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Abode of Jersey Hermit Blossoms Into New Fairyland

If the ghost of Turner Brakeley is as benign as I feel he must be, he must approve, I feel very sure, of the La-Ha-Way he knew in the quiet days he passed there more than 50 years ago. For, I must report to you, a gentleman whose name is Stanley Switlik has not only restored what first were the La-Ha-Way plantations to the glories Turner evolved but, in terms of peacocks, swans, trustful deer, lakes, cranberry bogs and even piney retreats themselves, the present has exceeded every dream of the past.

There was a time when I began to doubt some of the things that had been told [to] me about the Bordentown man who, disappointed in love as they say, deserted his fathers fashionable school for young women to hurry away to this woodsy retreat, grow a beard, and chronicle the goings and comings of birds and flowers and other seasonal indices. There are some who have said that Turner Brakeley seemed to emerge as a kind of ogre from the records that remained and the rumors that went around. For my part, I never thought of Turner, the hermit, as an ogre but rather a sensitive soul having much in common with my friend, the Boston man who deserted almost certain success at the bar to fall in love with a mountain in Maine.

Many of my doubts were dispelled when, at one of those services in which you may have joined me at St. Thomas’s, Alexandria, the little church near Pittstown where we will hold our first reunion of another year May 24, a kinsman of Turner Brakeley, journeying over from Easton, PA, thrust a sheaf of the hermit’s notes into my hand. Until then I had been told that all such records had been lost, presumably in a cleanup of La-Ha-Way after the hermit had died. From all that I have learned since then these may be the only writings of a truly unusual man — and I shall quote from them for your benefit anon.

Other doubts were dispelled, I remember, when, after I had mentioned the hermit in Newark, new corroboration was supplied.

Tycoon Restores Old Planations

“You have begin to doubt the existence of Turner Brakeley,” said John Herron, Newark supervisor of schools, when I had finished. I demurred and John smiled. “He was very much as you have written and spoken of him,” he reassured me. “I ought to know. I lived in Bordentown when he was in La-Ha-Way and I was often at the plantations doing erranfs for him…”

I doubt if John Herron, or Mrs. Lewis C. Bayles of Easton, or any of the others appreciate fully what a wonderful place Stanley Switlik, parachute manufacturer and philanthropist, has made of La-Ha-Way. It is almost as if the new owner, working with the hermit long since departed, had resolved to realize what Turner Brakeley mooned over and then, having achieved that, to go far beyond in remaking the economy of the whole neighborhood. And so I say again that Turner Brakeley returning at least once a year to his haunts as some have said he does, must be more than satisfied.

What all that as preamble, let me reach back to what I wrote in the first book for forgotten towns, a volume that appeared after many delays in 1936 and which, much to my own surprise, has become a collectors item. “Northeast of New Egypt and Prospertown,” I said in words that well may date me, “and not too far from the east of Ivanhoe Brook, there is a strange named deserted village whose story struck us as decidedly unusual. Here, where older maps of the locality mark it down as the Lahaway Plantations and where those who know all about it call it Layaway, is La-Ha-Way. The name is an Indian heirloom…”

I could not swear to any aspect of a village even noew. It may be that I blotted up too much of what was told me by my guide of those times, Warner Hargrove of Pemberton. However, I can assure you that Warner had been picking up the folklore of the neighborhood for years, perhaps without realizing it, and I, in my generation have passed on only what he and others have said, no more and no less. I do not know for sure if there were Indians but Warner said the name of La-Ha-Way came “from a tribe of Indians once making it’s headquarters in he locality roaming the wilds of the Central Pines dividing the provinces of East and West Jersey, and making easy marches to the seashore for wampum.â€? That there were Indians in the vicinity is proven by relics now in the La-Ha-Way collection.

“The Indians are mostly forgotten,” I confessed all those years ago, “except when relics are turned up in the woods and fields. However, two well-preserved dwellings, vacant, on the crest of a graceful knoll, remain to recall the memory of the strange man who spent his life in La-Ha-Way in voluntary exile.”

“The road to La-Ha-Way,” I wrote then, “is narrow and winding” and so it remains from the Court House road that links Freehold and Mount Holly, an ancient county line. “Without a guide who knows his business you may miss it altogether,” I went on, revealing that it was the late Charles Remine of Wrightstown, who took all of us there. “Close by each side, we saw a tangled mass fighting the invasion of an automobile. There was just room for a car to get through cautiously, but the driver was ever alert for boggy ruts, fallen and broken limbs of trees, and possible traffic the other way. As on many such paths, one vehicle would be compelled courteously to back out of such a crisis.

Shaggy Gardens Blooming Again

“Suddenly the pathway twists left through a cluster of pines and cedars. Through them, in passing, there is a glimpse of two more deserted buildings, weather-beaten and windowless. Then there is an unexpected halt for it is impossible to go any farther: The road, high on an embankment, attains an impasse where once there was a bridge. This has fallen among the charred, timbers of a broken dam.” I must remind you again that this is the description of La-Ha-Way as I saw it long ago and as it will never be again.

“There is no need to ride on,” the record continues. “From here the exploring is interesting on foot. On the hill are two painted and well-preserved houses, with barns behind them. Near them is a shaggy garden, uncared for, unappreciated, contrasting the dried-up berry bogs across the way. There was a little pond where water lilies were to bloom, when we were there, and across it was a shaky, rustic bridge. This was La-Ha-Way, the inhabitat of the Poet-Who-Never-Wrote-Verses.”

In the folksay of the country-side Lahaway, which is how they spell it now, is inseparable from its post-hermit. The recluse was John Turner Brakeley, I wrote, giving a full name I don’t know even now. I have a signature, J. Turner Brakeley, followed by a characteristic “Brakeley of Lahaway” but the “J” may stand for John.

Turner has been remembered as a tall, well-built man with whitish hair and a well trimmed beard. Born in Bordentown, he was the son of John Howell Brakeley, D.D., a Methodist minister and proprietor of what used to be the Bordentown Female College. Parenthetically I must explain that I have never sought out the relatives of the hermit because, I discovered many years ago, ago, few wished to say anything at all for publication. This is why the notes, given to me at the old pre-Revolutionary church, are so precious, so priceless in their way that I intend to present them, for framing, to the man who has made Lahaway what it has become.

“Brakeley,” I must again transcribe from the old record, “an only child, was well educated. Aiming to prepare himself for a career at the bar, he was graduated from Princeton and later studied law at several other colleges. He was personable, a good-looking young devoted to his father, and unusually energetic. At 25 he seemed possessed of all that one could wish for. It is with considerable reluctance,” I wrote then and I repeat now, “that one makes public the intimate details of Turney Brakeley’s personal life, as gleaned from Remine, our guide who knew the hermit as well as Mrs. Miller Emley of New Egypt, widow of Brakeley’s caretaker . . .”

Exile Was Caused by Love Affair

Whatever the reluctance may have been in those earlier days and whatever it may be now, I can only assure you that at no time has there ever been the slightest contradiction of what I presented almost in a whisper in the beginning. “If the ghost of the poet should tap you on the shoulder at this precise moment and, pointing to this account, say:

“I only told that story once, so why should it be revealed after all these years?” the writer, as well as the reader, would be decidedly at a loss for a reply.

“But since there is little likelihood of such a supernatural occurrence, I continued bravely in that chronicle of more than 20 years ago, and since Brakeley’s love affair was at the bottom of his exile at Lahaway, perhaps we can take a few liberties. Surely, there have been a score of stories of what happened and if this one is true, as I have every reason to believe it is, some small service may be achieved in the task, even so.”

Mrs. Emley did not know the name of the girl who changed everything in Brakeley’s life, nor did she have any idea what became of her. Turner Brakeley spoke of her but once and then, remembering quietly, used no names.

“She was very beautiful, Turner Brakeley said, recalling how they had been betrothed. Apparently he was to establish himself in the law, and then the wedding would be planned.” As Mrs. Emely recalled the story, the young woman was a student at the Bordentown College directed by the elder Brakeley. Stories that Turner was jilted, as were told from time to time, were seemingly without foundation. Turner informed Mrs. Emily that it was he who broke the engagement.

In the hermit’s brief, hesitating description of what happened, it came out that Brakeley unintentionally came upon the girl one evening in the arms of another man. He said he would not have seen the incident at all if it had not been for a sudden glance in a betraying mirror.

“Apologies, explanations, and pleas were to no avail. Turner Brakeley’s dream had been forever shattered. Turner went to his father with the disturbing announcement that he was going at once to live at Lahaway. He said that he wanted to be out of the sight of women and away from “the noise and bustle of the city.” His father, the pastor, owned land in and around the secluded spot and had built the dwellings that were there. Being interested in the cranberry culture, the Rev. John Brakeley had developed berry bogs, where he found the plants already growing in wild profusion.

“The minister,” my record proceeds on pages you would have difficulty in finding now, received the news in astonishment. Here was his son, educated at considerable expense, on the threshold of a career and the more certain of sucess, because of a comfortable legacy to which he had just fallen heir, telling him in a few terse sentences that he wanted nothing more than permission to take his few belongings and live in the heart of a desolate wilderness. Whether Turner went into details as to his reasons or whether his father remonstrated at any length with him one can only surmise. At any rate Brakeley was soon established at Lahaway as a recluse.

Poet Led the Life of Naturalist

From then on began the living of a strange life almost out of contact with the world, and those who had been the young student’s friends. Brakeley took enough furniture to Lahaway for simple comforts, with some writing materials, small plants and seeds, and a supply of well-chosen clothing. For the most part, he put people out of his mind. He began to concern himself with the natural world.

First, he made the clearing around the house larger. Then he planted many varieties of flowers throughout the vicinity. At long intervals he returned to the home town but such visits were as infrequent as they were brief. Back he would come with more clothing and more books, requirements that he could not send for. Brakeley’s study of wasps was, among many other studies, more than ordinary. “Pouring plaster into their earthen tunnels and digging out cross-sections wrote Charles Remine on one occasion, “he demonstrated for his satisfaction just how they lived. Several of these exhibits are on view in the collections at Princeton.”

In one room in his house Brakeley placed five desks, arranging them like the points of a star, with a swivel-chair at the center. In these desks he filed away unlimited data on the winds and weather, the stars and birds, and all the other wonders of the days and nights that were never monotonous. He read his barometer at eight each morning, at noon, and five each afternoon and at midnight just before he went to bed, I was told.

Even a letter he wrote to Rhoda Brakeley Correll, which I have before me, underscores this information for at the top is the fact that at 9 PM Oct. 14, 1909, it was 15 degrees Fahrenheit on the bogs. Notations for several days, which I intend to present to Stanley Switlik, record the wind’s velocity and direction, the temperature and the fact that there was a fine frost, as the hermit called it.

Many of the records, as remembered by Mrs. Emley, would seem worthless but, I have it on excellent authority, the observations he made from the top of what he called Cock Robin Hill on such matters as the habits of wild duck and how they moved their young, were valuable in correcting certain suppositions. One of the legends is that Turner Brakeley imported the first carp from Germany but that his experiments ended when a storm washed out the dams. Mrs. Emley told us those long years ago that prior to her coming to Lahaway with her husband as caretakers— who ever heard of a hermit with caretakers—a certain John Dove and his wife had charge, John being recalled in a story that involves the cooking and eating of a cat that had devoured a choice rabbit that had been shot for supper. It seems that the rabbit just couldn’t be wasted, inside or outside the cat.

As far as I have been able to determine, Turner Brakeley died in 1912 in Bordentown where he had been taken when stricken ill at Lahaway, having lived at his beloved “Plantationsâ€? about 30 years. It was always said, and never denied, that stacks of records and writings were lost in the invasion that followed Brakeley’s death and that among the treasures that disappeared were pieces of New Jersey glass and Indian artifacts. Many of the naturalist’s flowers were still blooming there when I first was taken to the retreat although these had all but disappeared when Stanley Switlik came upon the place in the years of the depression. Intending to make Lahaway only a summer hideaway, Switlik quickly caught much of the charm that Turner Brakeley had known and so restorations were begun wholesale, many of them undertaken to give work to men from the Trenton area without jobs.

Mosquito Named for the Hermit

Bearing out the note I made in 1934 that a mosquito had been named for the so-called hermit, Lottie Switlik, daughter of the man whose enthusiasm for the retreat she shares, told me that Brakeley had worked in cooperation with those who were fighting malaria carried by mosquitoes in the days of building the Panama Canal. Coming over from Red Valley, Stanley and his family weren’t sure about the isolation at first and then, perhaps like the man who lived almost alone there for so many years, they came to love it. Restoring so many of Brakeley’s little ponds and cleaning out his bogs painstakingly, Stanley has become something of a cranberry grower, not only at Lahaway but over at Lakehurst and back of West Creek.

The Switlik story and how the energy and imagination of one man has induced a restoration that has gone beyond Lahaway to bring about a transformation of the economy of Jackson township is something to which I hope we can return. For the moment I must be content, and so must you, with assurances that the Brakeley ghost is pleased with a lily pond dug out by hand, by a duck pond entirely restored, by the creation of Mink Island Lake and by the creation of an entirely new lake that took many years to clear.

Others find satisfaction in a game preserve given to the state and dedicated in October, 1951; many adjoining acres given to Girl Scouts of Trenton, and deer and other creatures of the woodlands grown tame in the new safety of the old Lahaway. Fifty years from now some children aren’t going to know what a tree looks like, Lottie Switlik said, quoting her father.

“Unless – – – ,” I began, and looked all about me, through magnificent rooms and beyond their windows into the acres and acres of unspoiled pine- lands. There was no need to go on. A new genius has taken over where a dreamer began.

First published in the Newark Sunday Star Ledger, March 15, 1953. 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 https://www.njpinebarrens.com