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New Jersey
Since my first trip to Gettysburg as a young boy, I've been captivated by History. I get it from my mom. Although she passed away when I was just 13, she still had an influence on me. All our family vacations were stitched around some historical site. So, history geeks are in my blood. I'm a graphic designer by profession and a semi-amateur painter. I love to explore history through my paintbrush. I've also done living history to get a first hand feel for "what it was like". Looking at history through the eyes of the common man (or woman) and understanding the personal, human drama is really the spice that flavors the historical stew!
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Monday, January 28, 2008

James P. Allaire, Industrialist with a conscience

This weekend I was noodling around with this unfinished painting of one of the buildings at Historic Allaire Village and it caused me to reminisce a bit. As a kid, I spent a lot of time there. It was on the way to my aunt and uncle's house and my mom would always take my sister and I there when we were going to their house. We loved going to that old seemingly forgotten historic village. My mom and I were history geeks, but my sister; not so much. This was payback for all those boring shopping trips I was forced to go on!
As I painted, I remembered the smell of the blacksmith's shop, the creak of the worn floorboards in the general store and a bunch of other details to numerous to mention. It was candy to a history geek. Yet, I didn't know a whole lot about what really happened there. I had to look it up, of course.
Like most historic places, there was a great story living there. The Allaire family, who were loyalists during the American Revolution and were evacuated to Nova Scotia eventually found their way back to there native country when the dust settled. James P. Allaire, living in New York at the time, bought the property known as the Howell Iron Works in what was then a remote part of central New Jersey on the edge of the Pine Barrens in 1822. His intent was to have a source of raw material for his growing business of building steamship engines.
Allaire got into the business before the War of 1812 by casting parts for none other than Robert Fulton. Fulton not only invented the steam ship, he also put it into practice. Eventually Allaire would produce not just engines, but entire ships. He and Fulton also got into transportation and founded regular service routes for passengers.
At the peak of it's production, Allaire's iron works employed between a 400 to 600 people and expanded into a self contained corporate village. The works diversified into making "hollow ware" which was, essentially, enameled pots and pans. James P. Allaire was one of the best known industrialists in the country. Part of his fame was due to his philanthropic nature. He founded the first free public fire company in the country and was an ardent proponent of education of the masses. But, in 1836 the wheels started to come off.
In that year, his wife of 30 years passed away. The heart broken Allaire had to also endure the sinking of two of his ships shortly afterward. One resulted in the loss of 90 people and called his good name into question. Then there was the economic Panic of 1837 which hit the cash poor ship industry like a ton of bricks....or iron perhaps. By 1850 production ceased at the works.
The story ends with a happier twist. One of Allaire's former employees when on to become a successful ship builder and bought Allaire's New York operation and gave his former boss a job. James P. Allaire was able to live the rest of his life in relative comfort.
Since I was a kid, a lot of restoration work has been done at Allaire Village. The place is a gem now. There are all kinds of living history events, a train station with operating steam engines and beautiful walking trails through the woods. If you're on vacation at the Jersey Shore this summer and need a break from the beaches, this would be the perfect history geek getaway. They have a great website too.
Allaire State Park is a big part of my personal history. Who knew it also played big in New Jersey's and America's history too?
Monday, January 14, 2008

A Fresh Way to Experience History

This was one of those ideas that makes you feel like an idiot because you didn't think of it first. A fellow by the name of Bill Lamin found his grandfather's World War I correspondence and came up with a brilliant idea to share it. Mr. Lamin started a blog. Or, rather his grandfather did.

According to his blogspot profile, William Henry Bonser Lamin was born in 1887 and is a member of the Yorkshire and Lancashire Regiment. "Harry" Lamin's letters are published on his blog 90 years, to the day, after they were written. Much like his anxious family at home, we don't know when the next letter will be published or if most recent one is his last. Will he make it through "the war to end all wars" or will he add to the awful statistics of that brutal conflict? We'll just have to wait.

Diaries and letters are my favorite way to experience history, but this format adds another element. The wait. Time has a way of magnifying tension that cannot be felt in any other way. There's no skipping ahead in real life! So, we must wait and hope for the next letter.

There is also another aspect: context. You can experience the seasons and holidays right along with Harry. Reading about the cold and snow means a little more in January than it would in June. But even if you're half way around the world you still experience Christmas and New Years at the same time he is.

So, go get to know Harry Lamin at before it's too late!
Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Happy New Year Rant - Historic Preservation!

A recent newspaper article about the sad state of affairs at New Bridge Landing, a Bergen County New Jersey historic spot raised some discussion on one of the forums that I read. It ticks me off, but not exactly the way you would expect.

So many history geeks here in my home state of New Jersey bemoan the fact that most of our Revolutionary War history is paved over, knocked down or forgotten. That's true. They say no one cares. That's NOT true. It's more like, MOST people don't care. And, it's not just us here in Soprano-land either.

Look at what Virginia is doing to her Civil War heritage. New Jersey had an almost 100 year head start obliterating her Revolutionary War history! Think about that. The sad fact is, it doesn't matter where you happen to be sitting while you're reading this, there are most likely to be similar problems. Populations are growing and becoming more transient and so, have less ties to local culture. People are busy trying to make ends meet, raise families and pay taxes. Why should people care about their history? It's really just a quaint footnote anyway.

So, we history geeks rant on our forums and round tables. "Travesty!" we scream. Many are even moved to make a donation, volunteer for a fund raiser or set up a foundation (myself included). That's great. We need that. But we also need to think. I mean really think. How do we preach outside the choir?

Each of us have talent and creativity, but we don't always use what we have. For instance, living historians will say, "Let's have a reenactment there to raise awareness!" Brilliant! Huzzahs all around. But, let's think. Who's going to come to this reenactment? History geeks mostly. Ok, so it's just a good idea, but not a brilliant one. Back to the drawing board. I'm not picking on reenactors (far, far from it) but I just want to make the point that so much of what we do is preaching to the choir and then passing the hat around the choir. Then we pat ourselves on the back and say, "At least we fought the good fight." We don't think big, and that's what ticks me off. Myself included. Folks, we need a bigger choir.

How about this: I like to paint and even fancy myself an artist. What if I did a series of absolutely stunning lanscapes depicting "The Vanishing Historic Landscape of New Jersey" and had a huge gallery showing? Everyone knows that the artworld loves causes. Now, they would say, "Wow, this is great artwork and this guy has a cause too. Let's see how we can help." Brilliant! Huzzahs all around. The problem is, I'm not a well known painter and I would have a tough time getting gallery space, much less create a big buzz. Ok, so it's not such a brilliant idea after all, but it is on the right track. You see, if it was successful, it would introduce our cause to a totally new audience; the artworld. That's thinking big.

So, besides the obligatory New Year's Resolution to lose 10 lbs. this year (Deb, I promise to try!), how about pledging to think a little harder and a little bigger about what "we who care" can do to capture the interest of "they who don't care". It's a tough one, I admit. I also admit I don't have the answer. But, I'll never find the answer unless I think about it. Why don't you think about it too and either post your idea or email it to me?

Getting people to care is the first step to getting them to act. Think big in 2008!