Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia on June 27, 1976 · Page 79
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Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia · Page 79

Charleston, West Virginia
Issue Date:
Sunday, June 27, 1976
Page 79
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Page 79 article text (OCR)

Morristown: America in Microcosm By Jules Lob AP Newsfeatures Writer MORRISTOWN, N.J.-George Washington slept here in a big white house about a musket shot from Interstate 287. His army encamped in a hollow just south. At that time, Morristown was "a clever little village in a most beautiful valley at the foot of five mountains." A colonel's snooty wife, homesick for Virginia, called its inhabitants "the earnestest rustics you ever beheld." Well, not many rustics here today. The cropland so precious to those starving colonial troops has long since surrendered to other local needs deemed, in their time, just as pressing. Colonial Laundromat. Colonial Sunoco Service. Colonial Village Mobile Home Park. The times, the people, the nation, they all change. None would expect it might be otherwise. But a nation embarked on a year-long look at where it has come in its pursuit of that bold dream of two centuries ago, thus possibly to gain some notion of where it is going, might find a backward glance instructive. For example, nobody would expect that little colonial village to remain little. But in retrospect one also' discovers' that it was perhaps not so clever, either. In Washington's day, the village and its environs housed 700 souls, today 37,000. But today the village and its encircling suburbs are two separate municipalities, Morristown and Morris Township. Back in 1865, when the villagers decided to cut off the suburbs jurisdictionally, it seemed the clever thing to do. Instead, the Township has become a political and economic noose around the city rather than an insulating barrier, precisely the opposite of the effect intended. Is there a lesson here for other cities? Is there profit for America to learn that the river where Gen. Washington watered Blue Skin, his favorite sorrel, is no longer fit to drink? Or that the mossy remains of the favorite watering place of his men, the Half Moon Tavern, were wiped out last year by 1-287? Priorities, priorities. Is it fair, really, to peep under Morristown's rug to see how it, or any American city for that matter, has kept its house and managed its inheritance during the republic's first 200 years? After all, much of the beauty George Washington saw in this valley remains. Wild deer still browse near crystal brooks in the woods where his men weathered the cruel winter of 1779-1780, the winter of 28 snows. Now is the city itself some Eastern Seaboard eyesore; far from it. Swans glide on city ponds. At noon on the Morristown green-what municipal foresight, a town green--the Angelus peals a daily symphony from a grove of spires. Still, yes, such an examination proves instructive. As with the nation itself, eight generations have shaped this city. Their cumulative experience, to an almost eerie degree, matches the nation's. Morristown has had its colonial age, its gilded age, its age of driving commercialization and, to 2m CHAtiLteriN. lV.V.4. repair the damage, its age of urban renewal. Its priorities, among a people destined to earn the label "mobile society," have ranged from canal to railbed to trolley line to parking lot, each in turn altering a way of life. Its citizenry numbers among its ancestors.those who came over on the Mayflower, and found their place, and those who came in steerage, and got put in theirs. All have left an imprint. Remarkably, then, in these and other ways, a close look at Morristown, N.J., becomes a narrow-focus view of the American experience--but manageable, digestible, a bite-size " sampling of the national stew. Morristown is a tidy, evenly paced city in a rolling, uncrowded section of New Jersey known as the Blue Hills, about 25 miles west of New York City, a short hike but a far cry from the industrial swamps often thought of as typical of the nation's most' densely populated state. Not that Morristown isn't densely populated--19,000 within municipal limits of 2.'9 square miles. But just outside town, horses graze on undulating green meadows and the only swamps are real ones, bird sanctuaries. Thus Morristown has elements of both Grover's Corners and Metropolis, and if that combination doesn't exactly sift down to Middletown, U.S.A., it at least goes part way to explain why the city has so many facets of an American microcosm. Morristown's slum could be Chicago's; its garden club Topeka's. So far the Blue Hills remain a clear, smogless blue. Evidence of environmental wisdom, or pure luck? Surely the latter. The very reason the hills were settled was because of the heavy industry they promised: iron smelting. In the dim past, some Indian showed some frontiersman an ore sample. By 1700, the Indians duly driven off, Yankee craftsmen were turning out Holy Lord door hinges and other items for the Hudson Valley trade, not to mention picks and shovels to dig more ore. Happily for the flora and fauna in the long run, however, if not for the entrepreneurs, the ore played out well before the arrival of auger bits and bulldozers and the land healed over. Enterprises up and down the colonial coast made tycoons of a few and, more important, patriots of thousands. Take Jacob Ford. Ford was this area's leading iron mogul. He was the son of poor English immigrants and like other Americans before and since had to make it on his own in the Land of Opportunity. His father, alas, on the day the family arrived in Philadelphia after a hard ocean crossing, slipped off the gangplank and drowned in the Delaware River. By the time he reached manhood, Jacob Ford lived in a stately white house on a Morristown hill, hard by his forge. The forge and a nearby powder mill, their capacities expanded with the help of a government loan--a defense contract, as they came to be called--were one reason George Washington wintered in Morristown and used Ford's mansion as his headquarters. After the battles of Trenton and Princeton, Washington's men were down to nine bullets each. An. other reason for the choice was Mofristown's 'reputation as' a hotbed ol rebellion. Britain's decree that raw colonial iron had to be shipped to the mother country, the products to be resold in America, naturally angered Jacob Ford and others dependent on the town's big manufactory. Ford preached rebellion a year before Bunker Hill and so stoked up the neighborhood that Morristown passed a law making it a jailable offsene so much as to take a sin of English tea. Tories weren't welcome. Neither, one would suppose, were counterfeiters. But even back then there existed what are known as, ahem, e x t e n u a t i n g circumstances--or, in the more popular if less edifying American phrase that has lasted through history, it ain't what you know but who you know. Seems that in 1773, Jacob Ford's nephew, Samuel Ford, fell in wi.tkp oh, let's say the wrong crowd: a doctor, a judge's son, two justices of the peace and one lowbrow, an apprentice printer from out of town named David Reynolds. They were nabbed papering four colonies with bogus currency and all six sentenced to hang. Ford, the ring's mastermind who owned the press, escaped to Virginia. The rest were eventually pardoned -- all but one. who was hanged as ordered. Alas, poor Reynolds. Reynolds went to his reward in the accepted manner of the day. "Hanging by the neck until dead, dead, dead," the prescribed phraseology, was no less emphatic than the prescribed place: the town green. Why not? If the purpose was to dissuade others from the hapless felon's folly, didn't it make sense to have done with him in public, public, public? The U.S. Supreme Court, in its current term, listened to arguments yet again as to whether capital punishment is cruel and unusual. The question has plagued the nation for years, but only since the deed has been done in private. No lawyer arguing the deterrent effect mentioned that fact. But neither did the people of Morristown regard what happened to Reynolds as particularly unusual. Or what happened to one Antoine LeBlanc as particularly cruel. LeBlanc, 31, emigrated to America in the early spring of 1833 and took a job with the Samuel Sayre family of Morristown as a field hand, the only trade he knew. B u t , as he later e x p l a i n e d through an interpreter, he resented being treated like a damned field hand and so, on a chilly Sunday morning, took up a shovel and bashed in the heads of Sayre, his wife Sarah and their slave girl Phebe. LeBlanc buried the bodies in a manure pile and made off with the silverware. A posse caught him heading for the Newark docks and hauled him back. There being no extenuating circumstances, Antoine LeBlanc was hanged Sept. 16, on the Morristown green. A professor from Princeton stood by with a new inyention ; called a battery. He wanted to see if it could convulse'Antoine back' to'life, hop- ing to advance the cause of science in sort of a reverse electrocution. No soap. Next, a surgeon, by order of the court, cut up Antoine into pieces and disposed of him in a small box. Well, not all of Antoine. Somebody had got permission to skin him, and that was done. Then his hide was tanned and wallets offered as keepsakes. No one could say Antoine LeBlanc's life was without redeeming social value. A half-century later a civil leader named A.W. Cutler exhibited one of the wallets as a toney YMCA fundraiser. It ought to be noted, if only to acknowledge irony in the quality of mercy over the years, that in the same courtroom where Antoine LeBlanc was told he must die so hideously, the parents of Karen Ann Quinian were told she must live, artificially, a decision finally reversed by the state Supreme Court By 'the time of 1'affaire LeBlanc--a period known in American history, incidentally, as the Era of Good Feeling--Morristown had blossomed into a sizable town of 2,000 contented souls, four churches, a bank, a stagecoach depot, three doctors, four lawyers, five taverns and a Temperance Society The nation, at the time, was astir with c-anal fever: the Erie: the Chesapeake and Ohio, George Washington's dream, which never got any closer to the Ohio River than Cumberland, Md.; Virginia's James-Kanawha project, which likewise failed to reach the Kanawha. All were considered worth the effort, though, especially since most of the sweaty effort could be borne by thousands of Irishmen pouring ashore and needing work- two million in the decade of the 1840's, harbingers of other swarms from other nations who would change the cultural face of the land from ocean to ocean. The Morris Canal was typical of all those that never quite made it. It was an ambitious design to link Morristown with the Hudson to the east and Delaware to the vvest. The crow-flight distance was only about 60 miles, but it required surmounting a hump of 924 feet by the use of 23 locks and the same number of steam winches to haul the barges up inclined planes. . They blame near pulled it o f f , too, and did got some use out of the canal. But its effect on Morristown. as similar ventures elsewhere in the country, was more profound than merely a short-lived method of shipping ore. The canal, and the available labor, spawned a rickety railroad, the Morris and Essex, which cut travel time to New York to an hour and a half--about the same as today at rush hour on the Interstate--and by 1850 the city's population was 5.000 and growing. Other small cities felt the same sudden, surging growth. The Morristown census noted that 441 of its new citizens were Irish. That was a growing national pattern too. Never again would Morristown be a cozy rural village. Now it was a city, with all that that implied, for better or for worse. A new municipal employee evolved, the lamplighter, 'who kept' naphtha reservoirs filled, wicks trimmed and the town green romantically aglow after dark. More romantic than effective also were the city's two new volunteer fire companies with their hand-drawn engines, leather hoses, and ladder carts. Maintaining the proud tradition, Morristown's volunteers still answer calls alongside the professional firemen. They also pitch superior clambakes. In growing cities, education close to home became a need. Across the land private places of learning sprang up, forerunners of tax-sup- systems. Morristown's schools of the mid-19th century were typical. The quality sent their sons to Morris Academy where a schoolmaster whacked them around with enough regularity to teach them reading, elocution, mental algebra, "geography and the use of the globes." Young misses went to Miss Dana's Seminary and learned to write a pretty hano, paint porcelain, and conjugate amo. Less well-off boys and girls attended Miss Spaulding's School, sat on separate sides of the room, and received grades on a simple declarative scale: Perfect, Tolerable. Bad, Deficient, Ltst. The poor of Morristown didn't go to school, not at first. But they were there. Some New Jersey towns in the late 19th century required paupers to sew a big red "P" on their threadbare clothing, to discourage others from lapsing into that condition, and let it go at that. Others, like Morristown, supposed the poor might be more useful than mere horrible examples and tried to alleviate the condition, though the term welfare was many decades off. So were terms like "disadvantaged" and "minority group" and "senior citizen." The euphemism arrived late in the American lexicon. Morristown levied a straightforward "poor tax." gave S100 to the "Overseer of the Poor" to distribute as he saw fit and used what was left to reimburse citizens who agreed to support a needy family or take a waif or two into their own homes. "Little Orphan Annie came to our house to stay . . . "That still left much to be done by private organizations. One. the Female Charitable Society, in 1858 reported spending $98 on 25 families: "Seven Irish, five colored, the remainder our own people." Newspapers of the era likewise found little gain in beating around the bush. Like the nation itself they were young and rowdy, but free, and uninhibited by any such latter- day notions as i m p a r t i a l i t y . In most towns there were as many weekly newspapers as there were political parties. Thus Morristown had two, one catering to "our own people." the other somewhat broader in outlook. Like Miss Spaulding's report card, neither minced words. After the 1856 election, for example, one paper trumpeted: "Glorious Democratic Victory! Bastard Know-Nothingism crushed -Junf27. 19711. Sunday Cmftf-.^ni

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