The magical land of Lahaway, Part 3


   This paper — about the area that is mostly Six Flags Great Adventure today — was written for the Aug. 10, 1916 Allentown Messenger by R.P. Dow, secretary of the Brooklyn Entomological Society and member of the American Museum of Natural History.
Until about 1884 cranberries grew wild in New Jersey. Cultivation was a matter of getting a large number of plants in one place, weeding them, etc. Occasionally some one had by artificial cross-fertilization produced a larger, handsomer berry, but they were not so well flavored as the wild ones. During 1883 a pest was discovered in the bogs of New Jersey which threatened the whole crop. In April and May large numbers of tiny caterpillars entered the bogs and ate the vines. Rev. J. H. Brakeley wrote in alarm to Charles V. Riley, then the Government entomologist at Washington. As the force of field investigators was then small, Riley engaged a young Brooklyn lawyer, who was greatly devoted to insect study, John B. Smith, to become traveling agent at $15 a week to investigate crop pests. Smith afterwards became State Entomologist of New Jersey and Professor of Entomology in Rutgers College, dying there in 1912.
   The first three assignments given to Smith were a hop house in New York State, a strawberry bug in South New Jersey, and the cranberry caterpillar of Lahaway. As there was no road to Lahaway, Smith called first at the college in Bordentown, where he found the Brakeleys, father and son. Both were too busy to give him much attention, and it was only when Smith declared his intention of going to Hornerstown and walking night and morning four miles until he found what was the matter that young Brakeley caused a horse to be harnessed and the young entomologist was taken to Lahaway to stay as long as he liked. No woman lived on the place (in fact, no woman ever slept on the place from 1872 to 1902). There was a man caretaker who prepared three meals a day.
   The nature of the cranberry pest was easily ascertained; the cure a much more difficult matter. There are two species of little Pyralid moths, which live for the most part on wild huckleberries, but which found easier food where the cranberries grew thick. The progeny of a hundred moths, say 300 eggs laid by each, consumed an acre a day. To poison them by spraying the vines with arsenic would cost prohibitively, the poison having to be renewed after every shower. J. Tuner Brakeley himself devised the remedy. At the foot of each leveled bog the dam was higher and stronger. At the insects laid eggs in early spring, all the bogs were covered with water, remaining covered until the middle of the following May. Unable to reach the cranberry plants, the moths had to back to their original foods. Therefore all cranberry bogs are winter flooded to this day.
   At the first flooding John B. Smith was present. The water rose slowly over the fields always theretofore dry. Myriads of insects climbed every weed to get away. The two entomologists gathered them by the bushel. The whole yield was shipped to the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences to be studied for several years, for unknown forms, rarities, and to gain a comprehensive idea of fauna of this treasure-filled region. About one-third of all the hosts of insects known in the eastern United States have been registered as found at Lahaway.
   Brakeley lived, as we have said, the life of recluse. His father stricken by slow creeping paralysis, the Bordentown College was closed and dismantled. Its scholarly founder died at Lahaway in extreme old age. Thereafter the son gathered the berries every year because the people from miles around depended more or less on the berry picking for wages. But his interest in life was rather to watch the bloom of every rare or beautiful flower, to note the spring arrival of each bird, to keep every stick of timber safe from wanton axe, to exercise far and wide a prudent helpful aid in public affairs. The income of his at first ample fortune went mostly to public helpfulness. A few hundred dollars a year sufficed for his simple wants. Skilled labor for the bogs is worth $2 a day as a minimum, and the workers have more than they can attend to. So the bogs deteriorated for lack of skilled repairers. Brakeley income and part of principal went for rebuilding of burned industrial plants, for the beautification of the Bordentown cemetery, and a thousand and one other things. Through Brakeley’s soul surged the melody of unwritten song. It was worked out alone.
   Between Brakeley and the young Rutgers professor there grew a strange deep friendship. Brakeley’s researches into mosquito life started the latter on the career from which he is chiefly known and revered throughout New Jersey today. Smith found a second home at Lahaway. A room was known as his. Three meals a day were there for him, whether Brakeley was there or not. But overwork killed Smith at the age of 54, leaving Brakeley a little more lonesome than he understood. Smith was faithful to the Brooklyn Entomological Society, of which he had been non-resident president some years. The friendship, the kindly interest of the sweet-souled hermit was transferred to the secretary of that Society, and in this way Lahaway became far more widely known to science than ever before.
   The first glimpse of Lahaway is quite unforgettable. One approaches through the level typical woods of the pine barrens. A little decline through a turn reveals the flat bogs, rusty gray in spring, white with berry blossoms in midsummer, red with fruit in September. Beyond on all sides lie the hills. To the eye at least the height of a mountain is only comparative. Mt. Everest in the Himalayas is the highest in the world, summit seems a climb of half an hour. Pikes Peak seems so close to the Colorado plain that one imagines he could throw a stone to the summit. Yet, if the observer approached for two whole days the sight of the summit would seem no nearer.
   At Lahaway the bogs stretch in level plain below. The hills are less than fifty feet above. One can imagine at vast Greek amphitheater, the flat big enough to seat a million spectators, the semicircle around lined with scrub pine, the slope seemingly big enough to seat another million onlookers. Back of the path lies the house upon a knoll. It is simple, unpainted and weather-beaten. Around are barns and other outhouses. Above stand great black walnut trees. The vista to the north includes a single giant sweet gum tree. Beyond, across more bogs, is another bit of highland. It is Mink Island, so called. Another unpainted house is visible.
   On the government map a contour line shows the bounds of Mink Island. It is a sandbank, once a wind swept dune. The mink have always fished around its border. In later years the otter has gotten in again, to the terror of all other creatures. A spring on the slope has the sweetest water of all. A fallen, rusted line of barbed wire marks the boundary of Brakeley land. Beyond is the estate of the Star Cranberry Company, which bought and tried for success. The bog was not suitable. The clay bottom cracked and would not hold water. No crop was ever harvested. The $5,000 that the stockholders put in is there yet. All subscribers are dead and gone.
   It would be impossible to clear title to add to Natural History this land, almost absolutely worthless. Twenty centuries ago the place was famous. It was the home of a tribe of Indians. They were not aboriginal. They came each year for the fall hunting. It is not hard to trace their path. The men who made and repaired the stone arrowheads sat in one spot of sand where the sun kept them warm in the frosty Novembers. The chips of stone betray their origin. They crossed the Delaware River at Trenton, for they carried big pieces of the hard, compact Trenton stone. The passed by Allentown, Pa., for a black basaltic stone used for axes. They came from the south shore of Lake Erie, where the winter fishing through the ice kept them from hunger. Occasionally they made a long detour. A knife for skinning deer was dug up by the writer and now rests in the American Museum of Natural History. It is of rose quartz, which occurs only within two hundred miles, at Bedford, Westchester county, New York. They did not control the hunting ground undisputed. At least one terrible battle occurred in the plain below, as evidenced by the stone tomahawk, which the chance plow turns up.
   The fireplaces are there. Cooking kettles were suspended on piles of bog iron stone, carried from the swamps. Sixteen encampments are still distinctly visible. Here and there around the whole countryside are the remains of smaller camps, some only a single fire where a brave and a squaw spent a week. Through the woods lost arrowheads show where they shot pigeons or partridges. A hostile tribe dwelled east of Cream Ridge. They put up at least one terrible fight in the swamps. Their cooking pots were cut soapstone or of baked clay.
Historically Speaking is a regular column presented by John Fabiano, president of the Allentown-Upper Freehold Historical Society. For information about the historical society, send e-mail to