27 October 2014

"A Man Called Van Aken", Part Two

Today the name most frequently associated with Belle Mead is that of New Jersey Senator John Rhoderic McPherson.  Pretty remarkable considering that the millionaire politician from Jersey City held the farm property for only a few years, and sold it in 1889!



Senator John R. McPherson photo portrait by Matthew Brady

McPherson was born in 1833 in Livingston County, New York, and moved to Jersey City at the age of 26.  He knew how to make money in the cattle business, and kept right on doing it in New Jersey, especially after he was elected as a Jersey City alderman in 1864.  As the New York World put it in an 1897 profile, "He had a knack of getting on the winning side, especially when politics and business overlapped."



Patent for an improved stock car, 1876

After six years as an alderman, three as president of that board, he was elected to the New Jersey State Senate.  In 1876, the same year he filed a patent for an improved stock car design, McPherson was a Democratic presidential elector for Samuel J. Tilden in his failed bid to defeat Rutherford B. Hayes - the closest presidential election in U.S. history - setting up his own nomination and election by the New Jersey State Legislature to the first of his three terms in the U.S. Senate.


Senator McPherson in 1891 when he was being talked up for a presidential run
It was during McPherson's first term in 1878 that he learned of the plight of real estate developer and entrepreneur William Van Aken. A few years previously, Van Aken acquired 800 acres of property in central New Jersey along the proposed route of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad's Delaware and Bound Brook division with the intent of developing a small industrial city along the line.  Despite having secured a railroad station with the promise of regular service, and an expenditure of several hundreds of thousands of dollars in improvements, sales of residential lots were slow, manufacturers were not interested, and he was losing money.
Belle Mead looking west toward the Sourland Mountains
Van Aken's attempt to dispose of the entire enterprise was blocked by his wife - she had recently filed for divorce - and the property went into foreclosure.



Belle Mead looking east
According to Van Aken's later testimony, he and Senator McPherson were well acquainted through Van Aken's business interest in New York dockyards.  It was easy then for him to approach McPherson with a scheme allowing the senator to purchase the foreclosed property at a low price of $30,000 and continue Van Aken's development plan, with the eventual profits to be split between the gentlemen.

That's not how McPherson remembered it when the pair met again eighteen years later, with near tragic consequences.

Continue reading in Part Three tomorrow.



26 October 2014

"A Man Called Van Aken", Part One

Search the internet, or elsewhere, for the history of Belle Mead, New Jersey, and you will be sure to find a sentence that reads something like this: "A man called Vanaken bought up all the farms and set out to develop a city, and when he went broke, the property was bought by US Senator John McPherson and renamed Belle Mead."  What a mundane description of a story that includes fortune, ruin, and a charge of attempted murder!


Illustration from the New York Herald, May 19, 1897 

By the 1870s, New York real estate developer and land speculator William B. Van Aken had already amassed considerable wealth.  With holdings in Kansas City, Chicago, and and other locations west of the Mississippi, he now turned his attention closer to home.  Learning that the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad planned to complete their Philadelphia to New York route by laying tracks from West Trenton to Bound Brook, he quickly began buying farms in the vicinity of the small villages of Plainville and Harlingen, eventually accumulating about 800 acres.



Detail from the 1884 Pennsylvania Railroad Map, showing Vanaken Station

Van Aken shrewdly negotiated with the railroad, donating land for a station near the northern border of Montgomery Township, with an assurance that this would be a regular stop on the Delaware and Bound Brook line.  He then set about making such improvements to the land as required for successful, and profitable, development.  By the time regularly scheduled trains were stopping at "Vanaken Station" in 1877, he was well on his way to spending $280,000 (in 1877 dollars!) on roads, buildings, and lot surveying for his new city.

Twenty-five years after Van Aken's initial investment, developers were still trying to turn a profit in Belle Mead.

The next couple of years were a struggle for Van Aken. Expenditures were far outpacing sales.  Realizing his losses were mounting, he decided to divest everything.  Unfortunately, Mrs. Van Aken took this opportunity to sue for divorce, tying up all of the mogul's properties in court.  As the value of his investment decreased, the property went into foreclosure.

Enter millionaire senator John R, McPherson, with, (if you believe Van Aken's story), a plan to fix everything.

Continue reading in Part Two tomorrow.

19 October 2014

Little Mollie Brown

There is no doubt the 30,000 spectators who turned out for the 94th annual Far Hills Race Meeting this weekend witnessed some amazing feats of horsemanship.  But it is also safe to assume that every horse was saddled and every steeplechase rider endeavored to remain firmly astride his mount.  It is interesting to consider then that Somerset County's first great female equestrian made her living and acquired her fame atop and above the bare back of her galloping steed.


Marie Louise Brown (1860-1924), known professionally as Little Mollie Brown, and later as simply Miss Mollie Brown, inherited her great skill from her mother, the renowned bareback rider Madame Louise Tourniare.  The German born Louise Ciseck was apprenticed at an early age to the Tourniaire family, beginning her trick-riding career at the age of five.  After wowing Europe and marrying Francois Tourniare, the entire troupe moved to America in 1846.





















After the death of Francois, Madame Tourniaire married her second husband, circus musician William C. Brown, and settled in Bedminster, where Little Mollie was born on May 17, 1860.


1872 Newspaper Ad featuring Little Mollie Brown in the center of the page

Mollie debuted with her own act at the age of five, thrilling audiences with her strength and skill as a bareback equestrienne.  She toured with numerous circuses throughout the 1860s and early 1870s, receiving prominent billing and acclaim wherever she appeared.

1874 newspaper ad

In 1873 she astounded the circus world by becoming the first female equestrian to perform a somersault on a moving horse from a standing position.  The feat delighted audiences and brought Mollie to a whole new level of fame - one that sustained her career for another decade, through her teenage years and into adulthood.



1884 newspaper ad
She married circus business professional Clarence Farrell in 1878, and later James Files, and seems to have retired from the ring sometime around 1884.

Mollie Brown died in Philadelphia in 1924, leaving two daughters and a legacy of skill and daring unequaled during her lifetime and beyond.





03 October 2014

Anna Case Wannabes, 1922

First, a question:  Was there really a time when teachers and parents were alarmed that children wanted to grow up to be just like a famous opera singer, or a world renowned motion picture actress?

The answer is a surprising, or perhaps not so surprising, YES.



Anna Case 1922 Publicity Photo
Pearl White 1922 Publicity Photo


In 1922 New Hampshire schoolchildren were asked, "Whom do you most wish to resemble when you grow up?"  Answers depended upon the age and gender of the children.  The most common answer among third and fourth grade girls was "teacher".  No other response, out of 26 classrooms full of students, received more than one vote, not even "mother".  Boys of the same age invariably answered "father".  


Anna Case and Pearl White share the motion picture bill on a Sunday in 1919


Seventh and eighth graders showed greater sophistication, with the boys opting for Lincoln, Roosevelt and Washington, while 34 classrooms of girls were split evenly between opera diva Anna Case and silent screen star Pearl White!  The consternation that ensued led to the student survey being written up in several educational journals, along with the directive that educators and parents be wary of the power of the motion picture to mold young people!  This even as the movie industry was touting their product as a tremendous educational resource.




Pearl White made her name initially with the immensely popular 1914 series "The Perils of Pauline". The twenty installments introduced audiences to the "serial" concept, and gave us the term "cliffhanger", denoting the suspenseful ending of each film, which often had Miss White, who performed her own stunts, literally hanging from a cliff!






Anna Case made her one and only foray into full length feature films with the 1919 melodrama "The Hidden Truth".  The film now being lost, it is unknown whether or not Miss Case was called upon to perform any particular stunts, although she was commended at the time for the fine horsemanship she displayed in the western scenes.  


Anna Case on horseback in "The Hidden Truth"

It seems quaint now that hands would be wrung over idolization of an opera singer or the highest paid Hollywood actress.  But it does say something about the immense visual power of the moving image.  Especially in the case of Miss Case, where students' exposure was limited to that one movie from three years prior, and perhaps a few Edison records.


Pearl White is "Up In the Air", 1914

The motion picture had the ability to create, for perhaps the first time, an icon to rival Mom and Dad.  And Teacher, too.


For more Anna Case, click here.



14 September 2014

Anna Case Lets Her Hair Down for the Anthem

Today marks the 200th anniversary of Francis Scott Key's composition of "The Star Spangled Banner".  Immensely popular beginning with its first appearance in a Baltimore newspaper on September 20, 1812, it still took more than 100 years to be officially recognized.  President Woodrow Wilson authorized the song's use as our national anthem in 1916.



Anna Case with flag unfurled, 1917.



It took less than a year for Hillsborough's own Anna Case to become the nation's most renowned interpreter of the anthem.  A popular 1917 Edison Diamond Disc recording and innumerable concert performances over the next decade, combined to make Anna Case as intertwined with "The Star Spangled Banner" as Kate Smith would later become with "God Bless America". (A song written in 1918 by Anna Case's future son-in-law, Irving Berlin!)

For more about Anna and the Anthem, check out my previous piece here.


31 December 2013

"The Key to Your Future..."? Move to Hillsborough

"The key to your future health and happiness lies in answering this advertisement."  So begins the 1912 sales pitch by the Equator Realty & Imp. Co. for $50 (and up!) lots in Flagtown.  Who could honestly say that they "...prefer the noise, the heat and ceaseless grind of the city to the calm healthful life of the country"?
 
 

Ad from the Brooklyn Standard Union, April 13, 1912

I'm not sure how successful this company was, as the earliest Flagtown homes still existing today seem to date from the 1920s and 30s.  Maybe the fact that another realty group was offering free excursions at the same time to visit their $75 lots at the site of the still building Johns Manville plant at the other end of Hillsborough tipped the scales in favor of an easy commute.  The lasting legacy of Equator Realty appears to be the name they attached to Flagtown's "Main Street".



New York Times, June 5, 1910

Somewhat more intriguing is the 80 acre Somerville suburb which was to be called Aten Estates.  Both the brief New York Times article and the advertisement from the Evening Telegram tout the development's proximity to the 3000 acre Duke's Park, the Hillsborough home of tobacco and power magnate J.B. Duke.  Project manager George L. Wheeler promised a plan similar to Duke's, with "winding avenues, concrete walks, and plenty of shade trees and ornamental plants."  A scheme made all the more plausible by the fact the landscape architect employed was Charles W. Leavitt who performed a similar function for Duke.


New York Evening Telegram, May 27, 1910
I am not sure if any lots were ever sold or homes built, nor can I find the exact location of this tract.  The only good clues are the aforementioned proximity to the Duke estate, and the description of the location as midway between the Central Railroad of New Jersey, and the Lehigh Valley Line.  And, of course, the fact that it was planned to be built in the area of Hillsborough where there are no mosquitoes!

28 December 2013

Anna Case, She Writes Some Songs


Anna Case, the Metropolitan Opera soprano and noted concert artist, filed her first copyright notice with the United States Library of Congress on March 5, 1914.  The composition, an uncharacteristically up-tempo ragtime tune titled "Metropolitan Rag", went unpublished for more than three years before being picked up by Newark, N.J. publisher T.W. Allen.  A rather inauspicious beginning for what would be an on-again, off-again preoccupation for the Hillsborough native over the course of the next fifty years.



New York Post, April 11, 1938




For the multi-talented diva - she was skilled on piano, organ, and violin, and was known to occasionally play her own accompaniment during recital encores - extending her endeavors to include songwriting seems only natural.  But for the time, the notion of a young female opera singer becoming a published songwriter was something wholly out of the ordinary.  Yet her next composition, the patriotic "Our America", was so popular that she was requested to perform the song numerous times at appearances during World War I , and it was published by Harold Flammer over the next two years in no less than four different popular arrangements.





In her later years, Anna Case claimed to wake up in the middle of the night and rush to the piano with a melody in her head.  But on at least one occasion, inspiration came more directly.  In the spring of 1919, while sitting on the enclosed porch of her summer home in Mamaroneck, she chanced to hear a single robin perched on the broken branch of a tree, singing a tuneful melody.  She is reported to have jumped from her seat, quickly retrieved a notepad, and wrote out the notes as she and the red breasted bird sang back and forth in collaboration. 




Sheet music published by Harold Flammer
Sheet music published by Harold Flammer


She debuted "Song of the Robin" at her July 5, 1919 Ocean Grove Auditorium concert, and recorded a popular "Diamond Disc" version for Thomas Edison in 1920 - no easy task, as Edison personally approved all recordings. 


Anna Case in "La Fiesta", 1926

For her next two compositions, Anna Case added musical scores to established poems.  "Anhelo (Longing)" a Spanish language poem by Simon Martinez with English lyrics by Cecil Cowdrey was given the Anna Case treatment and quickly became a concert staple.  She is seen and heard singing her composition in the 1926 short Vitaphone film "La Fiesta" - one of the very first "talkies". 
Sheet music published by Harold Flammer


Around the time she was making "La Fiesta", she sat down with a poem by Robert Burns and wrote "Ye Bonnie Banks O' Doon", once again published by Harold Flammer - with a fine photo portrait of the composer on the cover.  But it was something else that happened in 1926 which may have, arguably, sent Anna Case into a ten year dry spell.  That was the year her beau, Postal Telegraph tycoon Clarence H. Mackay, by virtue of his daughter Ellin's wedding, became the father-in-law of one of America's greatest and most prolific songwriters, Irving Berlin.  Her eventual marriage to Mackay in 1931 made Anna Case the stepmother of  Berlin, her contemporary!  What the two musicians shared in maturity, however, did not extend to songcraft.  So it's worth noting here that while Anna Case's compositions show talent, and while her songwriting accomplishments were real (recording her own song for Edison!, singing her own composition in the first motion picture with sound!) she was no Irving Berlin.

It wasn't until 1936 that Anna Case once again caught the songwriting bug.  The impetus was her husband's birthday.  With his unimaginable wealth reduced by the great depression to a mere imaginable level, Clarence Mackay still had everything he could possibly ever need or want, so his wife gave him something he couldn't buy - a song - which she sang for him on his birthday, "My Irish Eyes".

Mr. Mackay so enjoyed the song, that he enlisted it's use - with a few tweaks in the lyrics - for his new "song-o-gram" service, a kind of singing telegram delivered for a fee over the telephone.  The tune was a hit on St. Patrick's Day, and led to Anna Case composing additional ditties for other occasions, including more substantial works such as "Just and Old Fashioned Picture", which she sang on a special Mother's Day radio broadcast in 1938, and "Daddy, This is Your Day", introduced by popular young singer Mary Small on a similar radio broadcast for Father's Day.




"Daddy, This is Your Day" popularized by Mary Small


"Just an Old Fashioned Picture" was a collaboration with lyricist Gerald Fitzgerald, as was "I'm a Dreamer of Dreams (That Never Come True) - popularized by Ozzie Nelson - and many other songs during this period.


"I'm a Dreamer of Dreams" popularized by Ozzie Nelson

Inspired by her husband, Anna Case returned again and again to Irish themes in her music, with such songs as "I Know an Irish Garden" - another collaboration with Fitzgerald - and "By the Lakes of Killarney I Met My Kathleen", recorded contemporaneously by well-known Irish tenor John McCormack, and available on iTunes today.



"By the Lakes of Killarney..." recorded by Irish tenor John McCormack

Anna Case copyrighted about fifty songs between 1936 and 1940, mostly unpublished.  As World War II began,  she collaborated with Gladys Shelley on a patriotic song, "Long Live Our Democracy", and in 1943 with Roslyn Wells, more successfully, with "Hallelujah! Hallelujah! We'll Pull Together".



Sheet music published by Harold Flammer

After another ten year break, we find "Un Papillon Capricieux", with French and English words by Mitchell Carroll and music by Anna Case - who received prominent top billing on the sheet music published by Harold Flammer - and, in a reversal, "When I Hold You in My Arms", with words by Anna Case, and music by Harold J. Stewart.


An exhausting, if not exhaustive, search of U.S. copyright records finds one final unpublished song, "You've Got Ireland In Your Eyes", copyrighted words and music by the seventy-four-year-old Anna Case, 23 April 1962.






17 December 2013

Anna Case, Tales of Redemption

Metropolitan Opera Company representative William J. Guard was given the unenviable task of addressing the Brooklyn Academy of Music audience before the curtain to announce that the continued indisposition of coloratura soprano Frieda Hempel would make it impossible for her to appear in the role of Olympia that evening.   The date was December 13, 1913, the occasion, the second performance that season of Offenbach's "Les Contes d'Hoffmann" (Tales of Hoffman).  The fact that the hisses greeting this announcement were drowned by modest applause was a testament to the enduring popularity of Mme. Hempel's replacement: Anna Case.

Anna Case as Olympia the Doll in "Les Contes d'Hoffmann"


What could have proven a disaster for the twenty-six-year-old soprano from South Branch, New Jersey, instead turned into a triumph of perseverance and skill.  Given notice just six hours before the curtain, in a role that she had never before sung, with the memory of the decidedly mixed reviews that followed her performance as Sophie in "Der Rosenkavalier" just days before, there was every reason for the audience, and any ordinary diva, to fear the worst.

Olympia's signature song from Offenbach's "Les Contes d'Hoffmann"


"Sophie" was supposed to be the role that put Anna Case at the top of the marquee.  She had enjoyed her first major success in the American debut of "Boris Godunov", starring in the trouser role of Fyodor.  She was then rewarded with another principal role in the American debut of  Strauss' comic opera.  The grueling two month rehearsal schedule, in a language she was wholly unfamiliar with, German, took a terrible toll on her voice, which was evident at the December 9, 1913 premiere.  It didn't help that the part, which calls for soft, emotional, passages, was completely drowned by the orchestra more than once.

Anna Case as Sophie in "Der Rosenkavalier"
Anna Case as Sophie in "Der Rosenkavalier"





















It is to the credit of the Metropolitan Opera directors, and Anna Case herself, that she was ready and willing to answer the call as Olympia the Doll.  As reported the next day in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, "Her fresh, young voice was as clear as a silver bell...and her acting was as supple as the role allowed.  Applause greeted her from all over the house and flowers were handed to her before the curtain."

Presentation of the Rose from "Der Rosenkavalier" with Anna Case, left, as Sophie, and Margarete Ober, center, as Octavian.

She went back to Manhattan and continued in the role of Sophie for all eleven 1913-14 performances of "Der Rosenkavalier", to improving reviews, as well as appearing in two additional performances of "Boris", four of "Orfeo ed Euridice", and as the featured soloist is no less than six Sunday Night Concerts.

December 20, 1912, New York Evening Telegram


Anna Case reprised her role as Olympia with the Metropolitan Opera in Atlanta, Georgia at the end of the 1914-15 season, and recorded Olympia's signature song, "Les Oiseaux dans la Charmille", for the Edison record label in 1916 - although not released until she had effectively left the opera in 1918.

29 October 2013

Christie Opens First Section of Route 206 Bypass


With Joan Biondi and family in attendance, Hillsborough Township Mayor Frank DelCore and Governor Chris Christie formally opened the first completed section of the Route 206 Bypass named in honor of Assemblyman Pete Biondi who passed away in 2011.
 
Hillsborough Mayor Frank DelCore, Senator Kip Bateman, Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, Governor Chris Christie, Assemblywoman Donna Simon, and Congressman Leonard Lance at the opening of the Peter J. Biondi Route 206 Bypass on Monday October 28, 2013
 
The governor remarked on Pete's legacy of public service, told a story about a gift of cuff links from Pete, and let everyone know that as a New Jersey commuter, he was as anxious as anyone to see the construction of the final two sections of the bypass project, now expected to be completed in 2018.

 
Pete Biondi in 2010
 
No doubt about it, the highway, as it exists right now, is a bit of a "road to nowhere", running between Amwell Road and Hillsborough Road.  Until the southern connection at Route 206 and Mountainview Road, and the northern connection at Route 206 and Old Somerville Road are completed, the road is likely to have limited usefulness.
 
After the brief ceremony, residents and dignitaries who were in attendance had the option to exit the roadway by driving south on the bypass to Hillsborough Road.  Which is exactly what I did.
 
video

21 September 2013

Fifty Years Ago Today


 
 
Saturday, September 21, 1963, railfans watch as a Reading steam locomotive approaches near Belle Mead Station.