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.

20 October 2015

It All Went Down, On the Farm

Not every gilded-age millionaire had a house and farm on River Road in Hillsborough in the first decade of the 20th century - just those named James Buchanan. We all know about James Buchanan Duke, whose Duke's Farm lives on today as Duke Farms, but much less has been written about the far more flamboyant J.B., James Buchanan Brady, better known then and today as Diamond Jim.

Ellesdale Manor, in its later incarnation as the South Branch Hotel

Diamond Jim is said to have made his fortune in business by being the best salesman of his era. Unable to take "no" for an answer, he was known to sit in a buyer's ante-room for days waiting to be seen. When it came to selling steel railroad cars or a stable of thoroughbred racehorses, he was always able to close the deal.


Larger-than-life millionaire businessman, gambler, and gourmand, Diamond Jim Brady.
In matters of the heart it was a different matter altogether. His marriage proposals were repeatedly rebuffed by the two women in his life - New York stage actress Lillian Russell, and live-in companion Edna McCauley. After summering with McCauley at popular turn-of-the-century vacation spots such as Atlantic City, Belmar, and Long Branch, he decided he needed a New Jersey country retreat of his own. Since eating was one of his favorite and legendary hobbies, why not purchase a farm where he could grow crops and raise cows, pigs, and chickens?


Edna McCauley, Diamond Jim's sometimes niece, sometimes daughter, constant companion.

Brady found the perfect location just north of the village of South Branch - a farm on the Raritan River called Ellesdale Manor, previously owned by New Jersey State Senator William Keys. The design firm of Collins Marsh was called in to decorate and furnish the home with the trendiest of rustic decor. After many months of consultation with Diamond Jim and Edna, designs were approved and remodeling began on the three-story second empire house. Walls were torn down to provide space for a ballroom, wine cellar, and most importantly a gaming room.

Attention was next paid to the farm. Brady purchased twenty-seven Guernsey cows - just enough to give the place the all-important pastoral look - as well as pigs, horses, chickens, dogs, and ten thousand squab pigeons.

Actress Lillian Russell
Money was no object when it came to outfitting the farm. Expensive fertilizers, the very best farm machinery, and enameled milking pails delighted Brady's farm manager. According to biographer Parker Morell, "every vegetable and every animal grown or raised on the place cost at least five times as much as its duplicate could have been obtained for in the open market." But that wasn't the point. Brady thought that the food he grew tasted better, and that's all that mattered.


Financier, banker, merchant, Jesse Lewisohn
In short order, friends from the New York business and theater worlds began to descend on the farm each weekend. Frequent visitors to Jim and Edna's were impresario Florence Ziegfeld, singer Anna Held, and of course Brady's good friend and second love interest Lillian Russell. Also from New York came merchant banker Jesse Lewisohn, a consort of Miss Russell's, and a close friend of Brady's.

Yes, things sometimes got complicated "down on the farm". Guests shared rooms, and people looked the other way. But there was no looking the other way when Diamond Jim returned from a business trip a few years later and was met by Edna and Lewisohn, who told him that in his absence they had fallen in love and were to be married! His common-law wife and his best friend! And for Lewisohn to betray Lillian Russell this way!

Perhaps the pain of how it all went down played a part in Diamond Jim's decision to sell the farm and return to New York - leaving Hillsborough with only one millionaire J.B., but with a lasting impression of the flashy man with the flashy farm.

08 October 2015

Three Towers, 1937

With all of the talk about the Off Track Wagering facility just approved for the old Maestro 206 site, I thought I'd share this 1937 advertising postcard of one of the first establishments to do business at that location. The Three Towers was a banquet hall, nightclub, dance hall, etc. for at least a couple of decades from the 30s through the 50s. It was a tour stop for many nationally and regionally known big bands of the era, and later rock and roll groups.


Three Towers - Entertainment, Dining, Dancing - postcard circa 1937
I have seen some posts on Facebook putting forth the idea that this spot on 206 is a bad location for a restaurant because nothing ever lasts there. I am of the opposite opinion. I believe the OTW folks chose this location because it has proven itself for decades. Yes, the businesses have changed over the years - from The Three Towers to the Jolly Ox, Duke's Farm Inn, Jaspers, the brewing company (forget the name) CocoLa, Maestro 206 - but that's to be expected. It would be more of a surprise if the same business had been there for the past 75 years. Just my opinion.



07 October 2015

Christmas Dinner, 1912

Now that the weather is turning cooler, the most wonderful time of the year can't be far off. Nothing's better than sitting down to Christmas dinner with your loved ones - as long as dad doesn't attack you with the kitchen utensils, a pitchfork, and a shotgun!

New York Tribune headline, December 27, 1912
The Balas family had only been living in Bernardsville a few months when the headline above appeared in The New York Tribune. They moved from New York City earlier that year of 1912 in the hopes that a change of scenery might cure Andrew Balas of his violent alcoholism. Apparently the cure didn't take as dad continued to drink heavily, appearing at the Christmas dinner table already heavily intoxicated. He reacted to a reprimand from Mrs. Balas by attempting to stab her with the carving fork, which was wrestled away by eighteen-year-old son John.

New York Tribune headline, December 27, 1912
When John forced his father out of the house, dad returned with an even larger fork - a pitchfork - but was again overpowered by the youth with mom's help. Balas then retrieved a shotgun from his bedroom and pointed it at his wife, beginning a frantic struggle by all three for possession of the firearm, which then discharged, wounding Balas and his wife.

The parents ended up at the hospital in Morristown, while John celebrated what was left of Christmas from a cell in Somerville. Ah, the holidays. Don't you just love 'em!