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New signage builds momentum for historic village

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PROBLEM

A mostly abandoned village sat in a county park, in need of restoration

SOLUTION

An interpretive signage program is educating the public about the village and helping raise awareness of the need to raise preservation funding

 

Ghost towns aren’t just in the Old West.

A short distance from Staten Island, Union County, N.J is home to the “Deserted Village” of Feltville, the remnants of a company town, and later a resort area, deep in the woods of the Watchung Reservation.

It’s not exactly deserted — two county employees live there — but the county is working to make sure the estimated 100,000 visitors to the site every year aren’t left wondering what it all meant. The site has some fame, however, as a chapter in the anthology Weird N.J. It was not the kind of lasting impression Parks Director Ron Zuber hoped for.

Do More

The Feltville Interpretation Program won a 2018 NACo Achievement Award in the Arts, Culture and Historic Preservation category. Does your county have an innovative program? Apply for a 2019 Achievement Award here!

“I don’t want for it to be known solely because of Weird N.J.,” he said. “We really wanted to bring back the history of the area. People looking in windows and making up ghost stories is all well and good, but we want to be able to give people a better idea of what this village was really like.”

The county parks department recently decided to prioritize the village’s maintenance, focusing first on the rehabilitation and renovation of a carriage house that can be rented out and now plays host to more than 150 events per year.

With even more visitors headed to the preserve, now with the specific intent of visiting the village, it became even more important to give them something to take home with them.

That something ended up being knowledge. Brochures had been available, but the information they contained was often unsubstantiated and incomplete.

“There was literature regarding the village, when you read it, you had a empty feeling at the end of your visit,” Zuber said. “I felt like we were cheating the public. For safety reasons, for historical reasons, for sheer joy of people going through the Watchung Reservation, we had to do something.”

If the county hoped to vie for more funding for preservation, it first had to grow its fan base of interested visitors.

“Now that we could rent out the carriage house and people were coming to the village specifically to be there and not just as a stop on a trail, we had a chance to show them something more than some old houses with no real explanation,” Zuber said. “We just weren’t happy with the way it looked, and the carriage house is really at a dead end, so you have to pass all of these buildings on your way there.”

Interpretive signage is the first step in what will be a comprehensive strategic plan for the site, a plan that the county hopes to complete early in 2019. Initial estimates for the research, production and installation of the signage came in at $65,000, far beyond the parks department’s budget for the project. A $7,500 grant from the New Jersey Historical Commission helped pay for a consultant to oversee the project, and county employees were able to defray $30,000 by doing most of the work gathering information and artwork and installing the signs.

The result was 15 full-color interpretive panels that include more than 50 images of photographs, maps, letters, newspaper advertisements, articles and paintings related to the village’s history. They can be viewed in any particular order.

The county is awaiting the consultant’s plan for full restoration of the village, which will include stabilization of the remaining houses and the restoration of a mural inside one of the houses.

A carpenter’s union had been awarding credits for apprentices doing work.

“But we don’t have to piecemeal this any further,” Zuber said. “We can’t do bandaids any more.” “We know it won’t be historic Williamsburg, but we want to bring it back to a certain area of its original splendor, make it safe, make it a destination,” Zuber said.

 

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