Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Old Town Miser

There are certain squeaking, creaking sounds that will transport an old-timer back to his childhood in an instant. Take for example the squeak-squeak-bang of the old back porch screen door opening and closing on its rusty old spring hinges or, the squeal-squeak, squeal-squeak of the next door neighbors clothes line being reeled in ... ah yes, shades of 1950. But there are other squeaking noises which can electrify your spine and raise the hair on the back of your neck.
When you are out and about on Halloween or on All Saints Day this year, keep an ear tuned for a queer sort of sound, the chilling sound of a certain squeaky wheel that can be heard here in the village. The wheel is attached to a rickety old wheelbarrow. The wheelbarrow belongs to the musty old town miser. Perhaps it wouldn't squeak so if the old skinflint oiled it once in a while, but far be it from him to pay the cost for a drop of oil to make it quiet. What makes the sound so queer is that the old miser hasn't been around much since he passed on some time after the late 1850's, yet this squeak-a-squeak still echoes here and there on our streets. What really draws your attention to the squeaky, creaky, rattling old wheelbarrow is how it is often accompanied by the somber voice of the old Dutch Aanspreker and his companion, the Huilebalk. Now that needs a bit of explaining, especially for the benefit of the younger generation who are unaware of how things used to be here in the village.

The Aanspreker was a sort of undertaker in the old Dutch village and one of his duties was to go from house to house to announce the passing of a villager. "Please, ma'am, the baker's compliments, and he's dead." Such message would be followed by the time and place of interment and then the weeping and wailing of the Huilebalk, a professional mourner who would follow the Aanspeker on his rounds to ensure the proper sentiment was established.

Now, the oddity of it all came about at the time of the passing of the old miser's wife. The truth of it was that he was not a poor man, on the contrary, he was rather well-to-do, but he was known to be frugal to what some folks thought was an extreme. He was so universally referred to as "The Old Miser" along with some colorful metaphors, that his actual name has been lost to us. On this sad occasion in his life, he still had the presence of mind to save the usual costs of a funeral by serving himself in the customary capacities. He hefted his late wife into his old wheelbarrow and while playing the roll of Aanspeker, Huilebalk, and poll bearers, hauled her to her resting place. He had not been well loved by the townfolks to begin with and this remarkable spectacle did nothing to enhance his standing in the community.

At a later time, when it was his own time to cross the great divide, the occurrence of it went so unnoticed in the village that no record of it can be found, no doubt to save the cost of keeping such record. However there are those on the other side who take notice of aberrant mortal behavior and who assign appropriate corrective tasks to those new arrivals who seem in need of them. Thus it was given to the Old Miser to push his rickety, squeaking old wheelbarrow about the streets of the village for all time and to invite, with all proper courtesies, those who may appear about ready, to ride in the barrow to their final place. And so it is that the sound of old, squeaky wheels are not well received hereabouts.

The original teller of this tale, the Reverend Thomas DeWitt Talmage of the old Dutch Church, had still another anecdote to relate to us about this character from our village saga. Here it is in his own words -

"I was ready for him when one morning he called at the parsonage. As he entered he began by saying: “I came in to say that I don’t like you.” “Well,” I said, “that is a strange coincidence, for I cannot bear the sight of you. I hear that you are the meanest man in town and that your neighbors despise you.”

Notwithstanding this spirited meeting, the man eventually became a great friend of the young pastor. Eventually he even asked Talmage to officiate when he decided to take onto himself a new wife.

Talmage goes on - "The entire town was awake that night. They had somehow heard that this economist at obsequies was to be remarried. While I was inside the house trying, under adverse circumstances, to make the twain one flesh, there were outside demonstrations most extraordinary, and all in consideration of what the bridegroom had been to the community. Horns, trumpets, accordions, fiddles, firecrackers, tin pans, howls, screeches, huzzas, halloo, missiles striking the front door and bedlam let loose! Matters grew worse as the night advanced, until town authorities read the riot act, and caused the only cannon belonging to the village (a Revolutionary War relic) to be hauled out on the street and loaded, threatening death to the mob if they did not disperse. Glad am I to say that it was only a farce and no tragedy."
Be that as it may, there are still those who know about the Old Miser and dread the sound of that squeak-a-squeak for fear that it might be following them to offer them a ride to that other place. Indeed, if you hear the squeak 'n creak 'n rattle of the barrow accompanied by the voice of the Aanspreker and the wails and moans of the Huilebalk on this Halloween, you may be in trouble. Do not look to see who it is. Definitely do not offer to oil the wheel. And it is best to not ask for whom the wheel squeaks ... just turn and run.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Second River's War

There is a time-honored saying, one deeply rooted in our culture. For nigh unto 2,500 years we are told that - "The pen is mightier than the sword." First recorded in history before 406 B.C., the Greek poet Euripides said "The tongue is mightier than the blade." Another bard of towering stature, William Shakespeare, phrased it thus, "... many wearing rapiers are afraid of goosequills." More recently, and probably the best known version came in 1839 from the pen of playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton who wrote, "Beneath the rule of men entirely great, the pen is mightier than the sword." The truth of this ancient adage is essential to understanding the role of Second River in the American Revolution.

When evaluating Second River's role in the Revolution, three things should be kept in mind -
1) That the goal of the Revolution was to throw off the European domination of America.
2) That the Reformed Church was the religion of a major part of the population in the wealthy Dutch colonies of New York and New Jersey.
3) That the greater part of the war was fought in New York and New Jersey.

As it was, England was the tax collector and Holland dictated all religious matters in these prosperous mid-Atlantic colonies.

History books tend to favor the sword over the pen. Flashing blades are dramatic. Most high school level history books will tell you that the American Revolutionary War began in and around Boston because the first acts of violence occurred there. If violence is the criteria which defines revolution, then Boston deserves all of the credit. However, if a man with a sharp pen and a loud voice demanding freedom defines revolution, then the American Revolution began here. If one looks to when pen and voice were first raised in revolt against European masters in our country, then it is a documented truism that the American Revolution began here in the Village of Second River, the American Revolution began here in the Dutch Reformed Church on Main Street, the American Revolution began here in the person of the Rev. Gerardus Haughoort.

As a life-long resident of this village, I find the good Reverend Haughoort the kind of folk hero with whom I can readily identify. God-fearing, hard-kicking, tenacious as a bulldog, the good Reverend was a visionary, a revolutionary but perhaps not a diplomat. The correspondences from the American to the European Churches are replete with apologies attempting to play down his colorful words and feisty actions. I like him. He was a pious man but not too saintly. Hot-headed, short-tempered, he was 'pure Belleville' in spirit. Never-the-less, he was an eloquent persuader of men.

Educated in Holland and commissioned to work in the American colonies, he was first sent to Freehold, NJ. Word of his impressive talent spread quickly. At the request of Col. John Schuyler and other prominent families of the village, in 1735, he came to Second River. Glad to be here and filled with political ambitions, within two years, Rev. Haughhoort was deeply involved in the politics of the time. Through him, the Village of Second River was thrust onto center stage in the political arena. He had adjusted quickly to his new life in the colonies. He formed the opinion, the radical notion, the revolutionary idea, that those living in the colonies ought to be able to attend to their own affairs and not have to answer to European authorities for every detail of day-to-day life. A forceful speaker and skillful writer with convincing ways, he soon had a following among prominent leaders from Monmouth County to New York City and up through the Hudson Valley. It was the beginning of a decades-long struggle for freedom and independence. At times it cost him dearly. He had alienated his patron, Col. Schuyler, to the point where, for a time, his own church doors were barred to him and he had to preach to his flock from the steps outside of the church. But he was a determined, never-give-in sort of fellow. He battled on. Victory came in 1771. In an action that served as an early Declaration of Independence, the leadership of the American Church formed an organization that would thenceforth be their governing body. It was done. The first step in freeing America from Europe was taken. The concept was electrifying the colonies. If the European Church masters could be set aside, how difficult could it be to dispense with the English tax collectors ? Not long afterwards, buoyed by the actions of the middle colonies and incensed by increased taxation, there was a certain tea party in a place called Boston.

The good Reverend Gerardus Haughoort saw the completion of this first phase of the revolution, but only the beginning of the armed revolution which followed. He passed to his reward in 1776. The Revolutionary War to free America from outside domination, begun with his pen and tongue, would end with flashing blades.

Reverend Haughoort's remains are interred inside the old Dutch Church, here in Second River, from whence his spirit watches as we enjoy our freedom. We of the current generation are the custodians of a sacred icon. We must be mindful that we safeguard what has been entrusted to us that it can be handed down to the next generation so that all can know what transpired here in Second River; Belleville, New Jersey.

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