Just a very funny man. He used to say to us -- "I know you girls drive the kids to school in your raincoats with your nightgowns on underneath. Someday Iím going to pull you all over and frisk you." But nobody ever took offense. He was a funny, funny man. And then Charlie McCoy. He was police chief. And Jerry Diello. One day I was coming home and I had a desk for Laura in the trunk of my car. And a police car followed me, all the way, up to Ball Road. Pulled behind me. I thought, Oh, Iíve got the trunk open; heís not going to be happy with me. And Charlie said to me, "Whoís going to help you in the house with that, Josie?" I said, "Well, I was going to try to do it myself so Laura doesnít see it when she comes home from school." He said, "Open the door," and he took the desk in the house and down the basement for me.

The police were like that then. Our kids were not such good kids. They were in trouble all the time and the police would bring them home if they saw them at a party. "Get in the house and if I see you out again tonight, I know where your father is and Iíll call him immediately." That kind of feeling of -- I donít want you to get in trouble. I donít know what itís like now.

JG: That must have been part of what made Mountain Lakes a different and special community.
JP It was a warm, wonderful place to live. I had 53 good years there. And then with several deaths in the family, like Charlie died so suddenly, and my daughter Joann -- the support was unbelievable. Maybe itís like that in a lot of towns. I donít know. My daughter has that in Sea Girt. The same kind of neighbors and friends.
JG: What else made living in Mountain Lakes special?
JP Youíve touched on a lot of things and provided some wonderful examples. I believe you have a story about the opening of Wildwood school. Wasnít your son Rob...
JP He was in the first kindergarten class in 1953 when the school opened.
JG: Tell us about taking him to school that first day
JP Well, I did not know the dress code in Mountain Lakes and I bought Robert a suit to go to school. He said, "Mom." Thatís how I sent him off. But thatís how I dressed my children.
JG: Iím going to venture a guess that he was the only boy in a suit in the whole school, probably the whole school system.
JP Right. But you know. There were no jeans then. I think cords was it.
JG: Did he wear that outfit to school on day two?
JP No. But I think he wore the trousers and the matching shirts.
JG: What was it like adjusting to that school for your children? Did you find that Wildwoodís unusual design lived up to its billing?
JP I think it was a wonderful idea, because they had what they could have used for any kind of plays and the classrooms were separate -- as they still are today. It was a wonderful school. And then many years later, when Robertís wife, Rosalie was working, I would take my grandson to the same school. Take Michael and pick him up. So it was repeating itself.
JG: That had a nice feel to it?
JP Oh, yeah. Continuity.
JG: I would guess thatís part of the whole Mountain Lakes experience, too. There is a certain sense of that. Things do change, and they have changed. Things that youíve described arenít still that way, anymore. But with the pace of change in the rest of American society, Mountain Lakes, donít you think, still has one foot, anyway, kind of back in the past?
JP I think so. And when there are gatherings. Usually now itís for a funeral, or something like that, and kids you havenít seen in years turn up and thereís just a sense of camaraderie that you have. I went to my daughter Mary Louís class reunion in October. I had the best time. I hadnít seen those kids in 30 years. I saw all her dear friends. It was like time was never in between. It was just so much fun. She said, "Mom, youíre going to go with me." I said, "Okay."
JG: What stories did people tell that you can retell? Thatís when people tell the old stories, at reunions.
JP I donít know. We just laughed all night long about different things. But I canít remember exactly what they were. It was just a fun time. You had a closeness with your childrenís friends.
JG: Help me in this respect. Iím going to go down a list of locations and wonder if youíve got any particularly memories about them. Consider it almost like a word association game -- that may jog your memory. You mentioned already the railroad station, about the ping-pong tables. The Esplanade, of course, is right across the parking lot from the railroad station...
JP Where the kids used to hang out and drink beer.
JG: Is that what they did?
JP I found out many years later.
JG: Was the Esplanade ever used by the town for more wholesome activities?
JP I donít think so. The one house up there, the Peasbacks owned. Heís a good friend of Pete Haas. It was mostly homes and private things there, but then the kids took to hanging out there. The police knew more than the kids gave them credit for.
JG: What else do you remember about the stores where The Market is today? At one point there was a gas pump at the garage behind The Market.
JP Oh, sure, I remember that. There was a drug store for a while. Pete Haas had a sweet shop, called The Whistle Stop. That was even before my time. I think they moved here around the Depression time. It was still a soda shop when my children were growing up, because Mary Lou worked there for a while. And there was a shop, right where the Lionel Trains store is today, it was called The Little Shop. That was used clothing. People brought their clothes down that their children had outgrown and that shows the significant difference in Mountain Lakes, then and now -- that you could go down there and buy a wonderful winter coat for $5. And everybody did it. Maybe the fact that the families were so big had something to do it. It was run by the College Club.
JG: What years do you think The Little Shop existed?
JP We moved here in í53. When we moved here it was in operation. It lasted a long time -- until Lionel Trains went in, but Iím really not sure of the time frame.
JG: Weíre you ever members of the Mountain Lakes Club?
JP Oh, yeah, for years.
JG: What are your memories of going there?
JP Again, the economics in town were not like they are today. And so, Charlie was on the board, and if the place needed to be painted, the members did it. Charlie was in the business, so he would get the paint at cost. We painted that club inside and outside.
JG: You wielded a paintbrush yourself?
JP Physically, we painted it ourselves.
JG: Couple dozen members would show up on Saturday?
JP Yeah.
JG: Thatís a big difference, isnít it?
JP Yeah. And it was fun. You know, The Club was like a second home for a lot of us. Our kids loved the club. Iíd hear the phone ring when they went to Lake Drive School -- at one minute after 12. I would pick up the phone and say: "No, you had lunch there yesterday. You come home." And theyíd say: "How did you know what I wanted?"
JG: This was instead of coming home for lunch?
JP When they went to Lake Drive School they were right next store and some days I would let them eat lunch at The Club.
JG: This was when there wasnít a cafeteria in the school and the kids would come home for lunch.
JP But when they went to Wildwood, they brown-bagged it.
JG: You donít remember the Boulevard Trolley?
JP No, but I had a neighbor who told us about it. Fred Smith who lived next door to us on Crane Road. Wonderful stories. He said on Saturday morning they would take the trolley to Boonton. All along the Boulevard it would pick up their friends. They would go to Boonton, have lunch, go to the theater for a play, and then take the trolley back home.
JG: Theyíd see a play, not a movie?
JP A play. This was in the 20s.
JG: Is that a Mountain Lakes you wish you knew, too?
JP You know what, Mountain Lakes has always been a very social town. We were very involved. When you have kids you get up over your neck in everything.
JG: Back then, did any or very many of the women work?
JP No.
JG: When I was talking with David Higgins, more about the 20s and 30s, he said a high percentage of the men would ride the train into New York. In your time, had that started to change?
JP No, almost everybody commuted on the train.
JG: Charlie, then, was one of the few men who didnít?
JP Yes. But then Robert went to work for Pete Haas on Wall Street after his freshman year in college, so he commuted by train.
JG: And most of the women were stay-at-home Moms?
JP All my friends. Nobody worked. But we did a lot of lunches.
JG: The Community Church?
JP I went to Mount Carmel in Boonton because I was Catholic. Charlie was not. Then they built St. Catherineís and the first church that St. Catherineís had was a little house, a Cape Cod, down on Maple Way in the Village that Freddy Schwartz, who is an entrepreneur and builder in town, he bought that and renovated it and that was the first Catholic church in Mountain Lakes.
JG: Thatís where the first Catholic church was?
JP Yes. My daughter Joann used to go down to mass there during Lent, but we always went to Mount Carmel. I think the priest lived down there and it was a rectory for him and he did hold some masses. Michelle was christened at Mount Carmel in Boonton by Father Glynn, who became our pastor here.
JG: Tell me about the baseball fields on Fanny Road. There were 250 kids in the Little League and five fathers showed up every Saturday morning and took the trees down.
JG: And the fields are named?
JP The Charlie Pitcher Field and the Al Scerbo Field. The borough crew faced Charlie to the road and Al to the woods.
JG: Are there other townspeople who stick out in memory as being important or special -- who helped make Mountain Lakes what it was -- names we havenít covered so far?
JP No. I think it was just a very friendly, outgoing, and a very giving town. And as I said, our neighbors next door were so much older than we were, because we were 27 when we moved her, but they were delightful. He was in the advertising business in Morristown. He had wonderful stories of the old Mountain Lakes -- like the trolley ride to Boonton.

Iíll tell you something else. Joannís class had a reunion. They were honoring her and two of her class members who had passed away. Sandy Hughes came and stayed with me. She was a dear friend of Joannís. I had a little cocktail party for some of Joannís dearest friends and they said: "You know what, we were so lucky to grow up here." Donít forget, theyíre now in their fifties. I said: "Iím so happy to hear you say that. All we ever heard was -- ĎThereís nothing to do in this town.í" "Well, now we realize", they said. I thought that was very enlightening -- that they finally realized that it was a great place to grow up.

End of Interview

Transcribed and edited by John Grossmann, coordinator, Oral History Project of the Historic Preservation Committee of Mountain Lakes, December, 2006.

 Oral Histories and Recollections