Tag Archives: History

If These Walls Could Talk….

There’s just something about old houses. Besides the character you find in the beautiful craftsmanship of older homes, there’s an energy and a visceral feeling you get from walking the same floors, touching the same walls, looking out the very same windows that others did for generations before you. And every once in a while, if you’re lucky, you find actual, tangible history in an old house, just as Melissa Fahy did when she found a letter from the 1940s hidden within her walls. 

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A teacher at Westfield’s Roosevelt Middle School, Melissa was surprised to receive a text from her husband in the middle of her work day, detailing the discovery. Melissa said, “My husband texted me a photo of the letter, and he didn’t know what it was at first. I was so excited to read it and see what it was. It’s so well preserved, it almost looks fake. We realized that the letter must have fallen through the floor boards of the attic and become trapped behind the stairs.”

IMG_9527The letter was written by an adoring woman to her husband Rolf Christoffersen while he was abroad. And the letter itself is pure poetry! In an age of quick texts and emojis, it’s so moving to read a heartfelt handwritten letter. After she read it, Melissa was determined to find whom it belonged to. “It felt like a scene from ‘The Notebook’ or a movie. I just knew I had to get the letter back to the owners. I posted about it on the Facebook Westfield Moms page. I have a one-year-old, so I had no time to do research. One of the people who commented on my post had somehow known who Rolf’s son was, so I got in contact with him and said, ‘I have something that might belong to you.'”

Rolf Christoffersen Jr. replied to Melissa, “Actually, I believe that letter belonged to my father.” In a whirlwind conversation, Rolf Jr. told Melissa that his mother, Virginia Rose Fitzgerald, was one of the early residents of the home when Virginia’s father purchased it in 1940. Four years later, Virginia married Rolf Christoffersen, and they lived in the Westfield home until 1959, when they moved to California with their three children. Rolf Sr. was a Norwegian sailor who was part of the North Atlantic convoys during World War II, and no doubt it was letters from his beloved wife that kept him in good spirits. 

It turns out Rolf Sr. is still alive and in his 90s! Melissa got the letter back to Rolf Jr., who read it to his father, and both were delighted to have this piece of Virginia back. Rolf Jr. said that all the other letters between his parents from that time period were lost when they moved to California. He called it a “miracle” that this letter has now come back to their family. Incredibly, this might have been the very first time Rolf Sr. had read this letter, since it had been “returned to sender” all those years ago, and who knows when it got lost in the walls of the home?

If Melissa loved her house when she bought it, now she’s grown even more attached to it. “It’s so cool to find a piece of history like this. You see so many houses torn down, and to find a house like this to fix up–you’re apprehensive at first, but then you realize the value of having a house with so much history.”

Melissa told the incredible story to her students, and it’s wonderful to hear that the younger generation was wide-eyed with awe over the story of a long-lost love letter.

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Rolf Jr. asked Melissa if the sun porch was still there on his old Westfield home. “It is, and we’re renovating it,” she told me. I can’t help but get misty-eyed thinking about a couple in love, holding hands on the sun porch 70 years ago, and another couple in love, holding hands on that same porch today. Old houses are amazing.

Check out the NBC News story about this amazing story!  NBC News Story

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PART 2!! Hidden Treasures From WWII Found In Cranford, NJ Home!

If you read my blog on the Wilson family’s discovery of WWII memorabilia hidden in the walls of their just-purchased home, then you are in for a real treat! This past weekend Jerry and Gaby Wilson met with Eugene McGarry–the very son of the woman who penned the diary that had been tucked behind a wall panel for decades. Eugene and his sister Carol came back to the Cranford home that was once their own to see what the Wilsons had unearthed. I had the privilege of speaking with both Gaby and Eugene after their meeting, and their story continues to amaze me.

Gaby was a bundle of nerves and excitement on Saturday before Eugene was scheduled to arrive. The Wilsons’ contractor, John, was back to continue renovating their upstairs bathroom, where he had made the original discovery of the vintage trunk. To the surprise and delight of everyone, he uncovered even MORE treasures tucked away behind wall panels up there, just minutes before Eugene arrived! Among the “new” items were an army hat, a championship bowling patch, and a fishing rod.

Eugene McGarry gifts wine to Jerry Wilson.

Eugene McGarry gifts wine to Jerry Wilson.

When Eugene arrived at his old Denman Road home (a home he hadn’t visited in 20 years), he came bearing a gift–a lovely bottle of wine to thank the Wilsons for having tracked him down to return his parents’ belongings. Eugene’s sister Carol arrived shortly thereafter, and the two siblings tenderly went through the items that had been saved by his parents. Neither Eugene nor Carol can recall ever having seen this stash of memorabilia. Reading through his mother’s diary and his father’s romantic letters, Eugene said, “It was so fascinating to get this glimpse of another side of my parents.”

According to Eugene, his father, Walter McGarry, had built the cape-cod style house with his own two hands, with the help of his brothers-in-law. Originally the McGarrys lived only on the first floor, until Eugene’s two sisters came along. At that time Walter built the upstairs bedrooms, and he must have tucked away the vintage trunk and other items in the process. Eugene remembered with a laugh that there was no heating source upstairs! He recalled how they could see their breath in the air on extremely chilly days.

Eugene and his sister Carol tenderly explore the contents of their mother's vintage trunk.

Eugene and his sister Carol tenderly explore the contents of their mother’s vintage trunk.

Eugene corroborated much of what Gaby had sleuthed out when she went through the contents of the trunk–that Anna Tesar had been a nurse during the war, and Walter McGarry a soldier. Eugene pieced together bits from his own memory and items from the trunk to conclude that his mother was stationed at Oliver General Hospital in Augusta, Georgia. How did she meet Walter? He had been injured in the war–shrapnel from a grenade damaged his abdomen in the Battle of Leyte. For his courage and sacrifice in the war, Walter received both a bronze and silver star. But Walter would get much more than those stars. While he was being cared for at the hospital . . . he met his beloved Anna.

What Eugene never realized until going through the contents of the trunk–and reading his father’s adoring letters to Anna–was how FAST his parents had fallen in love. Walter had arrived at Oliver General sometime in September or October of 1945, and he married Anna very shortly thereafter on December 30th, 1945! It was a whirlwind romance, to be sure, and once that lasted Anna’s entire life and produced four children.

Eugene shared other tibits with the Wilsons–that Walter worked for Bell telephone for his whole career after the war, and that Anna became a stay-at-home mother and later a crossing guard. “They truly were great parents, and they put me through college and business school,” Eugene said.

Two families have now shared the same roof and a trip down memory lane.

Two families have now shared the same roof and a trip down memory lane.

Eugene revealed that the lovely tree in the front yard of the home was planted in honor of Eugene’s namesake, Walter’s brother Eugene who died while serving in WWII. Carol marveled that the home’s hardwood floors and chimney look exactly the same today as they did during their childhood. From day one, Gaby knew that this house “had a good vibe,” and now the McGarrys’ memories have made her love and appreciate her new home even more. Carol gave Gaby “a huge hug,” clearly thrilled that her old home is once again filled with a loving family.

Eugene and Carol took their parents’ belongings with them, but they left the fishing pole for the Wilsons to enjoy. Surely it will become a treasured heirloom and conversation piece for the Wilson family. And who knows . . . maybe they’ll sneak it into a wall for another generation to find someday.

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Hidden Treasures From WWII Found In Cranford, NJ Home! Part 1

World War II Relics

It’s something you read about in books, something you see in movies: the discovery of secret treasure hidden behind the walls of an old home. But that very thing just happened to Gaby and Jerry Wilson of Cranford, and the story gave me chills all over!

World War II RelicsGaby and Jerry moved with their six-year-old daughter to Denman Road a little over a month ago, having lived on another street in Cranford for three years. Their house on Denman is a charming Cape Cod, built in 1951. Gaby said, “When I first saw the house, I loved how warm it is, how it has a good vibe and feels like a cozy family home. As soon as I saw the chimney, I started thinking of Christmas and building memories before we’d even purchased the home.”

World War II RelicsThe Wilsons planned to do some renovations on the second floor right away, because the bathroom on that level has no shower or tub. According to Gaby, “We had our contractor John Hamor come this past Sunday morning to figure out how we could extend the bathroom to put in shower. He opened up a closet that had once been a shower. When he pulled one of the wall panels down, he saw the trunk sitting there, along with some boxes! I had been sleeping at the time, and I heard these excited voices shouting. When I came downstairs John and Jerry had this antique trunk open and they were yelling, ‘This is from World War II!'”

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World War II RelicsThe trunk and boxes are a virtual treasure trove that detail an incredible period of time in one woman’s life. Gabby and Jerry gently went through all the contents, trying to figure out whom they had belonged to. They found a nurse’s uniform and a woman’s military shirt with the name “Anna” written on the tag. They found a diary with only a few entries, but in one entry Anna wrote of her nervousness in beginning her post in the military. When the Wilsons dug deeper, they found heartfelt love letters, poems, and postcards–all written in script–most of which appeared to be from a Walter McGarry. In one letter, Walter wrote to Anna that he had just arrived home and missed her terribly, aching to kiss her again.

Finally the Wilsons unearthed a Western Union receipt that contained Anna’s last name, Tesar. From that point they were able to do a little detective work online. Using Google and Spokeo, they  discovered that Anna had indeed lived in Cranford but had passed away in 1989. What made Gaby misty-eyed was the revelation that Anna must have ended up marrying her beloved Walter, because her children’s last name is McGarry! 

World War II Relics

The Wilsons were able to get in touch with Eugene McGarry, and he was delighted to learn of the discovery of his mother’s belongings in the Denman house. Gaby said, “We told him we would bring the trunk and boxes to him the very next day, to his house in Califon. He said no, he will come here, I think because he would love to see the house.” 

Gaby and Jerry are beyond excited to meet Eugene this weekend. Gaby said, “I can’t wait to hear about her life here. We found a certificate that says Anna was a crossing guard for many years, right here on Denman.”

I, too, can’t wait to hear about the Wilsons’ interaction with Eugene, and I’ll make sure to share all the details with you! In the meantime, enjoy the photos provided by the Wilsons that will take you back to another time. They just might make you start tapping on your own walls, looking for hollow spots, wondering if there’s treasure to be found.

STAY TUNED FOR PART TWO!!! GABY AND JERRY WILL BE MEETING WITH EUGENE SOON!!

WE CAN’T WAIT!

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The Cranford Historical Society presents “Cranford’s Prominent Women” 3/8/15

Cranford’s Prominent Women Powerpoint Presentation

Cranford NJ's Crane-Phillips House Museum

Cranford NJ’s Crane-Phillips House Museum

March is National Women’s History Month.  And one need go no farther than our own home town to find some notable women of history.

In honor of Women’s History Month, the Cranford Historical Society presents “Cranford’s Prominent Women.” This  Power Point presentation by Women’s Studies Historian, Christine Glazer will highlight Cranford residents who were vital in the early progressive movements for women’s rights, temperance, food and drug purity, authors, civil leaders,  and educators. Women such as Alice Lakey, Elizabeth Bates, Dr. Deborah Wolfe, and Honore Willsie-Morrow. Women who, from right here in our own backyard, influenced the entire modern day world.

The presentation will take place at the Crane-Phillips House Museum, at 38 Springfield Avenue in Cranford, on Sunday, March 8th, from 2:00-4:00 PM.  Admission to this event is free of charge, but reservations ARE required.   To reserve your seat, please call the Historical Society’s office at 908-276-0082,  or email [email protected] .

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Doo-Wop Program at the Cranford Community Center March 4, 2015 at 7:30pm

 

Doo-Wop Groups of New Jersey

 

Did you know that NJ was the birthplace of many a “doo-wop” group?  It’s true!  The Duprees, The Monotones, The Rivieras, The Shirelles . . . . . the NJ music scene was hoppin’ in the 1950’s and 1960’s!

Thanks to The Friends of the Cranford Public Library ,  doo-wop historians Charlie & Pam Horner will be at The Cranford Community Center at 220 Walnut Avenue on Wednesday, March 4th, at 7:30 PM.  Bask in all kinds of “doowop trivia” – how the Duprees got their name,  a rare tape they made before they ever recorded “You Belong to Me,” the real story of Frankie Valli and the Jersey Boys as the Four Lovers,  how a toothpaste commercial and an errant baseball led to the Monotones writing “The Book of Love, ” which groups’ careers were cut short by tragedy, and so much more.   See photos of more than 50 NJ-based doo -wop groups, learn stories, see photos, and hear plenty of sing-along music.

Admission to the program is free and all are welcome.  So why not “doo-wop in?”

 

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Meet Local Author James Gigantino at the Crane-Phillips House Museum 2/22/15

Cranford NJ's Crane-Phillips House Museum

Cranford NJ’s Crane-Phillips House Museum

On Sunday, February 22, 2015 at the Crane-Phillips House Museum, located at 38 Springfield Avenue in Cranford, residents are invited to a free program featuring historian and author, James Gigantino.  Gigantino will discuss his book, “The Ragged Road to Abolition: Slavery  and Freedom in New Jersey, 1775-1865. ” Most people don’t realize that slavery persisted in the North well into the nineteenth century. New Jersey, in fact, was actually the last northern state to pass an abolition statute in 1804. But because of the nature of the law, which freed children born to enslaved mothers only after they had served their mother’s master for more than two decades, slavery continued in New Jersey through the Civil War. Passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 finally destroyed the last of slavery in NJ, but this book chronicles the long road to slavery’s demise in our state.

Gigantino, who also authored the earlier book, The American Revolution in New Jersey: Where the Battlefront Meets the Home Front, is a former Cranford resident. He received his B.A. from the University of Richmond in 2004 and his Ph.D. from the University of Georgia in 2010. He is an early American historian who specializes in the history of slavery.  He works in the history department of the University of Arkansas.

 The program is free, but to reserve your seat, please call the Historical Society’s office at 908-276-0082 or email [email protected]

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Frederic Carder and Steuben Glass Presentation at The Crane-Philips House in Cranford NJ

Frederic Carder and Steuben Glass Presentation

photo credit: innovationtrail

photo credit: innovationtrail

Most people are familiar with Tiffany, and with Steuben Glass, and with the beautiful pieces associated with both names, fewer are familiar with the name “Frederic Carder,” and his connection to both companies.

On Sunday, November 16th, from 2:00-4:00 PM, the Cranford Historical Society will present “Frederic Carder and Steuben Glass” with presenter Vic Bary,  at The Crane-Phillips House Museum at 124 North Union Avenue in Cranford.

Many recognize the name Louis Comfort Tiffany, and are familiar with his company’s turn of the century art glass creations.  The name, in fact, has become synonymous with beautiful lamps, vases, and glass creations.   But the name of Frederic Carder, the founder of Steuben Glass, may not be as well recognized.  Carder was a contemporary of Tiffany, and undoubtedly his biggest competitor.  At one point, Tiffany filed what turned out to be an unsuccessful lawsuit against Carder, charging him with “theft of intellectual property,” or stealing his ideas.   While both artists exhibited a range of talents, Carder, unlike Tiffany, sometimes actually physically participated in the glass blowing of some of the creations he designed.

Presenter Vic Bary, a Cranford Historical Society Trustee and art glass collector, will speak about Frederic Carder and Steuben Glass, and exhibit some examples of Carder’s Art Nouveau glass, as well as other visuals. Bary has previously presented on the Art Glass of Louis Tiffany, as well as competitors Quezal and Durand, for the Cranford Historical Society.

Admission to the presentation is free, but space is limited, so advance reservations are required. (This program, about art GLASS,  is, not surprisingly, NOT recommended for children.) To reserve your seat, please call the Historical Society’s office at 908-276-0082 or email [email protected] .

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Cranford VFW Annual Veterans Breakfast 11/9/14 at 9 am

Are you, or is someone you know and love, a veteran?

Cranford NJ VFW

The Cranford VFW Post #335, located at 479 South Avenue, is hosting their Annual Veterans Breakfast on Sunday, November 9th, at 9:00 AM.  The breakfast is free of charge, and open to all Veterans, regardless of the era of their service.  Veterans can enjoy some great speakers, including Lt. Col. Timothy McLaughlin, the current commander of the Mountainside VFW Post 10136, a 24-year veteran of the Army National Guard, and a Bronze Star decorated Veteran from Iraq.  Lt. Colonel McLaughlin has held many command positions in his career, and is currently serving as Chief of the Surface Maintenance Division of the New Jersey Joint Forces Head Quarters.

Each year, the nearly two million members of the VFW and its Auxiliaries contribute more than 8.6 million hours of volunteerism to their surrounding communities, and provide millions of dollars in college scholarships and savings bonds to students, in addition to providing a superb support network for veterans of foreign wars.

This event is a great way for veterans to enjoy some great speakers, some good food, and a warm welcome.  It’s a nice little “thank you” for your service, and a great opportunity to spend time with fellow service men and women.

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Newsies: A History of the Newspaper Industry Presentation at the Cranford Community Center

Cranford NJ Community Event

Since Ben Franklin invented the printing press in the 1700’s, newspapers have become an iconic part of life as we know it.  Even as e-news takes over, there is no denying the drastic effect that journalism has played in the course of history.  As newspapers have documented history, they’ve built a history of their own.  They have changed our world in ways you might not even imagine.

On July 7th,  at 7:30 PM, The Friends of the Cranford Public Library are sponsoring “Newsies: A History of the Newspaper Industry,” at the Cranford Community Center at 220 Walnut Avenue. The lecture will be presented by Maryanne Christiano-Mistretta, an author, journalist, book editor, and public speaker,  who has been writing professionally since 1987. Her work has appeared in the Paterson Press, the Montclair Times, the Jersey City Independent, the Aquarian Weekly, the Westsider, and Punk Magazine, and she recently published “On the Guest List: Adventures of a Music Journalist.”

Maryanne will discuss the impact that newspapers and journalism have had on our lives, and follow their history.  The program is open to everyone, and is free of charge.   Come learn a little, and enjoy some history!

MLS For Cranford NJ Real Estate

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Heartwood Restorations in Cranford, NJ Is Bringing Back The Beauty of the Past!

Heartwood Restorations in Cranford, NJ 

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Did you ever watch those shows on the Home Channel . . . the ones where people take old, wretched, seemingly worthless pieces of furniture, restore them, and the pieces turn out to be gorgeous and of great worth?  Well, that kind of magic doesn’t just happen on TV.  It’s happening right here in Cranford, at Heartwood Restorations, located at 29 Alden Street.  The list of available services includes fixing of structural problems, refinishing, veneer damage repair and replacements, surface touch-ups, upholstery . . . . and the list goes on and on.  Everything old can be made new again.

Miguel Garcia, an Elizabeth resident, owner and operator of Heartwood Restorations, learned his skill in his native Portugal.  While there, he gained experience in art conservation and restoration, with a particular focus on antique furniture.  Seven years ago, he and his new wife moved here, “…literally looking for the American Dream,” explains Miguel.  For two years, he worked at the Metropolitan Museum in NYC as an assistant conservator.  Once the two year project he was working on ended, the financial crunch prevented him from being assigned any further projects with the museum.  It was at that time that he decided to open a business of his own, doing what he loves.

Heartwood Restorationsdesk

“I found the Cranford community to be very accepting of my business,” claims Miguel.    “Not only was there nothing similar offered in town, but people were very eager to have something like this so local.  Lots of people have damaged furniture to restore, and there are a lot of historical houses around with antique furnishings well worth being properly conserved and restored.”

With business, as with everything, timing and location are everything.  “I won’t deny that it is unfortunate that both storms Irene and Sandy have brought quite a volume of work into the studio,” says Miguel.  “Right now there is enough work to keep me booked until the end of September.  However, most of the current projects I have are just heirloom furniture that needs some TLC that people bring in for treatment.”

Some examples of current projects Miguel is working on:  a pair of pocket doors from an early 20th century home, a music box cabinet from the Morris Museum, a Victorian loveseat, and so much more.  And his clients come from near and far.

“I haven’t needed to do any advertising,” explains Miguel.   “I believe that word of mouth from satisfied clients who have had direct experience with my business is the best way to advertise.”

Of course, a shout-out from 365 Things to Do In The Cranford/Westfield Area isn’t bad, either!

Check out the website at HeartwoodRestorations .

Chair restoration before After restoration Chair detail

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