04 February 2016

Silvia Dubois

When contemplating the life of Silvia Dubois - one of the most remarkable women in the history of Hillsborough Township - one needs to first dispose of the idea that she ever lived to be 125, or 120, or even 116 as claimed by her biographer Dr. C.W. Larison in 1883. The reality is that upon her death in 1888 she was perhaps 100, which is remarkable without exaggeration - and fitting for a former slave who lived such a remarkable life of freedom.

Dr. Larison published his interviews with Silvia Dubois as her "biografy" in 1883.
That we know anything at all about the life of Silvia Dubois is due to the work of Larison. He was a physician, an educator, a scientist, a local historian, and, notably, a spelling reformer. The biography he produced from the interviews he conducted with Silvia in 1883 was written in a phonetic spelling of his own creation - perhaps somewhat useful in capturing Silvia's colorful language, but maddening for the modern reader, and unwittingly destined to keep the narrative from becoming widely accessible until transcriptions were made in standard English, about 100 years after publication.

An etching made from a photograph of Silvia Dubois taken in Flemington in 1883
which became the frontispiece for her biography. P.S. She wasn't born in 1768.

Although Larison is an interesting subject - and we can learn much about him from the biography and his other works - the real interest is Silvia Dubois. She was born about 1788 in the tavern owned by Richard Compton just north of Rock Mills in Hillsborough Township, NJ. Silvia's mother, Dorcas, was a slave belonging to Compton, whose name she took and used throughout her life. Silvia's father was Cuffee Bard, a fifer during the Revolution participating in the battles at Trenton and Princeton.

Dr. C.W. Larison (1837-1910) of Ringoes, NJ
Silvia remarked that her mother was "ambitious to be free". To that end, she borrowed a considerable sum of money from prominent Hillsborough farmer Dominicus Dubois - indenturing herself and her children to him while using the cash to buy her freedom from Compton. When she found herself unable to repay Dubois, she and Silvia became his slaves. Still striving for freedom, Dorcas endeavored upon a similar transaction with one William Bard - this time sadly leaving Silvia, who was still only a toddler, behind.

Dominicus Dubois - called Minical in Silvia's remembrances - was the youngest of three brothers who were the grandchildren of an original settler of Hillsborough, Abraham Dubois. The eldest, also named Abraham, moved to Philadelphia and became a jeweler. The second, Nicholas, remained in Hillsborough eventually inheriting his grandfather's home and estate south of Amwell Rd. near the present day Eisler Lane. Dominicus struck out on his own, opening a tavern in the frontier wilderness of Great Bend, Pennsylvania, and hoping to make his fortune in the fledgling turnpike business.

Great Bend, PA on the Susquehanna River circa 1811

Silvia was only fourteen when she made the 152 mile trek with the Dubois family to Great Bend. She walked the entire way. Already big and strong for her age, she became bigger and stronger in Great Bend, eventually reaching five feet ten inches tall and weighing 200 pounds. Silvia was employed by Dubois in ferrying passengers across the Susquehanna  - in competition with a ferry service owned by a Captain Hatch. The way she was able to steal customers from Hatch, and her speed in rowing single passengers across in a skiff, endeared her to Dubois.

Although she got along well with Dubois during this period - stating that when she pleased him, he pleased her - relations with his wife were more than brutal. She was repeatedly beaten by her mistress, once being hit about the head so furiously with a fire shovel that Silvia was left with a three inch depression in her skull. When she was about twenty years old, while Dubois was away serving on a grand jury in Wilkes Barre, Silvia unleashed her fury, delivering a mighty blow to Mrs. Dubois that drove her back against a door and left her unconscious on the floor.

Silvia immediately ran away across state lines to New York, but soon returned to retrieve her 18-moth-old child which she had left behind. By this time, Dubois had decided to give Silvia her freedom, telling her that he would write her a pass so long as she took her child back to New Jersey and didn't return.

The cabin home of Silvia Dubois and her daughter Elizabeth Alexander
 at Cedar Summit near Rock Mills
The 152 mile journey back to Flagtown, carrying her child the entire way on foot, through wilds where there were few roads or paths to follow and where wild animals howled each night was bad enough, but one day as she came closer to civilization she heard a man call out to her, "Whose nigger are you?" A piece of paper in the pocket of a freed slave often wasn't enough in a frightening situation such as this. So Silvia set her child on the ground, adopted he best pugilistic stance, and answered, "I'm no man's nigger - I belong to God - I belong to no man."

Hoping to find her mother in Flagtown,she was disappointed to learn that Dorcas was now living in New Brunswick with yet another master, Miles Smith. Silvia lived with her mother in New Brunswick for three years finding menial or household work. In 1811 she went to Princeton and became a house servant for the Tulane family for many years.

Silvia Dubois, right, and her next-to-youngest daughter Elizabeth, circa 1883

About 1830, Silvia accepted an invitation to come back to the Sourland Mountain and help run the notorious tavern at Rock Mills owned by her maternal grandfather - a freed slave named Harry Compton who went by the name of Harry Put after his first owner General Rufus Putnam. Put's Tavern was the kind of place where people went to get a little wild. A completely unlicensed establishment, the entertainment featured boxing, gambling, cockfights - and plenty of booze. As Harry became ill, Silvia took over more and more of the responsibilities of the tavern, inheriting it upon his death. Around 1840 the tavern was burned to the ground by, in Silvia's words, "those damned Democrats" and she lost everything. She rebuilt a wigwam style hut on the land and for a couple of decades made a living raising hogs.

Some time in the 1870s her home was again burned down and she went to live with her daughter Elizabeth, also known as Big Lib or Lizi, the only one of her six children still living, just across the county line at Cedar Summit in East Amwell Township. Already 85 years old by this time, Silvia and Lizi lived in a log cabin with no windows, little furnishing, and an ancient wood cookstove in the corner of the room. In her later years she would come down from the mountain just twice per year, usually visiting the village of Harlingen, to entreat on the generosity of her neighbors.

Still drinking and smoking her clay pipe well into her 90s, Silvia deigned to allow herself to be exhibited as a curiosity at the state fair at the Waverly fairgrounds in Elizabeth in 1887. Despite newspaper claims that she had perished in the great blizzard of 1888, she in fact survived until the spring of that year, newspapers trumpeting that at 125 years she was certainly the oldest person to have ever lived! In fact, she was 100 years old - full of freedom to the end.

28 January 2016

William J. Keys, South Branch Farmer

Here's a political trick that never seems to get old - put doubt in the minds of voters by accusing your opponent of not being able to serve because they don't meet the eligibility requirements. No, I'm not talking about Donald Trump and Ted Cruz in 2016 (or Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in 2008), but rather about the Somerset County Republican power-brokers and their eve-of-the-election campaign against political newcomer William J. Keys in November 1890. 

NJ state senator William J. Keys
from an engraving in the September 18, 1893 New York Times
Days before the election for New Jersey state senator, with the realization that the traditional Republican stronghold was about to pass to the Democrat Keys, Republicans began distributing fliers and posters insinuating that the native New Yorker had not been resident for the required amount of time in Somerset County or New Jersey. The truth was that Keys, on the advice of friend and former NJ state senator Rynier H. Veghte, had moved to Hillsborough in 1884, purchasing the large estate on the Raritan River just east of the village of South Branch. 

The Ellis Stock Farm, home of NJ state senator William J. Keys, 1891
William J. Keys was born in Dobbs Ferry, New York in 1838. He made his name and fortune in the produce business running Manhattan's famous Washington Market. He made his political connections during the Civil War when he was given the contract - amid riots and unrest - of supplying the troops quartered in the city with rations. After the war he added to his wealth by having interests in various steamboat lines. Still, when he retired to Hillsborough and spent thousands renovating the three-story mansion on River Road, his desire was to only be a farmer. That didn't last long. Before he knew it he was being recruited to run for office. Now he was going to follow in Veghte's footsteps by being elected to the NJ Senate - because, of course, the Republicans last minute dirty tricks campaign backfired and Keys was elected easily.

1891 advertisement for the Ellis Stock Farm

Keys was well-liked by his neighbors. He threw enormous parties at Ellis Stock Farm (named for his wife's family) and was known to help all in need. He was not a sporting man as far as hunting goes - but did have a racetrack on the property, and had one of the finest stables of trotters and pacers in New Jersey at that time. He served in the senate for only one term, eventually selling the farm and moving to East High Street in Somerville, where he died in 1911.

07 January 2016

The Mercer & Somerset Railroad

The Mercer and Somerset Railroad has many notable distinctions, not the least of which is that it was the first railroad in New Jersey to go bust when it folded operations in 1880, just less than six years after making its first run. If the road is remembered at all today, it is for the incident that took place 140 years ago this week - the fabled Frog War. But the Mercer and Somerset should mean much more to residents of our town, because this is the railroad that put Hillsborough on the map.

1960s Hagstrom map of Somerset County,
 placing "Hillsborough" at the crossroads of Hillsborough and Willow Roads.
When people use that phrase, it is usually meant figuratively, but I mean it literally. It's why most maps from the 1870s onward, if they designate Hillsborough at all, place it at the crossroads of Hillsborough and Willow Roads - as if that is or ever was the center of "Hillsborough", or that there was ever a village of that name at that location. No and No. 

1873 railroad map of New Jersey showing route of the Mercer and Somerset
 and the proposed route of the National Railway

The Mercer and Somerset Railway Company was chartered in 1870 and was soon controlled and operated by the Pennsylvania Railroad. Work commenced on a rail line that was built for only one purpose - to block a potential Philadelphia to New York railroad proposed by the National Railway Company. 

1876 railroad map of New Jersey showing the "Hillsborough" station stop
of the Mercer and Somerset Railway
The first trains rolled over the completed line - from Millstone to Somerset Junction on the Delaware River north of Trenton - on February 6, 1874. Stations were located at West Millstone (Millstone), Hillsborough, Harlingen, Blawenburg, Stoutsburg, Hopewell, Marshall, Pennington, Woolsey, Burroughs, and Somerset Junction.

This 1905 postcard view shows the abandoned bridge pier used to carry the tracks of the Mercer and Somerset
 over the Millstone River to connect with the Millstone and New Brunswick Railroad

A connection across the Millstone River to the Millstone and New Brunswick Railroad provided connecting service through to New York - but that didn't deter the National Railway - operating as the Delaware and Bound Brook Railroad - from continuing to build. 

Hillsborough Station as it appeared in the 1930s -
also the post office, general store, and blacksmith shop!

It was said that in order to secure the right of way through the farmland northwest of the intersection of Hillsborough and Willow Roads, the Mercer and Somerset agreed to build a station on the property. There was no obvious choice when it came to naming the station because the route did not pass through or near any village. According to author Henry Charlton Beck in his classic book of Jersey lore "Fare to Midlands", the first choice was Oleander. Odd since the poisonous plant is not native to New Jersey. It was finally decided to simply name the station for the township.

Although hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent in building the railroad, there was only one profitable year, 1875. The profit amounted to about $600! On January 6, 1876 the Delaware and Bound Brook Railroad - laying track south from Bound Brook and north from Trenton - reached Hopewell where they would need to lay a "frog" across the Mercer and Somerset track. The Pennsylvania Railroad had been anticipating this eventuality for some time, fighting in court and placing a heavy locomotive on their tracks at the exact spot the frog would need to be laid.

Each time a Mercer and Somerset train would approach the area, the Pennsylvania engine would be temporarily moved to a siding so the train could pass, then moved quickly back into position. The Delaware and Bound Brook officials had observed this behavior, and on the night of January 5 moved 200 men into a nearby cornfield. The next day, as soon as the Pennsy loco went to the siding, the DBB men rushed the scene - chaining the engine to the tracks and blocking it with rails and ties. They quickly set the frog in place and brought one of their engines to the spot. The Mercer and Somerset countered by telegraphing to Millstone and ordering another locomotive down the line to ram the DBB train. By the next day thousands were on the scene - railroad employees, spectators, reporters, and the New Jersey National Guard. An all out war was narrowly avoided with the Delaware and Bound Brook formally given permission to cross the Mercer and Somerset.

The route of the Mercer and Somerset drawn on a current map of Hillsborough -
the station was near the intersection of Hillsborough and Willow Roads.

That was basically the end for the Mercer and Somerset. The railroad limped along for three more years, never again turning a profit, and the tracks were torn up almost immediately after the 1880 bankruptcy, with the right of way reverting to the original owners, Today, the route of the Mercer and Somerset through Hillsborough Township is nearly completely obliterated. To draw the map shown above, I referenced a 1931 aerial view which still faintly showed the route. Even after the railroad was long gone, maps continued to print the word "Hillsborough" at the crossroads, just as they had when the trains were running.

The Hillsborough station remained standing for many years. It was already being used as a post office while the railroad was still operational, and later was in use as a general store, and a blacksmith shop. In recent times, some Hillsborough residents and the otherwise curious may have come to the mistaken notion that the Hillsborough and Willow Road intersection was once the location of the village of Hillsborough - after all, there was a train station, a post office, a general store, and a blacksmith shop! Not to mention that all of the maps put "Hillsborough" on that spot.

Late 1870s Delaware and Bound Brook passenger ticket.
Now you can tell them the truth about the Hillsborough crossroads  - and the railroad that put "Hillsborough" on the map.

30 December 2015

Kate Claxton - She Didn't Start the Fire...

On December 5, 1876, actress Kate Claxton was thrust into her most terrifying role. It was on that day that the Somerville, NJ native and still-rising star rushed to the front of the stage at the Brooklyn Theater and attempted to prevent a panic in the audience as flames danced all around her and the building filled with smoke. More than 275 people perished as the roof collapsed in what is still one of the most devastating fires in New York history. This was the first of two killer fires involving Miss Claxton that season.

Brooklyn Theater, December 5, 1876. Kate Claxton  at the front of the stage,
trying to prevent a panic as the fire rages.
Born Kate Elizabeth Cone on August 24, 1848 to Spencer Wallace Cone and Josephine Martinez, young Kate was intent on entering show business - against her parents' wishes. It is not known how they felt about her marriage at the age of sixteen to New York businessman Isadore Lyon.

Cabinet Card photo of popular 19th century actress Kate Claxton.

After her marriage ended in divorce, she made her stage debut in Chicago in 1869, then had minor roles for the next three years in New York with the Fifth Avenue Theater Company. The general public did not begin to notice her until she joined the Union Square Theater in 1873.

Kate Claxton in costume for one of the many productions in which she was featured.
The next year saw Miss Claxton take on what would become her signature role, that of the blind girl Louise in "The Two Orphans", a part later played by Dorothy Gish in D.W, Griffith's silent screen adaptation "Orphans of the Storm". The role was highly emotional - and this type of acting became her trademark. Audiences loved it. She returned to the character again and again throughout her long career. By 1876 she had already started her own production company, and later purchased exclusive rights to "The Two Orphans" - touring with it off and on across the country right up until her retirement from the stage in 1903. What a testament to her talent that, already somewhat old for the role when she began playing it at the age of 26, she was still playing it convincingly for her fans at the age of 55!

Kate Claxton in her signature role as Louise in The Two Orphans

It was during a production of "The Two Orphans" that the fire broke out at the Brooklyn Theater. Miss Claxton was onstage at the time and noticed the fire in the wings - as did the other actors - but continued in character thinking that the flames would be extinguished quickly. There was no water available on stage, and attempts to beat out the fire only caused it to spread.

The actors pleaded with the audience to remain calm and proceed in an orderly fashion to the exits. This worked for a few minutes - but when the patrons in the balconies discovered they could not make it past the smoke-filled stairways, it was total chaos. It was reported that Kate Claxton was one of the last to flee the building, narrowly escaping with her life.

This Thomas Nast cartoon, which appeared in a June 1877 issue of Harper's Weekly, 
did much to rehabilitate Kate Claxton's reputation.
While on tour in St. Louis in April of the next year, the young actress was awakened by the Southern Hotel fire alarm at 2 am. She was able to escape the fire that claimed the lives of 40 hotel guests by wrapping herself in wet towels and rolling down the stairs. That second fire was all it took for the sensationalist press of the time to brand her as a token of "bad luck". Miss Claxton herself observed people taking extra precautions each time she checked into a hotel. Cartoonist Thomas Nast came to her defense with a drawing for Harper's Weekly portraying the press as torch-bearing donkeys, ready to destroy Kate Claxton's career for the sake of newspaper sales.

In fact, the publicity occasioned by the fires, the mudslinging, and Miss Claxton's pleas for restraint and fairness, generated a great amount of sympathy, only helping her career.

After a second marriage in 1878 to actor Charles Stephenson - which ended in a bizarre 1901 annulment - and the death by suicide of their son Harold in 1904, Kate Claxton retired to New York City, where she died in 1924.

15 December 2015

A Humble House in a Small World

When a reporter for South Florida's Sun-Sentinel newspaper visited the apartment of Roswell Gilbert in December of 1993 to interview the convicted mercy-killer three years after his 25-year prison sentence was commuted to the five-and-a-half years he had already served, she noticed the many oil paintings hung throughout the home. The paintings were done by Gilbert's mother, the artist Martha Gilbert Skougor. Perhaps the reporter spotted Skougor's most widely known work, "Humble House", conceived and completed while the artist lived in the home depicted in Hillsborough Township, New Jersey.

Hillsborough's "Humble House",
from the cover of the February 13, 1932 Literary Digest.
Soon after Ms. Skougor purchased the little house on the hill overlooking the South Branch of the Raritan River, it became an inspiration to her. About 1930, she added a studio wing where she could paint and develop her craft. With her children grown, she indulged her passions by travelling to South America, where she did many portraits of people in native dress. Landscapes. Portraits. In a 1933 review of one of her gallery showings, the New York Evening Post commented that, "apparently everything else she looks on interests her".

Margaret Sullavan and husband Leland Hayward
In November 1936, Ms. Skougor sold Humble House to Hollywood film star Margaret Sullavan, who had just married Broadway agent/producer Leland Hayward. The Haywards fell in love with the house and intended to use it as a summer retreat. Alas, Sullavan, best known for her 1930s film roles starring opposite James Stewart, was too busy working to spend any time in the home, and they sold it two years later having never spent a single night there!

Margaret Sullavan and Robert Young in The Mortal Storm

Another of Margaret Sullavan's favorite costars was Robert Young - later of "Father Knows Best" and "Marcus Welby" fame. She appeared with him in two films of the late 1930s - "The Three Comrades", concerning World War I, and "The Mortal Storm", set during the beginning of the second World War.. In each film, Robert Young plays a German soldier. But his most controversial role was yet to come.

Ad for the 1987 TV movie Mercy or Murder

Near the end of his career - eleven years after the final episode of "Marcus Welby, MD" - Robert Young returned to television to play the real life role of Roswell Gilbert in a made-for-TV-movie of the 1985 mercy killing that gripped a nation. Suffering from dementia, osteoporosis, and other painful ailments that made her life unbearable, Gilbert's wife pleaded with him to do something to help her. Although she never asked him specifically to end her life, Gilbert could see no other way - and killed her by putting two bullets in her head while she lay unawares on the couch in their apartment, surrounded by the portraits and landscapes inspired by Hillsborough's Humble House.

12 December 2015

Choose and Cut Your Memories - 2015 Update

Here's a 2015 update to a post I first wrote in 2008 about our annual trip to Shadow Hill Farm.

One of the nice things about having the Christmas tree in the family room - in the corner between the fireplace and the T.V. - instead of the living room where we used to put it, is that we are able to enjoy it more. And not just during the commercials!

As I have been sitting here looking at the tree, it occurs to me that in the last several years, we've never had a bad one. I can't remember one scrawny, needle dropping, flimsy-limbed fir in at least the last ten years. [almost 20 years now!]

The reason must be that we always choose and cut our tree at Shadow Hill Farm on Grandview Road in Skillman. I can only think of maybe two years since the mid 90s when we purchased a tree elsewhere - and in at least one of those years I believe it was because the farm didn't open!

The setting - at the top a hill at the edge of the Sourlands - is gorgeous and serene, the proprietors are friendly and helpful, and the trees are top-notch!

But, of course, as I sit here and look at the tree - all trimmed out, and tricked out, with ornaments and lights - I don't really see the Christmas tree at all.








25 November 2015

Somerville Lion on the Loose, 1921

Lion, tiger, polecat, leopard. panther - or whale?!?!? Something was terrorizing Somerville's East-Enders in the summer of 1921, though no one was quite sure what it could be.  When the beast began showing itself in the evenings in the vicinity of Peter's Brook, townsfolk who were caught unawares fled in panic at the sight, later recalling that a few months previous a Barnum & Bailey animal trainer had been scouring the wooded areas about the town on a mission for which he would not answer. Now it was supposed that a lion had escaped from a passing circus train, and had not been retrieved.

New York Evening Telegram, Saturday July 30, 1921

Here's what Mrs. Henry Stenger told the New York Evening Telegram about the encounter she and her four-year-old daughter had with the animal:

"Beatrice and I were walking by the bridge [over Peter's Brook]. The trees along the water's edge form a rather thick screen, but the clear water, reflecting the moonlight, makes it fairly easy to distinguish objects. As I was glancing casually along the bridge. I saw a large animal bound out of the darkness, jump over a hedge at least three and a half feet high, and disappear in the shrubbery by the brook. Beatrice screamed when she saw it, and no ordinary dog would have caused her to do so. The animal, I feel confident, was not a dog. It resembles a lion, for its head seemed large for its body and it had a bushy tail."
Despite the fact that she did not hear it roar, Mrs. Stenger vowed to not let her child out after dark until the beast was caught.

Postcard circa 1906
Mr. Stenger quickly roused the Cline brothers, Sam Hall, the Hoffman brothers, and others into a sort of posse, but came up empty. "We found nothing", he said, "but naturally such a creature would not wait around to be hunted."

Sightings continued for the next two weeks. Edward Fialka who lived on Davenport St. saw the lion on his way home from work one evening, and his two young daughters also reported seeing "a big animal." Even the Brokaws, who were said to have "an excellent reputation for conservatism and common sense" were confident that they had seen something.

New York Evening Telegram, Sunday July 31, 1921
The most famous eyewitness was none other than millionaire entrepreneur James B. Duke, who just missed bagging the trophy as he had to dash back to the house for his rifle. How the lion was able to cross the Raritan unobserved, either by water or one of the few bridges, remains a mystery.

In any case, Somerville police chief Lewis Bellis was not buying any of it. "These persons, I have no doubt, are sincere, but they are impressionable. At night almost any animal appearing suddenly may frighten one - even your own pet cat."

The chief's theory was that the "lion" was in actuality a giant mastiff named Nero - well known to the East End neighborhoods, but perhaps a bit scarier after dark.

It can be supposed that Chief Bellis was attempting to create an impression of his own - and since the newspapers appear to be silent on the subject after his pronouncements, we can assume that this did the trick, and everyone soon had a good laugh about the weeks they were terrorized by the lion, polecat, leopard, panther, and whale!

15 November 2015

No Solutions Yet

If there is one thing that we should take away from Friday's terrorist attacks in Paris, it is that we have no solutions. Attacks will continue until we find one. Don't despair - the problem will be solved in time if we ask the right questions.

The first question we should ask is, Who is the enemy? And perhaps, Who is not the enemy? The second is easier - Muslims are not the enemy. Our friends and neighbors, in your classroom or in the next cubicle, down the block or at the convenience store - they are not the enemy.

Conservatives have universally called for President Obama to name the enemy as "radical Islam". He has insisted on using the term "violent extremism". President Obama is correct, but not for the reasons he thinks.

What most of the world today refers to as "radical Islam" is not radical at all. By definition, because they adhere most strictly to the tenets prescribed in the Koran and other ancient holy texts, they should properly be described as orthodox, not radical. The real Islamic radicals are the reformers who we call moderates.

It is important to make this distinction because it will ultimately lead us to the solution.

Many have suggested that the answer lies within the Islamic community. I think that is correct. But when we ask, Why aren't the moderate Muslims doing more to stop the violence and terror? Why isn't Saudi Arabia doing all it can? we are showing a basic misunderstanding of the relationship between orthodox (radical) and reform (moderate) Muslims.

The essence of the relationship is that it is difficult to win a theological debate when confronted with an orthodox adherent. And would you enter into one when you risk beheading at the conclusion? Orthodox and reform Jews can have these kinds of debates, as can the various Christian sects, and everyone walks away intact. But can a moderate, reformed Muslim confront an orthodox Muslim knowing they will have to disavow parts of the Koran?

Seems unlikely, for individuals, and nations.

Let's keep thinking.

05 November 2015

J.B. Duke Works the Polls, 1908

Imagine going to your local polling place Tuesday and being greeted by Steve Forbes, or Steve Kalafer, or one of the several hedge fund millionaires and billionaires whose homes dot the Somerset Hills. Could you have been cajoled or intimidated into supporting their chosen candidate?

James B. Duke
On November 3, 1908, James B. Duke, Hillsborough resident and millionaire president of the American Tobacco Company set out to do just that - win votes for Colonel Nelson Y. Dungan in his bid to unseat state senator Joseph S. Frelinghuysen of Raritan.

Trenton Evening Times headline, November 5, 1908

Duke, irritated that the Republican (Republican!) Frelinghuysen had called out the wealthiest Somerset County residents for not paying their fair share in taxes, enlisted the help of Alexander W. Mack, manager of the Raritan Woolen Mills, in organizing the opposition to the first term legislator. Both men directed their hundreds of employees to "vote against Frelinghuysen". Duke personally visited several polling places in and around Raritan hoping that either the force of his personality, or his unflinching stare would win the day.

Senator Joseph S. Frelinghuysen
It wasn't enough. Frelinghuysen was swept up in a wave of Republican support, winning by 150 in Raritan and 725 across the district. He eventually became New Jersey's first directly elected US Senator in 1916 after the ratification of the 17th amendment, serving one term before returning to the insurance business and retiring to Arizona.

28 October 2015

Run, Rabbit

When James B. Duke decided to turn his sprawling farm along the Raritan River in Hillsborough Township, New Jersey into a grand estate and public park, one of the first things he did was to ban hunting. Sure, poaching was always strictly discouraged right from the time the tobacco tycoon began to acquire the lots that would make up Duke Farms in 1893. Now, nine years later, the taking of game was to be outlawed.

Bronze statue on the estate of James B. Duke in Hillsborough, NJ, circa 1904

It didn't take New Jersey rabbits very long to learn of the ban. No doubt the furry creatures had already heard about the hundreds of thousands of delicious trees and shrubs being planted on the grounds, now the news that bunnies were permanently "out of season" sent them scurrying by the hundreds across the stone bridges of Duke's Brook into the heart of the estate.

New York Evening Herald, January 20, 1904

With no competition at the buffet (New Jersey was in the first year of a nine year program to import deer from Pennsylvania and Michigan because the herd was at zero, if you can imagine that!) the rabbits quickly multiplied and were overrunning the place within two years. After expensive plants were destroyed by the voracious chompers, Duke decided a hunt was in order.

The newspapers had a good laugh when it turned out that Duke was going to be subject to a fine of $20 per rabbit for hunting out of season. The four hired sharpshooters took 37 in less than two hours, resulting in a whopping fine of $740 for the multi-millionaire!

There was no report that Mr. Duke himself joined in the hunt, but he did almost bag an escaped circus tiger on his estate in 1921 - but that's another story.