Every town in America has its myths, tall tales, and legends that you either dismiss or get so curious about that you spend time looking for their existence. Over the years I have run into quite a few of these myths: a Chevy Corvette junkyard, a sunken WW2 PT boat in the Passaic River, a plot of land used for target practice by Revolutionary War soldiers that has cannon balls there for the taking, a real Union army Civil War encampment, and a city park that featured a WW2 Navy Hellcat instead of swing sets.
So when I moved up to Jefferson Township, I knew there must be some hidden surprises to run after on a Saturday morning. My wife’s family has lived here for some 60 years, and at family gatherings my conversation went toward wondering if there were any hidden treasures to find.
There were always stories about the boy who went off to war, never to return, and the grieving parents who covered up their son’s 1965 Corvette Stingray convertible with only 1,000 miles on it, which still sits in their garage. One person told me a tale of a man who purchased a WW2 PT boat (like JFK’s PT-109) and had it on the lake for some years.
One day at work I was talking to my boss, who was raised in Jefferson, and he told me about an abandoned junkyard in town that had cars from the 1930s and 1940s. As a boy, he would jump the fence into the yard to look at the cars, only to be met by an old man with a double barrel shotgun. He had heard a rumor that a Duesenberg was still at this junkyard. Wow! A real Duesenberg!
For those who don’t know what a Duesenberg is, here is a very short history. Duesenberg, built in the United States, was what Rolls Royce is to England and the super-rich and famous. A little more than 1,100 were built from 1920 to 1937, and each was built specifically for a customer. The engine and chassis alone cost $8,500 to $9,500, and the completed coachwork added another $13,500 to the base model for a total cost of around $20,000 – or $285,000 in today’s dollars. The top-of-the-line model could add $25,000 to the chassis. The car weighed more than 5,000 pounds. In the 1930s, a new base Ford Model T cost about $435, with the top-of-the-line model costing $650.
It was the car for the stars, from James Cagney to Mae West; the elite of business such as John Straus (grandson and heir of Macy’s co-founders Isidor and Ida Straus, who both died on the Titanic); candy heiress Ethel Mars; the Duke of Windsor; and Al Capone. Today, comedian Jay Leno owns four Duesenbergs and is going after number five. He owns the last unrestored Duesenberg in the United States, which was once owned by the Levi Strauss family. Today’s prices on Duesenbergs range from $180,000 to $1 million for a restorable model. At a recent auction, a 1931 model went for $10.34 million. The Great Depression of 1929 bankrupted the Cord and Auburn car companies, which saved Duesenberg, and eventually closed up Duesenberg.
Like any other guy who lives in a town that supports sports like hunting and fishing, I eventually joined a club that promotes both. There I met a knowledgeable gentleman who could teach me about them. Harry Pascoe was a sportsman – fly fisherman, hunter, trap shooter, and even writer on all those subjects. He was born and raised in Jefferson Township, and lived here his whole life. Harry had recently written a book titled The Powder Monkey: The History of the Hercules Gunpowder Company in Kenvil, NJ. One day at his home, we were talking about Lake Hopatcong and I brought up the story of the missing Duesenberg.
“Hell,” Harry said, “that was my junkyard and yes, I had a Duesenberg there!”
Harry told me that the Duesenberg was owned by a family in town and he remembered riding in the big black four-door convertible when he was a kid. His dad, Charles Pascoe, who ran the yard from 1949 to 1966, took the car in to be scrapped for its metal value in the early 1960s. The junkyard was closed in 2010. Before I could ask Harry where the engine and chassis had gone, he passed away from bone cancer in 2015.
So a new mystery was created. Did Harry’s father sell the Duesenberg straight-eight engine to be put in one of the beautiful wooden boats on the lake? Is it in a farm tractor sitting in a barn? Or is it still on the site of the old junkyard? We may never know.
I am off to follow a rumor of another junkyard somewhere in south Jersey that has only old Hummers in it.