Mapping My Childhood

BikeMapBlogI’ve always liked maps, especially ones of places where I’ve spent time. In 1960, when I was nine, our family moved to Somerset County, New Jersey, from a town not too far to the east. Above is part of a map of Somerset County from 1961 that used to hang on the wall of my room when I was a child. On it, marked with thin red drafting tape, are all the roads I rode my bike on from our house on Washington Valley Road in Pluckemin. It’s hard to make out here, but Pluckemin was soon to become the crossroads of two interstate highways: Route 287 and Route 78. They were already marked on this map as thick dotted lines. One of the most memorable rides was taken by my two younger brothers and I from our house (the yellow square) to Martinsville on the lower right. This was a round trip of about 11 miles, which doesn’t sound that bad, but it was a blazing hot day in July by the time we were done, and we foolishly took our middle-aged Labrador Retriever mix Pepper with us. We were all in sad shape when we got back, and Pepper hardly moved for several days.

BikePluckeminA closer look at Pluckemin, with out house marked in yellow drafting tape. Too bad so many of the road names are covered, but you’ll see them further down. Note that across the road from our house it’s marked “Washington Camp Ground,” a historic site from the Revolutionary War that I knew about vaguely as a kid, but I did not know the details or exact location. I don’t think the map makers did either.

BikeBedminsterThe area around Bedminster (where I went to grade school) and Far Hills marked the northern limits of my bike explorations, and I didn’t go that far often, even though I had friends there. Usually I was driven by a parent if I visited them, and of course I went there on the school bus. I’ve written extensively about my school days in Bedminster starting HERE.

TopoMap1954-81BlogThe other maps of my home territory that hung on my wall as a kid were U.S. Geological survey topographical maps. I had four of these detailed ones joined at the edges into a large quadrangle. This is the section showing Pluckemin and Bedminster-Far Hills. The original surveys are from 1954, these maps found online were added to in 1977 and 1981. A larger version is HERE.

TopoPluckeminA closer look at the Pluckemin area. Routes 287 and 78 are added in magenta, both were being built throughout my childhood. “Washington Camp Ground” is given a prominent place, but not a definite location. From the closeness of the elevation lines in brown you can see the edge of the Second Watchung Mountains, which were covered in forest when I was a child, and one of the places we loved to explore and play. At the top there were carriage roads from an old estate, long disused, but still navigable by car and on foot. The little triangle is the high point, which we knew as Pig-Tail Mountain, though at a height of about 580 feet above sea level, and only about 380 feet about Pluckemin, it’s more of a hill.

NorthfromKleinHouse1964This looks north from our house toward those hills, taken in 1964. There were a few houses on the lower slopes, then all trees.

Pluckemin001This photo from around 1970 is taken in a large open field, where it’s marked “Washington Camp Ground” on the map, looking toward Pig-Tail Mountain, though that high point is hidden by closer hills. It was taken on one of my many walks that way. My brothers and I had lots of fun in those woods. And if we went off to explore them for a few hours, no one at home minded.

TopoBedminsterThe topographical map showing the Bedminster-Far Hills area, and the northern end of the hills.

1970PluckeminThe Pluckemin area from a 1970 Somerset County map issued by the county shows the recently completed interstates, but little detail for Pluckemin, and this map is not particularly accurate anyway. It’s one I had as a young man, and still have. The completion of the interstates brought many changes to the area. It was rural when we moved there in 1960. By the time my mother moved out of our family home in the 1990s, it was much more developed and suburban.

1939PluckeminBlogWhen some of my friends and I began a Bedminster School class reunion at the Clarence Dillon Library’s history room in Bedminster in 2014, I was delighted to find this map of the area dated 1873 to 1939 on the wall there. It shows the property owners and their large blocks of land in the area as well as lots of details not on the maps I grew up with. A larger version is HERE.

1939PluckeminCloserBlogA closer look, but still hard to read, go to the larger version for a better view. At the top of this section is the Artillery Park, where archeological excavations in the 1970s and later have found the foundations of the 1778-79 Artillery Encampment of General Washington’s army, which was also America’s first military academy. As you can see, it’s further north than it was marked on the maps we had, and we knew nothing of that area as kids. (This map must have been made more recently after those excavations.) You can read more about it HERE. 

Also there, though hard to read, in the woods where we used to play, it’s marked “Indian Burial Grounds.” Again, we didn’t know about that. If we had, I think we would have found it exciting! In the northeast corner is the Schley Estate, where we used to walk on the old carriage roads, and marked with a + is an Observation Tower from that estate. It was gone by the time we got there, only the foundation remained. It’s at the high point of Pig-Tail Mountain, as shown.

1939BedminsterLargeThe Bedminster-Far Hills area from the 1939 map. A larger version is HERE.

1939BedminsterCloserBlogA closer look with lots of tiny details. The northern end of the Schley Estate is on the right, with the race track that used to be there, and might remain, I’m not sure. It’s hard to make out much of it, but the Dillon Library is worth visiting if you are in the area and would like to see the map yourself. Many of the landowner names on this map were known to me as a child, either through existing estate names, or road names, and even perhaps a few classmates.

BedPluckMapBlogOn a recent visit to the home of my friend Tim (we’ve been friends since grade school in Bedminster), I found this map of the area from 1919 on his wall. Tim also likes maps, and has some favorites hung in his stairwell. I’d seen this one before, but never really looked closely at it. A larger version is HERE.

Even today the area is “horse country,” with many large estates having a stable of horses for riding and hunting. It was much more so in 1919, and this map was hand-drawn to show bridle paths, all the trails and roads where riders could travel. Newly rich New Yorkers moved out to the area in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and established their version of an English upper-class countryside. My family and I had no part in this, we were middle class and horse-ownership was well beyond us, but many of my classmates rode, and were in horse shows and fox hunts.

PluckMapBlogA closer look at the Pluckemin area shows the woods we played in more clearly, dominated by the words “OLD IND. B.G. (INDIAN BURYING GROUND).” I don’t know anything more about that, and can only say we saw no signs of it when we played there. It was hilly, rocky land with a small stream going out to the west. Also there are the words “OLD REV. CAMP” which I suppose would mean Old Revolutionary (War) Camp. Again, this mapmaker did not have a clear idea where it was, but his estimate is better than the maps I had as a child. At upper right is the “Schley Observation Tower.” The Schley Estate was still in existence as a single piece of property when we were kids there, but there were no gates or signs on the carriage roads near us. There may have been some at the northern end, I don’t know. We didn’t get that far. In general, it was open to the public as far as we knew. Those were simpler times.

BedMapBlogThe Bedminster-Far Hills area on the map. The only place marked is the “Fair Ground & Athletic Club,” which is still there as the Far Hills Fair Grounds, and in use for various events in the warmer months, I think. On the right are the Schley bridle paths and carriage roads through the hills to the actual estate buildings just south of Far Hills. They must have been in their heyday in the 1920s. In the 1960s I never saw a single carriage or horse on them. The carriage roads were not paved, but they were well-made with graded slopes, fieldstone walls where one was needed, and a surface of dirt and traces of gravel that was easy to walk on. There was a lookout point at the northern end of the hills overlooking Bedminster, I think, though it’s been many decades since I was there.

PluckeminNow

In 1969, the Schley Estate was sold to developers for 2.2 million dollars. It took a while for development to get rolling because zoning laws had to be changed, and many residents were against that, but by the mid 1980s it was underway. A massive housing development now stands there comprising almost 5,000 homes and housing units. As you can imagine, this changed the area forever. The current Google map shows many residential streets north and east of Pluckemin, filling that huge field I took a photo of in 1970, and well beyond it. There is still an area of green called “The Hills Open Space” that remains. I know the Artillery Encampment site is in there, though not open to the public, and hopefully the old Indian Burial Ground is too, though there’s no way to know. I haven’t found any information about that online. It would probably have been from the Lenape indians, who occupied all of New Jersey when Europeans first arrived.

PluckeminNowSatelliteLooking at the satellite map, it’s a good swath of green forest hemmed in by housing developments. I suspect the top of what we called Pig-Tail Mountain is now developed, and I’m sure these woods are much different than when I was young, but at least some are still there. Kids don’t go out in the woods much these days, but perhaps a few can still find some fun in these.

In 1996 I wrote a short story called “Merciless Beauty.” It’s fiction, but it includes a midnight walk through the woods and carriage roads of the old Schley estate that really happened, at least the first part of it. It’s on my website HERE if you’re interested.

Hope you’ve enjoyed this look at maps and memories. More articles you might like can be found on the REMEMBERED page of my blog.

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