Old Jersey Forest Fire Fighter Borrowed System Used by the Indians

“An observant traveler, taking his way through the bleak woods in November, especially, along the tangled and moss-carpeted trails among forgotten towns, must sooner or later acquire something of a philosophic viewpoint.

“If he goes down to Retreat, four miles or so out of Vincentown, as we did, he will hear people recall how Charlotte Cushman, one of the most famous actresses of her time, spent Vacations there.

“If he presses on to South Park, on the trail that carries through miles and miles of desolation to Chatsworth, he may see a small truck marked “Fire Patrolâ” emblazoned with red diamonds of the Fifth Divisionâ – the carryall of hard-working Albert B. LeDuc, who guards 80,000 acres from forest fires.

“If he goes on down to Eagle, beyond Apple Pie Hill, along Bread and Cheese Run; he will find, forgotten among the trees, a line of charred wooden grave-markers, near a lone stone inscribed “Charles Wills, 1839.”

“Weighing these considerations, the traveler will consider them in relation to the information that no one now remembers how Apple Pie and Bread and Cheese Run got their names, still retained on modern maps; that Retreat once was a thriving little town with four mills and 14 dwellings; that Fire Warden LeDuc remembers his artillery service in World War I and so goes every Memorial Day to decorate the forgotten grave of a colored soldier, and, finally, that nobody recalls much about that cemetery at Eagle except that it was and is consecrated ground.

Before I go on with this record of my own, written in 1936, let me say that Albert LeDuc is dead and that what I am writing is his memorial. For much that I learned of the country on and around Apple Pie Hill came long ago from this old and kindly friend who died in the land he loved best, the pinelands he once guarded from fire long before protection became more highly organized by the state.

He lived to 74 despite asthma

Albert was 74 when he died. He had not been well for many years, almost from the day of his retirement from the forest fire service in 1944. His death was not attributable, however, to the asthmatic plague which, in the beginning, brought his uncle and thus, Albert, himself—to New Jersey. Albert’s kin, seeking relief from the disease in Death Valley in the 1880s, picked up a copy of the New York World In which, as he told me long ago, there was a full-page advertisement concerning a Jersey town named Paisley.

Paisley, as it-was called In days before it became White Horse, was proclaimed as a haven for all asthma sufferers and Albert’s aunt and uncle hurried back east. They arrived in the New Jersey pinelands of Burlington County, discovered that most of the claims about Paisley began and ended in real estate advertising, and remained even though the town’s hopes blossomed and then faded before there was a bloom.

I know that there was a Paisley newspaper and I think I have shown you a copy, it was one of those publications Issued as part of the business than went on in New York, offering “indisputable proof” that there was a town, sure enough, with a factory making mattresses of pin needles, a conservatory of music, and much more.

Albert LeDuc was a native of Marseilles but he had been a very real American almost from the moment his feet touched American soil. He had been in Burlington County since the early 1900s and I know that if my mother were here she would remember well the night that we joined Albert at a Harvest Home dinner somewhere in the vicinity of Indian Mills, a night when Albert showed his joy in eating. A veteran of World War I, he was an active member of the American Legion, having served as Commander of the Mt. Holly post. It was Albert who led other searchers to the place where Emilio Carranza, the Mexican flier, fell in the Jersey Pines and it was Albert who was a leader in the movement that brought a permanent memorial to the airman deep in the woods beyond Tabernacle.

Evolved system for forest fires

Albert, who evolved the system of fighting forest fires with fire, a plan first used by the Indians which, these long years after, has gained new acclaim, had a secret passion for discovering forgotten graves as well as towns and, as you might suspect, placing flowers where others had passed by. It was Albert LeDuc who made a point of joining other officials in a ceremony at the Carranza monument every year. In the beginning, however, I came upon Albert and his little car almost anywhere far from civilization and we became fast friends.

Albert lived in a woodsy retreat called South Park by forgotten real estate dreamers who sold lots over and over again to absentee purchasers who never bothered to find out. It wasn’t more than a year before his death that I paid him belated tribute, telling you and all who wanted to listen how Albert LeDuc was the man who pioneered in fire-fighting methods in the woods, methods belatedly receiving attention. How glad I am that I wrote what I did and how wonderful it was to know that another friend had sought out Albert to tell him about it. A letter came In from Chatsworth which began, “Dear Old Friend:

All those years ago it was Albert LeDuc, the man with the quick, erratic gait and the spasmodic way of speaking who took me down a sandy road to a forgotten cellar from which he dug faded real estate brochures of the area telling how Dr. William A. White, a New York physician, was going to build a sanitarium at Pine Crest. Then he found a bottle of “Pine Crest Water” for me, saying it was pumped from the pines and sold as magical in New York. I remember his laugh when he told me that the natives used the water in their car batteries.

That was when, although I didn’t realize it, Albert LeDuc of the little red truck was telling New Jersey authorities to burn the woods in Winter, protecting the land the way the Indians did. Albert preferred to remember the legends of Retreat and how Charlotte Cushman used to come down into the woods when she was managing the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia.

“We went to South Park where Albert LeDuc was waiting for us,” I wrote in that first record of a venture into a land of mystery which always will have its lodestone for me. “Rather, he was putting in his time by sawing wood. His fire district is certainly one of the most extensive and important in the pinelands. However, despite the breadth of his territory and the alert anxiety he must observe for breaking out of fires somewhere in that vast stretch of 80,000 acres, he maintains a cheerful mien and a surprising agility for his 57 years. That, you see, was long ago. “What is more,” I went on, “Albert knows these back trails, lined with brambles and pine and cedar scrub, like a book and so he told us why we missed that cemetery near Eagle on earlier excursions.

Apple Pie highest South Jersey hill

“Warden LeDuc did not take us to Eagle immediately. Recalling how well the late Warner Hargrove, our first guide, had spoken of him, we were only too glad to listen.

“We had been up Apple Pie Hill before, of course, but his companionship made this journey like a first visit. The hill, you see, is the highest point in southern New Jersey, 210 feet above sea level. Albert said that if the woods were cleared and the hill surfaced in packed snow, the impetus given by the slope would carry a bobsled 10 miles. The bill is scarred with sharp ravines and on its top is an emergency fire observation tower. From its lookout platform one can see far across the blue haze of the barrens, 20 miles in any direction. On a clear day the masts of the radio station at Tuckerton are etched against the sky.

That was the day Albert told me about Dr. White and, at the same time, showed me his white- painted dwelling in the midst of a cluster of small buildings on the hill, all of which have disappeared. “Down the slope, I wrote then, “is a small bottling house where Dr. White obtained and circulated a health water under a State license, water Albert said was so pure that natives claimed it to be as good as distilled.

“The fate of the hospital, called Pine Crest on the labels of the health water bottles, has been uncertain since Dr. White’s death. A key to the place was on Warden LeDue’s large jingling chain but he used it only for those interested in another broken dream of the pine country. From Apple Pie Hill he led the way to Eagle, across the Jersey Central at Sandy Ridge. There is the evidence of one large dwelling here on a surprisingly green rise, shuttered by buttonwoods, trees that do not belong in this area at all.

This is the McCaimbridge house, the warden said, and it was built of logs. The McCaimbridges and a family called Wills were the only settlers in the vicinity. The old fences leading down the hill into pine timber that was worth looking at until the fires choked it out stand forlornly askew. Then, where fires have cracked through time and again, Albert LeDuc found the cemetery for us – you’d hardly call it that – even though a wandering priest came and made it hallowed for all time. Headstones and footstones never were stone but pine boards. Today the beavers have eaten all along the ground to leave them standing on mere spindles.

Gravestone Tells of Older Homes

The one inscribed stone in the line half covered with the muck of the years gave authenticity to the legends of habitation there: “Charles Wills – 1839. So ended the record of the journey with an old friend who knows more about Charles Wills then he ever could have on [word missing].

Perhaps Albert DeLuc and Uncle Till Estlow who until he died lived in Brookville are comparing notes on Eagle now. For it was later on when something that became ‘Jersey Genesis’ was being put down in scribbled notes that Tilden Estlow took me there. Uncle Till lived in Wells Mills and I have always wondered if the Wills had become Wells in later days. When Godfrey Estlow died an entry in an old diary said that he was buried at “the Barnharts Place and some of us have always concluded that Barnharts was Eagle. I know that when Uncle Till took me to Eagle he said that his grandfather, Christopher Eatlow, lay buried in one of those graves marked by a fire-charred spindle.

I must go down along those trails again, at least to pay my respects to Albert’s widow, Maude, known throughout the area as a very real missionary on a frontier that most of New Jersey overlooked. Mrs. LeDuc founded the Oak Grove Presbyterian Church near her home and continued her philanthropies among the people of the area in a way, which to my knowledge, never has been mentioned in Albert’s obituary notice. Albert died at what is known as Johnson Place but Oak Grove is really just up the road.

There have been many changes in that pine country beloved by Albert since my first journeys down that way, at the beginning with a bored photographer who thought I was crazy, and later with a night police court reporter who had a car so full of scratches that a hundred more among the brambles of the faraway didn’t matter. Albert’s aunt was living then, in a house not far from the mythical Paisley. The house was burned, I was told the other day, when Albert allowed its sacrifice so that pinewoods firefighters might try out their equipment.

How did Palsey get its name? Reaching back for scraps of conversation, I suddenly remembered Albert’s story of his uncle, the Frenchman in search of a hideaway from asthma. “He had a Scotch maid who came from Paisley, he said, “and he named the town to please her. “Who, your uncle? I remember asking. “No, of course not, he said. “It was the real estate man. Paisley was here long before my uncle came although nobody seemed to have done much with it. The mattress factory was just a building and a few people going through the motions. The hotels and conservatory of music pictured in the newspapers were never built although work was expected to start any day. That’s what they always said.

Concrete Covers old Sand Trails

By now there are ribbons of concrete across the lands that were hard to come by even in those first journeys of my own. Most of the sand trails we traveled with an ax and a shovel kept handy have added hard surfaces where there were deep ruts. You can go through White Horse and South Park and Retreat at a high rate of speed compared to the snail’s pace of long ago. However, the ways of life that Albert LeDuc showed me up from a rise called Apple Pie Hill and a broken ridge called Chicken Bone are to be found today much as always they were.

The men who gather sphagnum moss, used by florists and, in emergencies, for surgical dressings, still find life sweet in the simple ways of living it and, I heard the other day, do much better than they did when first I knew them. One family, I am told, goes off to Florida when the cold stiffens the swamp muck. “We don’t have to dry sphagnum in the sun the way we did when you came down in the beginning with Albert, one of the Andersons said “We don’t have to bale it, either. We sell it wet.”

The cranberry men have more bogs than ever but they scoop the berries much as they always did. Go down to Hog Wallow and Haines Bog and Speedwell along the Chatsworth road when the seasons on and you’ll see the scoopers in action. Albert sold much of his uncle’s land to expanding cranberry growers.

The old tower on Apple Pie Hill should be, it seems to me, Albert LeDuc’s memorial Having escaped fire after fire, it has been replaced in service by a modern steeple of much impressive height. As for Paisley itself, only one cellar hole remains to prove it was ever there; a lone cellar hole and an apple tree, still bearing in the remnants of an orchard.

I want you to remember Albert LeDuc even if some of the firefighting experts of a new day choose to forget him. I want you to recall him not because he was my friend but because, through his kindly recollections, you have some knowledge of a never-never land in which anything can happen and often does. Whenever I go back to the Pinelands, as I like to do often, things in general get a little [word missing] tight for comfort. I don’t think I will miss the pioneer warden of the forest for his spirit, somehow will still be there.

First published in the Newark Sunday Star Ledger, Oct 14, 1951. Reprinted with permission. Transcribed by Ben Ruset. The Star Ledger requests that you do not copy, retransmit, or link directly to this article. Please link to our homepage at http://www.njpinebarrens.com

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