Earliest Trips to New Jersey Shore

May 28, 2009

Because my father was raised in South Jersey and still had family living in that area, most of our annual vacations were taken at the shore.

I can vaguely remember riding in the old Chevrolet. As I recall, it was a green car that looked something like the one in this photo.

Gone by 1949 but not forgotten

Gone by 1949 but not forgotten

I always thought that car was a 1943, but while looking for a photo I discovered that Chevy didn’t make any consumer cars that year. They were too busy building military vehicles.

In any case, you’ll note the car had a large back seat area. It was large enough (and I was small enough) that I could lie on the floor and use the middle hump as a pillow. My older brother had the luxury of lying on the shelf by the rear window. (Back then, seat belts in cars were non-existent.)

I vividly recall looking up and out the windows and watching the utility poles flash by as we ‘sped’ down the road.

In those early days, we were only able to speed between Irwin, Pennsylvania and Carlisle, Pennsylvania – a distance of about one hundred and sixty miles. In the late 1940’s, the total distance we traveled was more than four hundred miles and much of it was on the old U.S. highways that went through dozens of small towns.

Many of those old highways were three lanes that required drivers to be extremely careful when passing. That middle lane – used by motorists going in both directions – resulted in many head-on collisions.

We usually began our vacations late on a Friday night. Dad would come home from work and sleep for a few hours while mom packed the car. Then, around midnight, we’d start on the long journey. We lived about forty or fifty miles from Irwin and it was mostly city driving. The Penn-Lincoln Parkway did not exist and there were lots of traffic lights.

From Irwin, we’d sail along the ‘new’ turnpike that had opened for traffic in 1940. When we got to Carlisle, we’d return to the U.S. highways and continue our eastward trek.

As I recall, we sometimes avoided Philadelphia by passing through Wilmington, Delaware. If we did go through Philly, we’d cross over the Ben Franklin Bridge.

By eleven o’clock on Saturday morning, we’d be greeted by Uncle Lewis and Aunt Nellie. I’m sure dad was exhausted, but Lewis and I were ready to go crabbing and fishing.

In 1951, the Pennsylvania Turnpike was opened from the Ohio line to Philadelphia. That cut an hour or two off the trip and also made it possible for us to stop at a Howard Johnson’s for more than gasoline.

Coincidentally, a song that sticks in my head because I heard it so much during our travels between Pittsburgh and South Jersey was also recorded in 1951.

Les Paul and Mary Ford were popular recording artists of the time. Several years later, they divorced, but Les Paul continued playing guitar and began designing his own line of guitars. I’m sure my step-son, the rock star, has heard of Les Paul guitars… but he might be left wondering who the guy in that video is.

Getting back to our vacation journeys… the Walt Whitman Bridge opened in 1957 making the trip even easier. Then, in 1965, the Atlantic City Expressway opened.

Today that trip that took at least eleven hours in 1948 can be accomplished in under seven.

Many people have come to take the Interstate Highway System for granted… as though it has always been there. For the younger generations, that is absolutely true – it has always been there!

But those of us who remember being stuck behind trucks and buses winding their way along two-lane U.S. highways cannot thank President Eisenhower enough for pushing the idea through congress.

However, let me let you in on a secret.

If you are not in any big hurry to get from one city to the next, get off that Interstate and follow the old U.S. highways. In many cases, you’ll find the road surface to be in much better condition. It has been resurfaced and doesn’t carry the heavy burden of trucks, buses, and cars.

If you like looking at old buildings (many, unfortunately, abandoned) along with farms and forests, you’ll find the travel much more interesting.

Just keep the secret to yourself. We don’t want everybody to get off the Interstates. Smelling the roses won’t be so sweet if you’re stuck in a traffic jam.

Pollution – Gone With the Past

May 13, 2009

Whenever I hear someone complain about the pollution in this country I wish I had a time-machine so I could take them back to my childhood.

The confluence

The confluence

Pittsburgh is known for its three rivers. For many people, the thought process ends there. However, those of us who lived in the area know that there are many creeks and streams that add to the volume of those mighty waters.

Chartiers Creek was within walking distance of my home in Crafton Heights and we were given strict orders to stay away from it. Of course, that meant we’d go and play along its banks every chance we got.

I don’t think my parents were worried about us drowning so much as being contaminated by the filth that flowed through that creek bed. It was a mixture of raw sewage and chemicals that killed the heartiest of fish. Its waters had a similar effect when they finally emptied into the Ohio River.

We boys called it Turd-le Creek so it wouldn’t be confused with the Turtle Creek that flowed in another area of Western Pennsylvania. My guess is that Turtle Creek wasn’t much cleaner than Chartiers Creek and the many other streams in the Pittsburgh area.

Then there was the smoke. Pittsburgh long held the title “Old Smokey” for obvious reasons. The steel mills belched thick black smoke almost twenty-four hours a day. Added to that pollution was the smoke from the coke furnaces found throughout the area, the slag dump, and all the coal fired furnaces in the homes, schools, and many businesses.

Most women used clothes lines hung in their cellars rather than hang their clean clothes outside where they’d get dirty before they had a chance to dry. And motorists had to use their headlights in the middle of the day.

We grew up breathing that air and never gave it a second thought.

Fortunately, there were people who recognized the danger and forced the city to clean up its act. People like my parents were given deadlines to replace their coal burning furnaces with natural gas furnaces… or face heavy fines. Mills were given similar ultimatums. By the mid fifties, headlights were no longer needed during the day and laundry began appearing on clotheslines outside.

Litter was another major problem during my childhood… and it wasn’t confined to Pittsburgh. Candy wrappers, empty potato chip bags, and many other wrappings were simply dropped on the ground once they were emptied.

As a young boy looking for spending money, those who threw their empty bottles on the ground were greatly appreciated. We could collect two cents deposit for each twelve ounce bottle and five cents for each larger bottle. Considering it cost only thirty-five cents to get into the movies, it didn’t take long to gather enough bottles to pay for the pop corn as well.

Looking back, the thing I find most appaling is something my parents did when we vacationed in South Jersey. When our garbage can got filled to capacity, we’d drive through the salt marshes and toss the bags of trash out of the car windows into the marsh.

I don’t know if we did that because there was no place to take it – which was most likely at least partially true, or if there was somewhere to take it, but we couldn’t afford to pay for its disposal. All I know is that in hindsight, it was a terrible thing to do.

Unfortunately, there are folks out there who continue to do such things. I’ve often driven along country roads and seen trash that was obviously tossed from a moving vehicle.

Like the poor, I believe litterbugs will always be with us. All we can do is make sure we don’t add to the problem.

I almost forgot to mention the main point of this article. That is – no bad people might think the pollution is in the United States, it is nothing like what it was sixty years ago.

Those rivers in Pittsburgh held very few living things when I was a lad. Today, there are all sorts of game fish and every one of them is safe to eat. As for Chartiers Creek, it looks more like a clear mountain stream.

Pittsburgh has come a long way, and so have all the other parts of our country. Perhaps we can pass the lessons we’ve learned on to China, India, and a few other countries that have yet to learn we are only borrowing this planet.

New Jersey Aunts & Uncle

April 30, 2009
The Crowley residence

The Crowley residence

This house on Shore Road in Somers Point, New Jersey, was the home of my two ‘spinster’ aunts – Mary and Josie Crowley. It would appear that when Uncle Lewis B. Leeds married Nellie Crowley, it was a package deal.

The Crowley girls had been born and raised in Pittsburgh and Uncle Lewis met Nellie sometime after he and dad rode double on a motorcycle from South Jersey to Pittsburgh. That trip to find employment occurred in 1910.

I’m not sure of the time frame, but at some point Uncle Lewis and the girls moved to Florida. A few years later, they moved to South Jersey. That’s where they were living when they each eventually passed on.

Uncle Lewis' home in Linwood

Uncle Lewis' home in Linwood

The entire arrangement is one I never thought about until the last few years as I learned various details from my cousin, Ruth Morris.

According to family rumors, Aunt Nellie refused to allow Uncle Lewis to consummate their marriage. In the meantime, Aunt Josie may have had at least one secret affair that was consummated.

My sister, Gert, somehow found herself as the executor of Aunt Josie’s will. Josie was the last of the group to pass away. During the process, Gert learned that Josie had left everything (which turned out to be a negative number) to some woman who could only be contacted through a church. Unfortunately, the woman could not be located, but it is surmised that the lady in question might have been Josie’s daughter – born out of wedlock and given up for adoption. We’ll never know the whole truth behind that one.

In the meantime, when we would visit Mary and Josie in the 1950s, there was a blind man living with them – a Mr. Biddings. Again, the rumors insisted that Mr. Biddings was Josie’s live-in lover. Another thing we’ll never know for sure.

According to Ruth, Uncle Lewis and the ladies also had a habit of checking out of hotels without bothering to pay the bills.

That’s one of those rumors that, on the surface, doesn’t make sense. I’m not sure what Uncle Lewis did for a living prior to becoming a politician, but he eventually became a Freeholder in Atlantic County. I, being a little boy at the time, bragged to my friends that he was a freeloader. I might have been right!

I’ve been told that a freeholder in New Jersey is the equivalent of a county commissioner in other states. I have no idea how much he was paid in that capacity, but I do remember he drove a big Cadillac.

Aunt Josie worked at a mental hospital in Pleasantville. She called it the Looney Bin. Uncle Lewis used his political clout to get her the job. Considering some of her idiosyncrasies, she may have made a good resident of her place of employment.

For one thing, Josie refused to drive faster than thirty-five miles per hour. I can recall riding with her on the Garden State Parkway. I was greatly relieved that we only traveled a short distance on that superhighway.

When Uncle Lewis died, Josie inherited the Cadillac as she was the only sister who drove. She immediately had her garage remodeled. The finished product had doors on either end so she would never have to back in or out.

Aunt Mary was the chief cook and bottle washer in the family. I should note that when Uncle Lewis died, Aunt Nellie sold her home and moved in with her sisters.

Eventually, Aunt Josie was the only one left.

One time I had a business trip to Philadelphia. I decided to take my middle son, Kenn, and planned a side-trip to Atlantic City. Kenn was around twelve years old at the time. We dropped in on Aunt Josie and both Kenn and I soon realized what we were dealing with.

Aunt Josie repeatedly asked me how Jimmie was doing and I repeatedly explained that I was Jimmie. The house was a total disaster and Josie kept offering us something to eat. She finally went into the kitchen and invited us to follow. She pulled out an apple pie that was covered with mold and offered us each a slice.

It was then I decided the visit had lasted long enough. I stretched the truth a bit and explained that we had a dinner reservation in Atlantic City and really had to be going. Kenn was pleased that we had escaped without being fed.

About a month later, Gert was in the area and stopped in to see Josie. To Gert’s surprise, Josie was royally angry at me. After Kenn and I left, she had prepared a meal for us… and we never returned to eat it!

There is one more memory I have of Aunt Josie. When Aunt Mary died, Josie had her body shipped back to Pittsburgh for burial. I went to the funeral and rode in the limo with Josie to the cemetery. They had a very nice memorial service in the chapel. When the service was over, Josie insisted on seeing her sister’s coffin lowered into the ground.

The undertakers and cemetery officials were not prepared for that and tried to talk her out of it. She was adamant… as were they. Fortunately, I bumped into another undertaker, Ray Brusco, whom I knew through the Lions Club. I explained the situation to him and he pulled some strings.

Later I learned that the main reason for Josie’s insistence is that she did not trust the undertakers. She was afraid they’d open the casket and steal things from Mary’s corpse.

Just think, I could get ornery and crotchety when I get old. Nah, that would never happen.


August 5, 2008
Sunrise at Ocean City, New Jersey

Sunrise at Ocean City, New Jersey

My earliest memories of vacations involved our annual pilgrimage to South Jersey. Although my father was born in Philadelphia, he grew up in Northfield, New Jersey. Northfield is on the edge of the salt marshes and lies between Pleasantville and Linwood. Linwood, by the way, was once known as Leedsville.

I vaguely remember lying on the floor of our 1943 Chevy and using the hump in the middle as my pillow. I’d watch through the window and try to count the telephone poles as they whizzed past. Either I was very small, or they made cars much wider in those days.

Since getting involved in genealogy about ten years ago, I’ve discovered we had many relatives in the area (hence the town of Leedsville), but the only people we visited were my father’s brother, Lewis B. Leeds, and his sisters-in-law, Josie and Mary Crowley. We also visited one of Dad’s old friends, Lew Lake. I’ve since learned that Mr. Lake was also a cousin. Sometimes I have a feeling I’m related to most of the old families of South Jersey.

We always told people we were vacationing in Atlantic City (back in its original heyday), but, in truth, we only went there once during our typical two week stay. Most of our days were spent fishing and crabbing. For a number of years, Uncle Lewis owned a small cabin cruiser, The Sea Urchin, that he kept docked at the Hackney Boat Yard on Scull’s Bay. That boat become our vacation cottage. We never moved the boat… I doubt if the engine even ran; but we loved being able to crawl out of bed and start fishing and crabbing before we even ate breakfast.

Needless to say, we ate a ton of seafood during our vacation, and what we couldn’t consume was given to our relatives to freeze.

One of the minor things I remember from those trips was the small store at the end of Uncle Lewis’ street. Today it would be called a ‘convenience’ store; back then, it was simply called a corner store. They sold milk and bread and a few other grocery items. They probably earned most of their income from selling tobacco products, newspapers and magazines, and candy.

The first thing I bought when I entered that store every year was a package of Charms. I never saw Charms sold in Pittsburgh. Charms were similar to Life Savers, but the pieces were square instead of round and they had no hole. The flavors were very similar to the original Life Savers. Come to think of it, I don’t recall that corner store selling Life Savers. Perhaps it was a regional thing like scrapple, Birch Beer, and cheesecake pie.

I’ve visited South Jersey twice in the last several years and could not find cheesecake pie. If you know where I might find this delicacy, let me know. I’m sure the mere sight of one would bring back a flood of memories.

On our way back to Pittsburgh, we’d always stop and buy a large basket of freshly picked cantaloupes. They were the best melons I’ve ever eaten.

I just remembered… we have some cantaloupe in the refrigerator. Although it’s not nearly as good as the ones from South Jersey, I think I’ll go have some… right now. See you tomorrow!

Oops! I almost forgot to say that the beautiful picture at the top of this post was taken by my lovely bride while I was still trying to fix myself a cup of coffee.