Newfoundland Speedway

This way to the races!
Admit One. Your dollar got you free parking, too.

From 1948 to 1952, large crowds would gather on weekends at the Union Valley Dude Ranch — later renamed Newfoundland Speedway — in Newfoundland (a part of West Milford) to watch motorcycles race around a dirt track. A course had been built on a farm owned by Richard Boulden and his wife, Violet Cole, in the Bearfort Mountain range. The Paterson Motorcycle Club sponsored the races, which drew racers from states along the East coast. Families would gather on weekends throughout the spring, summer and fall for “a good day of sport and clean racing,” as a 1951 newspaper article put it.

Poster for motorcycle races
1948 poster for motorcycle races at the Union Valley Ranch.

As many as 60 riders would compete in time trials and races along a newly-constructed 1/3 mile oval dirt track specially built for the sport. The track was 25 feet wide and featured a flat, dustless surface. A “dog leg” (sharp bend) heightened the excitement. Trophies and prize money were awarded. The novice trophy was especially prized.

Newspaper articles like this helped bring the crowds.

Unsurprisingly, accidents and spills happened. Miscellaneous cuts and bruises were not uncommon; sometimes, broken bones resulted from a spill. West Milford’s Volunteer Firemen’s Ambulance Corps was on hand to help. A man with a broken collar bone would be taken to a local doctor, who would patch up the rider before sending him to a hospital in nearby Franklin. At times, their main ambulance would be busy, spurring them to station a second, auxiliary ambulance as well.

Occasionally, proceeds from a race would be given to the volunteer corps for “faithfully contributing their time and equipment for the protection of the drivers.”

Riders came from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut to compete. Some riders achieved local fame. Don Pink, of Yonkers, was apparently a popular fellow, as was Cornwall, NY’s Warren Sherwood. Easton, PA was represented by Jack Brewer and Ken Wismer. Al Wilcox was known as the “Trenton Flash” and Al Scirpo, the “Hartford Flash”. Race results were published in local papers, and undoubtedly a few wagers would be placed.

Photo from West Milford AIM (2012). Click for full-sized image.

In 1949 the track was christened the Newfoundland Speedway. There’s a great video of a race there on YouTube. Races were held every Saturday, and often on Sunday. The only exceptions were for larger motorcycle races such as the Gypsy Tour at the half-mile track on Route 6 (today’s Route 46) in Dover NJ — and, of course, rain.

The races came to be very popular. As many as twelve events were held, and the American Motorcycle Association would provide judges and timers.

The races ran almost every weekend through 1952, when the farm was sold. Today, it’s known as the West Milford Equestrian Center, and it is again up for sale.

There are some nice shots of races, and close-ups of the bikes, at this site.

“The House the Blind-Man Built”

In the late 1920s, when Francis Burdett was 63 years old, living in Wayne NJ, he decided to build a house. He didn’t arrange to have burly carpenters do it; he built it himself. He got the lumber, sawed it, fit it, and nailed it, until he had built a handsome Dutch Colonial home “3 stories high, seven rooms, bath and large attic.”

That would be quite a task for any 63-year-old. What made it unique was that Francis Burdett was quite blind. He had lost his sight at age 50 in a moving vehicle accident. And he wasn’t a carpenter, but had spent his life as a watchmaker.

The house built by Francis Burdett. It still stands today.

So why build a house? According to one newspaper account, he had had a concrete foundation laid on a lot he owned. A smallish bungalow was supposed to have been delivered to the site from several miles away, but the deal fell through. So what’s a blind fellow to do, except build a house?

Burdett didn’t have any formal experience as a carpenter, but — as many men did in that era — he had picked up the skills by doing odd jobs over the years.

No power tools here — everything was done with traditional hand tools.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Burdett and his house — two and a half years in the making — often found themselves the object of curiosity. Many newspaper articles were written about him, and he was even featured (briefly) in a 1930 episode of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. (It starts at 1:16, and don’t blink or you’ll miss it.)

His neighbors kept an eye on his progress as well:

About this time all the nervous people that lived hereabout were in a constant unsettled state of mind. Nothing seemed to allay the fears of the people. Even the BLIND BUILDER’S continuous exhibition of skill and his daily performances before their eyes, did not tend in the least to abate their fear, and each day brought a fresh new anxiety. People talking together on the street would look up unconsciously to see if the BLIND BUILDER was still up there or on the ground ready for the hospital or morgue.

It must however, be said that everybody enjoyed the Blind man’s progress and looked on as if a war was in progress, and each day a battle won.

— From “The House the Blind-Man Built: The House Built in the Dark”

Was he really blind? From all accounts, yes. Did he do the work himself? Again, written articles and a book agree that he did. He planned the house in his head, and was meticulously aware of his surroundings. From a newspaper article:

It is uncanny to watch this blind man, sixty-odd years of age, climb ladders, perch on narrow scaffolds and use the tools of the carpenter, from adz to plane. He knows where each tool is to be found. Every piece of material, from a ball of twine to the 24-foot timbers used in the construction is catalogued in his mind.

There’s more to the tale of Francis Burdette’s house, but if you want to know the whole story, by all means read the book “The House the Blind-Man Built: The House Built in the Dark.” Written by William Vahrenkamp, a cousin, the book lovingly explains, in superb detail, how Burdett did it. The book is lavishly illustrated with many drawings and photos.

Frank Burdett in 1930

The Pompton Feeder canal

Little remains of it today, but the “Pompton feeder” was an integral part of the Morris Canal system’s eternal need for water. The feeder was used to supply additional water level to the Morris Canal by channeling water from the Pompton River. The feeder was, in fact, a mini-canal that ran nearly five miles to Mead’s Basin (known as Mountain View today).

A wide, low dam was built on the Pompton River in Pompton Plains, NJ. This supplied a feeder lock which could, at the lock tender’s discretion, release water into the feeder canal.

Photo of the Pompton feeder dam.
Photo taken circa 1906 shows the wide, low feeder dam on the Pompton River.

This diagram shows the setup: the river supplies water to the feeder canal via a lock. A lock tender lived in a house on site to release water as needed.

Sketch of feeder dam and lock
From “History of Pequannock Township” (1990) by George Parr, p. 159

This early 20th Century shows the lock tender’s house.

Photo of the lock tender's house
The lock tender was always on call.

The feeder canal made for splendid recreation year round — fishing and swimming and canoeing in warm weather, and ice skating in the winter.

Photo of people canoeing on the feeder canal.
Canoeing was a popular pastime on the feeder canal. The bridge in the distance allowed traffic to cross the feeder.

The feeder canal more or less paralleled the Pompton River. In this photo, you can see the river and the canal side by side. The feeder canal is long gone, but the bridge still exists to carry the Newark Watershed pipeline over the river and on to the cities.

Pipe Line bridge in Pequannock NJ.

The Swiss Tavern, Wayne NJ

Long-time area residents remember the exquisite dining experience known as the Swiss Tavern. The place had been some sort of eatery for years before it opened its doors, in the early 1930s, as a full-fledged restaurant under the management of Ernest Alpsteg, the owner-chef from Switzerland.

His son Hans and his wife, Agatha, by all accounts turned it into an first-rate dinner destination during the 1960s and 1970s; Swiss Tavern was rated ‘four stars’ by the New York Times.

The Alpsteg family kept it going until 1979, when the place was sold and transformed in L’Auberge de France. But we’re getting ahead of the story…

Swiss Tavern Restaurant, circa 1950s
Swiss Tavern Restaurant, circa 1950s

According to a NY Times food review in early 1979,

…the Swiss Tavern in Wayne began life as a speakeasy during Prohibition. The family of the present owner‐chef, Hans Alpsteg, turned the century‐old frame house into a full‐fledged restaurant in 1934, but managed to retain the Victorian coziness of the small parlors and the Victorian splendor of the large bar and grill.

(I don’t know anything about “the bar and grill” that it was before now, but I’m sure the building had an interesting history prior to its Swiss Tavern incarnation.)

The building itself was described as “A large 1850 house of many small rooms, glassed-in porch, a roomy oak-paneled bar, period wallpaper and furniture, paintings and drawings, ferns and aspidistras. Candles and fresh flowers, good napery, friendly service.”

The NY Times reviewer was enthusiastic about the fare, describing it as “excellent” and “delectable”.

A stylized aerial view of the restaurant. The owners gave it an address in Pompton Lakes, but it was actually located in Wayne. Note the fountain pond out front where live trout were kept.

The recommended dishes included “baked oysters or baked clams ‘Swiss Tavern,’ homemade headcheese, butterfly shrimp Genevoise, laeberle (Swiss‐style liver), oxtail in a red wine sauce, sauerbraten with spaetzle, rack of lamb persillade for two, soufflé potatoes for two, apple fritters, caramel custard, and Swiss apple cake.”

There was even a fountain pond out front, stocked with live trout, where patrons could check out the fish, have the chef catch it in a net, and have it cooked to order.

Besides being a lunch and dinner haven, the Swiss Tavern was something of a social center as well. Rotary meetings and political get-togethers were held there; local mayors held meet-and-greet functions; the Pompton Lakes chamber of commerce held its annual dinner-dance there. Large dinner parties were not uncommon. Many a wedding party held its reception there, as well as later anniversaries.

The place stayed in the family until 1979 when the Alpsteg family sold it, whereupon it became a French restaurant, L’Auberge de France.

Alas, the successor was met with far less enthusiasm in an August 1979 review by the NY Times:

For four months, the establishment continued to be known as The Swiss Tavern. But two months ago, it became L’Auberge DeFrance, translated literally, “The French Inn.” Unfortunately, something was lost in the translation, or the transformation, if you will.

The food was just fair to middling, according to the reviewer, but with “big league” prices, and noted that “it is a rarity to find a dish that totally satisfies at this new restaurant.” The review concluded by lamenting “It is a pity when a restaurant as good as The Swiss Tavern leaves us, but more’s the pity when its successor leaves so much to be desired.” The reviewer pronounced it merely “fair” — no stars.

Unsurprisingly, it didn’t succeed. I don’t know when the restaurant closed for good (I understand it became other eateries including the French Quarter and the Red Fox Inn), but the long-abandoned building is slowly crumbling. A website called “Abandoned but Not Forgotten” visited the place at some point; see the photos here.

The Swiss Tavern building (Google Street View, Aug 2018). The fountain pond, foreground, once held trout served by the chef.

An enterprising fellow named Luke also managed to get inside and take some photos. He’s posted them on his Flickr account.

Update: The building was razed on April 9, 2019; it seems a WaWa will be built on the site. I arrived a day or two late, and this is what greeted me.

Nothing left of the proud old house except rubble. (The site across the street was formerly Atkins Chevrolet.)

Mrs. Ormsbee saves her family

As anyone who has lived in or near the Pequannock valley knows, we get floods from time to time. The convergence of three rivers makes it inevitable whenever there is prolonged and copious rain. I’ll write a post on several infamous floods at some point, but this post is about a flood that took place in April 1927, and a young mother, camping out in a riverside bungalow in Pompton Plains, who rescued her family from one.

I can’t match the breathless writing of this newspaper article, so I’ll just post it. Click on each image for a full-sized and readable version. I’ve added my comments afterward.

Part One of this incredible tale. Click to open full-sized image.

Pretty incredible, right? Imagine you’re in the middle of nowhere (Pequannock Twp was a lightly-populated village at this point), sleeping soundly in what was probably a one-room bungalow right on the river. You are awakened by odd sounds, you swing your legs off the bed and… into knee-deep water.

Since the article only calls her “Mrs. Ormsbee”, I took to the Ancestry website and discovered that her name was AliceShe was born Alice Miller in Beacon NY in 1900. She was 24 at the time this happened. With her was her mother (age unknown, but likely in her 40s) and her two young children, a son aged two and four-month-old daughter.


Part Two of this incredible tale. Click to open full-sized image.

So: It’s the middle of the night, it’s raining , your cabin is flooding, and it’s pitch black outside because the power is out. She leads her mother and two very young kids through the darkness to the bridge, hoping to get to the main road, only to find herself falling into the river because half the bridge is gone. She grabs a canoe and gets her family into it, and they all endure a night of terror until they’re rescued in the morning.

(The article notes she was “embarrassed by their clothing” likely because they were in their night clothes, and didn’t stop to get dressed.)

But what an incredibly brave young woman, at a time when women were widely regarded as kind of helpless, and weren’t expected to do or know much. Her two-year-old son, Roland, because a doctor and died in 1995. I don’t know when or where Alice passed, but I’ve reached out to someone who has her in his family tree. Perhaps I’ll learn more.

C.D.V. Romondt, MD

Dr. Charles D. Van Romondt (1847-1926) — typically referred to as “C.D.V. Romondt” — was described as a man “whose reputation is wide-spread”, and as “a leader in all plans which tended toward the elevation of the community with which he has been connected for so many years.”

Dr. Romondt’s residence was on Schelling Terrace, just off the Turnpike, and was razed in 2018.

Born in 1847 in New Brunswick NJ, he attended public school there. He was admitted into the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University in New York City, and graduated in 1872. He practiced medicine there for a few years before deciding to move to Pompton Plains in 1878. According to Emily Slingerland, quoted in a 1964 newspaper article, Dr. Romondt was the first doctor to live in the township. Before that, those seeking medical treatment needed to travel to Bloomfield.

Besides his medical practice, Romondt served as the township’s health inspector, as well as the medical inspector for the schools there. He also found time to be employed as a medical examiner for several insurance companies.

In 1890 he married Anna Doremus ( 1856–1955 ), who assisted her husband during his long medical practice in Pompton Plains.

The doctor was a member of several civic organizations, including the Junior Order of United American Mechanics. This group met at Paul Revere Hall, which isn’t surprising given the Jr. O. U. A. M. built it. You can view the cornerstone — today, the building is known as the American Legion Hall.

He died in 1926 and is buried at the Reformed Church in Pompton Plains.

“Remember the Maine!”

The intersection of the Paterson-Hamburg Turnpike and Wanaque Avenue, in Pompton Lakes, has featured several noteworthy structures. Here’s one of them.

During the Revolutionary War, a house known as the Yellow Tavern stood in the middle of the intersection where the present-day Federal Square memorial now stands on a triangle of land. The tavern welcomed visitors on their journeys throughout north NJ, including General George Washington and his officers and men. It was razed about 1890 “to permit the changing [widening] of the roads,” as an old manuscript put it. (The Ramapo Valley House survived… but that’s another article.)

The Yellow Tavern, from an 18th Century drawing.

A memorial consisting of a cannon (Civil War, perhaps?) and a stack of cannonballs stood upon the triangle of land at the historic intersection until 1914, when a town memorial was dedicated on the site, on Labor Day, to honor several Pompton Lakes residents who lost their lives when the U.S.S. Maine exploded in Cuba’s Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898. This tragedy cost 260 American lives and later led to the Spanish-American War of 1898.

The site was used as a war memorial for many years before the Maine memorial was erected.
Click for full-sized image.

Consisting of a raised round platform and a fieldstone-and-concrete tower, the monument on the triangle — also known, for some reason, as Federal Square — “contains a copper ventilator from the Maine battleship. The ventilator was transported to Pompton Lakes by Harry Hershfield, a Pompton Lakes Mayor who went on to become a state Senator.” As you can see in the photo below, the existing memorial was incorporated into the design, and a chain was draped around the raised platform.

This photo was taken about 1918. Click for full-sized image.
The plaque on the memorial, in honor of the local members of the Council of the Jr. Order of the United American Mechanics. Click for full-sized image.

Since then, few changes have been made to the memorial site, which now features nice greenery and a historic marker denoting the site of “Washington’s Headquarters”. The cannonballs were removed at some point, and a Liberty Bell was donated by the Elks Club.

The Liberty Bell was donated by the Elks Club in memory of the men who lost their lives in Havana Harbor during the Spanish American War. Click for full-sized image.

And so the Maine monument at Federal Square has remained, nearly untouched, although time is taking a toll.


The copper ventilator, unprotected from the elements, has been slowly disappearing over the past century. Click for full-sized image.

Why is this article titled “Remember the Maine!” ? The actual cause of the explosion will likely never be known, but the theory that a Spanish mine in the harbor was the reason she sank (never mind that she was riding at anchor) caught fire with the press:

[P]opular opinion in the U.S., fanned by inflammatory articles printed in the “yellow press” by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, blamed Spain. The phrase, “Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain!”, became a rallying cry for action, which came with the Spanish–American War later that year. While the sinking of Maine was not a direct cause for action, it served as a catalyst, accelerating the approach to a diplomatic impasse between the U.S. and Spain.

Wikipedia

Later investigations would plausibly suggest that the explosion was more likely caused by a magazine explosion within the vessel, possibly caused by a coal fire.

F.B. Whittle Hardware, Butler NJ

Once upon an era, every town and village had a hardware store. In many instances, it was also the general store, post office, and community center where men would discuss the matters of the day.

F.B. Whittle Hardware building
Whittle Hardware, shortly after closing in 2001

Frank B. Whittle was born in England in 1860, and (presumably with his family) came to America in 1870. He lived in Sussex, where he had a position with the Lawrence Hardware Company. He met and married Harriet Beemer and had a daughter, Edith, in 1886.

Apparently an upstanding citizen, Whittle was at various times the Borough Clerk, the Registrar, and chief of the fire department.

In 1905, the company incorporated, with S.F. Quince and Frank Whittle, “former employees of the firm”, as the incorporators.

According to a trade magazine’s report, “The company is intending to open a branch Hardware and plumbing establishment at Butler, N.J.”

Frank and his family moved to Butler, where he opened the branch store downstairs from the Butler Opera House. A fire in December 1906 destroyed the Opera House and several nearby structures. He was fortunate that a sturdy three-story brick building had been recently finished at 208 Main Street. This became the new home of The Lawrence Hardware Company, which sold plumbing, hardware and heating supplies. He ran this store until 1915, when he moved to Pompton Lakes to open another branch store.

Still interested in local affairs, he was at some point elected mayor. In 1921, he bought the store and ran it under his own name.

Correspondence with Lamson & Goodnow, a Massachusetts cutlery company.

He remained in Pompton Lakes until 1923 when he sold the business and, the following year, organized (and was president of) the F.B. Whittle Hardware Company. Soon after, he purchased the Butler store. It was operated under his name until the store closed in 2001.

Whittle Hardware as most of us remember it.

Frank B. Whittle died in 1928, but the store stayed in the family. Edith Whittle had married Irvin Shorter in 1905, and their son, Donald, took over the store. It was run by the Shorter family until the late 1990s. The store was sold, but closed permanently in 2001.

Scherer’s Inn / Riverdale Lodge, Riverdale NJ

The history of this place begins with Joseph Slater, who around 1861 bought Ford’s Mill, located on Paterson-Hamburg Turnpike near the intersection of Newark-Pompton Turnpike. That mill became Slater’s Mill, which processed felt for hats.  A relative (brother? Don’t know yet) named Otis built a house across the intersection on the southeast corner.

I don’t know anything about the intervening period, but at some point in the 1920s the house was purchased by a German immigrant named Joseph Scherer. He turned the place into a restaurant/guest house he named “Scherer’s Inn”. Scherer and his family — a wife, four (or five) children, and some others — lived there as well as ran it.

Scherer's Inn, Riverdale (1929)
Scherer’s Inn, Riverdale (1929)


I haven’t delved deeply into the Scherer family, but I know Joe Scherer was born about 1880. At the time the next owner, Bert N. Lamb, took over about 1941, Joe would have been about 60, and probably ready to retire after four decades or so of running an inn.

Bert Lamb, a New York entrepreneur, renamed it “Bert N. Lamb’s Riverdale Lodge”, and held a glorious grand opening on May 20, 1942. The place was open from 2 p.m. “until closing” and offered a buffet lunch and barbecue, accompanied by the sounds of Harold G. Hoffman’s band.

Riverdale Lodge grand opening invitation (1942)
Riverdale Lodge grand opening invitation (1942)

At some point — I want to say the 1970s, but perhaps earlier — the decision was made to widen that portion of the Newark-Pompton Turnpike. That spelled the end for the venerable old house. Today, the site is occupied by a gas station.