Many thanks to Bill Frotscher, who was kind enough to share his poignant essay about growing up in the Meadowlands.
The Maywood native with family roots in Little Ferry and current Pennsylvania resident was inspired to chronicle his time in the Meadowlands after recently returning to the region for a 66th High School Reunion.
A professional forester, Bill writes about exploring the newly-formed lakes in Little Ferry, the result of the area’s clay pits being drained, crabbing and fishing, cedar swamps and other eye-opening experiences.
Here is his essay:
Recently I returned from a 66th reunion of my high school class at Bogota High School. A friend, closely aware of my interests brought along an article which had appeared in the Record concerning restoration and renovation of the Hackensack Meadowlands. It was fascinating to read and inspired me to look up your website and read about all that is finally being done to attempt to reclaim a great resource which had been greatly diminished during the past one hundred years.
Although I grew up in Maywood, my parents had roots in Little Ferry. In fact, when I was a child the back of my grandmother’s house faced the meadows and by walking out her back gate and then across a field, we could soon be at Budd’s Lake and beyond it the Hackensack river. Although this was the closest path to the river. usually we would walk down Mehrhof Road to the site of another clay pit from which we would gain access to the dikes which ran along the river’s edge.
In the ’40’s which was the period of my youth that I spent time roaming the marshland and river banks, the area had once again started to revert to its wild state and wildlife was again starting to live in the areas that had previously been depleted by the industrial activities of the 1800’s and the period prior to the great depression in the 1900’s.
When I finally reached the age when I could get a hunting license, this was the area to which I could jump on the #18 bus which ran from Maywood to Little Ferry, along with my hunting buddy and ride to a spot where the sport of hunting was still permitted in Bergen County. Game was not overabundant, but we did manage to find a few rabbits on the farmlands of Moonachie, some scattered pheasants outside the fence at the shooting grounds and ducks still regularly floated on the river. Sometimes in flocks of a hundred or more.
During the summer months I often spent many days visiting with my grandmother in Little Ferry; especially during the war years when her two sons who normally lived with her, were off at opposite ends of the world fighting wars with the axis powers. It was at this time that I learned the great opportunities which were becoming more and more available in the waterways and lakes in the area as a result of the then flooded clay quarries or “claypits” as they were then referred. I even have recollections of crabbing in the Hackensack river off the remains of old boat docks dating back to the heavy industrial era. The crabs there were not as big as the ones caught along the ocean shore, but rivaled those which we later caught in the Hudson river. We also caught some white perch and catfish and of course there were always the eels; some of which were 2 1/2 to 3 feet long in the river.
The claypits contained a large variety of fish. The largest of which were the German carp; growing to sizes of 30-40 pounds. The panfish were the most prevalent with bluegills being extremely abundant. Besides the eels there were also catfish and it was not uncommon to catch a decent largemouth bass, particularly if you were an accomplished angler.
Each Spring the fish commission would stock Willow lake and Indian lake with trout. Hundreds of fisherman would line the shores, shoulder to shoulder on opening day, and the fishing frenzy would continue for several weeks until almost all were caught out. However it seemed a remnent always remained.
In the northernmost claypits, near Ridgefield Park a large population of Red, gold and silver carp was abundant. Many of these had been introduced by homeowners who wanted to find a place to release the goldfish that had been purchased as pets and were no longer wanted.
I remember making many trips to these areas with an old cane pole and coming home with a bucket of multi-colored fish. Some of these I recall keeping in a large aquarium under a bush in the back of my house. What great fun this was for a boy growing up with a desire to relate to the wild life around him!
My experiences in the Meadowlands were enhanced and stimulated by stories told by my father and my uncles (mother’s brothers) of their youthful experiences of 20 to 30 years prior when they used to visit an area known to them as the cedar swamp.
A picture of cedar trees growing in south Jersey shown in the webpage article, is much like they described. They told of making trips to the cedar swamp to collect wild magnolias and orchids which they would sell to the local florists. In my days of travelling to the cedar swamp all that I could find was a scattering of charred stumps hidden amongst the phragmites. There was no evidence of a majestic forest such as shown in the picture.
Another eye opening situation occurred when I made a trip to the Museum of Natural History in New York’s Rockerfeller Center. While looking at a pristine exhibit of marshland plants and animals, underlain with white sand and beautiful blue-green water.
The exhibit showed a mixture of grasses and deciduous shrubs. In the background was painted the tall cedar trees located on slightly higher ground where their roots were not continually inundated with water. On the side of the exhibit was a sign describing this as being a depiction of the Hackensack River Meadowlands as it was in the 1600’s prior to the invasion of European settlers.
The Meadowlands as I knew them had no white sand evident. Everything was covered with a gooey black sometimes gelatinous substances about two foot thick. As mentioned the trees were all gone. Occasionally a very stunted bush or shrub could be found and here and there were some clumps of grass or weeds.
Almost everything, as far as the eye could see was covered with phragmites about 10-12 ft tall. In a way they had a majestic appearance, but the specter of huge fires, some rivaling in size the giant forest fires of the west were almost annual occurrences. These fire scorched everything in their paths, and there was no way to effectively control them. They would simply burn until they burned themselves out.
A walk through the burned over area following one of these fires was a discouraging experience as one would observe the singed bodies of birds and animals that had been living in the area. It was hard to believe that so many of these animals had populated the area prior to the fire. There blackened bodies where evidence that they had indeed been living there, but surely were no more.
In the late 40’s as reconstruction began following the business lull of the Great Depression and then the un-natural activities of the WW II era, the demand for space in which to build housing and new commercial construction exerted significant pressure to over ride the interests of wildlife preservation and natural environmental protection. The Meadowlands located within sight of some of the most populated areas in the country took the brunt of the first major expansion efforts.
As mentioned in the history of factors having the biggest influence on changing the nature of the area was the decision to extend the NJ Turnpike along the eastern side of the Hackensack River to provide access to the George Washington Bridge. I can vividly recall sitting in a duck blind on the western side of the river and watching the destruction and construction take place on the other side.
My hunting partner and I quietly and solemnly discussed what was happening and what was to be our future as well as that of the future civilization that would be living in this area after such major changes had taken place. Many years later while travelling on the Turnpike I looked across at the river to a prominent point and saw an elaborate boat dock with towboats tied up at the site where our duck hunting blind had been. Behind it was a large field filled with huge petroleum storage tanks, commonly referred to as a ‘tank farm’.
For us, who also made frequent trips to Little Ferry on the #18 bus to go fishing, the subsequent decision to drain and fill in the old ‘claypits’ to be used as a place to dispose of the ever increasing amounts of household garbage was the next major step towards changing the nature of this area.
As youths we had attended and participated in public hearings which were held as a token effort to indicate that some consideration was being given to consider to the natural resource rather than just the economic benefits of the expansion program. But alas, despite the hearings and cries of others besides ourselves , the destruction of the natural meadowland habitat continued at an increasing rate.
My buddy and I were consoled by the adults in charge to accept these changes as “progress”. Together we decided that we could be more successful by getting a formal education and thus being better informed and certifide possibly we could be more effective in the future in influencing the decisions of the powers of those in charge. Our first step in that direction was to enroll in college to study forestry.
During the 50’s and early 60’s the major portion of our efforts were directed in completing our education and fulfilling obligations involved in repaying the costs. When the time came for us to decide what and where we would apply the things we had learned, I chose to move to Pennsylvania where there was still a major amount of natural land.
My efforts were directed towards working primarily with the management of forested land. My friend had gotten the call to the ministry along the way and decided he would approach the matter through the media of spiritual instruction. He chose to go to Iowa and work in the church youth camp program after having spent several years in Colorado.
So as a small group of us returned to celebrate the reunion of those graduating from High School some 66 years ago, it was rewarding to hear that once again others were making efforts to preserve and restore a portion of the area that had been lost many years before. Maybe others will be able to benefit from what we have experienced and through their concerted efforts will be instrumental in permitting a similar destruction to occur somewhere else.