The summer heat wave brings memories of childhood in Fort Lee and the many ways we devised to beat the heat in the pre-air-conditioned houses of our youth.
Growing up in the 60s and 70s in Fort Lee meant, in large measure, playing outdoors in the summer. Why? Well, we had no video games nor computers and such to keep us tethered to our rooms.
But, more importantly, most of us working class kids of Fort Lee did not have air conditioners in our rooms, and in many cases in our homes. The section of town I grew up in, Coytesville, saw not only the kids outdoors but parents too.
How many of you have memories of summer nights with your parents and neighbors sitting on the front stoop or in lawn chairs as they drank their gin & tonics?
I distinctly recall the best friend of my very early days being Bobby Sweeney who lived on Fifth Street across the street from our house. His mom and dad joined my parents and others on our front stoop on summer evenings imbibing said gin & tonics. Since cellphones were decades away, we knew when it was time to head home with a more personal call, as Mr. Sweeney let loose with a whistle that was worthy of an air raid siren. We would hear that whistle from blocks away and head back to Fifth Street.
During the summer days, or shall I say "daze," what were the kids of Coytesville to do? We could play whiffle ball in the Faraday's backyard on Second Street, as that yard resembled Wrigley Field and was a ball to play in. That is until the grouchy neighbor next door refused to throw back our errant whiffle balls that flew into his adjacent vegetable garden.
We could ride our Schwinn bicycles over to Gus Becker’s Saloon, formerly Rambo’s Saloon, on First Street where the then nearly 90-year-old Gus would regale us with tales from the silent movie days and of such personalities as the Barrymores as we sipped RC Colas and sat on the bar stools. Yes, back in the day, kids could enter bars and drink sodas at the bar without Homeland Security being alerted!
We might go up to Englewood Cliffs to the 9W Bowling Alley or to Linwood Lanes closer to home to hit the arcade machines and grab a burger and bowl a bit. We might even put on our PF Flyers and walk over to the air-conditioned Linwood Theatre, but that was usually left for Saturday afternoons.
In August, we could grab our crab nets and head down the Thousand Steps of the Palisades and go crabbing and maybe do a little swimming off Bunty Hill’s dock under the George Washington Bridge, as Bunty would tells us about the tides and of the days when he was a lifeguard on that very Hazard’s Beach before the GWB was built.
This archive piece though is about one particular spot that still exists much as it did some 40 years ago, though the neighborhood that surrounds this idyllic spot has changed much. Macfadden’s Pond actuality sits in Englewood. However the area was, and to many of us still is, considered part of Coytesville, if not legally, then in something much more substantive, our hearts and minds. Coytesville’s borders were always very hard to establish.
When the Coytes first came to the area in the mid 19th Century, they settled in the northern section of today’s Fort Lee, and some of their land spilled into areas that today are part of Englewood Cliffs and Englewood. The Woodland Cemetery, established on land donated by the Coyte family, is in actuality today in Englewood Cliffs between Irving Avenue and Hickory Streets. It is still an active cemetery and is the final resting place of many Coytes, as well as the first Mayor of Fort Lee, John C. Abbott.
The Coyte family today is spread across the country, but they do return to care for the cemetery several times a year. This very cemetery back in the 60s and 70s was part of a nature trail that started at the base of Bayview Avenue in Englewood Cliffs and went up the hill through the cemetery to Macfadden’s Pond. Today the cemetery is surrounded by homes and its former entrance is cutoff. In order to get to MacFadden’s, as we did as kids, you have to go to the end of Irving Avenue and down Summit Street and then proceed on a trail through a fence, which today is part of the Flat Rock Brook Nature Center.
Thankfully Macfadden’s Pond is part of this wonderful nature preserve. According to the Flat Rock Brook Nature Preserve website, in 1876 a pond was created by damming the Flat Rock Brook, and on an 1880 map it is called Vanderbeck’s Millpond as the site of a sawmill. Quarrying operations in the areas surrounding the pond took place from 1900 to 1925.
According to the website:
In 1907 their was a proposal to enlarge Woodland Cemetery in Fort Lee by constructing a 126-acre cemetery (to be called "Woodland Park") on the border of Englewood and Fort Lee, including the eastern portion of what is now Flat Rock Brook. Local property owners objected. Here’s where the website gets interesting: In 1927 Bernarr Macfadden, eccentric millionaire tabloid publisher, buys estate on the corner of East Linden Ave. and South Woodland St., including Vanderbeck's millpond, which had by then been turned into an ornamental pond, with diving raft, waterfall, and swans. Macfaddens separated in 1932, but the family remained on the estate until 1969.
Fortunately, the land including the pond, has been preserved via Green Acres funds, and the approval by voters in Englewood of a 1968 bond ordinance to acquire open land, thus allowing the city to purchase property through 1976. This eventually led to the creation of the Flat Rock Brook Nature Center, which today includes an interpretive building (presently under renovation), a backyard habitat for wildlife, and next year it will celebrate its 40th anniversary.
There is nothing more American than an old fashioned swimming hole to fish, swim and while away the hours around. This brings to mind the recent passing of the legendary Andy Griffith – the theme of his wonderful Andy Griffith Show was called the Fishin’ Hole, and that song heard by a nation through a simple whistle is an iconic reminder of the importance of these spots.
All of the above explain the history of this special place, but to define it in other terms, the terms of childhood memories, you must envision Coytesville kids for generations climbing down the wooded hill to play and fish and sometimes swim in Macfadden’s Pond, our swimming hole that holds and captures our adult imagination no less so than Walden Pond captured the thoughts and ideals of Henry David Thoreau.
May we, like Thoreau at his Walden Pond, remember Macfadden’s and return to it if not in body, then in mind and in this hurried world of 21st-Century America, let us have the courage to march to the beat of our own drummer and remember as Thoreau said so well in Walden, "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears the beat of a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."
We heard the first strains of that music as kids at Macfadden’s Pond.