Cast bell resonates with echoes of N.J. town’s past

MONROE, N.J. (AP) – At one time, the bell most certainly tolled in Monroe. But how the Civil War-era relic got there, what purpose it served and who brought it to Central Jersey are another story – and all questions one local history buff would like to answer.

Township Historian John Katerba has discovered that the 90-pound, 15-inch-by-15-inch brass bell was manufactured by William Buckley, a native of Ireland who immigrated to New York City in the early 1800s to open a casting foundry. Buckley died in 1850, as did his signature line of bells.

Sometime around the township’s founding in 1838, the bell made its way to Monroe, where a structure fire buried it under more than two feet of topsoil for approximately 135 years.

In the fall of 1994, construction workers unearthed the bell during a sewer-line installation project on Links Drive, near what is now the Pine Run and the Fairways at Forsgate developments.

At the time, Katerba was on the site working as an Monroe Utility Authority inspector when he noticed a backhoe and excavator pull out what appeared to be a rusty bucket.

“I was about two seconds too slow,” Katerba said. “I ran for it, but I was on the other side of the trench. It was basically finder’s keepers.”

The backhoe operator and Mercerville resident Joe Borromeo claimed the spoils that day as a young Katerba begged him to donate the mysterious find to the township.

“After three months the job was done, he disappeared and I never saw him again,” Katerba said.

Fast-forward 16 years. Katerba received a call from Borromeo’s neighbor, who told the township historian that his former co-worker had moved to Arizona and requested that the bell be returned to Monroe.

Since that phone call, Katerba has been poring over research and seeking additional information from the public.

Between Katerba’s eyewitness account of the bell’s discovery and a newfound fact-finding mission, which heavily relies on a county map that dates back to 1861, the Monroe native has found a number of pieces to the puzzling bell’s story.

“As it turned out, this was an old stone basement, (20-foot-by-20-foot), and judging by the two feet of burnt ash at the basement floor level, I had determined that this former building was badly burned and fell in on itself, the bell crashing safely into the basement,” Katerba said in an e-mail.

Armed with those facts and a heap of garbage that was disposed of in the fire “pit,” a common practice in those days, Katerba narrowed down the approximate year of the fire to the 1870s. Among the garbage heap of broken plates, oil lamps and stoneware were bottles, which indicated the time frame, he said.

Ironically, the fire may have been the bell’s salvation, as it avoided the same fate that awaited many American brass antiquities that were melted down for scrap drives during the course of two world wars to follow, he said.

Using the map, Katerba has also concluded that the building that housed the bell was situated at a five-point crossroads, one of which including the Bordentown Turnpike.

The structure could have been anything from a church to a school, but if Katerba’s guess is right, it was probably a toll road house.

“Being so close to the crossroads, it had to have been a stop – what kind of stop? We don’t know,” he said. “A toll road building could have had a bell. People used to communicate from long distances using bells through the type ring.”

Katerba’s hope is that someone from the public may offer some insight into the bell prior to the library exhibit opening in April and May, which will also feature antique bottles uncovered throughout the township.

“When you ring that bell you’re ringing history – it’s the sounds from the past,” Katerba said, quoting David Grider, a New York architect whose firm specializes in historic restoration. “It’s all about solving the mystery.”

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Information from: Home News Tribune,

http://www.mycentraljersey.com

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AP-ES-10-21-10 1335EDT