How to add a posting below . . .

To add a new posting, send an email to me at with a comment, question, story, photo, observation, etc. It will be posted below, shortly after the email is received. To comment on an existing posting, click on the "comments" command below the posting and type your comment. Your comment will show up immediately.   Pete Stemmer

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Matchbooks and Muskrats

We had discussed various forms of collectibles involving Bass River history here on the Blog, including post cards and postal cancellations. Today, I'd like to show another example of a collectible that deals with Bass River history - the matchbook cover.

Though matchbooks are uncommon today, as smoking is either prohibited or discouraged in most public locations, such was not the case in earlier generations when smoking was fashionable. I can remember growing up in the 1950's and seeing newspaper, magazine, and television ads for a wide variety of cigarettes. Two prime examples were the Marlboro man and Edward R. Murrow, the first a rugged cowboy and the latter a noted and respected newsman. Many of the cigarette commercials often featured prominent Hollywood actors and actresses. The message in all these cases was the unmistakable link between smoking and success and popularity.

Many businesses took advantage of smoking's popularity to advertise their products and services on matchbook covers which were freely and liberally dispensed in an effort to increase the bottom line. Today most old matchbook covers have found their way into collectors scrapbooks or are scattered and forgotten in attics or dresser drawers. The latter is the case with today's example of a New Gretna related matchbook cover of New Gretna fur dealer, Henry Updike.

Matchbook courtesy of Harry DeVerter.

Henry lived on Allentown Road, now North Maple Avenue. He owned various pieces of meadowland on the Wading, Bass, and Mullica rivers on which he trapped or hired others to trap for him. He also bought "rats" from many of the locals who counted on Hen to purchase their harvest. Bennie Allen tells me that Hen would pay $1.00 for a good rat during the depression. That's pretty good money considering that Ben made $1.00 for working a whole day at the Bass River CCC Camp. The price rose to about $3.50 a rat just after World War II.

Howard Ware took over Hen's major skinning duties from Fred Shropshire. Howard would stop by Hens after supper and find 400 to 500 rats on the cellar floor. They had to be skinned with the meat ready to ship out the next morning. It wasn't unusual for Howard to be skinnin' well into the early morning hours. I asked Howard what he made for his long night's work. He couldn't remember the exact pay but said that "Hen always paid me fair." Howard added, " Bussie Allen took over skinnin' for Hen after I left."

Young Howard Ware, Hen Updike's nephew, trapped on Hen's meadows along the Bass and Wading rivers. He also skinned many a rat in Uncle Henry's basement. (Photo courtesy of Howard Ware.)

Many locals, including teenagers, were also hired part time to skin the rats in Henry's basement. The skins would be stretched on racks and stored in the attic to dry out before they were shipped out to a larger fur dealer, usually in New York City. Hen sold the meat for about $1.50 a pound, mostly to a meat dealer on Dock Street in Philadelphia. The bones were placed in the backyard compost heap and would later nourish the vegetable garden. Nothing went to waste!

How thrifty was Hen? His motto was waste not, want not. He even sold the hair that he clipped off his poodle every Spring. Don't ask me how he found a buyer, but if there was a buyer out there for anything, Hen would find him. I’ve heard it said that he could sell a refrigerator to an Eskimo. The man had a gift!

Hen Updike. (Photo courtesy of Howard Ware.)

Now, don't get me wrong. Hen was as honest as the day is long and a good man to have as a friend. He would give someone in need the shirt off his back, and you could take his word to the bank! He would never cheat anyone, but he always demanded what was rightly his. Ask anyone who ever picked blueberries for him. You had better top off all of your pint containers if you expected to get paid.

Elaine Allen tells the story of picking blueberries in Hen’s field with her young son, Mike (photo at right). Just when Mike thought he had a full flat picked, Hen would come along and say “Heap em higher!” After this happened a few times, Mike exclaimed, “Do you want me to heap em up to Jesus, Uncle Henry?”

Hen would patrol the blueberry rows to make sure that an errant berry didn't find it's way to the ground. He also carefully checked each flat to be sure that the pickers were not sneaking in a green berry or two. If you happened to pick a green berry you had better eat it, bitterness and all. You had no other way of getting rid of the evidence.

Hen had a heart of gold. When his sister, Sadie Updike Ware from Wading River, died leaving three young children, Hen and Minnie took in and raised Anna and Nelson Ware as if they were their own children. The third child, Howard, was raised by Hen's brother, Jim Updike in Wading River. All three speak lovingly of Hen and his wife, Minnie. Nelson presently lives in Green Bank, and Howard lives on North Maple Avenue in New Gretna. Anna passed away this past Spring.

(l-r) Anna, Howard, and Nelson Ware lost their mother, Sadie Ware, when they were young. (Photo courtesy of Howard Ware.)

Howard (left) and Nelson Ware in 1996. (Photo courtesy of Howard Ware.)

Well, we covered quite a bit of territory from that little matchbook cover. Sometimes, it's the smallest things that spark one’s memories and bring history alive.

I have another New Gretna related matchbook cover that I will unveil in next Tuesday's Blog. It comes from a fancy New York City nightclub and has a connection to a New Gretna boy and a Tuckerton girl that many of you out in the Blog-O-Sphere know. I won't mention any names now, but their initials were "S. P." and "M. M." Marriage has since changed the "M. M." to "M. P." Stay tuned!

Until then, how about all you Blog readers search through your closets, attics, and drawers for any matchbooks having to do with New Gretna. There's got to be more out there. I'm thinking that the New Gretna House, the early Bass River Marina, John's Diner, and the many gas stations might be good candidates.

Pete S


  1. Hi Pete: Are muskrats the only fur-bearing critter to be found in the NG area? There is a story in my family that my Grandfather Boot Mathis trapped enough mink to have a coat made for my Aunt Eugenia (Jeannie Magee). But cousin Peggy says it was a muskrat coat. Could it have been mink?
    Oh, BTW the horseshoe crab story was a real groaner. Were the "boys" absolutely not familiar with them? Poor innocent animals. Land mines indeed.
    Beverly Mathis Robinson

  2. Hi Pete-
    My mother, Naomi Sharp and I picked blueberries for Hen from 1947-1951. Hen was very good to me. I was a slow picker and often didn't get 50 pints a day. At the end of the hot day when I was short the 50 pints, Hen would always give me $5. for the days work. I have never forgotten his kindness to me. Another blueberry picker was Grover Sullivan who kept a lively conversation going while we picked. If by chance I accidently picked a green berry, it was quickly hid beneath the heaped straw surrounding the tall blueberry bushes. Elaine Allen was there along with Minnie in the packing shed.

  3. Forgot to sign my name on the comment. Phyllis Briggs

  4. Beverly,

    Henry Updike bought just about any animal you could trap including mink, raccoon, and beaver.

    I believe your family story about Booter trapping enough mink to make a coat. I spoke to Henry's nephew, Howard Ware, who told me that mink were rare in this area, and that he had only caught about 8 in his whole trapping career. However, Howard told me that Booter was successful in trapping mink on his meadows around Oak, or Dan's, Island and may well have trapped enough for a coat. Howard also said that a mink would fetch about $35-$40 just after World II, when muskrats were going for about $3.50. I guess your Aunt Jeannie got herself a valuable coat from Booter. I wonder if it's still in the family.

    Pete S

  5. I was talking with Howard Ware on the phone this afternoon. He agreed that Henry was thrifty and remembered that Henry would scrape the fat off the muskrat hides and sell it to a soap maker. He also sold the muskrat glands to a scent company in Philadelphia. He clearly was a maestro of merchandising! Imagine what he could do today with EBay.

    Pete S

  6. Pete: Thanks for the interesting reply. I do believe the coat is still in the family. Just which branch, I'll have to investigate.
    Beverly Mathis Robinson

  7. Hi again Pete: Different subject this time. Where was (is) the blueberry farm mentioned recently in the blog? One summer when I was about 12 or so, we spent a bit more time visiting my grandparents and as I was getting very bored, they found me a job picking blueberries in NG. To get there, I turned right out of my granparents house and walked south on the lane that eventually turned left and arrived at the main street. There I waited for the bus that took us to the farm that was just off the main street to the east. What I remember most about the experience was the case of chiggers I got. Wow, what itching. Grandmom had me bathe my feet in kerosene every night before going to bed. I also remember being told to "really heap up high" the trays. Also the barrel of cold water where the sodas were stored until lunchtime. Would this be the same farm mentioned earlier?
    Beverly Mathis Robinson

  8. I did a lot of trapping in those days, and a funny one that got the best of Hen. Alston Allen and I found a box trap floating in Bas River one day with two fairly rotten Muskrats in it. they were so bad that we had to saftey pin the tails on. Of couarse Hen wouldn't buy them, so we left with them, and threw them beside the road. Along came another, found the muskrats and of course took them to Hen. I understand the third time around he bought them for $.50 so he would never see them again.Dave K