All About the Pine Barrens!
Merce Ridgway Jr.
Musical Legend of the Pine Barrens
1941 - 2018
I had the privilege of meeting
Merce Ridgway in 1994, at the First Pine Barrens Jamboree
at Wells Mills County Park in Waretown. He had come back up from
his home in Ridgway Holler in West Virginia, where he had retired
to some years back, to sing his poetry, and that of his father,
Merce Ridgway Sr. He was a quiet man of few words, but being in
his presence was almost magical. Merce
and his talented wife Arlene graciously gave me permission to publish
an excerpt from his writings from the website he once ran:
have a friend, Herb Pratt, He is 86 1/2 years and plays the fiddle.
He says he spends a lot of time living in the past, and asked me if
I do the same? I thought about it and admitted that I do also. I have
been thinking about the Pine Barrens and how much I would like to
visit again the places I knew as a boy. I see them in my mind, along
with my father, as we hunted and gathered wood there many years ago.
How wonderful it was to drink from the streams anywhere there, and
know the water was good. Sweet water always nearby, you never needed
to carry water with you. I loved Deer hunting in those woods and came
to know them as well as my back yard. I would like to walk those places
once more before I die, but I fear that will never happen. They tell
me the roads are blocked to prevent illegal dumping, and you are not
allowed in those places. The population has grown so large and some
many people have misused the area, that they are off
limits now. We gathered the Pitch Pine as we called it to burn in
the winter. Large fires that burned through the pines left standing
many dead pines. As time passed the standing deadwood dried and left
the center of the trees hard and pitchey. We hauled it home by the
truck load to be cut up on the cross cut saw. It burned hot, you needed
a good wood stove that you could shut down tight, or risk burning
the house down. Now you are not allowed to gather deadwood. If caught
they will take your truck and axe and fine you, how sad for the native.
I remember the Blueberry's, the swampberrys grew large and sweet in
the low places, but the one I liked the best were the little low blues
that grew in abundance along the defunct Tuckerton railroad. There
were other kinds of blueberry's, but these two types were the best
for the pies mom made of them. You always payed for them with some
chigger bites, but well worth the price. I wonder if you can still
see Barnegat Bay and the light house from the top of the Forked River
Mountains? That was a fine place to visit with the view and small
fossils we would find there. Once I found a small stone container
there that Dad thought might have been an Indian paint pot. We used
to go as a family there for a picnic, from time to time. I never dreamed
it would be closed off, I suppose that is progress. I played music
a lot in my youth and folks would say, Don't you feel afraid when
you have to drive across those Pine woods at night? I was always a
little surprised, because that was when I felt safe, to be back in
those wood's I loved so well.---Merce"
Merce Ridgeway Jr. was the founder
Albert Music Hall in Waretown, and first president of the
Pinelands Cultural Society. His Dad, Merce Sr., played in original
Pinehawkers in the 1940's. Merce Jr. reformed the group in 1980
and kept his dad's music alive.
"The Pine Barrens Song", written by his dad and sung
by Merce Jr., is one of my my personal favorites.
Merce has also written a book, "The
Bayman: A Life on Barnegat Bay". This should be required
reading for anyone who works and/or plays on the bay, because they
will gain a new respect for the rich history of the Barnegat Bay
and its baymen, and perhaps understand why it's so important to
take care of it. We do, after all, live in a symbiotic relationship
with mother earth, and the way we give back should be taking care
of her. Through the above
link, you can read excerpts of the book. Clamming, oystering, scalloping,
fishing, mossing, woodcutting, trapping: these were just some of
the means to a living in the Pine Barrens and on the Bay. The excerpted
passages are magical; one can almost smell the Bay's mist and chill
to the cold winds of winter through Merce's descriptions. Merce
shares his story of life in the Pines and on the water in a simpler
time. It's a beautiful story, and one that should be read by anyone
who appreciates the Pine Barrens.
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