Recently, European filmmaker Helga Merits, director of the upcoming documentary The Paradox of Seabrook Farms, discussed with SNJ Today a 1953 Voice of America radio show that interviewed Japanese Americans in Seabrook about their experiences of government-mandated internment during World War II and their subsequent resettlement in South Jersey as employees of one of the most prominent national frozen food companies. She said that “the Voice of America used the stories as propaganda material and not as something the government should be ashamed [of] or sorry for,” and considered it one of the most surprising discoveries in her research.
A lot has changed in the 70 years since those interviews. Seabrook Farms was sold in 1959 and eventually shuttered, its memory now looked after by families whose ancestors once worked on its assembly lines and in its fields and offices. Today, the legacy of those families is preserved at the Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center, established nearly 30 years ago as a means of weaving together the multicultural narrative that is Seabrook.
“There are a lot of stories we do not hear about which are of small-scale heroism and about helping one another,” Merits explained, adding that they are “important, because these small heroic deeds are, I think, essential for our belief in humanity.”
In Seabrook, those stories are derived from a cross-section of southern Blacks, Appalachian Whites, Caribbeans, Japanese Americans, Estonians and other Europeans, and they tell a unique tale. Writing for the New York Times in July 1994, Jon Nordheimer called Seabrook “a global village, with people of diverse races and cultures living and working together in a rural setting.” At the time of the center’s dedication that October, Lynn Mautner of the New York Times declared that “the community became a model of ethnic diversity. Although each group maintained its identity, residents came together at the community house for recreational and cultural events.”
Mautner’s article provides a small glimpse of the village in the mid-20th century, with Jamaicans playing cricket and Estonians singing in choirs. It was important that cultural traditions be retained and respected.
The creation of the Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center was just the beginning of a revitalization of Seabrook and its legacy. In October 2006, the New York Times reported that “a new chapter in the life of Seabrook Village” would begin that week “when the township and a private developer open the first phase of a 283-unit project of new, two- and three-story town houses on a section of the old complex. They have replaced a number of the low-slung barracks” that had once served as housing for the factory’s workers.
The new units, the newspaper said, sported “stucco and vinyl facades, concrete porches, dishwashers and central air-conditioning…their mixture of colors, interplay of shapes and varied levels contrast sharply with the drab barracks buildings awaiting demolition.”
For Merits, whose research had included an array of period photographs and film footage depicting the Seabrook of the previous century, a visit to the region in 2018 was a bit of a shock. “The orientation for me was very difficult,” she said. “Where was the shop of the Chiari family, where was the path that led through the woods to the Lutheran church? Where had the Koster nurseries been with all the flowers? Where was Big Oaks and Orchard Center? Even though I had looked at Google Earth and knew the whole area had changed, my imagination was looking for other pictures.”
No doubt those “other pictures” still exist in the memories of those who have lived in Seabrook all their lives. For any town, immortality depends on the preservation of memory and artifact as well as the forward progress of tradition and the maintenance of culture, what Merits might call “small-scale heroism.”