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It's All About the Pine Barrens!

Merce Ridgway Jr.
Musical Legend of the Pine Barrens


I had the privilege of meeting Merce Ridgway in 1994, at the First Pine Barrens Jamboree at Wells Mills County Park in Waretown. He had come back up from his home in Ridgway Holler in West Virginia, where he had retired to some years back, to sing his poetry, and that of his father, Merce Ridgway Sr. He was a quiet man of few words, but being in his presence was almost magical.

I have recently begun to correspond with Merce; he and his talented wife Arlene have graciously given me permission to publish an excerpt from his writings on his website:

"I have a friend, Herb Pratt, He is 86 1/2 years and plays the fiddle. He says he spends a lot of time living in the past, and asked me if I do the same? I thought about it and admitted that I do also. I have been thinking about the Pine Barrens and how much I would like to visit again the places I knew as a boy. I see them in my mind, along with my father, as we hunted and gathered wood there many years ago. How wonderful it was to drink from the streams anywhere there, and know the water was good. Sweet water always nearby, you never needed to carry water with you. I loved Deer hunting in those woods and came to know them as well as my back yard. I would like to walk those places once more before I die, but I fear that will never happen. They tell me the roads are blocked to prevent illegal dumping, and you are not allowed in those places. The population has grown so large and some many people have misused the area, that they are off limits now. We gathered the Pitch Pine as we called it to burn in the winter. Large fires that burned through the pines left standing many dead pines. As time passed the standing deadwood dried and left the center of the trees hard and pitchey. We hauled it home by the truck load to be cut up on the cross cut saw. It burned hot, you needed a good wood stove that you could shut down tight, or risk burning the house down. Now you are not allowed to gather deadwood. If caught they will take your truck and axe and fine you, how sad for the native. I remember the Blueberry's, the swampberrys grew large and sweet in the low places, but the one I liked the best were the little low blues that grew in abundance along the defunct Tuckerton railroad. There were other kinds of blueberry's, but these two types were the best for the pies mom made of them. You always payed for them with some chigger bites, but well worth the price. I wonder if you can still see Barnegat Bay and the light house from the top of the Forked River Mountains? That was a fine place to visit with the view and small fossils we would find there. Once I found a small stone container there that Dad thought might have been an Indian paint pot. We used to go as a family there for a picnic, from time to time. I never dreamed it would be closed off, I suppose that is progress. I played music a lot in my youth and folks would say, Don't you feel afraid when you have to drive across those Pine woods at night? I was always a little surprised, because that was when I felt safe, to be back in those wood's I loved so well.---Merce"

Browse through Merce's pages. It's a breath of fresh air that will take you away, however briefly, from the busy world the NJ Pine Barrens area has become!

Merce Ridgeway Jr. was the founder of Albert Music Hall in Waretown, and first president of the Pinelands Cultural Society. His Dad, Merce Sr., played in original Pinehawkers in the 1940's. Merce Jr. reformed the group in 1980 and kept his dad's music alive. You can listen to his music and download it for a nominal cost if you enjoy it as much as I do! "The Red Cedar", "The Clam Digger Song", and of course "The Pine Barrens Song" are my personal favorites.

Merce has also written a book, "The Bayman: A Life on Barnegat Bay". This should be required reading for anyone who plays on the bay, because they will gain a new respect for the rich history of the Barnegat Bay and its baymen, and perhaps understand why it's so important to take care of it. We do, after all, live in a symbiotic relationship with mother earth, and the way we give back should be taking care of her.

Through the above link, you can read excerpts of the book. Clamming, oystering, scalloping, fishing, mossing, woodcutting, trapping: these were just some of the means to a living in the Pine Barrens and on the Bay. The excerpted passages are magical; one can almost smell the Bay's mist and chill to the cold winds of winter through Merce's descriptions. Merce shares his story of life in the Pines and on the water in a simpler time. It's a beautiful story, and one that should be read by anyone who appreciates the Pine Barrens.


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