Album Review – The Pines of My Past by Gabe Coia

Once upon a time in Europe, bards would be employed to document historical events and folklore through verse and music. It was a marriage of culture, history and entertainment. It is much in this same spirit that Gabriel Coia’s The Pines of My Past is presented to us. The Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey are an anomaly in many respects, both culturally and environmentally. It is a region with its own unique folklore and rich in historical significance. Gabriel Coia is no stranger to this culture; he is a part of it. As one listens to The Pines of My Past there is an immediate sense of authenticity. This music is not coming from outside observation of the pinelands; it is coming from within.

Front-Cover-2The opening track, Devil’s Woods, recalls the Barrens’ most popular folklore – the Jersey Devil. Musically, this song features a haunting guitar motif and dark Celtic-inspired melodies that punctuate each verse and chorus. Lyrically, the skeptic is challenged and the Devil’s true lair is revealed. In true bardic fashion, the legend of Jerry Munyon, the wizard of the pines, is retold in “Where did Jerry Munyon Go?”, an up-tempo piece with an alternating bass and an American flavor. The colorful life of Joe Mulliner, the Tory outlaw, is captured in “Joe’s Last Jig“, another up-tempo sing-a-along that Joseph Mulliner himself might have enjoyed while living it up in one of the taverns that used to scatter the pines. “The Ageless River” is a bold undertaking that chronicles the history of the Mullica River – 20,0000 years in just a few minutes. Amazingly, none of the lyrics sound forced but rather flow smoothly like the river itself, and the dramatic accompaniment keeps our attention all the way through. Two songs in particular, “The Lady on the Dam” and “The Light Near Wells’ Mills Pond” depict old Pine Barrens lore previously hidden in oral tradition and fairly obscure print. The introduction of these tales is sure to stir the imagination as one ponders the supernatural qualities of the Pines. Ecological concerns are expressed in “Let the Barrens Burn” and more reflective and personal themes are presented in “The Girl from Hampton Gate” (which is set to a ¾ waltz), “The Lost Mill”, “Batsto Village” and “The Atsion Lock”.

Coia is a professional pianist but proves himself a talented multi-instrumentalist, lyricist, vocalist, arranger and composer as well. Musical instrumentation is extremely diverse with traditional folk instruments intertwined with large orchestral ensembles. Coia plays all of the instruments himself but also utilizes a synthesizer for some of the string arrangements as well as the percussion and wind instruments. Stylistically, Celtic and English folk are married with the polyphonic, large-scale instrumentation that is typical of theatrical scores. Some pieces lean more toward one approach over the other, but there is always a blending of the two. Coia realizes the potential of modern multi-tracking by using varied instruments to recall established melodies in refrains, providing diversity in timbre and ornamentation. Gabriel has clearly put a great deal of effort into this album with an impressive attention to detail. There are a number of different levels on which this album can be appreciated and enjoyed. Ultimately, it is the ever-present romanticism that extends to both lyrics and music equally that makes this album truly unique.

Jeff Larson
Author of Leeds Devil Blues and The Barrens

As of 3/14/2016, “The Pines of My Past” will available for download at https://gabrielcoia.bandcamp.com. For physical copies, send an email to coia.gabe@gmail.com

Review – The Domestic Life of the Jersey Devil

Bill Sprouse’s book, The Domestic Life of the Jersey Devil, chronicles his investigation into the origins and meaning of the Jersey Devil myth. When Sprouse was young his grandmother, Helen Leeds (lovingly referred to as BeBop throughout the book), told him the story and how he was distantly related to the creature. That was enough to pique his interest and his years of research and investigation ultimately led to this book.

The most commonly told story about the origin of the Jersey Devil is that it was born in 1735 in the backwater village of Leeds Point on the fringes of the New Jersey Pine Barrens. “Mother Leeds”, a Quaker who some whispered about dabbling in witchcraft, was pregnant with her thirteenth child. Exasperated at the prospect of another child to rear she exclaimed, “I am sick of children! Let it be a devil!”

A few months later Mother Leeds and her midwives watched in horror as the features of the baby began to distort into a demonic image minutes after the birth. Bat-like wings emerged from its back as its twisting and writhing body took on a long, serpent-like shape. The head of the child elongated into something not unlike the head of a horse. Mother Leeds’ curse was finally fulfilled as hooves replaced the baby’s hands and feet. Suddenly the creature leapt up from the bed and beat everyone in the room with its long forked tail. The creature unfurled its wings and with a scream shot up the chimney and escaped into the dark night and out into the Pine Barrens, where it continues to live today.

BeBop traced her family line down to Deborah Leeds, wife of Japhet Leeds, who lived in Leeds Point in the 1730s and whose will shows that she had twelve children. Japhet was the son of Daniel Leeds, who was one of the earliest authors in New Jersey. Daniel, calling himself a “Student of Agriculture,” published an almanac in 1687, predating Benjamin Franklin’s famous Poor Richards Almanac by forty-five years. Years later Benjamin Franklin would refer to Leeds as an “astrologer.”

Daniel’s almanac ran afoul of the Quakers who were shocked by the “heathenish” elements in the publication. Like most other publishers of almanacs in the 17th century he included occultist information that the author claims made the almanac an “astrological toolkit.” Various sources claim that the Quakers were so incensed at the publication that they ordered an apologetic Daniel to burn every unsold copy.

Daniel’s very public repudiation by his Quaker peers and the increasing amount of tension with them led him to leave his homestead in Springfield, just outside of Burlington, and move his family across the state to a wilderness that would eventually become known as Leeds Point. Safely out of reach there he continued to write increasingly inflammatory anti-Quaker pamphlets denouncing the Philadelphia Meeting who then returned the favor in kind, labeling him as “Satan’s Harbinger.” Daniel’s almanacs were printed in New York City, and while Leeds Point was far off the beaten path, it was not as cut off from the rest of the world as many would imagine. It’s no stretch to think that news of Leeds’ daughter-in-laws pregnancy would have reached his detractors in Philadelphia, would jump at the chance to invent a story about a demonic child to make a strong case that the Leeds family were being punished for straying from their Quaker ways.

The theory that the schism between Daniel Leeds and the Quakers of Philadelphia is the source of the Jersey Devil myth is not new, although Sprouse – who disclaims that he is not a professional historian – does an exemplary job of researching the facts and providing footnotes to enable the reader to research more on their own. The book reads more like a John McPhee-type essay than a dry history tome as the author mixes history with his own stories of his grandmother and his interactions with various locals as he tries to figure out what the Jersey Devil actually is.

Readers who are looking for a book that will confirm the existence of the Jersey Devil will be disappointed, as the author makes no bones about his disbelief of the creature. Those looking for a well thought out, entertaining look at the origins of the Jersey Devil myth would be happy that they picked this book up. The only one minor drawback to the book is that it can be hard to follow at times as the narrative jumps around, often back and forth in time, quite a bit between chapters. Several times a chapter will end, the next chapter will go on about something else entirely, and the chapter after that will pick up where the first left off. Those are minor annoyances and shouldn’t take away from the otherwise excellent writing and research found throughout the book.

Review – Batsto Village: Jewel of the Pines

Between the 18th and 19th centuries the Pine Barrens were home to a number of industrial ventures. Iron furnaces, forges, glass, and paper factories dotted the landscape, springing up wherever abundant water power and natural resources were found. The legacy of those industries and the towns that grew up around them is largely lost to time; the odd scattering of bricks and rubble in a clearing and names marked on old yellowing maps are the only witness to those ventures and the people who lived and worked there.

Batsto Village is one of the few places that managed to avoid that fate. Charles Read established an iron furnace there in 1766. Less than a decade later Batsto’s iron products were considered so important to the Revolutionary War effort that George Washington exempted the furnace workers from military service.

Within a century all of the furnaces in the Pine Barrens had closed down, unable to compete with the Pennsylvania furnaces that were fuelled by less expensive anthracite coal. The owner of Batsto, Jesse Richards, realized that the days of iron production were over but that glass could be profitably made in the Pine Barrens. By 1846 the glassworks at Batsto was producing large amounts of window glass and the town was again bustling with life. The death of Richards in 1854, several fires, and labor unrest marked the beginning of the end of Batsto’s industrial production. In 1874, after years of decline the Philadelphia industrialist Joseph Wharton purchased the Batsto tract.

Barbara Solem’s new book Batsto Village: Jewel of the Pines takes a deep dive into all of the phases of Batsto’s history. Solem, author of the successful book Ghost Towns and Other Quirky Places in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, weaves a narrative that is both informative and entertaining as she covers the history of the town from pre-European settlement days to the modern day as an open air museum that is the crown jewel of Wharton State Forest.

Renowned Pine Barrens fine art photographer Albert D. Horner supplies beautiful full color photography for the book. Interestingly there are photographs of all of the rooms inside Wharton’s mansion at Batsto. If you have not had the pleasure of a mansion tour yet these photographs will surely get you excited to go on one. There are also a number of beautiful landscape photographs from around the village. Of particular note is a wide-angle shot of the mansion and general store after a fresh snowfall that succinctly captures the feeling of the village being frozen in time.

Working through the book, one might wonder if there will be any mention of what happened with the village after the state purchased. Luckily Solem devotes a chapter going into detail about the various restoration plans for the village as well as the archaeological digs that have been conducted. An interesting fact presented is that the first building to be restored was the sawmill, which was then used to make boards, beams, and shingles that were used to restore the other buildings. There’s no other book that goes into great detail about the post-1955 history of the village. That chapter alone makes this a valuable reference book.

Batsto Village: Jewel of the Pines is well written, fascinating, and is of interest to people who are interested in a casual history of Batsto. This is a book that I am proud to have on my shelf and I’m hopeful for another book similar to this from the author in the future.

The Legendary Pine Barrens: New Tales From Old Haunts

Manufacturing stories and tall-tales is an industry linked to South Jersey as much as iron making or growing cranberries has been. For centuries, the folks of Down Jersey have spun fantastic yarns; take, for example, the legend of the Jersey Devil, the White Stag of Shamong, and Peggy Clevenger’s mysterious boiling well to just name just a few. Just like the Pine Barrens furnaces were obsoleted by new technology, you might think that the Internet and cable TV have supplanted the South Jersey storytellers. Everyone’s heard the same tales over and over, and nobody ever seems to have a new story to share – until now.

Paul Evan Pedersen, Jr.’s new book, The Legendary Pine Barrens: New Tales from Old Haunts, changes all of that. The subtitle of the book is a succinct description of what lays in between the covers. As John Bryans, author of the foreword of the book points out, these aren’t your grandfather’s (or grandfather’s grandfather’s) Pine Barrens yarns. From the jump, Pederson wastes no time getting down to business. Leading off with a tale of a mad pirate; a beautiful strawberry-blonde woman; a magical Lenape Indian well; and a night of passion, Peterson weaves a splendid, if not somewhat racy, reboot of the famous Jersey Devil legend.

Not all of the stories in the book are retellings of old legends. Pederson has come up with some winning original tales in this book, one example of which is The Hangin’ Tree, that has an ending that would make O’Henry proud. There’s an element of modern day horror in the legend of The Deadbus, which I found particularly gripping. The same thing goes for Dr. Mason’s Patient, which explains a particularly obscure bit of Jerseyana trivia. Weird NJ fans will love The Goin’s-Ons Out on Purgatory Road, which has always been a perennial favorite for teenagers looking to scare themselves.

I felt as if I might be reading an early Stephen King novella in my favorite story, The Secret of Salamander Pond. Pederson is at his best here, weaving a tale of the friendship of four boys who discover a secret hidden in a pond deep in the Pines. Somebody, or something, isn’t pleased and makes an effort to pursues the boys to ensure that what was taken gets returned. I feel that there’s enough potential in the story that that it could be expanded into a standalone novella, which would please me to no end to read.

Bookstore shelves sag with the weight of New Jersey themed books. This book stands out as a gem since it doesn’t rehash old stories or tries to take itself too seriously. This is entertainment, pure and simple, made all the better by being set in the Pinelands. In all there’s twenty-one stories that will delight just about anybody who even has a casual interest in the Pine Barrens. The characters are interesting and fresh, the stories flow nicely, and the writing is superb. Pederson’s imagination shines behind every word in the book and it may just be that he might be one of the best new storytellers of our times.

Voices in the Pines – True Stories From the New Jersey Pine Barrens

Almost eighty years ago Henry Charlton Beck, Camden Courier Post reporter and later Episcopalian minster began chronicling the people and the history of the Pine Barrens for his weekly column. A short time later a number of his stories were collated into Forgotten Towns of Southern New Jersey. This book was the first serious look at the culture of the Pine Barrens as told by the people who call it home – the Pineys. His book, and the follow-up volume More Forgotten Towns of Southern New Jersey paved the way for generations of cultural historians, ghost town hunters, and Pine Barrens enthusiasts.

Karen Riley’s second book, Voices in the Pines: True Stories from the New Jersey Pine Barrens, is worthy as an heir to those epic titles. This book is a refreshing look at the culture of the Pine Barrens today in which the author takes the reader right to the heart of modern day pineylore.

Contained in this book are stories that not only speak about the Pine Barrens, but also touch on the human condition. The wisdom shared here is applicable to anybody. These are universal truths as shown through the eyes of the native people of South Jersey. The stories here are just a fraction of those who have called this region home. For hundreds of years mankind has loved, triumphed, and lost in these woods Industries have been born, flourished, and died.

This isn’t a book about ghost towns or strange ruins in the woods. This is a book about the dying breed of people who call the woods of Southern New Jersey home – the pineys. Contained within its two hundred and one pages are the triumphs and tragedies of people both known and unknown to the Pine Barrens community. Typical of other Plexus titles, the printing quality and binding are top notch, and the book is an absolute bargain at $15.95.

The book starts with a thrilling chapter entitled “Murder in the Pines” which, with gripping prose draws you deeper into the story until it eases out into the story of the Steinmentz Farm in Little Egg Harbor, and a glimpse into the life of dairy farming in South Jersey.

Continuing onward, Riley brings us to harvest on the Lee Brother’s cranberry farm, which countless Pine Barrens explorers have past as they wind their way south from Chatsworth, or take the road in to the ruins at Friendship. Riley expertly explains the harvesting process so well that if you listen you might actually hear the rhythmic beating of the harvester, knocking the berries off the vines so that workers can later corral and sort the berries. Through the chapter you can tell of the deep love and appreciation for the land that the Lee family – chronicled in this chapter – have for their land and the cranberry farming industry.

The book closes with a magnificent chapter about Lucille’s Country Cooking Diner. It’s hard to find anybody in South Jersey who doesn’t know of – or go to, regularly – Lucille’s in Warren Grove. This is the story of a true superhero – Lucille Bates-Wickward, who battled adversity, including the death of her business partner and husband Jim, to build one of the most popular eateries in the Pines. The story is touching and inspirational to all who work against the odds to achieve their goals and make the world a better place for others in some small way.

The Pineys of today are a dying breed. As more and more outsiders move into the area, the Piney culture dilutes. As more opportunities for advancement show up outside of the Pines, younger generations leave their native lands to follow new paths. The Piney way of life is as threatened as the ecosystem itself. Those who remain, who choose to keep true to their roots or newcomers who embrace the Piney way of life, look stoically towards the future, always mindful of the important part they all play in the culture of the region. This book is an important chronicle of the last of the Pineys. You can hear the pride in their voices as you read their stories and share in their triumphs. The New Jersey Pine Barrens are unlike any other place in the world. Those who live here know how truly blessed they are to be part of such a unique culture.

Whispers in the Pines: The Secrets of Colliers Mills

When one thinks of the Pine Barrens, one thinks of Wharton State Forest, Byrne State Forest, the Forked River Mountains, and a thousand other places in South Jersey. Colliers Mills Wildlife Management Area, on the border of the Pine Barrens, is frequently not thought of, which is a shame because it’s one of the most beautiful places in the Pine Barrens.

Whispers in the Pines: The Secrets of Colliers Mills by Karen F. Riley is an attempt to raise awareness of Colliers Mills to both Pine Barrens enthusiasts and the general public.

The authors interest in the area was sparked by a development project that threatened a large stretch of land near her home. This book is the culmination of five years of research into the history and ecology of the area. Riley’s enthusiasm for Colliers Mills and conservation is quite evident throughout the book.

History buffs beware – the history of Colliers Mills gets a very light one chapter treatment that felt padded with the inclusion of a fairly thorough history of the Lenape Indians, bog iron furnaces, and cranberrying. I was pleased, however, to find out what some of the buildings and cellar holes near the entrance to the WMA were. Another notable section in the first chapter was a well written description of charcoaling – one of the main industries in the area.

Colliers Mills is located right on the fringe of the Pine Barrens and as such has a unique ecosystem consisting of species normally found within the Pinelands as well as species found in the forests of Monmouth County. Hardcore nature buffs will find no new material here, but newcomers and those just learning about the Pinelands unique ecosystem will appreciate her well written descriptions of flora and fauna. She thoughtfully divides the chapters up based on the general topic of discussion – starting with birds, moving on to insects, snakes and amphibians, plants and shrubs, trees, and finally mammals. Peppered throughout are various anecdotes and short stories regarding the various creatures and plants she is talking about. It makes for a much more interesting read.

The last chapter deals with what Colliers Mills is today. As a wildlife management area, the place is frequented by hunters who not only come to shoot deer and other animals, but to hone their skills on the many ranges located throughout the area. The author notes that the hunters seem to keep the place cleaner than many others do, and what without the financial support of license fees, etc. that wildlife management areas would simply not exist. She gives short one or two paragraph descriptions of what is and is not allowed at Colliers Mills (boating – in, ATV’s – out), which again would be very helpful to someone just learning about the area.

Perhaps the only complaints I can make about the book is the lack of more historic information on the area – for example there was no mention of J. Turner Brakely, the hermit of La-Ha-Way – who knew the woods of Colliers Mills as home – and the book itself. It seems that my copy had a problem with the binding, where several pages seemed glued up past where the spine should stop, making page turning a bit difficult. This is of course understandable since the book is published locally and likely has a limited (and comparatively inexpensive) print run.

Whispers of the Pines is a fun, easy read suited to the Pine Barrens neophyte. While I had expected more history and less botany, I found the most enjoyable part of reading the book was the feeling that I was sharing in someone’s love of the Pine Barrens. I’m happy to have this book in my Jerseyana collection.

Digging New Jersey’s Past

Archaeology. The word conjures up images of Indiana Jones, lost Mayan temples hidden in the jungles of Central America, and treasure beyond compare. Seldom do we think of New Jersey when it comes to archaeology, which is a shame since there are plenty of knowledge to be found once you dig beyond the surface.

In Digging New Jersey’s Past: Historical Archaeology in the Garden State, archaeologist and historian Dr. Richard Veit takes us on a tour of some of the notable – and some of the obscure – archaeological work done in the State of New Jersey.

One of the things that impresses you when you read the book is it’s plain, straightforward style of writing. One might expect a book written by an academian to be a bit on the dry side, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that this was not the case. Veit uses “shop talk” to describe various archaeological terms; however he does an excellent job of explaining the tools and procedures used by the professionals.

The book flows in chronological order. We first start with the earliest settlers to New Jersey, and the work done on a Dutch traders house on Burlington Island, work our way up through the Revolution, learning about the winter camp at Pluckemin, learn about some of the early industry in the State, such as the glassworks at Batsto, and end at the transformation from the nineteenth to twentieth centuries, and work done at the so-called utopian community at Feltville. These are just some examples of the sites that Veit explores – each chapter follows a theme, and goes into detail on three or four digs each.

One chapter I found fascinating was devoted to gravestones, and how much archaeological information can be found above and below ground in cemeteries. For example, North Jersey tended to have elaborately carved headstones, with Purtian style ominous epitaphs, whereas South Jersey headstones tended to be simple, undecorated affairs due to predominance of the Quakers who made up a significant part of the population.

Another dig that I found interesting was the work done at the Old Barracks in Trenton. Many historians and archaeologists spend much of their time learning about the Continental side of the war, and spend much less time on the lives of the British troops who were quartered here. The Barracks in Trenton, long neglected – to the point of even having a street put through the middle – was reconstructed in 1917, but didn’t have any proper archaeological work done until 1983!

Archaeology is one of the best ways for us to reconnect with the lives of our forbearers. This book gives an excellent overview of archaeology in New Jersey, and gives us a glimpse of the history that is hidden just below the surface.

Wandering Around South Jersey

Wandering Around South Jersey is the first book by author Ryan Stowinsky, which chronicles some of the lesser known, out of the way places in South Jersey.

I tore through the one hundred seven page volume in the course of two sittings, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s good because it’s paced really well. The book covers a good number of locations throughout South Jersey from the well known to the obscure. Each chapter is devoted to a separate place, with a few paragraphs describing the history or legend of the area, and then usually followed up with a photograph or two. It’s a bad thing because the book is just too short. Some articles, such as the one on the Charles Wills grave, went by too fast. Others, like the one on Thompsons Beach, were just right. It would have been nicer to see a little more “meat” on each article, and perhaps more talk about the actual search for the place.

What really struck me about the book is that it reminded me a lot of Weird New Jersey, minus all of the crap about ghosts, KKK camps, and Nazi’s. This is a good thing because in my opinion there is enough “weird” history in South Jersey that doesn’t need to be muddled up with the “cheap thrills” that’s used to sell magazines. The places mentioned in the book are mostly not too far off the beaten path, and this book would make an excellent guide for other explorers to plan out their day trips.

Of particular note was Stowinsky’s reporting on the “Pet Cemetary” or Ten Mile Hollow cemetery. What I really enjoyed was how he talked of how hard it was to find this place – something that I can sympathize as I still have not been there myself. His description and photographs are the best I have read with regard to that site. He is also, I believe, the first to talk about a town with no roads – Grassy Sound.

What really makes this book shine is how it blends a good deal of original discovery with visits to well known “weird” places. Even if you have a large collection of books on South Jersey and read every issue of Weird New Jersey, there’s still good reading here. While my own preference for exploring is down the forgotten sand roads of the Pine Barrens, it’s nice to follow along with Stowinski’s adventures. I’m told that he’s working on a companion book – I’m looking forward to seeing that when it comes out.