29 July 2016

Wilson Military Academy Fire, 1912

On the night of May 6, 1912, after lights out and just before evening inspection, a young cadet attending the Wilson Military Academy at Finderne, NJ secretly extinguished a contraband cigarette and hid the remains near his dormitory bunk. Just hours later the smoldering stub ignited the blaze that burned the school to the ground.
New York Evening Telegram, 7 May 1912

Captain Joel Wilson, the owner and principal at the academy, was born in Maine around 1840, and was pursuing a career in education at the outset of the Civil War. He had just accepted a position as principal of an academy in Portland, Maine when the call went out for volunteers. He served in the cavalry for four years with never a request for furlough. At the end of the war, he continued his career in education - first at an academy in Newton, NJ, and then as proprietor of the Hudson River Military Academy in Nyack, NY.



Hudson River Military Academy, circa 1899

Some time around 1907, Captain Wilson moved the academy to the top of a hill in Finderne, eventually changing the name to Wilson Military Academy.

Ad from McClure's Magazine, October 1907

Along with the name change came a tuition increase from $360 to $400 for the term. This included tuition, board, laundry, mending, and use of horses for riding and recreation. Amenities included a wireless telegraphy station, electric light, steam heat, and plentiful athletic fields.


Postcard circa 1909
One of the 50 cadets - aged 8 to 18 - saw the smoke, sounded the alarm, and went to wake Captain Wilson. Newspapers noted that the military discipline employed by the boys likely saved lives in what could have been a terrible tragedy. Not a single life was lost, and many of the cadets were able to save their personal effects by throwing their trunks from the windows as the rapidly spreading fire consumed the entire frame structure.



Ad from Literary Digest, 23 July 1910

Older boys valiantly manned the fire hose while the younger cadets formed a bucket brigade in an effort to save their beloved school. Some of the older boys attempted to reenter the building to retrieve the school colors, but were held back by Captain Wilson as the blaze was too great.

Ad from McClure's Magazine September 1913

Captain Wilson did not rebuild at Finderne, but instead bought 50 acres at Madison,NJ. reestablishing the academy there.


15 July 2016

The Queen of Rivers


Lost in a pleasing wild surprise,
I mark the fountains round me rise
And in an artless current flow
Thro' dark and lofty woods below,
That from the world the soul confine
And raise the thoughts to things divine.


O sacred stream! a stranger, I
Would stay to see thee passing by,
And mark thee wandering thus alone,
With varied turns so like my own!
Wild, as a stranger led astray,
I see thee wind in woods away,
And hasting thro' the trees to glide,
As if thy gentle face to hide,
While oft in vain thou wouldst return
To visit here thy native urn;
But, like an exile doomed no more
To see the scenes he loved before,
You wander on, and wind in vain,
Dispersed amid the boundless main.


Here often, on thy borders green,
Perhaps thy native sons were seen,
Ere slaves were made, or gold was known,
Or children from another zone
Inglorious did with axes rude
Into thy noble groves intrude,
And forced thy naked son to flee
To woods where he might still be free.


And thou! that art my present theme,
O gentle spirit of the stream!
Then too, perhaps, to thee was given
A name among the race of heaven;
And oft adored by Nature's child
Whene'er he wandered in the wild.


And oft perhaps, beside the flood
In darkness of the grove he stood,
Invoking here thy friendly aid
To guide him thro' the doubtful shade;
Till overhead the moon in view
Thro' heaven's blue fields the chariot drew,
And showed him all thy wat'ry face,
Reflected with a purer grace,
Thy many turnings thro' the trees
Thy bitter journey to the seas;
While oft thy murmurs loud and long
Awaked his melancholy song;
Which this in simple strain began,
"Thou Queen of Rivers, Raritan."



- John Davis,  1806

04 July 2016

A "Safe and Sane" Fourth at Duke's Park

Area residents couldn't have been surprised to see the heavy wrought iron gates being installed at the entrance to all of the private roads of J.B. Duke's Hillsborough Township estate in the spring of 1910. Ongoing vandalism had plagued the grounds for a number of years, thwarting the tobacco millionaire's plans for unlimited public access to Duke's Park. In conjunction with the gates, the New Brunswick Daily Home News reported on May 31, 1910 that the park would only be open to the public on Tuesdays and Fridays.

23 May 1913 New Brunswick Daily Home News

Three years later, the newspaper reported that the Duke estate would host a "safe and sane" Fourth of July celebration for the residents of Somerville, Raritan, and the surrounding countryside. It was about this time that Duke completed what was one of the great tourist attractions at the estate - the Fountain Terraces. No trace remains of the magnificent fountains, waterfalls, and temples at today's Duke Farms, as the entire area was removed by Doris Duke in the 1930s.


The Fountain Terraces at Duke's Park, postcard circa 1915
Apparently the July 4th event became a tradition - one that Duke was keen on keeping despite continuing problems with vandalism. In May 1916, he amended his 1915 edict that closed the park permanently - allowing for applications to be made to open the park one day per month for special events. This was just in time for the Anti-Tuberculosis Association to make an appeal to hold their annual July 4th event at the park. The highlight of the celebration 100 years ago was a Grand Elizabethan Pageant with more than 200 performers. Music, dancing, and other attractions not only entertained guests to the park, but money was also raised to support visiting nurses.

10 June 1916 New Brunswick Daily Home News

01 July 2016

Anna Case Wins Back Her Father's Love

Anna Case silently opened the vestry door - just a crack - enough to peer out from what served as the backstage area at the Somerville Second Reformed Church and look at the townsfolk filing into the pews. The date was October 11, 1912 - nearly three years since her November 1909 debut with New York's Metropolitan Opera. 

3 November 1912 Pittsburgh Press

She had been singing in churches for most of her life - first in the choir of the South Branch Reformed Church where she grew up, then playing the organ and leading the choir at the Neshanic Reformed Church. Her first regular professional engagement as a singer was as a soloist at the First Presbyterian Church of Plainfield. Lately she had been supplementing her Metropolitan salary by singing the soprano part in the quartet at Brooklyn's Church of the Pilgrims.Yet still she was nervous, and understandably so. For on this Friday night her father would hear her sing professionally for the first time.

Somerville's Second Reformed Church, postcard circa 1915

When Anna Case signed her first contract with the Metropolitan in 1909, the national newspapers made much of the fact that her father, Peter Case, was the village blacksmith in South Branch, and that young Anna had spent her youth shooing flies - and occasionally shoeing horses - around his shop. She spoke openly about having just one dress and one pair of shoes per year - and the endless chores that came from a life lived in rural near-poverty. This was decidedly not the typical upbringing of a future prima donna.
3 November 1912 Pittsburgh Press

In later years when Anna Case spoke about her childhood, she half-jokingly said that her family was so poor that her parents couldn't even afford to give her any affection. She described her father as a very religious man who disdained her desire for anything other than doing chores and taking care of the family - a sickly mother and two much younger siblings. Beatings were common.


Peter Case forbade his daughter from becoming a singer - equating the stage - even grand opera - with temptation and sin. She borrowed money for lessons from the South Branch grocer, found her own teacher, and then a better one, and left home when she got that job in Plainfield. Twenty-seven dollars a month, of which twenty-four went for rent at a boarding house. She spent most weekdays keeping to the bed in her room, explaining later that you don't feel so hungry when you're just lying still. 

1912 studio portrait
As the concert-goers took their seats, she smiled to herself. There was the grocer and his wife, her old music teacher, the boys and girls she had taught in the choir, and finally, right near the front, in a pew reserved just for them, her two little brothers, her be-gowned mother, and her father - dressed in his Sunday best and beaming with pride.
Thunderous applause greeted Mlle. Case when she appeared after the opening act harpist had finished. She began with the arias she had been singing for years, but finished with the old songs best loved by the home folks - completing her set with "Home Sweet Home". Friends and admirers rushed to the front of the stage. 

Bouquets of flowers were showered on the hometown girl amid cheers and applause. Peter Case pushed his way powerfully to the front with his arms outstretched. Anna took one step forward and fell into his arms, "Oh. dad!" she cried, as they hugged each other for perhaps the first time. All forgotten, all forgiven.