anne mikolay 2012 120I've lived in New Jersey for quite some time but until this week had not visited Allaire Village, the living history museum located in Wall Township. What was once a self-contained community known as Howell Works, a bog iron furnace founded by James P. Allaire (1785-1858), Allaire Village is now a non-profit organization dedicated to historic preservation; costumed volunteers recreate 19th century life using period tools, equipment, and crafts. My husband, best friend, and I arrived at Allaire fully anticipating a history lesson, but I had no idea the village would reveal something unique about human nature.

Our tour began in the visitor's center where I learned a little bit about the iron making process (did you know “pig iron” is named for its resemblance when stacked to the shape of a reclining pig?) and continued in the blacksmith shop where we witnessed two blacksmiths (male and female!) deftly working with a forge and anvil to heat and shape metal. Next, we hit the bakery, once a communal site where the 300 or so workers at the furnace brought their dough to be baked into pies, breads, and cakes. The most informative location, thanks to a very knowledgeable volunteer, was Allaire's carpenter shop.

Allaire Village's “carpenter”, a quite authentic looking gentleman, was a wealth of information about 19th century life at Howell Works. According to him, the property's tall, stunning sycamore trees were planted by James Allaire's son more for their ability to deflect lightening away from buildings than for their natural beauty. Further lessons learned of 19th century life: a carpenter's mathematical ability made him the highest paid employee, and anything the blacksmith made was first fashioned in a wooden mold by the carpenter; life expectancy for men was approximately 45 years of age, for women, 35 years; leading causes of death for women were childbirth and infection from burns incurred at the hearth (women's cotton clothing was highly flammable). The “carpenter” explained the origin of various common words and phrases, described the life of an apprentice, and the importance of the village wheelwright. However, the most important lesson he imparted was not historical; rather, it reflected the essence of human nature. 

When asked how he came to be the very knowledgeable “carpenter”, the gentleman explained he had visited Allaire Village many years prior, and standing back then in the very carpentry shop he now occupied, completed and won an intricate 19th century wooden puzzle. At that time, he thought he might like to someday trade his demanding, stressful law career for a volunteer position at Allaire where he could freely talk to people and utilize his carpentry skills. Life, with its ups and downs, twists and turns, took over, as it does for all of us, and the carpentry shop at Allaire was forgotten – until, many years later, the gentleman found the wooden puzzle  among his belongings. “Then I remembered,” he said. “Who I wanted to be!” I was instantly struck by a common truth. As adults, we trade our dreams for a paycheck; we get sucked into the muck and forget who we wanted to become in life. Allaire Village's very informative “carpenter” unknowingly became an example to me of the human spirit's triumph. After everything the man went through in his life, a simple puzzle reminded him of who he wanted to be, and he stepped forward and became that man. He had renewed purpose; little wonder he was happy, relaxed, and friendly.

For me, a successful outing is measured in lessons learned. Thanks to a very humble, personable volunteer at Allaire Village, I walked away with a greater appreciation for history and the resiliency of the human spirit (tell me, folks, do you remember who you wanted to be?).

Bravo, Allaire!

For further information about Allaire Village, log onto www.allairevillage.org.