Jersey Reflections: Grovers Mill NowPosted:
By Vince Farinaccio
A Columnist for the Grapevine Newspaper
Grovers Mill today has few landmarks to remind of its infamy of 77 years ago.
Anyone traveling through Grovers Mill, New Jersey today might be underwhelmed by the unassuming nature of this hamlet nestled in the rural confines of West Windsor Township. The Martians that landed here 77 years ago have long since met their demise from the Earth’s germs, and the radio broadcast that carried the details of their landing has been forgotten by many of the residents here and elsewhere. But reminders of the infamous Orson Welles Mercury Theater radio show of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds are still scattered throughout the area as a vestige to the village’s claim to fame.
The site of Van Nest Park, established in 1962 near Grovers Pond, isn’t considered the actual landing site of the Martians, but it contains the story of the broadcast for anyone unfamiliar with the historic event. According to the New York Times, it took half a century after the broadcast to unveil a monument to the event:
“To mark the 50th anniversary of the faux invasion in October 1988, the town held a three-day festival with costume contests, a parade, a bike race and fireworks. At that time, a plaque depicting Orson Welles, a spaceship and frightened radio listeners was installed in Van Nest Park, next to Grovers Pond.”
More recently, through the efforts of Danny Fitzpatrick and his Eagle Scout project, a series of four plaques elevated on stands were added in 2013. Distributed along the walking path in the park, the plaques tell the tale of the broadcast from that night of October 30, 1938.
The first two, titled “War of the Worlds Broadcast” and “The October 30 Broadcast,” provide basic information about the 8 p.m. radio show hosted and narrated by Orson Welles and presented as a series of news bulletins. There is mention of the Martian capsule landing in Grovers Mill and the Martians eventually being overcome by pathogens. The third plaque contains quotes from the script while the fourth covers the international reaction to the show, reporting that “approximately six million people are believed to have heard the broadcast.” It also comments on the legend that residents shot at a water tower, mistaking it for the Martian ship.
That particular landmark, according to longtime Grovers Mill resident Tate Tantum, stands on private property near the Grovers Mill barn, a former feed store and lawnmower shop that has been transformed into a professional building. According to a New York Times article, the tower sits on the land that once belonged to the Grover family, the Hamlet’s namesake whose corn mill across the street has been reconstituted as living quarters near the water’s edge. In 1987, Catherine Shrope-Mok and her husband inherited the property. The new owners planned on removing the unsightly tower but, as Ms. Shrope-Mok told the paper, “we found out it had a long life of significance, so we stayed with it."
In 2005, the New York Times reported that, “the water tower, now covered with enough poison ivy to keep any sightseer at a distance, is the one remaining structure directly linked to the Mercury Theater program. On the night of the broadcast, a local resident, William Dock, grabbed his rabbit gun and shot at the water tank, thinking it was the aliens’ spacecraft.”
Today, the tower is hidden during the summer months by the foliage surrounding the property so that it’s impossible to view. Tantum, whose wife grew up next door to the Grover Mill and whose family has celebrated the anniversaries of the broadcast, confirms that it’s still there.
But other than the water tower and the park’s tribute, the story of this former farming community’s role in the War of the Worlds broadcast has settled into oral history here. Families like Tantum’s have preserved the lore of the 1938 panic and share it in conversations with strangers visiting the area. And there is something special about hearing from a resident that, legend has it, Welles had known a Grovers Mill family who resided in a red house that is still standing just past the park location. Many residents, on the night of October 30, 1938, fled from their homes, leaving doors wide open, to search the New Jersey night for a haven from the terror of a radio script.
SNJ Today is a Southern New Jersey news and information source based in Millville, New Jersey that is dedicated to providing current stories related specifically to South Jersey.