Deserted no more: Tens of thousands visit this NJ village yearly
Its name may be a misnomer now because it was only truly abandoned for less than two decades, and it's been more or less continually active since the 1880s. But the Deserted Village stands as a unique feature of the Watchung Reservation, and something the likes of which few other county parks in New Jersey have to offer.
Daniel Bernier has been the resident caretaker of the Deserted Village for 27 years, and although his is the only family that lives there now, he is the de facto host to 90,000 people who walk the grounds annually.
Bernier explained that the site was first developed by an English settler named Peter Willcocks sometime prior to 1736. Willcocks set up a saw mill, and sold lumber to other settlers. His descendants ran the mill for a century, after which its ownership passed into the hands of printer David Felt. At one time, Felt had 175 people living and working in the village, by that point dubbed "Feltville."
Felt retired around 1860, and Bernier said after that, the site started to gradually empty out until 1882 — hence the Deserted Village name.
It was only when Warren Ackerman acquired the property, renaming it Glenside Park and turning the former millworkers' homes into summer cottages, that the site experienced a revival.
By the mid-1910s, Bernier said the emergence of automobiles had literally driven people away from inland cottages as their summer retreat and toward the Jersey Shore, so the Village experienced another, brief downturn.
That all changed 99 years ago, with the establishment of the Union County Park Commission and its absorption of 130 acres of historical Deserted Village land into what is now the Watchung Reservation, spanning Berkeley Heights, Mountainside, Scotch Plains, Springfield and Watchung.
It was the county organization which helped ensure the village would never be deserted again.
"There have been people living in the Village from the 1920s; when the Depression hit and there was a need for low-cost housing, the Park Commission put people in the houses, and people have been in some or all of the houses ever since," Bernier said.
Most of the 10 buildings still in existence at the Deserted Village are not currently open to the public, but two are on the fast track to restoration thanks to a grant from the New Jersey Historic Trust, according to Kathy Kakaletris, administrator for the Union County Office of Cultural & Heritage Affairs.
Bernier said an information kiosk by the Glenside Avenue parking area provides information on paper or your phone to take self-guided tours, and a former church and general store now repurposed as a museum should hopefully reopen soon to weekend visitors.
There are also spaces available for special events, such as Masker's Barn, a carriage house that was restored in 2011.
"That is used quite often, about 125 times a year," Bernier said. "It's rented out for events of all types, from birthday parties up to weddings, to bar mitzvahs, fundraisers, yoga sessions."
For more information, visit the Deserted Village page on Union County's website.
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