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Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Teaneck and Tadpoles

By Charlotte Alexander

River Road marks the western boundary of Teaneck, the small town where I grew up, as it follows the slow curves of the Hackensack River in northern New Jersey. Originally, it was probably a footpath used by the Lenape Indians, nomadic members of the Algonquin Nation.

If you follow the river south, you’ll find yourself in Newark Bay. Turn left at Shooters Island and you are entering Kill Van Kull, the three-mile-long tidal strait between Bayonne and Staten Island, leading into the swift currents of the Hudson.

The name Kill comes from the Middle Dutch word Kille meaning riverbed or water channel. There are still visible reminders of the intrepid Dutch settlers who left New Amsterdam on the island of Mannahatta to establish farms in Teaneck in the mid-1600s. Seven stone houses, classic examples of gambrel-roofed red sandstone, are officially designated historic sites.

During the Revolutionary War, many of these homes were occupied by both British and American forces. General George Washington knew the area well. His headquarters were in Hackensack, across the river from Teaneck, and it was through Teaneck that he led his bedraggled army on a cold dreary day in November 1776.

Five thousand British troops were making their way in boats up the Hudson when Washington gave the order to abandon their Fort Lee position, which overlooked the river, leaving behind camp kettles, tents, and most of their provisions.

After the war, Teaneck returned to being a quiet farm community. When my family moved there in 1930, the land next to our house was still being farmed. The farmer and his sons had a horse and plow and several times each summer, we’d find a bushel basket of beautiful tomatoes next to our side door.

The town’s population then was 16,500. It had a full-time city manager, Paul A. Volker, Sr., the father of former chairman of the Federal Reserve, Paul A. Volker, Jr., now chairman of the Economic Recovery Advisory Board under President Barack Obama. The younger Volker grew up in Teaneck and graduated, as I did, from Teaneck High School. But since he is a few years younger than I am our paths never crossed.

On my way to elementary school each morning, I walked past an old apple orchard, abloom with blossoms in the spring but too tired to produce apples later. The road was unpaved. When I got to the pavement I’d put on my roller skates and whiz off. The road was macadam, lovely and smooth. Much nicer to skate on than concrete.

The school was about a mile from my home. No school bus, of course. Sometimes, without my skates, I’d take a short cut through an open field which had a pond full of tadpoles. I remember crouching down, peering into the brown water and collecting a few stray tadpoles in a glass jar to bring home. My mother assured me they’d be happier in the pond, so I brought them back.

My father commuted to work each morning by train using the West Shore Railroad to Weehawken, where there was ferry service across the Hudson River to New York City at 42nd Street. With the opening of the George Washington Bridge in 1931, and its connection to the newly-built Route 4, Teaneck became accessible for many New Yorkers seeking surburban life. By 1940, Teaneck’s population had increased to 25,000.

One of my favorite places on the Hackensack River was a shallow bay close to River Road where each winter the water would freeze hard enough to allow ice skating. A dilapidated mansion and its rutted side road led to the bay’s icy edge, fallen trees provided sit-down space where you could put on your skates and almost always there was a blazing fire.

I was a terrible ice skater (weak ankles), but every once in a while I’d get a good glide going and I felt like Sonya Henie. Walking home with a new moon rising in a twilight sky, it was rosy cheeks all the way.

I left Teaneck in the Spring of 1941, and have only been back a few times. A lot has changed in the town, and the world, since then. The little magnolia bush my father planted next to our house is a magnificent tree now. In 1940, many Americans were reading Thomas Wolfe’s just-published novel about his home town, New Libya, North Carolina. Its title: You Can’t Go Home Again.

Today, thanks to Google, you can.

[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Instructions for submitting are here.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


A very interesting mingling of personal history, local history and native American history. Fascinating. Thank you.

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