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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Joe Blees and the Brooklyn Connection

Clif Brown mentioned Joe Blees in his Sunday, July 12th Blog post.

In '38/'39 The White Oak Inn was occupied by Mr. Joseph Blees who was a Real Estate Agent and the local Justice of the Peace. He was Commander of the Tuckerton American Legion Post and was instrumental in establishing a First Aid squad to serve the area. I remember him speaking at the New Gretna Grammar School soliciting contributions of food, clothing, etc. for the victims of the Johnstown, PA 1936 flood. In 1946 I returned from service in the Army, and he had moved or past away. Clif

Over the years, Joe's name would pop up in conversations I had with New Gretna old timers. Although, I never heard a great deal of personnel information about him, it was obvious from the few stories I heard that he was, indeed, quite a character. Somehow, I never took the time or made the effort to find out more information about Joe. Today's Blog entry is an attempt to do that.

Tracking down information on an ancestor, or other person from the past, involves good old fashioned detective work. It's one of the things that I enjoy about genealogy. Why be an vicarious observer, watching "Cold Case" or some other investigative show on television when you can join the hunt and have the thrill of solving a mystery yourself? It's exciting to see someone's life unfolding before you. As Sherlock Holmes said to Watson, "The game is a foot!"

Each detective has his, or her, own approach to solving a case. The same is also true of genealogists. I've found, over the years, that it is, often, helpful to start the hunt with birth and death dates. They are the bookends which frame each person's life. They allow us to narrow our focus and to help verify we are gathering information on the correct individual. It's surprising how many people have the same names, and it is not unusual to mistakenly collect some information on the wrong person. Birth and death dates help us to filter out this faulty information.

Shirley Whealton, a good genealogy buddy, has been clipping area obituaries for over thirty years. During the last four years, we've been adding to this collection by gathering obituaries from old newspapers, scanning them into a computer, and entering them into a computer data base. We now have over 5,000 in the collection. Hopefully, we'll be posting an index of these obituaries on the Bass River History Web Site. It's a valuable resource that proved a good start on my hunt for information on Joe Blees.

I was able to find Joe Blees' obituary in our data base. It provided some key information to begin my investigation and to filter other information as it is uncovered. It also verified some of the information in Clif's July 12th Blog entry.

Tuckerton Beacon

Joe Blees died on July 4, 1972 in an East Orange Veteran's hospital at age 76. Simple math tells us that would make his birth year 1896. The mention that Joe had a brother and sister on Long Island suggests there may be a New York connection in Joe's life, and the statement that he was buried in Greenwood Cemetery, Tuckerton made my next move obvious. A trip to Greenwood Cemetery on North Green Street to photograph the gravestone was clearly in order.

The gravestone verified the death date in the obituary, gave me Joe's birth date (April 19, 1896), and confirmed Joe's veteran's status as a private in World War I. While I was at Joe's graveside, I looked around at the adjacent graves to see if there were any obvious relatives buried nearby that would provide some information. The surrounding tombstones showed no obvious connection to Joe, and the few empty graves to his right were no help. I was hoping to find Joe's wife buried next to him and pick up some information on her. I guess she wasn't buried with him.

The obituary mentioned that funeral arrangements were made through the Woods Funeral Home in Tuckerton. Fortunately, I was able to find some notes in my files from the funeral home records. Joe was listed as "Joseph R. Blees, Jr." His parents were "Joseph Blees, Sr. and Anna Kuster" with a birth date of April 9, 1896 Brooklyn, New York. The New York possible connection in the obituary was confirmed. Finally, Joe's wife was listed as "Bertha Blees" which agreed with the obituary. I hit pay dirt!

More good news popped up when I noticed that I also had the Woods' funeral records for Bertha Blees in my files. She was born in New York on July 21, 1904, died on September 2, 1981, and was buried in Greenwood Cemetery, Tuckerton. It would seem that the unmarked grave to the right of Joe's grave was not empty as I had assumed. It is likely that Bertha is buried there without a stone. She was alive when Joe died and provided a tombstone for him, but there was no one in the family left locally to provide a tombstone for Bertha.

Armed with the information from the obituary, tombstone, and funeral home records, I decided it was time to search the Federal Census records for traces of Joe. In the past that would have meant going to the archives in Trenton and cranking through their census microfilm; however, the internet has made census searches relatively quick and painless. An internet subscription to allowed me to log on to their census database and search for Joe in the comfort of my own home. Their annual fee is well worth it.

We first find Joe, at age 4, in the 1900 Brooklyn, New York Census living on Dresden Street with his parents, Joseph, a piano teacher, and Annie. His father was born in New York and his mother was born in Germany. He has two siblings- Richard, age 7, and Margaret, age 1.

By 1910, the family has moved to Washington Blvd., also in Brooklyn. Joe is now 14 and listed as Joseph, Jr. He has two additional siblings - Viola, age 9, and Arthur, age 6.

By 1920 the Bless family has moved to Nassau Road in Roosevelt Village, Hemstead, New York. Joe and most of the other children have moved out with only Arthur, age 16, and a new addition, William, age 5, living with their parents. Joe's father is now working in a publishing house as a sheet straightener.

I was not able to locate Joe Blees in the 1920 census; however, he appears in the 1930 census as a 27 year old painter living in Bass River Township. We do not know when he moved to Bass River, but it is likely sometime in the 1920's. His wife is listed as Ruth B., age 21. They have no children. There is some discrepancy with his wife's name, Ruth B., as listed in the census and Berta as listed in Joe's obituary and the Woods funeral records. It is probable that Ruth's middle name is Bertha which she used later in her life. The other possibility is that Joe married twice. I believe the former to be more likely.

Joe's Bass River address in the 1930 census is listed as Mathistown Road. This could cause some confusion. I believe he lived on New York Road, now Rt. 9, in the Mathistown neighborhood, and that the census taker, Eugene H. Sears, wrote the name of the neighborhood as the street name. It was the road passing through Mathistown. There was no Mathistown Road in Bass River Township. Care should be taken not to confuse the street notation with the present day Mathistown Road in Little Egg Harbor.

So, now we finally have Joe Blees living in the Mathistown area of Bass River Township. This is consistent with information I have heard from various New Gretna old timers who told me that Joe operated a gas station, sometime in the 1940's, on Rt. 9 just a stone's throw from Job's Creek. This area is commonly referred to as the Mathistown section of Bass River Township. Unfortunately, the 1940's census is not available to confirm Joe's operation of operation of a gas station, but the following advertisement from a 1940's Minstrel Show Program documents his operation of a gas station. While the advertisement does not give the street location of Joe's business, it is likely the station was located on New York Road adjacent to Job's Creek.

The above advertisement from a 1940 New Gretna Minstrel Show program documents the existence of Joe Blees' Service Station in New Gretna. The exact date of the advertisement is unknown.

A copy of Joe's 1942 Draft Card, found on, confirms his April 9, 1896 Brooklyn birth and his New York Road, now Rt. 9, address in New Gretna. It lists his wife, Ruth, as a contact person for address verification purposes. The New York Ship Building Company in Camden is listed as Joe's employer. This would not be unusual as many individuals went to work in the defense industry during the war years. It's likely that Joe lived in Camden for a time. He went where the work was. Interestingly, Joe's middle name is listed as "William" on his draft card, yet census information, his tombstone, and obituary lists his middle initial as "R".

Joe Blees' World War II Draft Card.

Clif Brown, in his July 12th Blog Posting, mentions that Joe lived at the White Oak Inn in the late 1930's. I have heard for a few old timers that Joe did live at the White Oak Inn, but were unsure exactly when. One told me that Joe operated a Speak Easy for some time at the Inn. I have been unable to verify that but believe it to be true as my source has proven reliable throughout the years. The Herintown Poet, who occasionally writes for the "Bass River Gazette", has given me a story entitled "The Incident at the White Oak Inn" in which Joe Blees is mentioned as the proprietor during prohibition. This lends credence to the old timers' claims that Joe ran a Speak Easy there. I'll be posting the Herintown Poet's heretofore unpublished White Oak Inn story in the July 18th Blog entry.

Joe Blees was also a Justice of the Peace here in New Gretna for some time, although I cannot ascertain the exact time frame of his service. I have heard an amusing story concerning Joe's approach to local justice. Seems that, occasionally, he would hold traffic court in the old Fire House on North Maple Avenue. They would set a chair on a large wooden box in the center of the floor where Joe would sit looking down on those brought before him for justice. A constable would coral out-of-town speeders who were travelling through town on their way to Atlantic City and immediately haul the offender before the honorable Justice Blees. The law breaker would be given the choice of paying an immediate fine and going quickly on their way or coming back in a few weeks for a trial. Most chose to pay up, usually in cash, and be on their way. It was obviously an early version of the "speed trap" which, I'm sure, proved lucretive to the town's treasury.

Joe would occasionally hold Traffic Court in the New Gretna Volunteer Fire Company building on North Maple Avenue. The building has since been remodeled into the present Municipal Building. (Photo courtesy of New Gretna Volunteer Fire Company.)

I have to wonder if all the money gathered in the hastily called traffic courts found its way into the Bass River coffers. More than one old timer has mentioned that Joe often "played loose" when it came to exactly following the letter of the law, and that you had better count your fingers after shaking hands with Joe. Now, I'm not suggesting that Joe did anything illegal. Perhaps, he just pocketed a little something to meet some unforeseen expenses. No one could see anything wrong in that.

Joe also served as Justice of the Peace in Tuckerton, as evidenced by the following front page article taken from the Tuckerton Beacon. He had probably moved to Tuckerton by that time. The article is somewhat vague concerning the exact offense involving his indictment, but it clearly revolved around the questionable handling of funds entrusted to his care.

Tuckerton Beacon - October 12, 1950

Joe maintained that he was not guilty but promised that he will make restitution. The State claimed embezzlements totaling $2,300. Joe claimed the total was only $700, but he was not guilty. He was on the lamb for two years, but claimed he was not guilty. Welcome to the world of Joe Blees. I have to wonder if those "half painted" houses were ever finished. Unfortunately, I was never able to find out how his legal troubles were resolved, but I believe it involved some jail time.

Well, that just about wraps up what I was able to find out about Joe Blees in the past two days. Hopefully, more information will be forthcoming in the future, especially more stories about his life in New Gretna.

Pete S

PS- Don't forget to check back on Saturday for the Herintown Poet's story involving Joe Blees and another interesting character, Hillary "Sach" Robbins, and their adventure at the White Oak Inn.

1 comment:

  1. When Sam was a teenager at the end of WWII, his parents, Samuel N. & Frances Briggs, decided to move from Leektown into the big city of New Gretna. They did not have electricity or a telephone in Leektown & New Gretna would provide these services.

    Levi Downs, realtor, showed Samuel N. Briggs a house on Bass River. Joe Blees told Sam's dad he would sell the same house to him for $400 less than Levi Downs. The house cost around $2,300. Joe Blees had his real estate office in the White Oak Inn. The real estate transaction between Briggs & Blees went smoothly.

    Sam's dad & mom sold the house to Betty & Floyd West. Later the house became the home of Mr. & Mrs. Ditche of Philadelphia. The house is next to George Kurtz on Bass River. We built the George Kurtz house.

    Phyllis & Sam Briggs