Gordon Thomas Ward

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Love of Land Prompts Local Writer's Memoir; 'A Bit of Earth' Tells of Boyhood in B'ville

Sandy Stuart, The Bernardsville News

December 5, 2006

Gordon Ward can still remember the precise moment more than 40 years ago when he "fell in love" with the Bernardsville land on which he then lived. It was 1964, and a man named Norman Hankinson had just published in the "New Yorker" his recollections of growing up as the kennelman's son on a Bernardsville mountain estate.


    As his mother read the magazine story to him, Ward, then 6, was amazed to learn that Hankinson grew up on the same estate off Lloyd Road and had even lived in the same cottage.


    "A light went on in my head," recalled Ward, now 47 and a resident of The Hills housing complex in Bedminster. Suddenly he was able to "connect the dots" between his life and that of an old man whose childhood had been spent playing in the same fields and woods.


    Physical features of the property instantly made sense to Ward: Rotting pieces of lumber in a tree were the remnants of Hankinson's old tree house. Abandoned buildings were once the estate's chicken coops.


    "I remember distinctly my mother reading that story to me," said Ward. "I fell in love with the place at that moment. The whole idea of being a link in history became prominent in my mind."


    Now a writer and educator, Ward has captured this sense of history in a new book, "A Bit of Earth: Preserving Childhood, History and a Sense of Place," which has just been published.


    Copies will be available at a book signing from 2 to 4 p.m. this Saturday, Dec. 2, at The Bookworm book shop in Bernardsville.


    "A Bit of Earth" defies easy categorization, as it is equal parts memoir, local history, collection of area folklore and guide to natural sciences. It contains childhood memories, obscure historical tidbits, snippets of poetry, information about geology and indigenous wildlife, local ghost stories and even Ward's mother's apple coffee cake recipe.


    The book deals specifically with the northern corner of Bernardsville known as Somersetin, the approximate area where George Seney more than 100 years ago built a grand country estate that was later purchased by Francis G. Lloyd.


    But "A Bit of Earth" is not written only for people who may live in Bernardsville and vicinity.


    "While it may be a local history book, it's also something that could be read by people in California or Europe," said Ward. "No matter where you grew up, there's a history of that particular piece of land."


    In fact, Ward hopes that his book will be used as "a template" to help readers, no matter where they live, preserve their own pasts.


Amazing Stories


    Every piece of land has a history and Ward said it takes only a small effort and bit of imagination to uncover it.


    "Everyone lives in an area that has amazing stories and anecdotes, but not many people are writing it down," he said.


    In his current neighborhood in the Parkside section of The Hills, for example, Ward isn't sure how many people know about the old lookout and signal towers that once dotted the mountain ridge.


    "Nobody stops to think about what was there before the condos, the parking lots, the swimming pools and tennis courts," he said.


    Similarly, he said, many residents of the lower section of The Hills are unaware that their homes are built atop a Revolutionary War encampment.


    "You could be in your condo and think, 'I'm sitting on the same area where Revolutionary War soldiers sat in a hut 225 years ago,' " he said.


    Ward encourages readers, whether they are professional writers or not, to jot down their own personal memories and anecdotes for future generations, even if they don't seem particularly special.


    "We may think they're commonplace, but years from now they won't be commonplace," he said.


    "Your town's going to change, and people (in the future) will want to know what it was like, what were the everyday events," he added.


Enchanted Childhood


    Much of "A Bit of Earth" has to do with Ward's idyllic childhood experiences on the Lloyd estate: fishing in the pond, catching crayfish in the streams, playing with his friend's pet raccoon, having apple fights in the orchard, and skating and sledding in the winter.


    Other memories were more unsettling then happy: finding a neighborhood woman slumped in a chair and getting help, but later learning she had died of a heart attack; watching a nearby mansion burn to the ground.


    While some of Ward's childhood memories - playing in the woods and exploring, for example - are shared by millions of Americans of the same generation, others are uniquely Bernardsville, like going to buy sweets at Jerolaman's Store on Claremont Road.


    Ward was among the many local children intimidated by late shop owner Karl Jerolaman's gruff manner and aversion to counting handfuls of pennies dropped onto his counter. Ward mistakenly brings pennies, but survives his first candy-buying mission.


    A "collector's edition" of Ward's book is being published by the Ohio-based Lucky Press. The book is expected to be available in local bookstores.

Ward is also hoping to market "A Bit of Earth" to a larger publisher as a general interest memoir.


    In addition to the book signing this weekend at The Bookworm, Ward also has appearances scheduled at the Clinton Book Shop on Dec. 9, at Mendham Books and the Califon Book Shop on Dec. 16.


    From 2 to 4 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 20, he will offer a workshop at the Bernardsville Library to teach interested residents how to preserve their own "bit of earth" for themselves and future generations.


    The book is dedicated to Ward's late father, Warren, and mother, Mildred Ward, and to his godparents, Bill and Betty Feldman, who owned a house on the same estate. Ward is the father of two children, Melina, 19, and Cory, 10; and the author of last year's "Life on the Shoulder," a book about his trip retracing the route of the Lewis and Clark expedition.