Revisiting John McPhee’s Pine Barrens

In 1968, a writer from Princeton named John McPhee published his fourth book, a short non-fiction novel called The Pine Barrens. Through nine chapters, McPhee weaved science, history, culture, folklore and interviews of residents to tell about the vast rural and wild area encompassing much of southern New Jersey. During McPhee’s subsequent long and prolific career, he helped pioneer a literary genre called “creative nonfiction” of which The Pine Barrens was an early example. He eventually won a Pulitzer for his later work Annals of the Former World. McPhee became Ferris Professor of Journalism at his alma mater Princeton University where, now in his 90s, he teaches a course called Creative Nonfiction.

Although grassroots efforts to protect the area already existed when the book was published, many credit McPhee’s work with bringing national attention to the threat posed by development projects to the Pine Barrens. Federal and state legislation passed in the 1970s led to the creation of the Pinelands National Reserve along with state-protected lands overlapping much of the same area.

In 2015, the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, a non-profit environmental protection organization, launched Pinelands Adventures, an initiative combining a kayak livery service with guided educational tours of the Pine Barrens. In August 2015, Barbara Solem, author of several books about Pine Barrens history, conducted one of the first of these, a four-hour bus tour based on McPhee’s book called John McPhee’s Pine Barrens Today. The tour received press coverage and positive reviews.

In “Passionate about the Pinelands”, an article that appeared in the August 22, 2015 Philadelphia Inquirer, Sally Friedman had this to say: “While the engaging history came alive, so, too, did breathtaking views of a region that covers about a fourth of New Jersey.” Susan Sherry Miller covered the tour for the Burlington County Times when it was offered again in the fall. In her November 17, 2015 article “Unique Pinelands tour based on McPhee’s classic book,” Miller gave a detailed account of the trip, which began “on a sunny, crisp Saturday in October at the Bishop Farmstead on Pemberton Road, the headquarters of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance” where executive director Carleton Montgomery gave a tour of the grounds.

When I took the McPhee bus tour for the first time in May 2019, several changes had been made. The tour started from Pinelands Adventures rather than the Bishop Farmstead. In addition, John Volpa, former Director of Education at Pinelands Adventures, led the tour with Mike Neral driving the bus. John shared his memories with me of his time leading the tour.:

“I think people on the tour were always fascinated by the two aspects of the tour,” John said. “1. How former Governor Brendan Byrne was the true visionary mover and shaker who was inspired by McPhee. 2. How the piney people became targets of eugenics philosophy at the turn of the century.” 

After a two-year hiatus because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pinelands Adventures offered the McPhee tour again in 2022. In July, I signed up for the tour once more, this time equipped with a Nikon D-3500. Assistant Manager Allison Hartman led the latest version of the tour. Mike Neral again served as the driver. Here are some highlights and photos of the tour organized, as an homage, in the order and with the chapter titles of the classic McPhee novel.

The Woods from Hog Wallow

“The picture of New Jersey that most people hold in their minds is so different from this one that, considered beside it, the Pine Barrens, as they are called, become as incongruous as they are beautiful.”

McPhee, John. The Pine Barrens (p. 4). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

McPhee opened his book with a description of the view from the Bear Swamp Hill fire tower with the surrounding forest stretching away for miles, more pine trees than oak with spots of Atlantic White Cedar growing along bodies of water.  In his time spent in the Pine Barrens, he determined that a settlement called Hog Wallow was roughly the center of this expansive wilderness.

View of the New Jersey Pine Barrens from Apple Pie Hill Fire Tower
View of the Pine Barrens from a Fire Tower (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

He befriended Hog Wallow resident 79-year-old Fred Brown, who served as his guide, and Fred’s young neighbor Bill Wasovwich. During her tour, Allison showed us an area she said was the most likely location of what was called Hog Wallow. Today, it’s a cranberry growing area in Chatsworth, home to companies such as Pine Island Cranberry.

The Vanished Towns

“Most of the now vanished towns in the pines were iron towns—small, precursive Pittsburghs, in every part of the forest, where fine grades of pig and wrought iron were made.”

McPhee, John. The Pine Barrens (p. 26). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

When the bus leaves Pinelands Adventures in Shamong across from Atsion Lake, it turns left and crosses Route 206. It enters what remains of Atsion Village dominated by its Greek Revival style mansion. Barbara Solem’s original tour included a look inside the mansion. Mansion tours are now available separately. 

The Brotherton Indian Reservation, which was the only Indian reservation in New Jersey, was also in Shamong. Shamong is located in Wharton State Forest, named for Joseph Wharton, of Penn’s Wharton School of Business. Wharton bought up the land with the hope of selling the fresh water beneath it to Philadelphia until New Jersey passed a law stopping his scheme. The state eventually acquired his vast land holdings, which also included the historic village of Batsto. We stopped at Batsto during Allison’s tour, which has many intact buildings, including a grist mill, corn crib, blacksmith shop, wagon wright, general store, workers quarters, and the famous Batsto Mansion.

Batsto Mansion in Batsto Village in Wharton State Forest
Batsto Mansion (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

A barge used to move iron ore from the river to the furnace is on display in the village, which was occupied until the late 1980s. Batso was prominent during the Revolutionary War and is not far from The Forks, an area where the Batsto River joins the Mullica River, a favorite nest for war-time smugglers. 

During our visit to the ruins of the Harrisville papermill, Allison showed us the artesian well, which usually had water bubbling up from it, although it did not on this day because of a drought. The paper kept turning out orange because of the high iron content of the water. They dug the well to find clear water but stopped 10 feet short of reaching it.

Speedwell is about five minutes from what was once Hog Wallow. The site of a former furnace built by Daniel Randolph, it was bought by cabinet maker Benjamin Randolph. Benjamin built the desk Thomas Jefferson used to pen the Declaration of Independence. According to a local folk legend, Randolph obtained the wood for the desk from the Pine Barrens. Unfortunately, this is not true since the Smithsonian Museum where the desk now resides states that the desk is made from mahogany. 

The Separate World

“The people of the pines came to be known as pineys—a term that is as current today as it was at the turn of the century. After a generation or two had lived in isolation, the pineys began to fear people from the outside, and travellers often reported that when they approached a cabin in the pines the people scattered and hid behind trees.”

McPhee, John. The Pine Barrens (p. 42). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

When the industry towns died away, the remaining population became separated from the rest of the world. A researcher named Elizabeth White coined the term “pineys” to describe the rural poor she encountered in the Pine Barrens. Henry H. Goddard, a eugenicist, wrote a book The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of Feeble-Mindedness about a family from the Pine Barrens in support of now discredited eugenics theories. 

“It’s sad that we’re still dealing with hate based upon the false ‘science’ of eugenics,” John Volpa said. Allison pointed out that such stories contributed to the “otherworldly weirdness aura” of the Pine Barrens, making it a fertile ground for various myths and legends.

The Air Tune

“The Devil then said that he was going to take Giberson to Hell unless he could play a tune that the Devil had never heard. Out of the air, by Giberson’s account, a tune came to him—a beautiful theme that neither Giberson nor the Devil had ever heard. The Devil let him go.”

McPhee, John. The Pine Barrens (p. 73). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

Reminiscent of the story told in the song The Devil Went Down to Georgia, McPhee recounts the tale of Pine Barrens Fiddler Sammy Buck Giberson bragging that he could beat anyone in a fiddle playing contest. The devil takes up his challenge but loses. 

Rumors of witches in the Pine Barrens include the story of Peggy Clevenger, the Witch of the Pines, who lived near Mount Misery and shapeshifted into various animals. Benjamin Franklin wrote a satirical article called the Witch of Mount Holly, which many took to be true, giving rise to stories of witches inhabiting the area.

“We’re not that far removed from witch trials,” Allison said of the time period, referring to the infamous case in Salem, Massachusetts. She also told us about an eccentric Quaker named Daniel Leeds who began publishing The American Almanack with content his fellow Quakers deemed inappropriate, such as astrological symbols and drawings of strange creatures. He was censured by the religious group, leading to a very public feud against them. This may be how the Leeds name became associated with the legend of the Leeds Devil, another name for the famous Pine Barrens monster.

“All of this went into the folklore soup,” Allison said, and the Jersey Devil emerged. She noted that the release of the Kallikak book, giving rise to unfounded stories of “backward pineys,” coincided with the Jersey Devil myth getting legs again. “Kind of helps the myth seem a little spookier.”

A wood carving of the Jersey Devil in Oyster Creek Restaurant at Leeds Point, NJ
Carving of Jersey Devil at Leeds Point (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

The Capital of the Pines

“CHATSWORTH, IN WOODLAND TOWNSHIP, is the principal community in the Pine Barrens. It is six miles north of the approximate center of the pines at Hog Wallow, and is surrounded on all sides by deep forest.”

McPhee, John. The Pine Barrens (p. 77). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

McPhee describes how residents of Chatsworth call the surrounding smaller settlements such as Leektown and Speedwell “suburbs” of Chatsworth. At the center of town is the Chatsworth General Store, also known as Buzby’s General Store after the family that founded it in 1865. It was closed when we passed it on Allison’s tour but re-opened in October with new ownership under the name Buzby’s Eatery and General Store.

The Turn of Events

“IN THE MEMORIES OF THE PEOPLE OF Chatsworth, three local events seem to stand out in the past fifty years—the Chatsworth Fire, in 1954; the crash and death in the woods, in 1928, of an aviator who was known as Mexico’s Lindbergh; and a visit, in 1927, by S.E. il Principe Constantino di Ruspoli, an authentic Italian prince who happened to be a native of Chatsworth.”

McPhee, John. The Pine Barrens (p. 97). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

Prince Ruspoli and his wife, an American whose family owned land in the Pine Barrens, built a palatial summer compound on Chatsworth Lake where their son would eventually be born.  Allison said they named it the Chatsworth Club after a family estate in England. Vice President Levy Morton and other prominent people such as the Astors, Vanderbilts, Morgans, and Drexels were visitors. The club, which was located across from what is now Franklin Parker Preserve, a former cranberry bog, no longer exists.

We visited the Carranza Memorial built on the site of a tragic plane crash that killed Emilio Carranza, a Mexican pilot attempting a goodwill flight from Mexico City to Washington. The trip was planned to relieve some tension that developed between the United States and Mexico caused by the interception of the Zimmermann telegram during World War I. Carranza knew Charles Lindberg who acted as his advisor in Mexico before Carranza took off. Over the Pine Barrens, Carranza encountered thunderstorms that brought his plane down.

“There was just no hope for him,” Allison said because the storms were too strong. “They chose some of the images on it to honor his bravery.”

Top portion of Emilio Carranza Memorial with spanish inscription, name, and arrow symbol
Carranza Memorial (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

Near the Carranza Memorial is Apple Pie Hill, the highest point in the Pine Barrens, with a 60 foot fire tower like the one at Bear Swamp Creek. On July 12th, 1954, McPhee wrote that firewatcher Eddie Parker spotted the Chatsworth Fire from the Apple Pie Hill tower. Allison’s tour took place the Sunday after the 68th anniversary of this wildfire, which was the fifth largest in state history.

On both John Volpa’s tour and Allison’s tour, we were lucky enough to be able to climb to the top of the Apple Pie Hill fire tower. Access is only available when the tower is staffed. Otherwise, a locked fence, installed to deter vandals, keeps visitors at bay.

Apple Hill Fire Tower against backdrop of blue sky and white clouds taken from base
Apple Pie Hill Fire Tower (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

Fire in the Pines

“WHATEVER ELSE THEY DO, MEN IN THE Pine Barrens are firefighters throughout their lives.”

McPhee, John. The Pine Barrens (p. 111). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

McPhee explains why the Pine Barrens are prone to wildfires, how fires start, and techniques to fight them such as controlled burns. I got to see some of this first hand. On Father’s Day, a month before Allison’s tour, firewatchers from multiple fire towers spotted the smoke of what would become known as the Mullica River Fire. I was returning from a family event and happened to be passing Pinelands Adventures when I saw a helicopter draw water from Atsion Lake in a large bag and transport it across Route 206 beyond Atsion Village. A huge plume of smoke towered above the trees.

Smoke from Mullica River Wildfire rising behind Atsion Lake
Mullica River Wildfire (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

The fire consumed about 15,000 acres of Wharton State Forest before it was contained, getting close enough to threaten Batsto Village. Damage from the fire caused Pinelands Adventures to suspend its kayaking trips on the Mullica. 

The woods still bore the marks of the fire. Allison said that you could tell the difference between burns caused by the fire itself and those caused by controlled burns. Low char marks on trees indicate prescribed burns rather than wildfire. Wildfire scorches trees all the way up. 

The Fox Handles the Day

“The fox handles the day. The fox knows the age and experience of the dogs that are chasing him. The fox maintains his lead position in the chase, but if the dogs are slow and inept he himself slows down and keeps things interesting for the hunters. The chase finally ends when the fox is treed. None of the foxhunters of the Pine Barrens would dream of killing such a creature.”

McPhee, John. The Pine Barrens (p. 139). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

McPhee recounts going on a hike in the Pine Barrens with the Philadelphia Botanical Club. The hikers avidly examine various plants along the way, fretting about the possibility of losing them to encroaching development. At one point on Allison’s tour, we stop to sample some wild blueberries growing along the trail, moving through the forest much like those hikers did decades ago. 


“IN EVERY DECADE FOR MORE THAN A CENTURY, there have been men of vision who could see, and somehow could make others see, urban skylines in the pines—with beautiful, pine-scented subdivisions set close to throbbing factories.”

McPhee, John. The Pine Barrens (p. 145). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

McPhee ended his novel by admitting that plans for a new jetport and city or other types of development would come to pass and the Pine Barrens would eventually disappear. He writes that “it would appear that the Pine Barrens are not very likely to be the subject of dramatic decrees or acts of legislation.” A decade later, the exact opposite happened. 

We stopped to have lunch at Lake Oswego. Allison tells us that this lake was part of the planned location of the jetport. Instead, today it’s a popular and protected recreation area.

“It’s wonderful for the people of New Jersey to have the Pinelands National Reserve, its water, and ecological resources to enjoy,” said John Volpa.

Clouds reflecting on Lake Oswego in the Jersey Pine Barrens
Lake Oswego (Photo by Beach and Barrens)

Special thanks to Barbara Solem for sharing her original tour notes with me along with copies of the newspaper articles referenced in this post.

Food, Drink, and Live Music at Rack’s

Restaurateur Alisha Miller opened Rack’s Bar and Grill on the White Horse Pike in Atco in 2003. Almost 20 years later, it’s become a local fixture and hotspot with good food, a large selection of beers, including craft brews, pool tables, and outdoor bar. Miller also owns a second location on the Black Horse Pike in Williamstown. 

I used to pass the Rack’s in Atco frequently when I boarded my horse in 2017 at a farm in nearby Evesham. I didn’t stop to eat, though, until the weekend I moved to Atco. Two of my favorite appetizers include the crispy brussels sprouts, a bacon and balsamic glaze concoction, and seared yellowfin tuna with just the right amount of wasabi sauce. I also recommend both the teriyaki salmon and black sesame encrusted ahi tuna steak entrees. Great price for each and includes vegetables and steamed white rice. Rack’s used to have a Sunday brunch with the best Bloody Mary’s I’ve ever had. They unfortunately do not have it anymore.

Rack’s is also a popular venue for local live music. Members of Goodman Fiske, Atco’s hometown favorite band, featuring vocalist Ryan Fiske, guitarist Gene Goodman, drummer Anthony Baker, and bass guitarist Alex Staff, periodically appear at Rack’s. Check out their website for future performance dates. You can also book them through STARS Productions.

One of the first bands I saw as Rack’s began featuring live music again after the pandemic was the South Jersey alternative pop duo Kicking Sunrise, with lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist Joe Murphy and drummer Mark Altamuro, played for patrons. The Washington Township duo has been active since 2013 and signed with independent record label Right Coast Music. Check out their website for future tour dates.

A favorite local band of mine that I saw at Rack’s for the first time is JEM and the Vibe.They have a few brass players among their members, including a trumpet player! You can book them through their website and follow their Facebook page to learn about future performances.

Tranquil Times in the Jersey Pines with Valerie Vaughn

Singer and songwriter Valerie Vaughn was a student at Rutgers University in the 1970s who loved the outdoors and nature. After reading an article in National Geographic about the Pine Barrens in 1974, she went for a visit. Inspired by the sites and people she encountered in the pines that summer, she started to write songs about New Jersey, especially South Jersey, which she calls the perfect location with the shore, the Pine Barrens, and cities such as Philadelphia and Atlantic City all close by. After graduating college, living in England for a few years and giving birth to her daughter, she settled in Tuckerton where she worked at Pinelands Regional High School as a social worker while continuing her creative endeavors as a musician. 

Photo courtesy of Valerie Vaughn

This past spring Valerie played a selection of songs in an online program for the Pinelands Commission called Tunes and Tales available on Youtube. After reaching out to Valerie, she was kind enough to answer some questions for me, sharing photos and more about her life and work.

What kind of programs did you do for the Pinelands Short Course?

I usually do the songs about the Piney side of New Jersey for the Pinelands Short Course: The Tales of Mrs. Leeds 13th child, Joe Mulliner, The Forgotten Towns, and The Son of Charity. I focus on the songs I wrote inspired by chapters in Henry Beck’s Forgotten Towns of Southern New Jersey. Each song was inspired by a chosen chapter. It’s a different way to digest written material. I read it for you and then condense it into a song!!

When and how did you start becoming known as New Jersey’s Troubadour? 

I became known as New Jersey’s Troubadour in the mid-1990s. I learned that Connecticut actually had a state troubadour, and my friends and fans started a campaign to name me as state troubadour for New Jersey. They sent my CD to state representatives.  Senator Frank Lautenberg responded by nominating me to represent New Jersey to sing my songs at the nation’s capital in 2000 for the  Millennium series, which was run by the Kennedy Center. This was a great honor, and I was so excited. I went and performed on the lawn in front of the capital in August of 2000. I was greeted by Kennedy Center employees and given a huge  trailer to prepare for the performance complete with a big mirror with lightbulbs all around it. I felt like Dolly Parton!!! I cherish my letters from the Kennedy Center and Senator Lautenberg.  It was a great honor and experience.

Photo courtesy of Valerie Vaughn

What were the titles of your CDs and is your music available on Spotify or a similar service?

I am a self-funded and produced musician. My CDs are Tucker’s Island and Other Story Songs recorded in 1994 and Tucker’s Island Rises Again in 1998. I have many other collections that were not mass-produced, but I did burn and sell them one at a time: The Celtic Collection, The Country Cousins, Red White and Blues, Greetings From Loveland, etc. I often toured English folk clubs and would sell the CDs of my more personal life journey songs there. I still have so many un-recorded and produced songs about my life and love that I have to record and promote. I never did Spotify. There are many of my songs with videos on YouTube.

Can you share more information about the book you are planning to write? Is it going to be a memoir?

I am a singer of songs and a writer of lyrics and songs. I am a lover of history, mystery and marine and coastal science. I have wanted to put my song lyrics in a book for many, many years. Life and making a living are constant distractions from doing this. I am 68 now and don’t want to leave here without documenting my story songs and writing a memoir.  Two books have been written in my head for years. This year I started to be serious about it. My memoir is called Tales of a Troubadour. I have no publisher yet nor have I really sought one. I published and produced all my own music so I am prepared to publish my own book, but I think there may be some who are interested in my work because of its educational value. The other book I’m planning is a lyric book to be called To Tucker’s Island and Beyond (the lyrical tales of New Jersey) with song lyrics and stories of how they were written. I could write it to be part of the New Jersey history curriculum taught in fourth grade.  It will simply include my song lyrics and a story of how I wrote each song, the inspiration and experiences that led to it. My memoir will be about my life in general but mostly about how I truly supported myself as a traveling musician here in America and England.

When did you start playing guitar? Do you play any other instruments?

My main instrument is my voice. I am a singer who learned to play guitar so I could sing to it. I come from a musical family. My grandfather, father and older brother all played guitar and banjo. We all could sing as my mother also did. My Dad’s family was from Kentucky so music is natural and informally taught by family. My brother made me play bass lines on an old guitar to make his guitar work sound better. We sang with the Beatle songs, Dad’s favorite standards, or old country songs. My family wanted me to play too. When I heard Bob Dylan, who wrote his own songs like the Beatles, I wanted to finally learn. I told my Dad and started to practice. I always had him to ask for help and was playing and writing my own songs within six months.I did practice two to three hours a day during this time. I was in a band at that time as well.  I play piano like a guitar player. I play chords and sing along. I can pick a bit of banjo and strum the autoharp. 

Do you have any favorite local venues? 

I played in all the local bars and restaurants for years. I earned a living but it’s never good performing for people who aren’t too interested. I escaped that situation when I began writing and performing for children. Great listeners and participants. I always love giving tours of the Tucker’s Island lighthouse and singing a different relevant song in each room to interested people and students. I love to do concerts and have run and hosted my own house concerts for myself and other artists. I learned how to be a concert performer in England. I went for my first tour of local English folk clubs in 1997 and learned what it feels like to have people truly listen and treat a musician with respect. I sing songs that tell stories. Wherever people listen locally, I am happy to play: libraries, schools, museums, churches and home concerts.

Photo courtesy of Valerie Vaughn

Do you have a website or social media channels people can visit? 

I use my Facebook pages as Valerie Vaughn and New Jersey’s Troubadour to promote my performances. I also have many of my songs on YouTube. Many of my songs are up there on my own channel with some nice videos done by my husband who is a photographer. There is an old website on Angelfire that still has relevant info also.

Is there information about your program for homebound people available online?

There is information about the Home Bound Folk Arts (HBFA) program on the Jersey Shore Folklife Center web pages through the Tuckerton Seaport site.  This is a truly extraordinary program I am so proud to have helped create. I spent an afternoon teaching basic piano to a young autistic adult who has good musical ability. He plays beginner songs, and we play together. 

Everything in general has been very low key since COVID hit. I’ve been asked to do webinars for a few organizations such as the James Still house and The Butterfly story telling group. Performances are starting soon. The vocal group that does pop music (Reflection Station) started with a private event.

You mentioned Jim Alberson as a mentor. What are your other influences?

As a young musician my teachers outside my family were The Beatles. I learned to harmonize as a singer by playing the records over and over hearing and learning all the different harmony parts. I’m still very good at this today and have been in a harmony trio and teach the parts for the pop group. After the Beatles, it was the female singers: Joni Mitchell, Carol King, and Laura Nyro for song writing and Bette Midler for performance. I also just love the great singers like Ella Fitzgerald. Local artists like Jim Albertson helped me see what locally famous artists could achieve. I also am highly influenced and helped by English folk singer Bram Taylor who became my tour manager in England.

I notice a couple of your songs such Mrs. Leed’s 13th Child touched on the theme of motherhood. Is that an important theme for you?

It’s amazing that you picked up on this! Even I didn’t realize it!  Yes, I took the Jersey Devil story from the perspective of his mother the same as the story of James Still, The Son of Charity. I write about women like Alice Paul and sing the song about Harriet Tubman. Motherhood is my first job. I was rushed into it at 22 years old and did all my music work with a baby or child with me. I went to Head Start with her as the music mom and began my Talespinner musical fairy tale program there. I’ve been a foster mom and stepmom and now a grandmom. My daughter is a totally single parent, and we help co-parent.  Women’s themes are important to me. I have volumes of songs about my life as a woman that have not been formally put out either. I have more than enough songs for two CDs. I always wanted to call one Greetings From LoveLand  and the other Blue Country.  I have so much to do to complete my work. Being a mother and now grandmother has both helped me and slowed me down. Motherhood has helped me be more creative while it has also caused some delays in my work but that’s life!!

You can see Valerie perform live with her fellow Reflection Station singers on August 29 from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Barnegat Municipal Dock. Be sure to bring a chair!

Valerie Vaughn and other members of Reflection Station performing at the Barnegat Dock, August 7, 2021