RE Update by Peter Schneider

History Hiding in Plain Sight

RE Update – By Peter Schneider*

For those of us that were born and raised in Northern New Jersey in the late 50s and early 60s anything south of the Mason-Dixon Line seems like a world apart. Grits, Biscuits/Gravy and Hush Puppies were as exotic as Escargots from Paris or Takoyaki from Osaka. Little did I know back then, that just 100 miles south, below the “Mason-Dixon Line’ in Cumberland County, Southern New Jersey, a whole different world existed from where I grew up in the suburbs of New York City.

With international travel severely limited over the past two years, my wife and I looked closer to home and recently return from a short midweek trip into wilds of Cumberland County.

Many of us think of South Jersey as only the summer vacation getaways of Long Beach Island, Atlantic City, the Wildwoods or Cape May. But only 20 miles west of the Garden State Parkway are hidden gems of Jersey’s past. Towns like Bivalve, Port Norris and Millville along the Maurice River that empties into the Delaware Bay.

OystersBivalve (once dubbed the Oyster Capital of the World) is just 10 miles south of the New Jersey Motorsports Park and was once the hub of the booming Delaware Bay Oyster industry. The Bivalve Shipping Sheds and Wharves serve as a destination and community center, houses the Delaware Bay Museum & Folklife Center, art gallery, Oyster Cracker Cafe, gift shop and headquarters for the Bayshore Center at Bivalve. It is also the home port of NJ's official Tall Ship, the AJ Meerwald. The Meerwald was one of hundreds of oyster schooners built along South Jersey's Delaware Bay shore before the decline of the shipbuilding industry which coincided with the Great Depression.


From Bivalve oysters were shipped by the boxcars full by the Central Railroad of New Jersey (CNJ) to Jersey City Terminal and New York City. Additional destinations included major cities serviced by CNJ-operated Reading Railroad trains, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and the Lehigh Valley Railroad during various periods of CNJ 78 years of operation. Old world ‘charm’ can be found at the Oyster Cracker Café which features fresh Delaware Bay seafood and locally sourced produce from the farms of Cumberland County. Outdoor dining on covered docks, something completely different than dining in Morristown or Upper Montclair.

Just north of New Jersey Motorsports Park is Wheaton Village founded in 1888 and consists of 25 square blocks in Millville and is home to the Wheaton Industries was a long-standing famous manufacturer of glassware and ceramics products. Southern New Jersey had by that time emerged as the center of U.S. glass manufacturing because of the prevalence of natural resources such as wood and silica sand also known as ‘sugar sand’ of the New Jersey Pine Barrens. The nearby town of Glassboro in Gloucester County reflects the early history of the manufacturing of glass. Glassboro was first established in 1779 by Solomon Stanger as "Glass Works in the Woods"; glass manufacturers over the years since include Heston-Carpenter Glass Works, Olive Glass Works, Harmony Glass Works, Temperanceville Glass Works, Whitney Brothers Glass Works, Owens Bottle Company, Owens Illinois Glass Company, and Anchor Hocking.

MuralWheaton Village is home of the Museum of American Glass which houses over 7,000 pieces of glass, including a collection of glass produced by Wheaton Industries and other New Jersey glass-making companies. Exhibits include paperweights, pressed glass, cut glass, early glass, bottles, 19th-century art glass, Art Nouveau glass, modern and contemporary studio glass.


In the heart of Cumberland County is New Jersey Motorsports Park (NJMP). NJMP is located on 500 acres immediately adjacent to the Millville Airport, an airport that was dedicated in 1941 as America’s First Defense Airport which played a key role in the country’s World War II military efforts. The Millville Army Air Field opened as a gunnery school for fighter pilots for the Republic P-47 “Thunderbolt” in 1941. During its four-year existence, about 1,500 pilots received advanced P-47 Thunderbolt fighter training here. New Jersey Motorsports Park embraced this rich history by naming its marquee 2.25-mile racetrack “Thunderbolt Raceway.” The 1.9-mile road course – Lightning Raceway – is named after the P-38 Lightning, a WWII fighter aircraft. The Bore Site range, located just outside Thunderbolt Raceway Paddock was used by Thunderbolt pilots during training as a range to calibrate their machine guns.

Today, a P-47 Thunderbolt- No Guts, No Glory aircraft is based out of Millville Airport. It is one of only nine in the world that still flies.

‘In April 1939, as the Nazis expanded their hold on Europe, the U.S. Congress approved a massive increase in the U.S. military. This included the construction of 50,000 new aircraft and the establishment of new air fields for training and defense. Early in 1940, the War Department informed the city officials of Millville, Bridgeton and Vineland that the Army Air Corps, precursor to the Air Force, was interested in having an airport built in Cumberland County. The City of Millville immediately purchased 500 acres of land next to a small, grass-covered airstrip used by the members of the Millville Flying Club, a group of local aviation enthusiasts, and offered it to the Federal Government. By February 1941 construction had begun, marking Millville Army Air Field as America’s first defense airport. By the end of 1942, the Millville airport had four concrete runways, occupied over 14,000 acres of land and housed 125 single-engine fighter planes.

The Millville Army Air Field was intended to be a gunnery school for fighter pilots preparing for combat. Gunnery practice took place on a target range just south of the runways where full-scale replicas of ships, bridges, tanks, trucks and railroads would be strafed and bombed. While during the first few years of operation, the air field was home to the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, a single-engine, single-seat fighter used throughout the war, the military soon realized that it was being outperformed by Nazi Germany’s fighter aircraft. By 1943 the P-40 had been replaced at the Millville air field by the P-47 Thunderbolt, which was faster, heavier and more lethal than any single-engine fighter aircraft before it. At the height of its operations, the Millville Army Air Field was home to 64 P-47 Thunderbolts, over 1,300 enlisted men and 439 officers. Today, the modern namesake of the P-47 Thunderbolts, the A-10 Thunderbolt II “Warthog” fighter aircraft can often be seen flying over Millville on training sorties from the Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

By the time the peace treaty with Japan was signed on September 2, 1945, the Millville Army Air Field had ended its gunnery and bombing training and had been designated as a sub-base under the Dover Army Air Field Base. The following month it was placed in inactive status. During its four-year existence, more than 10,000 personnel served in Millville, and 1,500 pilots received advanced fighter training. During the war there were fourteen fatalities among the pilots, all of them training flights, and five fatalities among the ground crews in other types of accidents.

Millville Army Air Field was officially closed in November 1946. Soon after the City of Millville purchased it back including 887 acres with thirty buildings, water and sewer facilities and the airport operations facility. The gunnery range south of the runways was turned over to the State of New Jersey to be used for public hunting and fishing. Millville leased the buildings for industrial and commercial purposes and the air field is now also home to the Millville Army Air Field Museum, a non-profit organization founded in 1988 to preserve the history of the air field. The air field and its remaining buildings were designated a historic district by the State of New Jersey in 2011.’


So as you can see, history is hiding in plain sight, if you just take the time to look. So on your next trip to a Road Race or Track Night in America at NJMP, take a couple of extra days and explore the area and ‘Discover New Jersey’

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Footnote: The author would like to acknowledge the assistance of NJMP, Millville Army Air Field Museum websites and Wikipedia for source material used in this article.