July 23, 2013

At A Small Historical Museum: Surprises and Awakened Memories

Visiting a small, local historical museum can be a very touching experience for me. The objects are lovingly gathered and explained by volunteers who are enthusiastic about their subject. The feelings evoked are heightened when I have a personal tie to the place, as I do with the Township of Ocean Historical Museum, located at the north Jersey shore, where I spent all of my childhood summers. The museum is housed in an old house that was built in three stages, the earliest in 1747, which is the room whose hearth you see above.

It is amazing to think that an entire family lived in this room, which seemed no more than 12 feet square. But at the same time, there was beautiful woodwork in the room, indicative of prosperity. A second story was added as the family grew, and twenty years later the house was extended.

This room of the original house was full of interesting small objects, of children's clothes and old kitchen implements.

I learned some fascinating and totally surprising facts about the area: that there was a test site for radio communications right near the current museum. AT&T bought the land in 1919 where they tested wireless transmissions, and developed microwave towers for long distance telephone. In 1953 the site went to the US Army Signal Corps, who first sighted Sputnik from there. In the 1960s the Army sent the first photographic fax from the Deal Test Site. The site became obsolete with a change in technology, and was purchased by the Township of Ocean; it's now Joe Palaia Park.

In a middle room of the museum was a miscellany of objects, including the Deal Test Site information, a tribute to firefighters, things such as old typewriters and gramophones. I was most intrigued by this small case holding syringes and a vial of polio vaccine. I remember lining up to get the polio vaccine at school when I was a child. At the Deal School, children were part of a nationwide trial of the Salk polio vaccine in 1954.

The part of the museum that held the most interest for me was this year's exhibit about Asbury Park. My summers were spent at Bradley Beach––only a couple of miles from Asbury, my friends and I would often walk there––which it turns out was named for the founder of Asbury, James Bradley. Bradley was a devout Methodist who thought to start another town similar to Ocean Grove next door; he named Asbury Park after Francis Asbury, the first Methodist bishop in the U.S., but Asbury changed and became a town of fun and frolic. Looking at that photo above, I remembered, for the first time in years, those paddle boats on the lake.

This hat box, hat, and gloves reminded me of being with my mother at Steinbach's department store on Cookman Avenue. I almost had a madeleine moment, with the smell of the place coming back to my nose; the taste of cinnamon toast to my mouth. I described another shore madeleine moment in this blog post last year, in which the taste of honeysuckle brought back memories.

A strong, joyous memory was triggered by seeing these small brass rings. There were two carousels in Asbury Park, but this was our favorite: as we went round and round, we could gather our courage and reach out to try to grab a ring from a long-armed dispenser. Very occasionally a ring would be golden; I don't remember the prize for that, but I'm sure it was very exciting.

Something I'd completely forgotten were the Swan boats that were on Wesley Lake. I was very excited when a docent told me that there were again swan boats on the lake. I decided to go to Asbury the next morning and see.

Yes, there they were, but they were small pedal boats, and of course made out of fiberglass or some such other modern material. But still, what fun it would be to pedal around the lake in a swan or pelican, or even a green dragon.

Much of Asbury Park is not how I remember it: the penny arcades and games and rides on the boardwalk are gone, replaced, after years of decay, by new and cheerful stores and upscale restaurants. Some of the old glories do remain, though in poor shape. One such is a gorgeous carousel house (not for my favorite carousel), restored enough for occasional theater projects.

Adjoining the carousel house is the Casino, in poor repair, though I've read that it's being restored. It wasn't for gambling, but housed games and rides and concession stands. Both structures were designed by Whitney Warren and Charles Wetmore, who also designed Grand Central Station in NYC. I do miss the brouhaha of those noisy, game-filled places, the bumper cars and pinball games. Are there still any penny arcades anywhere?

Another grand fixture of Asbury Park is Convention Hall at the other end of the boardwalk from the Casino. Its palatial building projects from the boardwalk over the beach and at the building's other end is the large Paramount theater, which now hosts concerts. In between was the wide, high arcade under these windows. I don't remember any particular concert that I saw at Convention Hall (next event coming there is the 4th Annual Visionary Tattoo Arts Festival), but I do remember seeing the Beatles' Hard Days Night at the Paramount, a thrilling experience. I also remember seeing The Ten Commandments with my grandmother at another large theater, since torn down; I was eight years old at the time. There is something about summer memories, of long peaceful days full of pleasures, that is so sweet and strong.


  1. thanks -- that was sweet and surprisingly strong -- i have a memory of in-ground trampolines (!) at asbury or am i misremembering ....?
    ive heard the amusement park in my hometown has been restored as well tho i havent been back to see it -- but just the name (Eldridge Park) is madeleinish for me.

    1. I'm glad the post resonated with you, Stuart. I do remember trampolines from my childhood, though mine were closer to Bradley Beach, not in Asbury. They were such fun! but were probably closed down for insurance reasons. Now I see many backyard trampolines at the shore, above ground, enclosed by nets. It sounds like you should make a trip to your local amusement park next time you're visiting your hometown.

  2. I must visit the museum, I drive by it all the time and never take he time to stop. Summertime memories at the shore really do make me smile. But times have really changed. We would leave the house in the morning with instructions to be home by 6 to help with dinner. What we did all day was up to us. Mom or Mom & Dad would often take carloads of kids on outtings, but other than that there were no programmed days.
    One of my fondest memories was collecting buckets of snails on the jetties with cousin Eddie and selling them to the fishermen at Shark River Basin. Cheryl

    1. Thanks for the contribution of your memories, Cheryl, different from mine. I wonder if you remember horseback riding in Allaire State Park. I love the snails story.

  3. Not my Midwestern summer experiences, so especially fun to hear your Proustian memories. I wondered if Hurricane Sandy affected this area?

    1. Yes, Julie, Sandy was brutal to the area. Some towns had their boardwalks wiped out, but are rebuilding structures now, and the beaches are open. Bradley Beach had built beautiful grass-covered dunes on the beach near the boardwalk (luckily now concrete) and they are gone. The small gazebos are gone. Houses were destroyed or badly damaged. But the summer is going forward beautifully and it gets rebuilt.