Middlesex County News

East Brunswick: What Do You Do with a Library When It Stops Being a Library? (Part 2 of 4)

Documents and copies of documents relating to the tenure of New Jersey's 41st Governor Harold G. Hoffman. Credits: Ethan Reiss for TAPinto East Brunswick
Reference books containing school records and government materials Credits: Ethan Reiss for TAPinto East Brunswick
Attendance records and other documents relating to elementary schools in East Brunswick. Credits: Ethan Reiss for TAPintoEast Brunswick
Old library reference books Credits: Ethan Reiss for TAPinto East Brunswick

EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ -  Appleby. DeVoe. Chittick. Warnsdorfer. Bowne.  Good old East Brunswick names, names that appear all over town and grace local schools and streets here and in Spotswood.  Fred DeVoe loved the already-old building on Main Street in which his mother Alice Appleby DeVoe was born.  Nobody quite knows the age of the building, though some suggest that parts of it have been in place since colonial times.  The earliest legal record of the property dates from 1831 when an Appleby purchased it from a Van Wickle.

But to Fred DeVoe, it became a memorial to his mother that he donated to the township of East Brunswick on June 8, 1945 for use as the township's first library and  community center.  

According to Lee Chomyk who wrote "The Story of a House," smaller buildings nearby the Devoe home were "destroyed in order to give prominence to the new building." One of those buildings was the East Brunswick post office, where DeVoe had worked as a child.  

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In its early years, the library served students from Old Bridge, which had no library of its own, and the students from East Brunswick, Spotswood, and South Amboy on a bare-bones budget managed by a township-appointed library board.

The DeVoe Library was a vital resource as the township grew during the post-war boom.  After two failed attempts in 1961 and 1962, the township of East Brunswick passed a referendum and opened a new library in 1967. The focus was drawn away from the original library, and the original library became a branch. 

The DeVoe Library was an essential component of the naming of the "Historic Village of Old Bridge" as a National Historic District around the time of the BiCentennial on June 29, 1977.

By 1981, though, James A. Hess, a long-time President of the East Brunswick Library Board, said that the DeVoe Library would be closed.  "It just didn't draw enough people," said Hess.

Since that time, the building has been in the care of the East Brunswick Museum and has served off and on as a residence and storage location for parts of the museum's collection.  Although it is one of the "anchor" buildings of the Historic District, the DeVoe Library has fallen into disrepair and requires major reconstruction to bring it up to code and to protect it from water damage.

So here Mrs. DeVoe's memorial sits - untenanted and unused in 2017.  What to do with the building, and, perhaps more importantly, what to do with its contents?

Over the years, the Devoe Library has become sort of an historical storehouse, full of papers and some dated books that were not transferred to the East Brunswick Public Library.  

It is also the storehouse for the original texts, correspondence, proclamations, and statements of New Jersey's 41st Governor Harold G. Hoffman. Following Hoffman's death in 1954, his mother, and East Brunswick resident, gave them to the DeVoe library.  There are dozens of volumes of Hoffman's legacy from his three-year tenure as governor.  Those three years, however, were ones that rocked New Jersey.

Harold Hoffman was the state's chief legislator during the period that included the trial for kidnapping of the infant son of Charles Lindbergh, American aviator and national hero.  Bruno Richard Hauptmann was arrested for the abduction and murder of the child and later executed at the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton.  Hauptman went to the electric chair on April 3, 1936.  The "Trial of the Century" held the country's interest for almost four years.

Governor Hoffman, though, didn't think that Hauptmann was guilty and blamed the New Jersey State Police for his incarceration and execution.  This controversial view colored the rest of Hoffman's life.  Though Hoffman continued a life of public and military service, he was, in the end, brought down by accusations of impropriety brought by the State Police.  He died of a heart attack after admitting his guilt.

Hoffman's papers regarding the Lindbergh case were appropriated by the State Police who traveled to East Brunswick in 1993 to retrieve the files taken by Hoffman for review in 1935 and never returned to the state.  The New York Times in Museum and New Jersey Are at Odds Over Files,  "When Mr. Hoffman became Governor in 1935, he reviewed the Lindbergh case files. After Mr. Hoffman borrowed state police documents for his review, 'he never returned them,' said Lieut. Thomas DeFeo, curator of the New Jersey State Police Museum, in West Trenton, where the state's Lindbergh files are kept for public examination.

In 1984, Mrs. Nelson (the Governor's daughter) gave the museum her father's huge collection of carved elephants (Governor Hoffman was a staunch Republican). She also donated boxes stored in the garage of her mother's South Amboy home. John Runyon, president of the East Brunswick Museum, said the boxes, which contained some 2,300 binders of the Governor's papers plus his Lindbergh files, would otherwise have been thrown out.

In 1985, the state police requested the Lindbergh material. The trustees agreed on condition that copies be left behind. Troopers trucked a photocopier to the former church that houses the museum and reproduced some 22,000 pages."

The bound copies and the remaining pieces of Hoffman's papers remain at the DeVoe Library, though some have been damaged by poor storage methods and flooding, especially during Hurricane Irene which hit the southeastern quarter of East Brunswick hard.

Also housed in the library are early attendance records for the East Brunswick Public Schools and other documents and files relating to the township.

If the DeVoe Library is taken down by the township, the documents will be moved elsewhere, either by the township or the East Brunswick Museum.  The question of the building and its upkeep and utility remains, however.

When asked about reasons for retaining the site, Kathie Burns Waite, a member of the East Brunswick Museum Board and a resident of the Historic Village, said, "The DeVoe Library is part of East Brunswick's tangible past.  It provides a cultural history for our community.  This library is an integral part of our township's heritage, and if it goes, we lose that piece of history forever.  It transports visitors to the past in a way that pictures in a book cannot.  It reminds us of who we were.  If demolished, East Brunswick would suffer a great loss."

The resolution to this problem remains a local one.  According to county historian Mark Nonsteid, neither the East Brunswick Museum nor the DeVoe Library are part of the Middlesex County Office of Culture and Heritage that supports locations like Metlar House in Piscataway or the Greenway in Metuchen, Edison, and Woodbridge.  East Brunswick has to solve this problem on its own.

*Part 3 of this series will feature some elements of the historical materials housed in the DeVoe Library and their relationship to significant people and events in local and statewide history.  TAPinto East Brunswick will travel to the New Jersey State Trooper Museum in West Trenton to view the original documents that were held at the DeVoe Library.

*Part 4 of this series will describe the role of historic preservation and the arts in the ongoing redevelopment East Brunswick.

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