This article was recently published in Aiken Family Magazine
“Forty Acres of Paradise”
It seems that with each issue, I develop a case of writers block as I search for a new topic. Eventually, something happens and the story is there before me. This issue was no different and then, within twenty-four hours, two people who found out where I used to live, inquired if I had ever been to Forest Lodge? Problem solved.
Those of you have read my columns already know that I enjoy going back and acknowledging important places and people in my life. This will be no exception.
The story starts back in the late 1930’s, with forty-acres of land in what was then a very rural area of Central New Jersey known as the Mt. Bethel section of Warren Township. The property had been used as a chicken farm, but also had a concrete swimming pool, which was quite a luxury in those days. The owners began using part of the land for family picnics and parties. As more family and friends began frequenting the site, the hosts began charging those who attended as providing hospitality at the farm became both time consuming and expensive. During that era, travel was slower and it took almost an entire day to drive to the resorts in New York State. Additionally, the trendy resorts were pricey, so eventually, the property evolved into a local, cheaper alternative. It became known as Forest Lodge and was often referred to as the “Poor Man’s Adirondacks”.
In 1968, Forest Lodge was acquired by twenty-five year old Robert Max “Bob” Evans, who had a vision to develop the property into something bigger and more appealing. Several food pavilions were added as were additional sports fields, more and bigger swimming pools, a gift shop, a candle barn, snack bars, and amusements such as go-carts, pony rides and the always-popular “Moonwalk”.
Through the 1970’s into the 80’s, Forest Lodge was the preferred destination for most company picnics taking place within two hours of its scenic picnic groves. It also became the obligatory place for schools to have their end of year class trips. It was not unusual to have over ten thousand guests there on a summer weekend.
My first, personal experience with Forest Lodge was when my father took me there one afternoon so I could interview for a summer job. I mention him taking me because I had just turned fourteen years old. I have no recollection of the interview with Mr. Evans, but I do recall leaving and being excited that he was going to pay me $1.65/hour (the minimum wage in 1974) and I thought I was going to be rich. I recently received my Social Security history, showing that I earned $649.00 that year, not exactly rich. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the job I had accepted would enrich me in ways I would not be able to understand for many years.
Space restrictions preclude me from writing what could be pages of stories from my six summers at Forest Lodge. My experiences there included, but were not limited to spending rainy days washing out hundreds of garbage cans, helping build a road through a sections of dense, rocky woods, being responsible for turning out thousands of donuts a day in “Derek’s Donut Den”, to working the last two years as a lifeguard at the pools. It was hard work, great fun and I was able to learn many skills that have served me well over the years.
A story that I will share has to do with the crowds of picnickers arriving on Saturday and Sunday mornings. It was not unusual for over fifty buses and hundreds of cars to converge on Forest Lodge between nine and eleven in the morning. As the buses arrived, they were boarded by a staff member, people counted and tickets handed out. Often times the line of buses and cars extended out the long, stone driveway and onto a local road.…sometimes a quarter mile down the road. Complicating matters was that that road bore a significant amount of Sunday morning church traffic. The key was to keep the buses and cars off to the side so regular traffic could pass by and to keep the tourists, many of who had already started drinking, on the busses and in their cars, not out running around, looking for a place to relieve themselves after their drive to Warren. These challenges presented more than a little public relations problem for Mr. Evans with the neighbors, but being the enterprising man he was, he came up with a good plan. He decided to make me, at age sixteen, the person in charge of marshalling the buses and cars as they arrived at Forest Lodge. I suppose his logic may have been that when neighbors complained, he could explain that it was Raymond, the police chief’s son who was to blame, hoping to deflect further criticism, but I loved doing that job and I did it very well. Looking back, it was remarkable that I was never run over or beat up by a drunken rider. If I ever develop lung cancer, my wife will probably blame the occasional cigar or pipe I enjoy, but I will put the blame on several summers of sucking bus exhaust and driveway dust for hours at a time on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
Evans also developed a building on the grounds into a club/bar. Although the “Barber Parlor” hosted some mainstream entertainment, the likes of Eddie Arnold, it became popular as one of Central Jersey’s premier showcases during the early 1980’s for bands such as Kinderhook Creek, Cowtown, The Clover Hill Band and The Good Rats. I spent many a Friday and Saturday night there, listening to the music of that era and maybe sipping on a beer or two. I never worked in the club, but never had to pay a cover charge when Mr. Evans was at the door. Today it stands as a banquet hall, but I can’t even look at a picture of it without recalling listening to those bands, week after week.
Another memory recalls the “Big E” and one of his unique ideas for motivating the staff. Each year he would offer fifty dollars to any employee that would get a “crew cut”. Now remember, this was the late 1970’s and long hair was in, for me included. I recall how sun bleached my shaggy mane became that first summer as a life guard and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to give that up . The idea of getting a crew cut was anathema to most of us, but fifty dollars was fifty dollars…and when you were eighteen years old, it was like hitting the lottery.
There were three of us that planned that on a Friday after school, we would go together to Mike’s Barber Shop and get it done. We showed up for work on Saturday morning, pretty proud of ourselves that we were going to make Mr. Evans pay out one hundred and fifty dollars that morning. I think he was pretty shocked since it had been at least two years since anyone took him up on his offer. We won and he paid.
Later that morning, before the buses started to arrive, I was getting some things straightened out on the pool deck and had put a baseball cap on to protect the top of my head from the sun. Without warning, a very loud voice came over the PA system, something to the effect of, “Mr. Visotski, I paid you fifty dollars so I could see your pretty head. Take that hat off, now!”
It wasn’t a suggestion. It was an order. I complied. I knew who was the boss.
Bob Evans probably taught me as much about responsibility as my parents did and for that, I am grateful. I wasn’t as grateful when I was working there because there were no slackers at Forest Lodge. If you didn’t do your job with dedication and perfection, you didn’t get to keep your job, simple as that. He was a tough man to work for and at close to six foot six with a very deep, booming voice, he was larger than life to us teenagers. Whether he was telling you to get your rake and scoop to help pick up garbage or sending you to the coveted job at the, go-cart track, you went. When the “ Big E” spoke…you listened.
Evans sold Forest Lodge in the late 1990’s and now lives in Massachusetts. He owns an International House of Pancakes restaurant , the same occupation he had prior to and during his Forest Lodge days. We still stay in touch a couple of times a year and he seems to have mellowed with age, but maybe it is just that I have grown up to be more like him?
It could also be said that my love of writing was incubated at Forest Lodge as I wrote two, pedantic pieces about those forty acres of paradise. The first was entitled. “T’was The Night Before Labor Day”, which was a Forest Lodge adaptation of a similarly named Christmas Poem. My swansong at the time, however, was taking the Mickey Mouse Theme song and converting it to “FOR-EST, LODGE and thus creating an anthem as we worked late into the evening, cleaning up from today and anticipating what tomorrow would bring, starting at 0800hrs. Although you might try, neither can be found on iTunes or UTube, but after more than thirty years, I can recite both, ver batim.
Nearly three quarters of a century later, although it looks very different, Forest Lodge is open for another season. One of the women managing it today, Sharon, was a classmate of mine through school and she started working there a summer or two after I did and aside from college, I believe has been there ever since. The emphasis now appears to be on weddings, banquet events and corporate “team building” workshops. My guess is though, that now that Summer is here, the picnic groves, sports fields and pool deck will be filled with the sights, sounds and smells of people having fun at a fun place.
As the last buses of the day make their way out that long, dusty driveway and onto Reinman Rd., I wonder if the song has been passed down and if any of the staff are singing, as we did, “Now it’s time to say goodbye….to all the companies. FOR-EST LODGE”.