I moved to New Jersey in 1994, a reluctant Philadelphia expatriate who considered anything north of Trenton a foreign land. My New Jersey points of reference were Mack and Manco’s pizza on the Ocean City boardwalk, The Pub in Pennsauken and Canals’ Liquor Store where 38 and 70 meet. The Sopranos came along five years later and reinforced all the mob clichés.
Fine, it’s fun to mock New Jersey and the dark parts of its legacy–high taxes, too many cars and a history of well-publicized malfeasance. But Fred Rossi, a journalist with the Westfield Leader/SPF Times, has made it his business to bring some color to the 8,722 square miles of gray area that is the Garden State with his new book, Jersey Stories.
An obvious student of New Jersey history, Fred’s depth of knowledge, backed by scrupulous research and a ten-page list of cited sources, brings some pivotal moments in history to life with a clear and tidy narrative laced with touches of humor. He includes some of New Jersey’s greatest hits–the fake invasion of Earth by Martians perpetrated by Orson Welles, the first drive-in movie theater, Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison–but laces them with little-known anecdotes that spark new appreciation.
We learn that New Jersey’s place in American history is consequential, with the first African-American to cast a vote under the 15th Amendment (Thomas Mundy Peterson), the death of murdered president James Garfield in Long Branch and the ascension of banker and lawyer Garret Hobart to the office of Vice President. My favorite story is Hobart’s who, by every account was an honorable, honest, affable, humble, reluctant politician who treated the office of Vice President with respect and shunned the trappings of privilege. He is credited with elevating the office to more than just an afterthought of history. Rossi tells his story with detail and a certain amount of affection, an homage to an individual who, if not for his premature death due to illness, may well have been the 26th president of the United States instead of Teddy Roosevelt.
Rossi lays claim to his own footnote in history, weaving the tale of his great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather, Nathanial Heard. A colonel in the rebel militia seeking independence from the British, it was Heard who in 1776 arrested Royal Governor of New Jersey William Franklin, the son of founding father Benjamin Franklin, for treason (Franklin never ditched the the British).
Thanks to Fred Rossi, I admit there is nothing wrong with learning about New Jersey. Try it yourself. Jersey Stories is available through Fred’s Facebook page and soon on Amazon.