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New Jersey, part II

May 15, 2010

Modern

Francisco Ferrer

From Free Acres, I headed south toward Edison, about 20 miles away. The day had started and remained sunny, and I landed in Edison at the public library, where I had a small picnic on their front lawn before heading in to see what information I could find about my next destination, the remnants of the Modern School and the supporting community at Stelton, two separate but affiliated early- to midcentury institutions in what is now Edison. The librarian didn’t have a great deal of information to offer, but she was kind and there were maps that could direct me where I wanted to go.

The Modern School and the colony in Stelton were products of the Francisco Ferrer Association, founded in New York City in 1910 and named after the executed Spanish anarchist and education reformer Francisco Ferrer y Guardia. Bolton Hall, founder of Free Acres, was its treasurer. In late 1911, the society opened a school for children in Manhattan called the Modern School where students made decisions for themselves about their own schooling, even to the point of skipping class if that’s how they felt.

A school named after Fellowship Farm

After a bomb exploded in NYC in 1914 that was made by regular anarchic visitors to the Ferrer Center, the mood changed considerably, especially as police presence increased. One of the founders of the Ferrer Center visited a friend that summer at a community called Fellowship Farm in Piscataway, NJ, (right next door to Edison) and decided that the school should be moved there in order to get the children away from such a tense atmosphere in the city. A colony of residents would also be established to support the school, located not within the colony but nearby, just outside of it.

In the former Stelton colony

From the library, I rode out to where the community itself had been situated, among an incomplete grid of streets with names like Brotherhood, Fellowship, Justice, and Freedom—a reflection of its first residents’ beliefs and priorities. These names are about all that’s left of the original colony, but what great, weird street names they are. It was close to three o’clock, and kids were being dropped off from school by the school bus, and, since there were no sidewalks, several moms stood around talking with each other on the grass by the side of the road,. Some of the homes were large, if a little old and not quite beautiful, with expansive lawns. It must’ve been a day of major trash collection because I passed by two homes with TVs out near the street. Heading west toward where the school itself was located, I passed a park and a baseball diamond and had the impression of a decent, friendly place to have a home and a family.

It took many years to get the colony to the point of any livability since the original colonists were city dwellers and didn’t know how to turn the farmland they’d purchased into a town. There was hardship and poverty at first, and the place remained fairly hardscrabble for a while. Residents commuted to New York or Philadelphia. They included not just anarchists, but representatives of a number of different movements, such as single taxers and communists, although the colony itself was not communistic. At the center of the colony, metaphorically, was the school, located across Stelton Road on School Street. It opened in 1915 and lasted until 1953, much longer than any of the other Modern Schools established in other cities. It had an eclectic curriculum with a number of artistic disciplines on the roster, including music, weaving, pottery, carpentry, and metal work. But in accordance with the school’s theories of student inclusion in their own learning, if a child preferred to play in the creek instead of sitting in class, he or she could do that.

House with historical plaque

I rode out onto School Road to find the one thing I knew was still there: the old library, named after the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin. The original school itself had burned down, but the library survived, and I expected to see it still used as a smaller local library or to be standing empty. Instead, I found a small gray home with a large historical plaque on the front lawn. I couldn’t remember ever having seen such a thing. Perhaps a sign on the road, or off to the side, but not right in the middle of the grass like that. Not that I imagine many people come through there the way I did.

I’d arranged a place to stay for the night in Highland Park, not far from Rutgers. As soon as I left Edison, the dark clouds amassed, and I sped as swiftly as I could toward my destination, past a number of open fields, including one used by Rutgers for a gathering of large solar panels. I was no more than a block from where I would be staying when the rains began and I hid on someone’s porch until it died down. I stayed that evening with two Rutgers grad students, who took me to a grad dinner where I very happily stuffed my face with free Middle Eastern food.

I Am a Boy

I can’t say why exactly, but the name Perth Amboy conjures up for me nautical images of blue waves and oars and life preservers. The town of Perth Amboy is on the water, but there’s nothing in the name that would indicate that. On my fifth day of riding, I rode to Perth Amboy, only about ten miles from Highland Park, heading west, but a world away from the academic bubble of Rutgers and into a wholly working class environment. Going there brought me less than 30 miles away from where I’d begun my trip four days prior, and I could’ve ridden home in just a couple of hours had I wanted to. But I didn’t.

Back from 1853 to 1858, Perth Amboy—or, rather, the village of Eagleswood, which is now part of Perth Amboy—was home to a Fourierist phalanx called the Raritan Bay Union. At this point, I would need to explain who Charles Fourier was, how he influenced a great number of Americans in the early part of the nineteenth century, how a number of colonies called phalanxes were established to put his theories into practice (however haphazardly), and how most of them never lasted beyond a year or two. But I’m finding that this is a bigger story than I want to tackle here, so I’m making the executive decision to return to this at a later date. But I will say this: the librarians in Perth Amboy get the award for Nicest Librarians on the Face of the Earth. They found materials for me, talked to me about my project, took my email address should they be able to find anything else, and without my even asking, they offered to let me keep my bike behind their locked fence.

Former site of the Raritan Bay Union, now a concrete footprint of a demolished factory

My time in Perth Amboy involved not just the library, but a trip out to where the Raritan Bay Union once stood and a trip out to a local cemetery, where a nice man named Harry in a brown groundskeeper uniform tried to help me find the grave of the Union founder, Marcus Spring, in plot E-67, but we couldn’t find it. I went for a slice of pizza when I was done, and the man making the pizza, Frank, talked with me about bicycles and how back in Italy as a teenager, in Calabria, he’d raced bikes.  He told me all about the races he’d won and the races he’d lost and the injuries he’d gotten and the awards he was cheated out of and how he came to America and had to give it all up. He also told me a joke about how the town got its name. I couldn’t really understand the joke, but the punchline was “I am a boy, I am a boy.” After the pizza came out of the oven and he’d cut me a slice, he came over to sit near me and lit up a cigarette and smoked in the pizzeria while I ate.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 13, 2010 8:34 am

    i thought my favorite part of this post was the photo of the TV on the lawn but in the end, it was Frank.

  2. Nancy Forman permalink
    August 6, 2012 10:41 am

    Information about Stelton,NJ and the Modern School are archived at Rutgers University. It was an educational and anarchistic community with famous intellects who taught at the school, for example, Will and Ariel Durant who wrote a multi volume history of the world. My grandparents were residents and founders of that community. Nancy Forman

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