Today I am enjoying the Sussex County Farm & Horse Show, so I thought it was time to write down a conversation I have had too often since leaving the nest four years ago.
I grew up in northwest New Jersey. Of course, when I tell people this – anyone outside of this rural swath of the Garden State, even others from the state – they think it’s a curiously specific geographical distinction.
There is North Jersey and there is South Jersey and, when pushed, there is Central Jersey. Here’s the breakdown, North Jersey is urban backfill from New York City, exurbs, grime and business sprawl. South Jersey is full of Phillies fans, Jersey tomatoes, big, greasy hair and the Shore. Central Jersey is full of elite suburbs around Princeton and the buffer between its two geography neighbors.
But my native Sussex County, and Warren County beneath it, are decidedly dissimilar from North Jersey nomenclature. Despite growing up less than 60 miles from Manhattan and 90 miles from Philadelphia, my childhood could easily be classified as small town, in the Garden State’s prime rural hinterland that you didn’t know existed.
My parents left their New York City roots for the simpler pastures of Sussex County – bringing me to Newton, N.J. when I was still an infant, so I am our first-generation of this rural community, though I didn’t know it until I left there.
You see, while many of our family friends were avid sportsmen, hunting and fishing, and my father often evaded deer on his commute home, and though before 2001 the large portion of our county had no franchised stores aside from fast food restaurants, because we still lived in a small, but established neighborhood of homes and later moved to a suburban-like housing development, I never recognized that my youth was anything but standard fare for a white, middle-class teen in the U.S. Northeast.
Indeed, it wasn’t until I went to college at urban Temple University and had a conversation or two with those who grew up in the city or in its vicinity that I began to get the picture of my fairly rural upbringing.
Of course, looking back, it seems ridiculously obvious now, but at the time it wasn’t odd, say, that the point guard on my high school basketball team was destined to be a fourth generation farmer, that my county featured one of the densest collections of black bear in the Mid-Atlantic states – and faces annual debate over its bear hunt – that the sport at which I excelled most when I was young was swimming, which I did in lakes across the county, lakes at which you arrived by narrow, sometimes-paved roads.
I still smile when friends guffaw at my childhood dares to dive into the swimming hole tucked in a shale hill by my parents’ home; the friendly ‘Tire Hill Game’ during which participants race old, automobile tires down a hill; my country music tastes, and don’t get me started on the pig races, wood chopping contests and livestock grooming competitions at the annual Sussex County Farm & Horse Show – which has since been named the N.J. State Fair, though no one with any roots in the county will call it that.
Perhaps you can understand why I don’t identify with ‘North Jersey’ – though I often use it as shorthand – beyond the accent I apparently flaunt at times, surely just something I picked up from my father, born in Queens and raised on Long Island, and fall into from time to time.
Questions of authenticity persist. I maintain that I was made by my rural upbringing, but currently pay allegiance to Philadelphia, the best city in the world just waiting for the attention it deserves and the first place I found on my own that I can call home. My extended family – all of whom still live in New York don’t understand or believe either. They still visit my parents and find Sussex County off-kilter as much as it is beautiful.
Of course, this description can go far beyond the anecdotal. For the densest state in the country, Sussex is a statistical aberration among the state’s 21 counties, too.
There are about 150,000 people in its 521 square miles – 277 people per square mile, compared to 3,778 people per sq. mi. in Bergen County, the ultimate North Jersey county. Even fellow Morris County is a little more crowded, featuring 286 people per sq. mi. Among New Jersey counties, only smaller Salem in South Jersey is less dense – with 190 people per sq. mi.
What’s more, for those who know of the great rural output of Lancaster County in central Pennsylvania, understand that even Amish country is nearly twice as dense as my native Sussex County – almost 500 people per square mile.
Warren County, just south of Sussex County, too, is pastoral along its county Rt. 517 corridor, and decidedly less populated. Some even throw in Hunterdon County – which certainly does have its own rural stretches, no question.
The New Jersey Herald, which has published continuously since 1829, services “northwest Jersey,” primarily Sussex County – being based in my hometown of Newton – but also Warren County, Pike County in Pennsylvania and Orange County in New York state. Its circulation is less than 20,000 but is the region’s paper of record and is based in the county’s major metropolis – Newton. Why does all that matter? Because their cover stories more often involve little girls in ice skates and horse trainers in demand.
The eastern part of the county has mostly been taken in by suburbanization.
A water park and ski resort moved into Vernon while I was in high school, Hopatcong has nearly 1,500 people per sq. mi., and Sparta has, for a decade, been a haven for an affluent push from outside of Manhattan – a Starbucks came, housing prices are high and the students, we always sneered, are often obnoxious and spoiled.
Newton still has its charm, as you’ll see below, but that is facing a bulge.
Indeed, for most of my childhood – though I can’t say I will ever be able to appreciate it because I didn’t yet have the consciousness to do so – no chain store was within a half hour drive. There was a Shelby’s and an Ace Hardware, but my family rented our movies from Bob, always in a cloud of cigarette smoke, I bought baseball cards from Mr. Naumouicz and almost every one of my sister’s friends worked at the Acme grocer.
But, in 2001, a Wal-Mart moved in – no sleight on the company beyond it just being simply boring and unoriginal. What has happened in ensuing years has been remarkable. Every time I returned to see my folks more development happened along Route 206 north of Newton. A Home Depot came, and a Lowe’s – on the property of the old drive-in movie theater – and then a Bed Bath & Beyond, Rag Shop, Applebee’s, a damn Hampton Inn, even, among other plans.
Green Township, from where many of my high school friends came, still has some farmland being developed, though some farmers hang on.
The northwest part of the county, we can happily report, is saved, though, due to Stokes State Forest – home to the state’s portion of the Appalachian Trail and a great deal of farmland preserved by the state.
Walpack will, for the foreseeable future, remain a town of 40, the Layton County Store will be the rural outpost it has been for more than a half century, and Montague may stay a town too tough and rugged for me to survive.
My hometown is Newton, N.J., the county seat of Sussex.
Newton is a concept that exists throughout the urbanized Mid-Atlantic United States, but few understand anymore, I think. It is a small town – 8,000 people – but as the center of the county government and a long history – incorporated in 1864 but with European heritage back to 1751 – it has a decidedly walkable community-feel in its downtown. The farmland that surrounded it has since been developed, some into a community college, others into the homes like my parents had built.
Downtown Newton has remained a fairly independent flavor, though most natives in their 40s today remember a more thriving, more centric Spring Street.
In January 2008, even those carpetbaggers at the New York Times took notice, writing a lengthy Real Estate piece on my hometown of Newton.
The seat of Sussex County, Newton offers not only a thriving downtown but also a lively combination of historic and newer housing, regional institutions that provide significant job opportunities, and proximity to recreation.
It is the downtown that is and has been the engine for this three-square-mile town in the valley of the Kittatinny Mountains. Unlike some historic downtowns that rolled up the carpet when suburban malls started popping up, Newton was able to hang on, in part because the county moved its administrative offices into town eight years ago, thereby sustaining a customer base for stores and restaurants. [Source]
A neat piece but I have to take issue with 1) misspelling of Fredon, though pronounced FREE-don it is most certainly spelled Fredon and 2) no one who uses the word “bungalow” – as the article does later – should be allowed to move to Sussex County.
You’ll hear it every once in a time, when dealing with those from the Garden State, someone will say they’re from northwest New Jersey – if they think you’re worth the time of the explanation. Now you can know why.
We are the home of the New Jersey black bear. We have one of the densest populations of deer in the Northeast, wild turkey hunts, a slightly revived population of coyote and foxes. I am first generation to the county, but even I have taken an interest in hunting.
In my parents’ backyard, in addition to the above, their dog chases off turkey, groundhogs and packs of deer. We even have our own Northwest Jersey aquifer, damn it. In the summer we buy fruit and vegetables from farm stands, have a rich thread of small businesses and support our own.
Give us the recognition, my friends.
I didn’t give much love to Warren County, so here it is: Warren features the beautiful Hackettstown – their own Newton – and ridiculous Buttzville – which does lay claim to Hot Dog Johnny’s.
16 thoughts on “Northwest New Jersey: a case for that extra geographical distinction”
“Among New Jersey counties, only smaller Salem in South Jersey is less dense – with 190 people per sq. mi.”
Who would ever live there…
I enjoyed your blog very much but it seems you have moved there many years after my family. We moved from Brooklyn on 1967. The rest of our family, whom we left behind in Brooklyn used to think we moved to the end of the earth at that time because no one moved away from the neighborhood. Downtown Newton was even more delectable even before you moved there. I went to Newton High School where everyone knew one another and my class has reunions every 5 years although we are making it every year now! lol! We enjoy and miss each others company so much we just couldn’t wait another 5 years. Does it have to do with the fact that we are getting older? You bet. Before Shelby’s was Britts. Which, to me, was a classier store with a cafeteria in the back and a counter with stools that had the best milkshakes. I did not know it at the time that I was living in a desirable place called Newton that no one ever heard of. That’s a good thing! I like the fact that when I do visit my friends and my sister and her family (they live in Montague) that not too much has changed on the outskirts in the country. Sadly, the outskirts of Newton has changed with the chain stores. Although I do like some of the chain stores (not really Walmart) I did not want to see it in Newton. I can go on and on with so much to say about my beloved Sussex County which I think is the best kept secret. So let’s please keep it a secret! I am sitting in my hotel room in Newark Airport as I write and will be taking a ride up there tomorrow to see some friends and of course my sister and will be back again for a reunion on October 3rd at the North Shore House! If your in the neighborhood please stop by!