Hamilton Square School
There is a big difference between city life and country life. I’ve lived in the country and I’ve lived in a crowded suburb and I’ve hardly moved more than a mile. You can keep the traffic and the traffic lights. Give me an open field or some woods any day.
I grew up on Fleetwood Drive in Hamilton Square, New Jersey, when it was still a rural area with lots of working farms. There was a small farm behind my family’s house where my brother and sisters and I played all summer. The farmer would plow his field several times a year. In the early summer he went through his field on his combine and left behind straw cuttings that we would use to build little clubhouses. We walked through the field pushing the straw with our legs. When we had a bundle, we would pick it up in our arms and take it to the building site. We organized secret clubs, played army and generally had a great time in our little forts. I can still smell the fresh straw.
Somewhere in Guy Foy’s house there is an old movie that his father took of us playing army in the forts. I saw it once, many years ago. In part of the field there were five apple trees standing in a row. We used to climb the trees for hours, picking the apples and having apple fights. They weren’t any good to eat because they were sour, although we tried a bite every now and then.
When we grew older and were too big to play baseball in Billy McManimon’s backyard, we made a baseball diamond in the farmer’s field. If you hit a ground ball you were out because nobody could field a grounder with all the tire ruts, straw stems and rocks on the uneven ground. Billy, who was a few years older than the rest of us, liked to bat left-handed here. He was a natural right-hand batter but because the right field “fence” was close, he liked to try and hit the ball onto Mercer Street. The “fence” was a row of pine trees about twenty feet tall. There was no center field or left field fence.
My mother used to send me on my bicycle to Hooper-McCabe, a small grocery store in the heart of Hamilton Square. Once, when my mother sent me to get a head of lettuce, I came back with a stalk of celery. (Hooper-McCabe became Heinz’s Market in the mid 1960s and then it became the Cookie Cottage). It was located about one mile from my house on Fleetwood Drive, where Mercer Street meets Nottingham Way. I went past the Nottingham firehouse and Mercer Rubber Company mill to get there. (The red brick building that was the rubber mill is no longer there.)
Rose Ann, my first love, at age six, lived on Mercer Street. To get to her house, I walked through the field about 100 yards and crossed the street. She had sheep, rams and probably other animals in her backyard and I was fascinated by them. We often went out to watch them. Rose Ann was in my first grade class at Hamilton Square School and it broke my heart when she moved away.
Just near the end of Mercer Street on Line Road was the Schilling Farm. When we went there for fresh eggs, Mrs. Schilling sometimes went right to the chicken coop to get them. There is no comparison between a Schilling egg and one that is store bought. Line Road is a dead end now, just past Mercer Street. You can still fish from the old bridge though and people do.
I used to ride my bike to Nottingham Little League games all the time. There wasn’t much traffic then and my mother didn’t have a car. When I got to the field, I just propped my bike against the fence and nobody ever bothered it. They used to play the 1959 Johnny Horton song “Battle of New Orleans” all the time before the games.
Sometimes, my next door neighbor, Bob Holcombe, would let my brother and me go along when he took Lady, his black Labrador retriever for a walk. We would usually go to the woods at the end of Mercer Street and Miry Brook Road. Bob used to tell us stories while we walked. There was a small concrete boundary marker in the woods. Bob told us that Chief Rain-in-the-Face was buried there. We believed him. Bob grew the best tomatoes that I have ever tasted. When I was a little older, I went camping in those same woods with kids from the neighborhood. We didn’t have tents. We just threw our sleeping bags on the ground. All of the woods are gone and houses are there now.
When my family had just moved to Hamilton Square, farmer Tindall put up a sign for free potato picking. The field was too wet for a heavy tractor so Mr. Tindall let us dig up the potatoes by hand. I can still remember being in that field on a rainy day and walking in all the mud. The potatoes were a little mushy.
I live in Mercerville now, the next town over from Hamilton Square. You really can’t tell where one town starts now and the other ends because the land has been filled in with houses. But every day I drive past the old Flock Farm where my mother used to buy corn and peaches. The farm was sold years ago to the developer who built University Heights.
The intersection nearest my home, Sloan and Quakerbridge, used to be a quiet corner with a stop sign. Now it’s a major four lane intersection that’s always busy. There’s a Burger King on one corner and on the opposite side, where there was once a small shack that sold pork roll sandwiches, there is a large modern Exxon gas station. Hughes Drive, where I once delivered newspapers on my bicycle, is now so busy that I hope an adult does the route. I remember when the Five Points had only stop signs. If they didn’t have traffic lights at the intersection today, they would have to build a hospital right on the corner.
Even Hamilton Square has a traffic jam every day now. They had to move the old War Memorial a few years ago to make room for a traffic light. For years it had stood in the middle of the road. They put the monument in Foley Park near the intersection. The park was made when they knocked down the old luncheonette where Tommy Baumeister’s father once bought me a chocolate milkshake after a ball game. There used to be a barber shop near where the monument is today. My brother and I used to ride our bikes to the shop and pay a quarter for a hair cut.
About thirty yards from the park, my father used to operate the Nottingham Bookstore. He was there about twenty years in the basement of the old Grange building. The Grange building was sold about 20 years ago. The old farmers were dying off and those that were left were having trouble getting up the stairs. I used to see old farmer Tindall go in there. My father’s store used to be the Post Office many years ago. I remember going there as a little kid. Across the street and a little to the left is where the library used to be. I used to like a book called “Fierce John” when I was little. I read it a lot. Both the library and the Post office are now large modern buildings that serve thousands of people.
I guess what I dislike the most about Hamilton Square today is the traffic. I liked it when there wasn’t a traffic light at every intersection. I used to tell my wife that if they put up one more light we were leaving. I stopped saying that years ago. I liked it when you could ride your bike safely anywhere. I liked the apple trees and corn fields. I’ve been tempted to pack up and move. I’m not sure exactly what stops me. I guess it’s fear of the unknown. Hamilton Square may not be the same, but it’s familiar. It bothers me that my son will never have a field like I did to play in. My field is now a housing development and my apple trees are long gone. I hardly ever see kids playing baseball today except in an organized game with adults. And forty years ago nobody ever gave you the finger from a passing car.
In my first grade reading book, the book after “Dick and Jane”, were two boys who lived in a rural community. They played in fields and apple trees just like I did. At the end of the book they are grown up and have children of their own. The book ends when they take their kids to see the apple trees and a highway has been built around the trees. I was crushed and felt so sad for them. I had no idea at the time that my apple trees were also doomed.
Note: In 2005 I finally did move away. I now live in Washington County, New York, just outside the village of Schuylerville. There is a fifteen acre field behind my house that is planted every other year with feed corn or soybeans. There are woods across the street and beyond the trees, I can see the Hudson River.
I wrote this article for an English class at Mercer County Community College. My college professor thought one of the local weekly papers might be interested in it. It was eventually published in the Hamilton Observer. I think it was in the late 80’s or early 90’s. I could probably figure it out if I wanted to, but let’s just say it is over twenty years old. I have made some changes to clarify some things, but the basic story is the same.
Comments are always welcome and appreciated.