©Photo by Oma Liz
During WWII, my parents and I lived on a chicken farm, in Richland, NJ. It was not a good experience for my parents, and, in 1947, we moved back to New York City.
In beautiful downtown Richland, Main Avenue intersects Route 40, also known as Harding Highway, which still stretches east-west from the Delaware River to Atlantic City.
Back in those days, In addition to the K-3 school, the main business district contained a post office, gas station, regional feed /hardware/plumbing store, a bar, five-and-dime, several other small businesses, and a huge clothing sweatshop where many women in the area, including my mother, worked ten hour days.
For several hundred feet north of the main intersection, Main Avenue was only paved to the driveway of the three room elementary school. After that point, it turned abruptly to dirt to a dead-end at the railroad station. Going south from the intersection, the paving continued a quarter of a mile to a sawmill and its railroad loading platform. And there, too, the paving stopped.
Main Avenue was a badly rutted clay/sand road, stretching from town for about five miles until it connected with paved Tuckahoe Road, which is still in use today. After rainstorms, knee deep ruts quickly made the road impassable for cars and trucks. These ruts hardened quickly the next few days. Within a week, the Cumberland County road department would send graders within several days to smooth it out until the next rainstorm. Getting to school or anywhere was an intricate process during these times.Richlandwas so small it had none of the amenities of larger towns, including law enforcement. The NJ State Police regularly patrolled and enforced.
During the late summer of 1944, a drought, lasting almost three months, destroyed gardens, field crops, and the once lush Pine Barrens in southern New Jersey.
We lived on Main Avenue, about a mile south of town, as part of a small sub-community of a dozen chicken and vegetable farms. Our telephone was a party line with eleven subscribers. I still remember the number – 196 R5.
To our dismay, our favorite berry places near once overflowing streams were dry. One morning, after chores, Dickie, my young friend from the house next door, and I decided we would take our berry buckets north along the ruts to a remote, uninhabited log cabin deep in the woods. When we told our families where we were going, they reminded us of our curfew. It was a three-quarter-mile walk up the rutted, dusty, unpaved road. Dickie’s grandmother said, “I will bake pies if you are successful. Don’t fall in any ruts and spill the berries.” Then we headed to the cabin with optimism.
When we got to the place, it was ten o’clock in the morning, according to my treasured wrist watch. We were thrilled to find dozens of blackberry bushes surrounding the cabin. Each bush held innumerable blackberries weighting down dozens of thorny stems. The fruits were juicy and large. We gorged ourselves, drank some water from our canteens, and then began to fill our buckets.
As we picked, skillfully avoiding the thorns, a slim, young woman came onto the screened porch and stood with her hand on the water pump. We stopped in amazement as we had never seen signs of life in and around the cabin. Her long brown hair was waist long, and was topped by a floppy, peaked, wide brim hat. Her high boots were laced. She wore a leather vest with fringing. I was reminded of the women explorers I had seen in the National Geographic. There, on the screened porch, she said nothing at first, and just looked at us. We stared back, saying nothing.
Finally, after a minute or so of us staring at each other, she asked, “Aren’t you thirsty after all those blackberries?”
We chorused, “Yes, but the pump is dry. We’ve tried before, so we just bring canteens.”
She opened the screen door and came over to us, leaving footprints in the sand. “Girl, you go to the stream behind the house and fill up your bucket half up.” There was indeed a trickle of water running in the stream bed.
Then, to our amazement, she showed us how to prime a pump with stream water. As the water came pouring out, we drank to our hearts’ content, then ran rivulets on the porch and delightedly left patterns of foot prints in the deep sand. The woman laughed and joined us. The three of us went running around the cabin, to the stream, down the winding driveway, and onto Main Avenue.
Later, we all sat on the porch steps and shared the blackberries we had picked earlier. Dickie and I had been amazed to see her, but figured she was one of the secretive local hermits, because of the way she dressed. Of course, there were introductions all around. Giggling, she said her name was Annie, and she owned the house. I told her, “I’ve never seen you, and we figured with all the dust on everything, no one lived here.” Annie smiled and quietly said, “I don’t like housework.”
Today, more than sixty-five years later, I still see Annie sitting there on the porch with us, laughing and chatting. She learned all about us and where we lived. We even told her about our favorite swimming hole, and about some of the other hermits we would visit.
“We have to finish picking the blackberries,” gasped Dickie as the afternoon wore on. “My grandma is going to make pie.”
“And if we don’t get home for curfew, we’re going to get whipped, “I added hastily.
Dickie looked uncomfortable. Both my mom and his grandmother wielded wooden spoons with devastating accuracy and resultant pain.
“Well, then, let me help you fill up your buckets,” Annie laughed.
We spent the next several hours filling our buckets, laughing, giggling, and sharing tales amongst the three of us about birds, other animals, and plants we had observed. Finally, the buckets were full, and we said goodbye. “We’ll be back,” we promised.
Annie had been poking around near the porch. She looked at us and said, “I may not be here. I only visit sometimes. But you are welcome to come any time you want.”
Then we thanked her, gravely shook hands, and left. As we rounded the bend of her driveway, we turned and gestured. She cheerily waved her hat in the air.
Home we trudged, discussing the day’s events. Looking towards home, we saw Dickie’s grandmother and my mom coming toward us, and quite near.
“Uh-oh!” I groaned. “How late are we?”
Dickie looked panic stricken and we checked my wrist watch. “Well, we’re not really late, here, but we would be if we were going all the way home.” He was only nine, a year younger than myself. I knew we weren’t in trouble because they were not carrying the wooden spoons, and I tried to reassure him.
“We found berries! Lots of berries! We have four buckets full! We would have been late at home, but since you’re here, we’re not!” we chorused.
The two women laughed at our audacity. “Welllllllll. All right. You won’t be punished. We had been worried because you’re usually home by now.”
Mom looked with interest at our buckets, which were quite large. “How in heaven’s name did you manage to fill those by yourselves? The stains around your lips and teeth tell me you ate more than you picked.” Mrs. B agreed.
We excitedly told them about Annie. The two women looked at each other and then started questioning us. Their reaction was confusing. They looked peculiar and even frightened. They held us tightly by the wrists and made us tell what had happened. And then, standing by the side of the road, we had to retell our adventure again. Finally, they glanced at each other, said something in Polish to each other, and, made us drop the buckets by the side of the road. We were then hustled the half mile to home, neither woman letting go of her child’s wrist.
All of us entered our house, which was closer to the cabin area. Mom ran to the telephone and spoke immediately to the operator. The next thing we knew, the State Police arrived with lights and sirens flashing on their patrol cars.
Mom and Mrs. B. talked to the officers in low, urgent tones on the front porch, while Dickie and I stood inside the house and tried to listen what was being said. They were very agitated. Finally, two very stern officers called us out and made us tell our story again. No explanations were offered by the adults.
After half an hour of questioning, the police car and my mom’s station wagon transported us to the cabin. The officers looked at the three sets of footprints in the driveway. With their hands on their revolvers, the officers cautiously approached the cabin. Soon, they called us all over.
“Come here. Is this how you left the place?”
We were terrified. What was going on? Both Dickie and I began to sob. With their hands clutched tightly around our wrists, Mom and Mrs. B dragged us to the cabin. “Oh my God! My God! Look at Annie’s footprints!” One of them screamed. Then they began to cry.
The officers were as agitated as the two women. Once again we had to tell our story.
One officer said to us, “I’ve had enough. We will investigate further, but you are going home!”
We soberly and silently drove past the buckets of blackberries and our home.
Then, both women explained why the adults were so agitated. Both Mrs. B. and the officers had known Annie from years ago. My mother had just heard about her a few weeks ago from Mrs. B.
Annie used to live with her mom and dad and was born in the cabin late in the 1880’s. After the war, the three of them died of the flu. Today was her birthday.
I don’t remember much of what else happened on this fateful day. By nightfall, as word spread through the area, some other local people began to visit the cabin and looked at the footprints. We were not permitted to talk to any of them.
We were told by our families and the officers, “Don’t ever, ever, ever! Never tell anyone what happened today! Do you understand?” We were too terrified to do anything but sob. “We promise! We promise!” we repeated over and over again.
None of our neighbors ever questioned us about the incident.
Ten years later, back in New York City, I found an article in my mother’s desk written by the local newspaper about Annie and the strange events, but our names were never mentioned.
Very early the next morning, Dickie knocked at my door. “I have something to tell you, but you can’t tell anyone.”
“OK. I promise.”
He took me to the huge oak tree whose branches hung over part of our lawn and also over the street in front of my house. It had a platform nailed to a “Y” branch which we used as a tree house. Lateral boards were nailed to the back side and were used as a ladder.
There were the four buckets of blackberries, placed carefully around the trunk.
Quietly, because it was early in the morning, we dumped the berries in the field across the street and returned the buckets to our respective barns.
Dickie and I often snuck to the cabin to see if we could find Annie.
“I’m always hoping we will find her again.” I would say.
“Me, too.” agreed Dickie.
It was not to be.Main Avenuewas paved in the early 50’s, and the incident was forgotten.
U.S. Route 40 is an east–west United States highway. As with most routes whose numbers end in a zero, U.S. 40 once traversed the entire United States. It is one of the original 1920s U.S. Highways, and its first termini were San Francisco, California, and Atlantic City, New Jersey. The western end has been truncated several times, and the route now ends at Interstate 80 just outside of Park City, Utah, near Salt Lake City.
In August, 2012, I attended a Pinelands Conference and met a well-known college professor and Pinelands Researcher. We hit it off together, and eventually I found out he lived in Richland as a boy. Further discussion revealed he, his mom, and our family lived a half mile away from each other on Main Avenue.
We reminisced about the Richland area, then began comparing memories about the eccentrics we both knew – which was a fascinating conversation.
Finally I told him about Annie. “Oh yes,” he chuckled. “She’s still around. They tore her cabin down about ten years ago, and she now bothers the neighbors across the street from it, with mischief; including upsetting outdoor furniture and other items; as well as knocking on their doors. She also runs the pump on her old property.”
Double take!! Both of us!