Over the past thirty years, I have always striven to create an appreciative and sustaining audience for meaningful places and events of historical and natural interest through writing and teaching. Focusing on program design and historic site administration, I have developed skills in historic preservation and interpretive planning to promote tangible connections to our past through heritage tourism, producing a credible trail of publications, exhibits and special events.
Raised in an intergenerational setting in rural Sussex County, I inherited a living heritage rooted in story telling and a rich treasury of folk memory. I first saw the light of day in Newton Memorial Hospital, born midway through the Baby Boom—the second of seven children fathered by a World War II veteran who returned home after serving with the Signal Corps in North Africa, Sicily and Italy. My mother was a kindergarten teacher for thirty-eight years. After my father’s death from pancreatic cancer at 48 years of age in 1971, we survived upon her tenacity and devotion.
Most people do not connect Appalachia to New Jersey. Yet, perched on a slaty slope overlooking the Great Appalachian Valley, my hometown of Newton flourishes as the hub in a spokewise network of roads, which mostly overlie old Indian footpaths. A white-faced courthouse still identifies Newton as the judicial and administrative center of Sussex County, New Jersey. Until 1954, when I was two years old, Sussex County boasted “More Cows Than People.” As a child in a storied land, the legends and lore of Old Sussex proved captivating.
My father descended from the earliest Dutch and English pioneers of northwestern New Jersey’s secluded hill country, where several topographical features still bear witness to their presence here in colonial days. Even the ancient blood of the Minisinks runs in our veins. My mother is a granddaughter of Irish and Alsatian immigrants who fled famine and upheaval in Europe during the middle of the nineteenth century. Her parents escaped crowded Manhattan in 1920, taking suburban refuge in a two-family stucco house on a quiet street in Leonia, New Jersey. My grandmother Mary Mullen—who lived with us for thirty years—was the daughter of Civil War veteran, George Diemer. She was born on Vestry Street in Manhattan in 1890 when her father was nearly fifty years old, so stories of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg came second hand to me. My mother also descended of Irish immigrants from County Sligo and Dublin, bringing the rich cultural inheritance of the Old Sod into the mix.
My grandfather Ivan Wright was a collector of Indian artifacts and the great-great grandson of four Revolutionary War veterans who hailed from Sussex County. His grandfather, Samuel Wright, was a boatman on the Morris Canal. My great-grandfather John Edward Brink (who lived with my Grandmother Wright in Newton at the time of his death in 1964) was born at Walpack Centre and trained as a wheelwright in Millbrook, now a restored village in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. His wife, Celeste Campbell, was a daughter of Civil War veteran, Henry Campbell, of Branchville.
Since my father was Episcopalian and my mother, Roman Catholic, they were married in the Rectory at Leonia in 1949 under the promise their offspring would be baptized Roman Catholic. I attended St. Joseph’s Parochial School on Jefferson Street, Newton, which was run by the Sisters of Christian Charity. I graduated in 1966 in the first class to pass from kindergarten through eighth grade. I can still picture sitting in my sixth grade classroom when our principal, Sister Joanna, suddenly stepped through the door to announce something terrible had happened, asking us to pray. Shortly thereafter, we were dismissed early upon receiving word that President John F. Kennedy—the first Roman Catholic President of the United States—had been fatally shot while riding in a parade through Dallas, Texas. Several months later, just as I turned twelve, I listened transfixed to the Beatles playing from the radio in our 1961 Ford station wagon—it was like no sound I had ever heard and the opening bars of a countercultural revolution that would define our generation. It seemed the whole world was changing and we had to change with it. So I started growing out my hair (against considerable resistance) and bought one of the only electric guitars hanging on the wall in Grabow’s Department Store on Spring Street. In November 1965, my father drove us to a Rolling Stones’ concert in the Mosque Theater in Newark.
While the majority of my class went to Catholic High School at Our Lady of the Lake, I matriculated with several close friends to Newton High School. Agriculture still comprised the largest department when I attended and every morning at breakfast a small leather-clad portable radio on our kitchen counter gave voice to the County Agricultural Agent reciting milk prices. Newton was still the largest receiving district for students from rural townships and my classmates came from points as far distant as Layton, Hainesville, Fredon and Green. Consequently, my circle of friends grew, each sharing different outlooks that greatly enriched my life. I particularly remember participating in an innovative humanities class as a sophomore, where we rotated among teachers of literature, art, music, industrial arts and history, focusing successively upon Classical Antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and Enlightenment. When President Richard Nixon ordered the invasion of Cambodia in April 1970, we organized a Moratorium, receiving the Board of Education’s reluctant permission to leave school during lunchtime to conduct a public educational seminar on the Courthouse Square. Just before we were to depart, the Principal came over the public address system to rescind permission out of concern for our safety, apparently having received threats of violence against any participants. We marched anyway and the event came off without a hitch. As I recall, we heard from two speakers, an Army recruiter who supported the war and a Catholic priest who spoke on conscientious objection to unjustified wars.
Gordon Muir, who taught English in my junior year, was so inspiring on the American Romantics and Transcendentalists that two classmates and I traveled to New England immediately after graduating in June 1970 to visit places associated with Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. That fall, I entered Rutgers University, rooming as a freshman at the experimental Livingston College campus, newly built on the former grounds of Camp Kilmer in Piscataway. Just as I went off to college, my father, then Executive Officer of the 50th Armor Battalion with the rank of Major, resigned his commission and went to work building a power plant near Belvidere. An exploratory operation in March 1971 revealed he had pancreatic cancer and he died that August, leaving our family in greatly reduced circumstances. My Grandfather Wright died two weeks later. Fortunately, I had a full tuition scholarship, but only limited means for room and board. In my junior year, I shared a small room with another roommate in an Easton Avenue apartment—the only quarters I could afford on $50 per month. The gift of $5 or $10 weekly from my Grandmother Mullen, supplementing what my mother could spare (caring for seven children) for my board and what I could earn from summer jobs, kept mind and body together. I survived with many good memories of interesting classes and lively adventures with steadfast friends. Majoring in History, I graduated Rutgers College, New Brunswick, NJ, in 1974. I met my wife, Deborah, while we were both student part-timers, loading trucks and sorting packages on the nightshift at Raritan Center. After a whirlwind courtship, we married at Yellow Frame Church in August 1976. Attending our wedding reception on Linnwood Avenue in Newton, my father-in-law pointed out the house where he lived as a child. We soon discovered that Deborah had deep roots in Sussex County as well.
Amplified by the ancient religion of my Hibernian ancestors and ample folk wisdom from a rural community of elders during my upbringing, I confess to being somewhat superstitious and deeply spiritual in my inclinations. Somewhere in my childhood, I developed an aversion to eating meat. At first, I could not tolerate being in the house while corn-beef was cooking—the smell nauseated me. I remember watching Donovan being interviewed on a TV show before he played Buffy Sainte-Marie’s song, “The Universal Soldier.” I think he described the adrenalin rush of fear imparted to the body of an animal about to be slaughtered, which transfers to its meat. He urged listeners “not to feed on death.” That was the first I ever realized what vegetarianism was about or that others shared my spiritual inclinations. In my freshman year at college, I remember attending a Christmas party in Tillet Hall, where a gutted hunk of beef hung over glowing coals, the blue-inked stamp of approval still visible. I was astonished anyone would want to eat something so obviously unappetizing. But it was difficult to survive on traditional American fare by simply omitting the meat course. It wasn’t until I met my wife—who was a self-inspired vegetarian and artist—that I learned to approach meals from a vegetarian viewpoint, creating satisfying entrees with legumes, rice and other nutritious ingredients. I have remained true to myself ever since. Jai guru dev! Victory to the spiritual awakening within us!
Returning to Newton, I started my career in historical interpretation in June 1977 at Waterloo, a restored village located on the Morris Canal in Sussex County, New Jersey. My first assignment was to operate and interpret the water-powered gristmill, learning my trade from Stillwater miller and craftsman, Gus Roof. At this time, I began a doctoral program at Rutgers University in History, which I gave up when I was promoted to Tour Director in January 1979, when my son Ivan was born.
I learned the ropes of my craft at Waterloo, supervising an overworked and underpaid staff of about fifteen docents and crafters. I thoroughly researched the village’s history, writing the narration and supplying illustrations for a slide-show orientation program. I managed a busy school tour program, which provided historical interpretation to 12,484 students, teachers and chaperones in the spring of 1981. As part of my responsibilities, I processed daily receipts from ticket sales, group tours, gift shop sales, snack bar and tavern, keeping accounting ledgers and daily inventories of craft sales upon which commissions were paid. I researched and wrote a brochure with a map, introducing the concept of the “self-guided tour.”
In December 1978, a month before Ivan was born, we moved into half of a double house, formerly the Methodist Parsonage (or so I’ve been told), on Route 57 in the tiny Warren County mill hamlet of Broadway, Franklin Township. Ivan was born in the upstairs bedroom with assistance from our midwife, who hailed from Verona. Deborah used to take him for walks along the abandoned Morris Canal, which ran through the village, where he would sometimes pick up a piece of coal in the dry prism. We learned while we were living there that my great-great grandfather, Samuel Wright, had been a boatman on the canal, who lived on Myrtle Avenue, fronting the canal basin.
As Waterloo always teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, I looked for opportunities for more secure employment in my field. Fortuitously, I connected with Paul Taylor, Supervisor of Historic Sites for the Division of Parks & Forestry, who was recruiting talent for the State Park Service. On an excursion to Abram Hewitt’s Ringwood Manor, searching for records of the old Andover Iron Company and the Sussex Railroad, I made fast friends with Bert Prol, the dedicated curator there—we remain good friends to this day, always united in our hopes to improve the status of Historic Sites within state government. Through Paul and Bert, I successfully interviewed for the caretaker position at the Zabriskie-Steuben House, a Revolutionary War landmark located in River Edge, NJ. Earning the job after an interview with the officers of the Bergen County Historical Society, I moved in on October 31, 1981. At the time, this was reputedly the lowest paying fulltime job in state government. Filing a successful reclassification, the caretaker at Wallace House in Somerville and I were upgraded to Historic Preservation Specialists on July 18, 1984—the first professional civil service title awarded to field positions in the New Jersey State Historic Sites (except for the old curator title at Ringwood Manor, Twin Lights and in Trenton).
My son, Benjamin, was born in the Steuben House about a year after we arrived. Since we had only a single bedroom, which we gave to Ivan, he slept in a large basket beside our bed in the main room, off the kitchen, which doubled as our living room. My daughter, Anna, was born there in 1985. My wife and children assisted without pay or complaint in reviving one of New Jersey’s most significant Revolutionary War landmarks.
At the Steuben House, I successfully developed a program of natural and historical interpretation, managing a popular school tour program. During my tenure as historic site manager, the Steuben House developed into the State Park Service’s most visited historic house museum. I was responsible for general site administration, developing a collections management program and policy for the Bergen County Historical Society and programs, exhibits and special events for the public. I wrote and designed brochures, exhibit catalogues, press releases, and magazine articles, including ones published in Colonial Homes and Early American Life. I trained and supervised our volunteer staff. The 1983 Tercentenary Exhibit of Bergen County Folk Art remains the only artifact exhibit developed in a State Historic Site to be displayed at the New Jersey State Museum.
One of my most successful efforts was to develop special events, including the popular Jersey Dutch Christmas Concerts, which started in 1983. I organized a Hackensack River Festival in 1985 and 1986, which included a special exhibit on the natural and cultural history of the Hackensack River Valley. This River Festival ran simultaneously at Historic New Bridge Landing and the Hackensack Meadowlands Environment Center.
I negotiated a three-year development project between the Community Research Committee of the Junior League of Bergen County and the Bergen County Historical Society, whereby the Junior League provided a docent program for the Steuben House, a catalogue and inventory of the museum collections, and a school outreach program including slide show and Traveling History Trunk. The project involved fifteen highly skilled volunteers and an investment of $10,300 over three years (1983-1988). Innovative features included computerization of collection records, publication of a historical coloring book for students, and educational exhibits and programs.
On August 11, 1985, Al Frank, of the Sunday Star-Ledger, featured my research on the 1889 Boundary Commission, which first marked the boundary between New York and New Jersey in the Hudson River. The story captured national news media attention with feature stories in the Bergen Record (“A borderline case,” August 13, 1985), the Intelligencer of Wheeling, West Virginia, (“Is Statue of Liberty Really New Jersey’s?” August 12, 1985), the New York Post (“Miss Liberty in the Eye of a Custody Storm,” August 13, 1985), The Bergen Dispatch (“Treaty reveals Liberty is Ours,” August 12, 1985), the New Jersey Herald (“Historian shows Statue stands in N. J.,” August 13, 1985), the Boston Globe (Names and Faces, August 13, 1985), the Boston Herald, (“N. J. claims leg up in fight for Liberty,” August 12, 1985), the New York Daily News (“It’s war again: NJ fights for the Lady,” August 13, 1985), the New York Times (“Treaty Is Said to Put Miss Liberty in Jersey,” August 12, 1985), and Time Magazine (“A Borderline Case,” August 26, 1985). I was interviewed in magazines, on radio and television, coast to coast. The Deputy Attorney General requested and received my basic research on the case for New Jersey sovereignty over Liberty and Ellis Islands and it was incorporated into the Supreme Court case. My brother was in the airport at Rome, Italy, when he saw my picture and the headline.
I was promoted to a Senior Historic Preservation Specialist on December 30, 1987, and was involved from the outset in the visioning process for Historic New Bridge Landing Park, an innovate public-private partnership to promote and develop the Revolutionary War battleground surrounding the Zabriskie-Steuben House at The Bridge That Saved a Nation. I began serving as Secretary to the Historic New Bridge Landing Park Commission in 1995, preparing Minutes and correspondence. In this capacity, I coordinated Historic New Bridge Landing’s participation in the Crossroads of the American Revolution National Heritage Area, including expansion of proposed National Heritage area to include Bergen County historic sites. I co-wrote a successful grant application for $27,000, funded by the New Jersey Historic Trust, to develop the Historic New Bridge Landing Implementation Plan, providing a “detailed sequence of actions to translate the vision of Historic New Bridge Landing as a heritage tourism destination into an achievable reality.” I also researched and wrote a white paper on designating Historic New Bridge Landing as one of the proposed new state urban parks.
I was promoted July 1, 2000, to become first Regional Resource Interpretive Specialist for the Northern Region, State Park Service, NJ Division of Parks and Forestry. My responsibilities included creating and supervising training workshops and roundtables for Natural and Historic Resource Interpretive Specialists. I also represented the Northern Region at various meetings concerning historic and cultural resource management and interpretation. One of my proudest achievements in this capacity, however, was to organize and host the Division of Parks and Forestry’s special event at the NJ School of Conservation in March 2003, marking the statewide celebration of the 70th Anniversary of the Civilian Conservation Corps. This was the first statewide Division of Parks & Forestry interpretive program.
I also served on the Division of Parks and Forestry’s Centennial Committee, preparing special events and lecture series, including the Spirit of the Jerseys History Fair. I chaired the subcommittee that developed the rededication of the 1932 Washington Bicentennial Arboretum at Washington Crossing State Park in 2004 and a special photographic exhibit honoring the Centennial of the New Jersey State Forests (1905-2005). In my tenure as Regional Resource Interpretive Specialist, I worked as a historical consultant and location finder for the New Jersey Network documentary, The Highlands Rediscovered. I also earned certification from Continuing Professional Education, Rutgers University, Cook College, for completion of Making the Watershed Connection – An Interactive Conference for NJ Educators (June 2004, 00.6 CEUs)) and Chemical and Visual Monitoring for Educators in North Jersey (June 2004, 00.6 CEUs).
In one of the greatest professional opportunities afforded me during my career, I attended the training course, From Interpretive Planning to Interpretive Product, at Stephen T. Mather Training Center, Harpers Ferry West Virginia in July-August 2001, culminating in National Park Service certification as an interpretive planner. Employing this training, I researched, wrote, illustrated and designed the Historic New Bridge Landing General Management Plan and the Historic New Bridge Landing Comprehensive Interpretive Plan (June 2003). I also researched, co-wrote and illustrated the Kittatinny Valley State Park Comprehensive Interpretive Plan (2004). In one of my most challenging assignments, I chaired the Lusscroft Interim Committee, working on the preservation, interpretation and management of the former North Jersey Dairy Branch of the State Agriculture Experiment Station in Wantage Township, New Jersey. Throughout the fact-finding and visioning process, I acted as facilitator in researching, writing and illustrating the Lusscroft General Management Plan, coordinating a planning committee from July 2002 to January 2003). I also wrote, illustrated and designed the promotional booklet for the public meeting.
As Northern Regional Resource Interpretive Specialist, I also researched and wrote two proposed rail-to-trail management plans, namely, The Wallkill Valley Heritage Trail Management Plan (2001) and the Iron Horse Trail Management Plan (2001). In 2000-2001, I researched, wrote and illustrated Stewardship through Historic and Natural Interpretation: Providing Memory and Meaning in New Jersey’s Storied Places, including the first history of the NJDEP Division of Parks and Forestry. I also researched and wrote Cultural Resource Management Plans for Keen’s Mill in Swartswood State Park and for Crill’s Cabin (aka, Roper Cabin), an 1867 log-house in Stokes State Forest.
I received special training in the design of interpretive wayside exhibits at the National Park Service’s Mather Center, Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Consequently, I planned, wrote, illustrated and designed (with considerable technical and artistic help from my wife, Deborah) ten wayside interpretive exhibits for the Northern Region, which were placed at Wawayanda Furnace, Long Pond Ironworks, Kittatinny Valley State Park, Stokes State Forest, Worthington State Forest, and Swartswood State Park. I wrote and supervised bids for these interpretive wayside exhibits. My design work (again, ably assisted by Deborah) saved the state an estimated $25,000. Subsequently, I was able to assist Resource Interpretive Specialists in the design and development of wayside exhibits.
I was assigned to an administrative position at Historic New Bridge Landing on June 23, 2007 and removed the flood-damaged historical collections of the Bergen County Historical Society from the Zabriskie-Steuben House. Having performed this final service, I retired February 1, 2008, after 27 years in state service.