CHATHAM, NJ - It's easy to miss the Chatham Township Historical Society marker erected on River Road near the fire station.
But if anyone cares to slow down, pull over and take a look, they will learn it is the site of "Bey's Boxing Camp," where the most renowned boxers of their time trained on a farm run by a Chatham Township resident, Hranoush Sidky, better known as "Madame Bey."
Gene Pantalone visited the camp as a youngster when it was known as "Ehsan's Training Camp." Later, the New Providence resident learned that it used to be called Madame Bey's. The name piqued his interest and he began to do some research.
Four years later, author Pantalone shares the story behind the camp in his recently published book: Madame Bey's" Home to Boxing Legends.
"As I was investigating it, I came up with fighter after fighter after fighter who trained there," Pantalone said. "By the end, I counted and I came up with a long list of fighters, trainers and managers, no fewer than 78 who were inductees into the International Boxing Hall of Fame."
The first boxer to settle in Chatham Township was lightweight champion Freddie Welsh, who bought 162 acres at what is now the corner of Fairmount Avenue and Meyersville Road, across the street from where the Fairmount Country Store sits now.
"He bought it in 1917 and he wanted to build it into a health camp for men," Pantalone said. "He wanted someone to take it over."
Madame Bey, an immigrant from Turkey whose mother was French and whose father was Armenian, ran the health camp at Welsh's house in the summer of 1923 and began to bring in boxers. She then moved it to her own place on River Road that summer, taking all the boxers with her after a dispute with Welsh.
"He thought a boxer named Battling Siki was a bad influence and wanted to kick him out and Madame Bey stuck up for him," Pantalone said. "The story is that they marched the mile from Welsh's to Madame Bey's on River Road and all the boxers followed."
Madame Bey housed the boxers and served them two meals a day. They would train in a garage converted into a gym. There was no cursing or women allowed. Curfew was 10 p.m.
"She knew nothing about boxing," Pantalone said. "but she knew people. Her first boxer was Johnny Wilson, who became the middleweight champion of the world.
"This woman was running a camp for boxers and all of them followed her rules. How many women in 1923 owned a business, especially this kind of business? One of the fighters broke her curfew and she waited up for him like a parent to scold him."
Heavyweight champion Gene Tunney, who lost one fight in his career, trained at Madame Bey's. He defeated Jack Dempsey in 1926 to win the heavyweight crown.
"He was at Madame Bey's when he first got word that he was going to fight Jack Dempsey for the heavyweight championship," Pantalone said.
Pantalone's research also unearthed the fact that Madame Bey let German boxer Max Schmeling train there for free. Schmeling went on to defeat Joe Louis for the heavyweight title before Louis won the rematch with a first-round knockout.
"Schmeling came to Madame Bey's with no money and she told him, 'When you're on top, you can pay me back,'" Pantalone said. "Madame Bey could speak six languages, but German wasn't one of them. They found a way to communicate with each other."
Among the champions to train at Madame Bey's internationally known camp were Jack Sharkey, Primo Carnera and Max Baer.
"I like to call it the Madison Square Garden of Boxing Camps in the 1920's, '30's and '40's," Pantalone said. "James Braddock never trained there, but he came to visit. Joe Louis came to watch other boxers train."
Madame Bey ran the camp from 1923 until she died in 1942. It then became Ehsan's Training Camp until it closed in 1969.
The list of of heavyweights to train there in the later years included Jersey Joe Walcott, Ezzard Charles and Floyd Patterson.
"Patterson was the last heavyweight champion to train there in 1959," Pantalone said.
The book also includes plenty for non-boxing fans, too. Pantalone explains how Madame Bey was good friends with the 25th President of the United States, William McKinley. According to Pantalone, Madame Bey was invited to Buffalo, N.Y. by the president to sing the national anthem when McKinley was assassinated there in 1901.
"She's in the last posed picture taken of McKinley and was close to him when he was shot," Pantalone said.
Chatham Township residents might also be interested to learn that Madame Bey's son, Rustem Bey, was one of the very first to serve as a member of the Chatham Township Police Department when it was formed in 1920.