In the spring of 1960 my family bought this two-story colonial home on the corner of Washington Valley Road and Oakura Lane in Pluckemin, New Jersey. The area was still very rural, with woods and fields, streams and ponds to explore nearby, and my brothers and I did lots of that.
Here’s our family in the early 1960s in our living room, my parents Phyllis and George, middle brother Doug, little brother Russ and myself. No air-conditioning, so shorts were the thing in summer!
From our yard looking northeast across fields and a few houses to the woods of Schley Mountain. This was part of a large Schley estate with a mansion home on the other side in the Far Hills area, but the old carriage roads were rarely used, except by kids like us. The town of Pluckemin itself hadn’t changed much in 200 years, except for paving the roads. The main street had a large church and about twenty houses along a half-mile stretch, many from colonial times. Pluckemin had hosted part of George Washington’s army one winter during the Revolutionary War, and was actually more important than Bedminster back then.
The only businesses I recall when we moved there were a general store (post office and liquor store also inside), a gas station, and a bar, the Pluckemin Inn. There was the schoolhouse just west of town, but it had recently closed. Here’s the general store in 1940, much as I remember it — except for the cars, of course.
When I began at the Bedminster Township School in the spring of 1960, the school bus picked up students in front of the general store at the main crossroad in Pluckemin. I walked the half-mile down Washington Valley Road from our house to the store, or in bad weather was driven down by my mom. One thing that’s changed very little in the intervening 50 plus years is the look of the yellow-orange school buses. Later the bus came up to Oakura Lane, next to our house. The buses came from the Barker Bus Company, also located in Pluckemin.
While parents could buy milk in small cartons for children (from Welsh Farms), given out at the school at lunchtime, there was no cafeteria, so everyone had to bring lunch. Some used brown paper bags, but many children carried tin lunch boxes like the one above, with a matching thermos for hot soup or a drink. I might have owned this one — it looks vaguely familiar! The morning bus ride was a time to talk to friends or finish up a little class work perhaps. The ride was slow, as we stopped often to pick up kids, but probably no more than five miles in all, and took about 15 to 20 minutes.
The bus dropped us in front of the main entrance to the new building, and we dispersed to our classrooms. I began late in the school year in grade 3, and my teacher was Mrs. Marie Chabot. She was something of a terror, very strict, with a loud voice, and always ready to punish with a pinch to the ear or a rap of her ruler on knuckles. Many kids were afraid of her as I recall, but she was easy on me, as I was only in her class for a month or two. Catherine (Cathy) Downey, there for the entire school year, remembers, “Mrs. Chabot would put earrings and jewelry on the boys to punish them and make them dress up as girls. At the time I thought it was cruel and creepy.” Cathy also recalls, “That first year, we had a big musical production for the Christmas pageant. It was called ‘The Christmas Cards’ and it was a story about the old cards from last year being discarded for the new. I had a solo singing part and afterwards the 8th graders would point at me and say that they heard me sing and would I sing on the spot? I felt scared and terribly timid and then Mrs. Chabot chased them away. I heard Mrs. Chabot tell the other teachers that the production took up too much time and that we should never do anything like that again.”
The photo above is the grade 3 class room in 1973, looking much as I remember it, with Mrs. Chabot in the background. The desks had wooden tops, with a storage area below for books and things. The large windows were a distraction often covered by shades to keep us attentive. At the back of the room were shelves with books, and supply cabinets. Coat closets were on the other side near the room entrance, and at the front was the teacher’s desk and large blackboard, though many of those were actually green in our school.
Some of the early acquaintances I made were probably the other kids from Pluckemin like Ralph Johnson, Brent Franklin, and Cathy Downey. Neighbors on Oakura Lane that I went to school with on the bus included Johnny Pierson, Lee and Charles Letcher, Belinda Ballentine, and later Deidre Ballentine. Other early friends were Curtis Vreeland and John Beard. Craig Allen moved to Pluckemin not long after I did, and we spent a lot of time together for a few years.
Students from Kindergarten through grade 4 were all new in the “new building,” which had opened the previous September 1959. All the current grade 3 kids had been at the Pluckemin School previously, with Kindergarten teacher Miss Marion DeVoe, grade 1 teacher Miss Gertrude Koludrovich (Miss Kelly for short) and grade 2 teacher Mrs. Lucy Sprague. All three of them continued at Bedminster. Mrs. Chabot (and grade 4 teacher Mrs. Barlow) had been previously teaching at the Pottersville School before it closed for the consolidation at Bedminster.
In the fall of 1960 I started grade 4 with teacher Mrs. E. Barlow, in another photo from 1973. I remember her being quieter and kinder than Mrs. Chabot, but still strict enough to keep kids in line.
We began cursive writing in this grade, having done only individual upper and lower case letters before that, using as a guide the wall chart above. I liked it, though I was never that good at it. Cathy Downey remembers making a globe out of Paper Mache in this class. Jody Millard remembers it too, placing the wet, starchy strips of newspaper around an inflated balloon, letting it dry, painting it white, then with the green and blue for the oceans and continents. Up through grade 5, students stayed most of the day in their home classroom, except for gym class and recess, either in the multipurpose room or outside in the playing fields and playground. I can remember playing dodge ball and baseball outside, while inside there were calisthenics, basketball and gymnastics. Not sure what grades we started those things. There was also square dancing.
Students gathered in the gym in a 1972 photo, sitting on the foldout benches, with the basketball court markings on the hardwood floor.
Recess was at least a half hour with minimal structure. Above is part of the recreation field in 1972, with the playground behind it: two sets of swings, two see-saws and two slides, with a basketball hoop behind that and then the parking lot for teachers and visitors. (Parking cars on the lower grass to the right is new to me.) The 1960s playground may have had fewer swings, and just one aluminum slide polished to super slickness with wax paper from our sandwiches. It ended on a down slope, as you can see above, and you could get a pretty good launch from it, and from the swings. You could walk around the open field below to the edge of the small stream that formed the lower boundary of the school property. Kids occasionally fell in, and arrived in class with sopping wet clothes. There were also some large concrete pipes meant for drainage or sewer lines that we played on, leading to many skinned knees. I suspect none of this equipment would be considered safe today.
Music and perhaps sometimes art teachers came into our classrooms in the lower grades. There was a piano in each room I think, and our first music teacher came in and played songs for us to sing. I don’t remember his name. Subjects we were graded on were English, Spelling, Reading, Mathematics, Science, Social Studies, Physical Education, Health Education, Vocal Music and Writing, with Art added in grades 5 and 8. My brother, Doug, four years younger, would have started Kindergarten this year.
We also made regular visits to the Library in the lower level of the old building. I was an avid reader, and this was my favorite place in the school. The librarian was Mrs. Dorothy Grady, and we became friends pretty quickly, I think. She introduced me to many books that I still love, like “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien, and eventually brought books in from her personal collection for me to read, like the Oz books of L. Frank Baum. The photo above is from 1973. When I started at the school, the library was also the Bedminster town library and had adult books too. My mother loved to read, and she was soon helping Mrs. Grady repair books, either at home or in the room across the hall from the library, I think. Tim Walker’s mother also helped out there once a week, typing catalog cards and other things, as did many other parents.
Here’s the library circulation desk in 1972 with students helping to check out books. I think the boy on the right is putting the card with the due date into the pocket in the back of a book. The door behind him must be for the entrance to the hallway, and the card catalog is behind that.
In late 1962 the town library moved to the large round room in the Dutch Reformed Church just across Route 206 from our school, so the adult and high school level books moved there, and the town bought new books for children to stock it. The existing children’s books remained in the school library. Tim Walker remembers helping move the books, but I missed that somehow. I often walked over to the library at the church — after classes but before my bus left — to take out books, it was a very friendly place. Pru (Hobbie) Cuper recalls the crossing guard, a retired policeman named Charlie Durlach, who she says “always seemed to know what was going on at the school and in town.” The building remains, above is a recent photo I took; it’s now the Grace Fellowship Chapel. The current library is in a large new building about a mile west, and some of the information and photos in this article were found there.
Tim Walker joined our grade 4 class and we soon became good friends. Before long we were visiting each others’ homes often. I’m happy to say we’re still good friends today, and it was on a recent visit with Tim, when we reminisced about these school years, that this project began.
Next time, more school staff and memories. Other parts of this article and more you might find interesting are on the REMEMBERED page of my blog.
If you’re on Facebook, I’ve also set up a Facebook page for the school where you can comment and perhaps connect with former classmates. There will be additional photos and documents there that I didn’t have room for here. Please “Like” it and add to your Favorites to keep up with the latest posts.