Growing Up at NJNPI
In previous blogs in this series, we explored the founding of the New Jersey State Village for Epileptics and what it was like growing up at the original facility. In this blog, we share the thoughts of four people who lived at the facility between 1953 and 1983 when it was known as NJ Neuropsychiatric Institute.
Thanks to Jim Beachell, sisters Jane (Jabay) May and Peggy (Jabay) Beach, and Lois (Neuberger) Walton for sharing their memories of growing up at NJNPI.
I grew up on the grounds of NJNPI, and my life there was a fun time. I had free rein on the campus grounds. Most weeks you would find me trying to do what kids do–have fun every day and slide out of doing your homework.
You might find me down at the farm petting the cows by the dairy, over in the piggery looking at the newborn piglets, or maybe down at the chickens talking to Mr. Matthews, Bill Matthews’ father. We built forts in the hay barn with drop shoots and tunnels. The patrolmen of the grounds would get a call about us in the barn, and they would come to chase us out if they could find us. Many days I would go down and watch them slaughter the pigs or cows. Some of the dairy herd had to be slaughtered because they ate something, and they were going to die from the blockage in their stomachs. The farm had orchards providing apples, pears, and peaches. There were also fields of strawberries, and I usually came home with red hands, giving away where I had been.
I might be fishing, which I did as much as I could. Sylvan Lake, found on the grounds, had a wonderful dam. It was destroyed when Somerset County purchased the property in recent years. The lake was a recreational heaven for me. In front of that dam, I caught some of the nicest largemouth bass in the area. Here, I learned to play hockey, and Richard Martin showed me what a slap shot was when he put the puck on the side of my nose. When the ice was on the lake, the kids would all come to skate. We tried to get to the lake after school every day when the ice was declared safe. If we could get out after suppertime, we played hockey under the one light that was provided to keep an eye on us.
If we found an alligator snapping turtle frozen in the ice, we would all get around, sit down and chop it out with the heels of our shoes. We usually released them, but there were times when we gave them away to Mr. Wisner. He worked on the grounds as a driver and drove our school bus.
We had our own school bus provided by the state as the carrier to and from Princeton. This was also a service for employees so they could catch the bus to Trenton or New Brunswick or the train to New York or Philadelphia. The NJNPI bus service was there to provide transport to and from the campus. Many families from the cities would come to visit their relatives who lived on the grounds. There were a variety of names for our bus when I was in high school, because it was orange. It was also shorter than the other buses, so it stood out like a sore thumb. There was no way to hide when you got off what they called “the nut house bus.”
NJNPI was self–sufficient. They had to provide for the patients year-round, providing clean water to drink and heat to keep patients warm. There was a power house which we would visit, and we could watch the train bring in the coal and later oil for the furnaces. There was a water tower there for storage and water pressure. The lake provided water from Zion Mountain, and they had an icehouse which provided the stored ice that was cut from the lake in winter to aid refrigeration in the summer.
The lake was more than just a fun place. It was a necessity to provide water for fire protection and drinking. We had our own fire company, made up of the men and women who lived on the grounds. There were some major fires over the years when I lived there. Four come to mind–the old hay barn, cottage number 4, the laundry fire, and the library. The laundry fire was a 13-alarm fire that smoked for days. There was a large laundry, and the patients worked there if they wanted. There were a lot of beds and sheets that had to be cleaned, and they were all pressed and starched at the laundry.
The Fire House
The hottest fire I remember was the library fire. I remember running to it from my job as a lifeguard one summer when I was eighteen. It was a Friday, and every Friday the staff generally took off for the bank to cash their checks. So, there were few people around to fight the fire.
When the fire was reported, it was the fire chief, my father, and both of my brothers who showed up first to answer the call. My father got one of the fire trucks, an old converted army pump truck. I think it held about one gallon of water! My father ran the pump, and he told me to work the hose. It was a two-inch-wide hose, and I started spraying water into the first window, already blown out from the flames on the first floor. It seemed like the water lasted for about three minutes, and that was it. No one got the hydrants hooked up, and there were not enough firefighters to run the hoses to the hydrant.
There was a general fire call and most of the perimeter companies came, but there wasn’t enough water pressure. So, when the other companies got there, they shuttled hoses to the lake for more water. The fire gutted the brick building and like the laundry it was torn down. My brothers and the chief were venting the upstairs windows on the second floor when the chief told them to get out. They got out just in time before the fire blew my younger brother right out the door on the second floor. There was a walkout roof on both sides of the main building. The fire was burning inside those old plaster walls for a couple of hours, and when the fire got the oxygen it needed, it went boom! The entire center of the building burned straight up, locked in by brick and mortar. Like most of the buildings at the time, the library had no fire stops. It was balloon framed and a lifetime slate roof created a furnace.
A play presented at Smalley Hall in the 1930s
The kids on the grounds could watch a movie for free every Saturday at Smalley Hall. It was a wonderful building. Today they would call it a general-purpose building. It was a theater that had a stage with a balcony on three sides. It had three sets of French doors on three sides. The doors on each side opened out, and the building provided the location for multiple church services and a movie on Saturday afternoon. The patients also had music, theater, and dances in the building.
When I attended the Burnt Hill Road School, we played our first basketball games against other schools in Smalley Hall. It was the first time interscholastic team sports had been played at a school in Montgomery Township.
Most of the workers at the Institute lived on the grounds. Housing was provided for the doctors, the administrators, and the workers. Most of the workers lived in a row of houses called Veterans Row.
My father was head of the nursing department, and we lived in a house that was one of the last buildings to be torn down. I had a baseball diamond in my front yard, and we were always playing baseball or football there. My mother wanted the kids to play in her yard to keep track of us.
On the campus grounds there was a store for the patients with a soda fountain and tables. We also had our butcher shop and grocery. We got all our milk from the store, and it came from the on–site dairy.
One might ask, where did you get all the labor necessary to run the farm and grounds? Well, we had prisoners called trustees. They lived in a guarded cottage quietly and freely, within reason. They worked the farm and the grounds, cleaning up, planting, and mowing. On Sunday the trustees got to have a softball game, and they responded by not running away. Most trustees did not have much time left to serve in their sentences. They got to choose their assignments and work in crews under guard. We had our own greenhouse that provided flowers for the hospital areas, new plantings for the gardens around the campus, and seed tree shrubs. They could choose to work there as well.
The general prisoners living in a guarded cottage on the grounds were older. The younger prisoners came from Annandale Reformatory. I don’t think we got too many from the Charles Lindbergh training school on Zion Mountain.
There was a school on the grounds to teach the younger patients. Steven Ritz was the head of the school. He was the person behind teacher training for the autistic. I think he started the program at Trenton State College (now The College of New Jersey) that provided many of the teachers around the State of New Jersey with training for educating the mentally challenged.
Beginning with one building in 1898 to the closing of North Princeton Development Center, the protection and care of sick people, their illness through no fault of their own, had to be protected. The state also assigned court ordered alcoholics and the drug addiction patients to NJNPI.
As a young child growing into my college years, I can say that I witnessed patient protection and care at its best. With the end of North Princeton Developmental Center in 1998, the State of New Jersey turned some patients over to other institutions like group homes, but released its responsibility of many patients, some of whom ended up on city streets.
JANE (JABAY) MAY
Before we moved to NJNPI, it was called “the Village” because as I recall, it was a self-sustaining village. (When it became NJNPI, it was known as “the Institute”.) In 1959, it was already giving up many of the things that kept it a village–the store, the dairy store, and laundry. But it still maintained the library, fire company and police department.
My father was the protestant chaplain and the only full-time religious presence. There was a part-time rabbi and catholic priest. My dad held a church service on Sunday in Smalley Hall for patients and staff. He also did counseling with patients, staff, and the alcoholic patients.
Occasionally, we would attend the service as a family and then go to the HUB for Sunday dinner. Our church home was Blawenburg Reformed Church.
My sister and I would ride our bikes all over the grounds to the library, the greenhouse, and picnic areas. Nothing was off limits except contact with the patients. In the winter we would ice skate on Sylvan Lake. I babysat for various doctors’ children, and we would take walks around the farm. We often went to the HUB to get ice cream, and on Sunday we could swim in the pool. We were never afraid to roam the grounds.
The Institute had an orange school bus that made frequent daily trips into Princeton. We could ride the bus to Nassau St or the Princeton Shopping Center. The orange bus was also the school bus when I was in 9th grade at Princeton High School. For grade school, we attended Burnt Hill Road School K–8. Some classes were at other schools in the township, but I always attended BHRS.
We lived in a small apartment building that had eight apartments and several single rooms with hall baths that were rented. There were many children to play with. As space became available, my parents also were able to rent two of the single rooms, an office for my dad and another bedroom for me. I believe the rent was $45.00 a month for the apartment and both single rooms!
We moved into Princeton after my freshman year of high school and my sister was in middle school. When I was in college, I worked at the Institute with the camp program for two summers. The children needed to have things to do all year around, so for college students it was an opportunity to lead summer camp activities.
The original “cottages” for women
PEGGY (JABAY) BEACH
I have wonderful memories of Halloween as we would trick or treat throughout the Institute visiting employee housing areas.
They showed movies on Saturday afternoon in Smalley Hall. We rode our bikes there and sat in the balcony while all patients were seated downstairs.
I think we were allowed to speak with patients but not the “prisoners” who were housed at the Institute. They worked the farm and grounds.
I worked two or three summers as a lifeguard at the pool, which was heavily used by all the patients.
Dad’s work with the alcohol and drug units was based on the AA 12-step program
LOIS (NEUBERGER) WALTON
My dad, Elmer Neuberger, started working for NJNPI as an electrician in 1950. At that time, we lived in our home on Fairview Road in Skillman, and I was four years old. My dad was asked to move to the NJNPI in 1955 because they needed an electrician living on the grounds who could respond quickly to any electrical emergencies. We (my mom–Audrey, dad, sister–Janet, and I) moved to temporary housing, called “Vets Units” for a short time. They were on one road in two rows of small, one–bedroom, apartment-style homes that were attached to each other. In 1956, we moved to a larger apartment called “Dungan” near the farm on Burnt Hill Road. We lived there until 1965, when my dad was no longer required to live on the grounds. For a short time, Jane Jabay and her family lived in the apartment above us.
For many years, my family enjoyed the friendship of the other families who were also required to live on the grounds. We enjoyed many parties, such as Halloween, in a large building called Smalley Hall, and we would go “trick or treating” to the homes of our friends and neighbors who lived on the grounds. My 8th grade graduation from Burnt Hill Road Elementary School was also held in Smalley Hall. We gathered for large picnics with these families and small get-togethers, skated on the lake, and went sledding on the hill on Burnt Hill Road. (Sometimes we ended up in the creek at the bottom of the hill!). My friends and I would ride bikes and meet at the bridge that crossed the creek on Burnt Hill Road. We also socialized at each other’s homes and rode the “orange bus” with “NJNPI” written on the side to Princeton High School. (UGH! So embarrassing!)
As a teenager, I would often babysit for a few of the families with young children. At that time, the pay was 50 cents an hour! And sometimes that included making dinner for the children, doing the dishes, giving baths, reading bedtime stories, getting them settled in bed, and possibly a few other chores!
My mom also worked on the NJNPI grounds for 17 years as the secretary to the Personnel Director. My dad was also a volunteer firefighter for the small fire department on the NJNPI grounds. They both continued to work for NJNPI after we moved off of the grounds, when my dad was no longer required to live there. They both retired in 1981 and moved to Virginia.
1. There are two cemeteries that provided a final resting place for patients who died. The Sacred Grounds Upper Cemetery, pictured above is behind the Village School in Skillman Park and is accessible by the large trail that encircles the park. The other cemetery is south of the park across Burnt Hill Road behind Washington Well Farm.
2. This ambulance garage key is one of the few artifacts remaining from NJNPI. Jim Beachell’s father needed this when there was an emergency requiring the ambulance.
It was very difficult to find good pictures of the State Village/NJNPI/NPDC. Many available were taken after it was boarded and ready to be demolished. If you have any pictures of the old facilities, I would appreciate receiving digital or print copies. You can reach me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This blog is based on the comments written by Jim Beachell, Jane (Jabay) May, Peggy (Jabay) Beach, and Lois (Neuberger) Walton.
Fire House–Axis Video
Upper Cemetery–Axis Video
Ambulance Key–Jim Beachell
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