For Sale: A legendary oasis in the middle of the Pine Barrens
There are no buyers yet for the general store where John McPhee once sat atop a radiator and talked to the "Chatsworth loafers."
At 70 years old, when many of her friends had long since retired, Marilyn Schmidt took on a huge, labor-intensive project: the restoration of Buzby’s Chatsworth General Store, a building dating to 1865 whose glory days as a vibrant social hub in the heart of the Pine Barrens had long since faded.
For decades, the store in Chatsworth, N.J., was the only grocery within a 10-mile radius. People who lived deep in the Pinelands, a swath of near-wilderness covering about a quarter of New Jersey, once relied on Buzby’s for kerosene, shoes, food and other essentials, along with a good measure of friendly chitchat. It was here, seated on a plank atop a radiator, that author John McPhee met the local residents who would help shape his 1967 book, The Pine Barrens.
For a brief time, the store served as the local post office and sheltered the town’s only telephone. Teachers went there to receive their pay in the form of vouchers, and hunters brought in their deer to have them hung, weighed and registered. But when Schmidt acquired the place in 1998, it had been vacant for seven years and was in such disrepair that it needed to be gutted.
With the help of local carpenters, she restored the store to its original condition, making a home for the specialty book/gift shop she’s operated there for the past 15 years. She’s also tirelessly recorded and preserved local history, becoming an “adopted Piney” in the process. But now, at 85, she’s finally ready to relax. In 2011, she put the store on the market for $575,000, but has yet to receive any viable offers.
“I keep telling people I want to retire, but they don’t seem to be letting me,” Schmidt said, with a hint of exasperation, in an interview earlier this month.
As a visitor drives the 40 miles from Philadelphia to Chatsworth, the houses thin out and the woods thicken so that the road is walled by pines on each side. Then the forest suddenly vanishes and the town, inhabited by roughly 925 people, emerges ahead, with Buzby’s at its core. Stepping into the store today is like walking into a time capsule. Photographs, some of which date to the early 1900s and hang near the cash register, show how little the building has changed. But that’s not what Schmidt saw when she bought the place.
“It looked horrible. This room here where I have the books, it was covered with moss,” she says. “You would fall through the floor in spots. The kids had broken in and were drinking and smoking upstairs so we had beer bottles, whiskey bottles. It took 30-some Dumpsters to clean up this property, but it was fun.”
She enlisted the help of Albert Morison, a local builder who specializes in restoration projects. He had grown up next door to Buzby’s and knew it well. Over the course of a year, Morison and a crew of four restored the place that he had remembered so fondly.
“It was the hub of the town, a social place. You saw everyone, young and old,” Morison says. “When I was in high school, that’s where we waited to catch the bus.”
During the renovation, older generations of residents would stop by to check on the progress. A few even helped with the restoration.
“It was great for me, being part of the town and being able to work on something that’s part of the town history,” Morison says.
Staying true to the building, Schmidt kept the candy counter that McPhee had described in his book: “A glass counter top next to the wooden one had been rubbed cloudy by hundreds of thousands of coins and pop bottles, and in the case beneath it were 22 rectangular glass dishes, each holding a different kind of penny candy.”
Schmidt even obtained a radiator topped with a specially-cut plank. McPhee had written about how “Chatsworth loafers” would take turns sitting on the radiator, sharing gossip. Since the store opened, she said McPhee has visited and noted the radiator’s presence with glee.
“Even though we’re in a preservation area controlled by the Pinelands Commission, things still change,” says Schmidt. “But this really hasn’t because I’ve preserved it. Actually, I went back to what it was originally.”
Along with selling locally made jams and other New Jersey products, Schmidt’s store boasts a sought-after collection of books on the Pinelands, including some that she’s written herself.
She says she once was a paper pusher in the pharmaceutical industry, specializing in food and drug regulations. As a private consultant, she wrote a book on pharmacology for Harper & Row, her first foray into publishing.
“I figured if they made money, so could I, and it worked out,” she says. “You can if you’re willing to work really hard.”
She lived in Barnegat Light, N.J., when she started Barnegat Light Press in 1980 and began publishing seafood cookbooks. She started Pine Barrens Press in the late 1980s.
As she was working on Exploring the Pine Barrens, which plots towns, churches, forests and memorials, she discovered there weren’t any detailed maps of the Pine Barrens, so she decided to create her own. (A large, laminated copy hangs by the cash register.) At one point, she was selling her version by the thousands.
It’s no wonder. The 1.1-million-acre tract of land is lined with poorly marked roads and plagued by weak cell-phone reception. Travelers who get lost in the remote landscape, only an hour’s drive from Center City, often stop by Buzby’s to ask for directions.
“One day I was at the counter and one of the old-timers was there. Somebody came in lost and I told them where to go. I drew them a map and they went out, and this man said to me, ‘You’re never going to be a Piney.’ I said, ‘Why not?’ He said, ‘Piney would’ve sent him in the opposite direction.’”
Through her store she’s been able to meet many older folks, who told her stories about the Pinelands. But many of them have passed away and she’s worried that the history will be lost because it has not been recorded. She’s doing her part to preserve it.
Currently, she’s writing a book about the Pine Barrens’ deer-hunting clubs, where men gather during the one-week hunting season. “You’ll see the clubs along the road and they’re disappearing,” says Schmidt. “The old-timers are dying off, the taxes are increasing, they can’t afford them and the land. And there aren’t that many young people coming into hunting these days.”
So far, she’s been able to find more than 200 of the clubs — and she’s only covered half of the Pine Barrens. “It’s hard to find these clubs. The men are secretive about them, they’re hidden back in the woods lots of times because they suffer from vandalism a great deal,” says Schmidt. “But I’m an old tax assessor. I go to the tax offices in each town because all the clubs have to pay taxes on their land. I find the clubs and they don’t know how I found them.”
Although Schmidt’s academic background is in the sciences, especially biology and chemistry, she’s acquired a knowledge of history, albeit reluctantly. “I hated history my whole life in school, detested it. … Here I am in the middle of it. I’ve had to learn history from the ground up. … I have learned a great deal, needless to say, in self-defense because I get questions here all the time,” she says.
Rather than seek out the store’s history, Schmidt has seen it pursue her. She’s acquired old receipts, photographs and documents pertaining to Buzby’s that a customer spotted in an antique shop.
Previous owners dropped by one day to give her an attaché case filled with death certificates and original documents for the store when the Buzby family bought it in 1886. Another time, when a Buzby descendant threw out old family photographs, a Chatsworth resident recovered the pictures and brought them to Schmidt.
To ensure this rich, historic collection’s preservation, she’s entrusted it to the Stockton College’s library, where it is on public view.
Schmidt took it upon herself to attend classes to learn how to file a historic-sites application. The highly detailed petition required her to learn a new, architectural vocabulary and document every minute detail of the property. She has successfully placed the general store on both the state and national Registers of Historic Places, meaning the exterior cannot be altered.
Though she has fought and won battles to preserve Buzby’s, she says she can’t keep up with the day-to-day maintenance much longer. When she retires, she wants to spend her time quilting, doing needlepoint and painting, particularly seascapes. Although she expresses this with excitement, there’s also a tinge of sadness. She’ll probably have to move out of the Pine Barrens.
“To be a real Piney here, you have to be here for at least four generations,” says Schmidt. “The rest will always be newcomers. The only reason I think I was accepted was [because] I restored the town monument and that gave me big points.”