Our South Bergenite Column: Marsh Memories

1-old muskrat hunting picJim Wright, who maintains this blog for the Meadowlands Commission, also writes a twice-monthly column for the South Bergenite. His latest features the NJMC’s Brian Aberback, who started the commission’s Oral History Project five years ago.

Video interviews with long-time muskrat trappers.  The audio recollections of life-long Meadowlands residents. Insights from the people who helped turned the region from wasteland to wonderland.

Five years ago, to mark the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission’s 40th anniversary, we created an oral history project to capture the recollections of people who grew up in the old days of the Meadowlands or who played a pivotal role in the region’s incredible environmental comeback — or both.

  This spring on our nature blog, www.meadowblog.net, the NJMC is posting nearly a dozen of those interviews (including the memories of a few folks who have since died) in order to remind residents of this region not only about its checkered bygone days but as a place of wonder and adventure for youngsters growing up in the early to mid-20th century.

Brian Aberback, the NJMC’s public information officer, supervised the project and conducted many of the interviews. He was happy to talk about the project’s contribution to the history of the Meadowlands.

The interview follows.

  How did the Oral History Project come about?

The Meadowlands has such a rich history, and the commission realized: What better way to tell it than through the words of the people who grew up here. So we set about finding some great folks with fascinating stories, through word of mouth and by asking town historians, librarians and officials for recommendations.

How did you do?

Many of the residents we spoke with have a connection that dated as far back as the 1930s, long before the Meadowlands was known as an illegal dumping ground and its transformation to its current state as a natural jewel.

Their stories brought this region’s history alive. It was so fulfilling to capture everyone’s wonderful memories for posterity.

What was the goal?

We wanted to get a personal perspective on what is was like to grow up in the Meadowlands prior to its development, and how the people we interviewed spent their time growing up.

What we found is that, much like today, the Meadowlands in centuries past was an environmental playground for kids that piqued their curiosity and brought about a lifelong appreciation for nature and conservation.

What stands out the most, five years later?

There are so many highlights from the interviews. The stories about daring adventures, like entering the North Arlington Copper Mines. Countless hours spent muskrat hunting, swimming in the Hackensack River, and exploring quarries, landfills, and clay pits.

Then there were tales about the many dairy farms that once operated here, one including a particularly wayward cow.  A gathering of veteran muskrat hunters, whom we playfully dubbed “The Muskrateers,” that the Commission organized also stands out.

But most of all, what shines through is everyone’s passion and pride for the Meadowlands and how special and magical a place it was in which to grow up. Nearly everyone we talked to is a life-long Meadowlands resident.

That’s a great testimony to the charm and allure of the Meadowlands.

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