I was six years old when my Aunt Helen gave me a copy of The Big Golden Book of History. By the end of the first story on life in ancient Egypt, I was hooked and wanted to know more about those far-off lands. However, when I reached college, I soon realized while much older civilizations were definitely worth studying, there was a lot to be said for learning more about America’s past—especially life in South Jersey.
Since college (which was a very long time ago), I have managed to parlay a degree in history into making a living doing the work that I love. In addition to installing exhibits, designing programs and caring for the collections at various regional historic sites over the years, I get to write books about many different subjects, ranging from ghosts to true crime.
Why is South Jersey so fascinating? For one thing, it has served as a microcosm for life in America, dating back to the days of the indigenous tribes who called this area home. Unfortunately, too many people tend to think of history as something that is static. In my opinion, history is more like an onion: As you peel away the outside layers, you learn more about the reality of life and what it was like for the people who lived before.
While we live at a time when some see new historical discoveries as a negative, I believe such supplemental information allows us to better understand a person, a place or an event. Take, for example, the controversy over Charles K. Landis and newspaper editor Uri Carruth, who wrote scandalous articles about the family of Vineland’s founder in The Independent. For many years, it was taken for granted that Landis’ actions were just those of a hothead who had reached his boiling point. However, when local author Vince Farinaccio decided to research Landis’ story in the Vineland Historical and Antiquarian Society archives in order to write his biography, we learned that Carruth had intentionally provoked the other man. Why? A letter from Carruth to a friend stated that he wanted Landis to buy him out so that he could leave town, which his family later did after his death. Yes, what Landis did was wrong but the whole tragic affair might have been avoided if only Carruth had spoken directly to him.
This is just one of the many stories about South Jersey that deserves to be kept alive and in the weeks ahead, I hope to bring more of them to light. Some might be familiar, some might not but I like to think that you will find them of interest. I also plan to visit some of the region’s historical societies that are often staffed by volunteers, who manage with nominal resources, and interview people like Dr. Flavia Alaya, founder of Bridgeton’s Center for Historic American Building Arts (CHABA), who are doing their best to save our physical landscape. In too many instances, such buildings have been lost to either neglect or intentional destruction and—like the Ferracute building in Bridgeton–deserve better than to become a mural on a downtown business.
I realize that for many people, who are struggling to support their families in these difficult times, history is not a priority. But, when you think about it, how different would our lives be without the tales told by previous generations, who survived wars, labor strikes and other hardships? I will always be grateful for the stories I learned from my grandmother, who emigrated to America from Italy with her family, when she was only four years old. It helped me to better understand not just who they were but also my own life. As political activist Marcus Garvey once noted: “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”
Thankfully, there is always another story to tell.
Patricia A. Martinelli, a native of Vineland, is curator of the Vineland Historical and Antiquarian Society. She has authored 10 books related to New Jersey history, including Haunted New Jersey and The Fantastic Castle of Vineland: George Daynor and the Palace Depression.