Book Recounts Chatham Township Socialist Colony
Former resident Bert Abbazia gives his account of the 'rise and demise' of 'America's 14th Colony.'
In his new book "Chatham Township, NJ: Secrets From the Past: The Rise and Demise of America's Fourteenth Colony" Bert Abbazia, of Summit, recalls the "unique environment" in which he spent his childhood.
The almost 84-year-old author grew up in a "primarily socialist and communist" 145 acre-community known as "The Chatham Colony Association," which encompassed parts of Southern Boulevard, Lafayette Avenue, Spring, Maple and Floral streets.
The endeavor, spearheaded in 1922 by his uncle, Bernard Somer, strove to "create and maintain a community within a community of nature lovers, free thinkers and a place to freely exchange political views and exercise spiritual freedom and compassion toward friends and neighbors," Abbazia said.
While working as a bookbinder in Newark, Somer overheard a coworker describe the rural town in which he lived. It was then that the "compassionate socialist," as Abbazia referred to his uncle, came up with the concept to start a colony of, and for, like-minded people.
Advertising in a socialist newspaper The Call as well as The Forward, a New York newspaper popular among Jewish people, Somer amassed 30 families, predominantly Eastern European Jewish immigrants, who wanted to pursue the same dream, Abbazia recalled.
"In the 1920s those things—socialism and communism—weren't so bad, not compared to facism or Nazism," Abbazia said. "It was a great experience. I lived right across from where Chatham High School stands today. If you pulled straight out of the [school's] driveway and kept going, you'd be in my house."
The former resident devoted the past three years to putting together his latest book because he believed his recollections about Chatham Township were too interesting not to be shared.
The author, who calls his 182-paged work "a fast read," has compiled maps, letters, the original Colony Constitution and pictures that detail the joys, tragedies—including a murder—and hardships of the 47 years that the Colony was in existence.
"It was a success," he said. "We built our own roads, our own water system. We had a community house, our own ballpark and even our own pool."
Despite his determination to share Chatham's past with others, Abbazia almost gave up on the work when his computer suffered "a white out" and his original 95 pages disappeared.
While Abbazia found some records at Town Hall, most of the information was close at hand. Because of his mother, Frieda, who had served as the Colony's secretary, Abbazia had access to minutes from meetings as well as years-worth of historical documents that aided his research.
In addition, Abbazia said "it was nice" getting in touch with his childhood neighbors—at least three original Colony members still live in the township today—to get their perceptions.
The father of three said that although he has happy memories of Colony life "walking down friendly paths, through friendly woods to friendly schools" others have different recollections.
"They were met with objection, rejection and suspicion," Abazzia said. "Many didn't speak English; they dressed differently. The girls, especially, were subjected to name-calling and a lot of anti-semitism. No Township boy would date a Colony girl and there was no dating within the Colony."
Abbazia, a self-described, "gutsy little guy", said he believes his own athletic ability saved him from a similar fate.
"As long as you were good at something, sports, violin, whatever it was, you were accepted for your talents," he recalled.
Abbazia said everything changed after World War II. "All that nationalism stopped," he said. "Everyone was now either Republican, Democrat or Independent. German children who had been goose-stepping through the halls of Southern Boulevard School, all that disappeared."
"The Colony was a community of intellectuals, but they were also very generous," Abbazia said. "When they started charging for the pool in 1943, it was $5 per family for the season, and part of that amount went to local charities. By the time the pool was sold, $140,000 had been donated to the UJA (United Jewish Appeal). They were very philanthropic."
Abbazia, who was the first certified lifeguard at the Colony Pool, shared how his first application for the position was passed over due to another man's hardship and the Colony's desire to help the man at his time of need.
"They were generous people and the first year two people applied to be lifeguards, a guy who had been out of work and myself," Abbazia said. "He got the job and every day he came in white pants, a dress shirt and leather shoes. He sat down by the low end. It was great. There were no drownings, the only problem was he couldn't swim."
Abbazia said that despite growing up in a socialist society, he was always "a free enterprise man, a capitalist." He remembered pulling a wagon filled with soda to the construction site while the Colony pool was being built to sell the beverages to workers as a young boy.
True to his entrepreneurial spirit, Abbazia, after serving in the U.S. Navy and graduating from Seton Hall University, opened Done-Well Cleaners in New Providence, where he worked for 37 years. He then went on to to pursue real estate, a profession he still dabbles in today.
The book also details how the Colony disbanded in 1969. Much of the land, including the pool, was puchased by Township of Chatham. Families sold their property and prepared to move on. One acre of land, which had originally sold for $162, fetched $5,000.
"Just like businesses, these things fail in the second generation," he explained. "Most of the children never came back."
Of the entire experiment, something Abbazia said is most interesting and noteworthy, is the success of the offspring of the original Colony members. He includes a chapter "Who Are They? Where Are They Now"" that provides an account of the lives of children of the Colony residents.
The affable octogenarian penned another book "Niagara Rapid Transit: A One Way Ride," which details the 1933 harrowing experience of Chatham Colony swimming champion William Kondrat, who is the only person in history to survive an over-two-hour battle with the rapids without a flotation device in the Niagara River Gorge.
Abbazia, who has been married to "the most beautiful girl I ever saw" since 1949, said he is "all booked out" and doubts he will write another missive, though he concedes he does think about authoring an autobiography.
While he may have been born before the Great Depression, the gregarious great-grandfather of six knows a thing or two about popular culture.
"I've had a great life," Abbazia said. "I wouldn't trade with anyone, not even J.Lo's husband."
"Chatham Township, NJ: Secrets From the Past: The Rise and Demise of America's Fourteenth Colony" can be purchased at Sages Pages, Chatham Hallmark or from the author directly by calling 908-273-5035.