Old Bergen

Chapter LIII.

Daniel Van Winkle

Published 1902

Web version, edited by GET NJ
Copyright 2002

BUT the domestic and familiar life of "Old Bergen" possesses an interest beyond that of mere personal associations. The habits and customs of the Fatherland were here transplanted, and the tenacity with which the early settlers clung to them is illustrative of the peculiar steadfastness that is so characteristic of the Dutch temperament. From the Zabriskies on the north to the Van Buskirks on the extreme south, the whole territory was interspersed with the Newkirks, Van Winkles, Van Wagenens, Van Reypens, Brinkerhoffs, Posts, Vreelands and Van Hornes, the last two being very much in evidence.

These families formed a community of their own. They were easy-going folk, satisfied to follow the sun in its rising and its goin- down. Bound together not only by a community of interest, but oftentimes by ties of consanguinity, there was a kindly feeling, a warm-hearted sympathy, that could not exist under our changed conditions. The early settlers were simple in their wants and habits, and clung religiously to their old associations. They were slow to form new acquaintances, but were firm in their friendships; and whatever local or individual differences might arise, the whole community combined and acted under one impulse when the common interest was involved. Such to a marked degree were the traits displayed by the inhabitants of "Old Bergen."

In a community where the acquaintanceship extends back through a long series of years, and where also a general knowledge is handed down through generations, there is an intimacy and kindly feeling generated that could not be produced in this changing cosmopolitan age. The long, close knowledge of wants and conditions, interwoven with kindly acts and practical sympathy given and received, bound the whole neighborhood in the closest ties, so that they seemed as one unbroken family; the sorrows and afflictions, the trials and perplexities, as well as the joys and happiness, were as common property, and were participated in by all.

When death invaded a family circle, there was a general sadness and outpouring of practical sympathy to those immediately bereaved, and loving hands performed the sad services for the sorrowing. All joined in the simple funeral services and followed on foot the coffin borne on the shoulders of the nearest friends or relatives to its last resting place in the old graveyard, where rest the ashes of so many of our loved ones. The dominie and the doctor usually headed the procession, both wearing over the left shoulder a wide white linen scarf.

The weddings were then as now matters of great interest, and regarded with becoming attention, yet they were tinged with the good practical sense that forbade wastefulness, or dissipation to an unwonted extent. The bride and groom engaged in their ordinary occupations until near the hour for the ceremony, when, arraying themselves in whatever finery they possessed, they submitted to the ordeal with becoming resignation. After the ceremony, the festivities and feasting were indulged in at the house of the bride, and were continued the following day at the house of the bridegroom, after which the young couple were ready to settle down to the practical affairs of life, each anxious and willing to meet the responsibilities of the novel position.

Of course, under the then existing conditions, social intercourse and functions were limited, and very informal. There was a hard, practical side to life that does not exist in these days of countless conveniences; house-keeping then meant actual personal work, and most of the accomplishments taught the young society belle of the day were in the line of useful labor. The skill and ingenuity of the more modern brain had not then furnished the labor saving machines that in these times divest home life of many of the hardships common to the olden time, and the daily duties of the family circle demanded an economical use of every passing hour. Social functions in their present meaning were unknown, and such as were indulged in were combined with, and adapted to the existing domestic conditions. The general helpful spirit that prevailed prevented the existence of many of the anxieties and burdens so common to our social life; each guest became a host and the dreadful fear of some impending breach of etiquette thereby avoided.

In those early days there was a division of labor in all branches of domestic econony, as well as in the rougher out-door work. Quilting bees and meetings for cutting and sewing carpet rags for the much-prized and gaudy floor covering, were joined in by the women, with the same general interest as harvesting or killing times or house raisings were indulged in by the men, and the winter afternoons and evenings were fixed on in advance, so that each in turn might secure the benefit of the general help. Their usual recreations were confined to the neighborly "running in" to gossip on domestic affairs or mayhap to relieve the weary watcher at the bed side of the sick, and the more formal afternoon gatherings or quilting bees, to which shortly after midday, each good dame could be seen wending her way, clad in kerchief and cap, while suspended from her waist was the capacious outside pocket containing a complete outfit for the prudent housewife, with the ball of yarn from which she knitted as she trudged along. These were indeed a welcome relief from the monotonous routine of the daily life, and the bustling dames, as they gathered at the appointed place, were gladly welcomed. With tongues that vied with their clicking needles, they discussed church matters, or, seated about the quilting frame, tracing the intricacies of the gorgeous "Fox Chase" or the solitary "Toad in the puddle," they reconciled all neighborhood differences.

And then the social teas in winter were looked forward to with plesant anticipations, at which perhaps a half dozen congenial couples enjoyed their weekly frolic after the labors of the day were completed. Each couple gave a tea in turn and they would meet at six o'clock, and rarely delayed their departure after ten. The interval was, devoted to the enjoyment of the good things of this earth, prepared as only the Dutch housewife knew how, in utter violation of all the known rules of gastronomy or hygiene and with a result that proved all theories at fault. Such were the ordinary recreations of the staid married folk, who knew how to accept the blessings of this life in a becoming manner. Of course there was the periodical donation party or church fair, which awakened a transient excitement in the community, and the various holidays brought each its own peculiar enjoyments.

The annual church picnic was eagerly looked forward to by young and old, and its delights anticipated for weeks before the appointed time. As has been already stated, the church had an abiding place in the hearts of the people, and consequently the whole community was stirred whenever it determined upon any course of action. When the picnic day was fixed, preparations were entered upon that would insure the greatest amount of enjoyment, and were commensurate with the importance of the occasion.

The night previous, the skies were eagerly scanned for premonitions of the weather, and the best bib and tucker laid out, which for the fair sex, of course, included colored ribbons and ruffled and embroidered dresses. At the appointed time the rustic beaus and belles wended their way to the church, whither the youngsters had preceded them, while the fathers and mothers, of a more practical turn of mind, finished packing the baskets with " goodies " of every description ; and when the start was finally made, the old folks were so fully imbued with the spirit of the occasion that they were just as ready to surrender themselves to the delights of the day as the most enthusiastic of the little ones.

Wagons were lined up and packed so systematically that, in order to unload at all, it was necessary to exactly reverse the order of loading. As soon as all was ready, at the sound of a horn, a score or more of wagons started in a long line, with flags waving, children shouting, dust flying, all bent on crowding as much enjoyment as possible into the one day. Currie's Woods, located just south of the Morris Canal, and between the Old Road and Newark Bay, was always the objective point. In those days there were no groves, with dancing pavilions and variegated smells, but just plain, old-fashioned country woods, carpeted with nature's handiwork, with shady walks and nooks, and redolent with the perfumes distilled in nature's laboratory.

After the occupants of the wagons had been extricated from the same, there was a general scattering ; the children, to explore the hidden recesses of the woods, or look for shells on the shore of the Back Bay; the older people, to busy themselves in the preparation of the picnic lunch, while the young men and maidens, impelled by some mysterious law, paired off and wandered away, oftentimes to be seen no more until recalled by the sounding horns for return. The day passed all too quickly; and when the shadows lengthened, the packing was repeated, and the whole concourse wended its way homeward, a tired, happy, dusty, rollicking lot of good old-fashioned Dutchmen, with friendships strengthened, burdens lightened, all stronger and better for the close, informal intercourse that marked the innocent enjoyment of the day.