Leslie H. & Ethel Backer
17 Barton Road
We have stories of pioneers headed west in the 1800’s, stories of modern pioneers in city apartment complexes, why not stories of new development pioneers in the suburbs? New developments which lure you into investigating them with idealistic descriptions of their lakes from clear spring water, of their up-to-date water and electric systems, the new sleek houses, and numerous other attractions.
We were really suburbanites, my husband and I but were temporarily living in a big city. When we found out that our firstborn (a son) was to have a playmate soon it was decided that the apartment would not be large enough for the four of us. After looking at many real estate ads we finally decided to investigate one which was situated in the “Alps of New Jersey” which appealed to our love of wonderful views. My husband made a trip out to the development and came back full of enthusiasm, but also seeing that a great many promises in the ad had not yet been fulfilled.
One Sunday in early winter we journeyed out to look at the model homes. After a one hour ride on the train and a one half hour ride in an auto over virgin roads with mud so deep and clinging that I had doubts of ever getting back to our son in the city, we arrived at the development.
The first house that my husband and I saw was called a “semi-bungalow” (do they still build them anymore?). To the uninitiated a “semi-bungalow” is a story and a half house, with the rooms upstairs having sloped ceilings to conform with the roof slope. This gave the rooms plenty of floor space but little head room in the corners. The carpenters and masons were still busy inside the house, and both the porches were incomplete. We had to “walk the plank” across the front porch and were told to walk carefully on the paper covering the parquet floor in the front room. This floor covering looked very elegant but we found out later on that it was hard to keep the small pieces in place when the furnace was @–turned on. There was a magnificent rustic stone fireplace on one wall of the living room but it had to be rebuilt three times before it would draw properly and was the cause of a fire at a later date. But I am getting ahead of my story.
My husband and I looked at several other models that day and finally decided on the “semi-bungalow.” We asked the builder to make a number of minor changes but were assured that our home would be ready for us to move in on the first of May. It was “ready” but the masons, carpenters and plumbers shared it with us for the month of ”May.
The decision to send,our few pieces of furniture to our new home by freight turned out to be very smart. With the help of the one and only George Esller from a nearby town who understood the roads and his horses, our furniture arrived safely from the freight station. Many of our new neighbors who moved into the development after we did hired large motor vans which were soon up to their hubcaps in mud.
The day we moved was beautifully clear. We were seeing the countryside at its best. The fields were covered with wild azalea and ferns, both of which have almost entirely disappeared. Of course, the two lakes were still in their embryo stage. The one nearest us was a swamp full of “peepers” and with the dam just being built, those “peepers” provided the first music we heard in our new home accompanied’, by the hum ‘of the mosquitoes. Yes we had mosquitoes although we had been assured we were at too high an elevation for them to live. That first spring and summer they must have been flying higher than usual and they were the tiny kind that no ordinary wire netting could exclude, so we slept camper style under bed nets.
In the prospectus for our new development we were promised -running city water. Well it ran through the pipes of our homes but as the pumping station was not completed, and the artesian well was being drilled, we doubted the purity of the water. One of the neighbors was so doubtful that she even bought bottled spring water for her gold fish. Our drinking water was carried from nearby spring. Early every morning and after dinner in the evening the men of the community could be seen wending their way to the spring. Talk about a country store as a place to exchange gossip, we women knew that our spring could beat the country store every time. Many a night my son drank warm, stale water so I could get him ready for bed while daddy was getting a fresh pail of water at the spring. Before the summer was over the well was drilled and the pumping station was completed so that we had good,fresh water in our homes and we still boast of the best drinking water in the state.
The developer had also promised us an electric system for the homes and streets but the workmen were just beginning to place a few poles along the main streets. We had- not even purchased our electric fixtures or made arrangements for their installation. There was something very cozy and homelike about the oil reading lamp that the best planned electric fixture could never hope to attain. However, the cleaning and filling of the lamp every morning was a bug-bear.
I can’t remember just when the oil burning street lamps-were installed (another lamp for the women to clean and fill) but they added cheer to the inky blackness of the roads at night. Of course, when we made an evening call we carried a hand lantern and left it on the front porch of the home we were visiting. I had very little fear when I walked the streets of our development at night to attend a community meeting or to visit a neighbor (something I could never do in the big city). When they finally started really working on the electric system the linemen camped at noon in our front yard because we had the only outside water faucet in the vicinity. The men used it for watering their horses.
The new club house mentioned in the prospectus was purely a dream of the developer which did not come true until many years later.
The month of June in a virgin forest with wild flowers and birds so numerous one stropped trying to count them was followed by the terrible month of July with its seventeen year locust, its terrific hot temperatures and its numerous electrical storms. If you have not experienced-a siege of the locust no words of mine can adequately describe it. They mysteriously appear from the ground, then they emerge from their shells which they leave behind clinging to the branches of trees, house shingles, clothes, posts, etc. like scales on a fish. Next they form in large clusters and dry their wet wings and then as the sun warms them they start making a humming sound so loud that it can be heard above the roar of a car engine. They were so thick in our back yard that I could not hang out wet clothes without brushing the locust off the clothes line first. They would also crawl in under the net of my sons carriage so that it was necessary to keep him in the house while the locust were around. I did not venture outdoors much during the daytime either because the locusts flew in my face and got in my hair and were altogether a darn nuisance.
Another nuisance that summer was a wandering cow. Will I ever forget that cow which frightened my city raised eighteen month old son by standing in the front yard and saying “moo”? This terrible cow had a bell for she was prone to wander and at the sound of the bell my son would whimper and I would rush out to see whether the cow was trampling the new flower bed of the struggling vegetable garden this time. Finally, one night, after repeated requests to the owner of the cow to keep her within her own territory, my husband and I removed the cow’s bell and let her wander. We were told later that the cow wandered for three to four miles and found a herd of cows belonging to another farmer. The cow did not wander into our territory again and we still have the bell (used now for calling children when we want them home).
That first summer was noted for its severe electrical storms and our little community, (now grown to ten to twelve families) seemed to be selected for a playground of the lightening bolts. Chimneys were demolished not once but again and again and many beautiful trees were split down the middle. I especially remember one night when we had three storms in succession and we were awake all night wondering whether our chimney would be the next to fall.
August was as exhaustingly hot as July had been and was a month of worry for me since my second child was expected toward the end of the month. However, we were very fortunate in our selection of a doctor and he had a good nurse on call. The doctor was like all good country doctors. He had plenty of time to consult with each patient, no matter how many other urgent calls were on his mind. One of my worries was whether our telephone would be installed in time to use it when I needed it. The doctor also had a trained nurse who was willing to take time to help teach a Polish mother’s helper who had just entered our country, how to take care of me, my young son, and the new baby. Everything went smoothly and I had a baby girl on August 28th.
In September my husband and I hired a woman from a nearby community to come in by the day to do the washing, ironing and cleaning. She also helped me with a great deal of advice on how to take care of our two babies.
Our first milk deliveries were made by children whose hands were so dirty that you had to be sure to wash the mason jars the milk came in and then strain the milk through a cotton cloth. Finally, we found a regular milk man who had a sanitary dairy and made deliveries in the afternoon for use the next day. It was also necessary to have ice delivered nearly every day. A grocer from a nearby town came through in the morning for orders to be delivered in the afternoon. Since only a few neighbors had installed telephones this was a very convenient way to be sure that you had ice at all times. We had to go to a nearby town on the trolley to buy our meat and our staples and it trained us to plan for a few days ahead before we made the trip.
The problems of establishing proper schooling for our children, a church and a community club for mutual fire and police protection kept us busy during the first fall.
Our school which started as a self-expression one was held in one of the homes and progressed to a public school under the jurisdiction of the Township Board. The first church services after its organization in one of our homes were held in a store in the center of our community. A minister from a nearby town came over on Sunday afternoons to help us get started. We had no real fire protection system for the first couple of years but every home had some type of fire extinguisher and fortunately no serious fires occurred.
The first winter was as cold as the summer was hot and we had to depend on the trolley service to get the men to the train station and the women to a nearby town to do their shopping. I do not know whether Fontain Fox ever visited Mountain Lakes. If he did he would have found a typical “Tooneville Trolley” running from Denville to Boonton. It stopped along the Boulevard to pick up passengers. If you missed the trolley you would have to wait an hour until the next one came along. The “Skipper” was most accommodating knowing his passengers and the men’s train times. The men knew that the “Skipper” would wait for them if he saw them on their way, and many a men would thank him for holding the car so that the man could catch his train.
That first winter passed quickly and with the arrival of our second spring many more lights could be seen as one new neighbor and then another moved into their new homes. The building of these new homes was a most interesting process to watch. Hand labor was plentiful and many rocks covered the area. The blasting of the larger rocks, however, was a terrifying thing with an anxious eye being kept on the plaster walls and ceilings. The laborers were a friendly lot, quick-speaking Italians, soft voiced Sallians and guttural Russians. The Russian “wood chopper” was a personage to inspire fear in you when you passed him on the road with his high boots, his Russian smock and his axe in his belt. However, a quiet, kindly man when you got to know him.
Margaret Backer Washington, Cillete , New Jersey
Leslie Edwin Backer, Florham Park, New Jersey