Friday was one of those late Summer afternoons where the sun is a blazing ball of light hanging in a mostly blue sky, warm enough to casually dress in a mostly cotton outfit, yet accented with a breeze that warrants wearing tights. Or I just don’t like showing off my legs and was hesitant about rocking my new high-low skirt purchased from Wal*Mart some weeks ago. As usual, the destination was selected by searching the map for towns within a half hour driving distance and seeing what sort of attractions they offer. To me this is one of the best ways to discover new places and all of the hidden treasures many people overlook when passing through, and it as constant joy to be able to take in these sights for the first time with my husband.
We drove along familiar highways though the towns were unknown to us, filled with mostly trees and farmland occasionally accented with a cluster of houses. There were plenty of abandoned buildings, testaments to the way things had been when traffic rolled past at a steady place and their services were useful. Now they sit quietly, staring at the roads with busted out windows that either eerily empty or covered in wooden boards, neglected lawns overgrown as vines, bushes and trees slowly surround decaying structures. Many of them are former businesses, surely popular in their heyday but no longer needed, they become forgotten and generally ignored by those who drive by without giving them a second look. There were a few neighborhoods where forclosed homes with lot numbers spray-painted on the exteriors were just a few blocks from recently built developments where prices start in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for a townhouse that has zero personality.
Arriving in Pitman, we parked in the free municipal lot and strolled down the sidewalk to see the Broadway Theatre, originally opened in 1926 as an operating movie and vaudeville theater created in a French revival motif that fills the space with plenty of architectural opulence. While I would have liked to view the interior, I doubt they give free tours and there may have been a play going on, but standing in front of a building that is nearly 90 years old was pretty cool in and of itself. From there we wandered into Pitman Grove, following the signs that pointed towards the Historical Society as I pointed out all of the lovely houses. At one point, they were small structures set along a narrow path with even smaller alleyways between them, set in a circle surrounding what appeared to be a church or some sort of social center. Each one had its own unique details, the color schemes complimenting lattice-work and the carved wooden accents that made them stand out from the other homes. The Historical Society was closed, so we walked back toward the parking lot, stopping in a few shops before making our departure.
We rolled down to Alcyon Park where we did more walking, following a path that brought us to the side of a lake and around to the athletic fields. There was a group of people at one of the picnic pavilion’s having what looked like a party and a few others also jogging the path that wound around the whole park, but there was still plenty of space for us to enjoy ourselves. By then the sun let me know just how warm it was, so I suggested we walk by the sprinklers on the way back to the Jeep. The cooling mist was exactly what I needed, and with hunger slowly building in my belly, it was time for us to shake some dust.
However, we became distracted by the stone monument that sat outside the fields, which commemorated a number of sports which had taken place there. If we had parked in a different spot, we probably would have never seen it and taken the park as one of those that was more about recreation than hiking trails. Upon inspecting the inscriptions, we learned there had been sanctioned auto races that date back to the early 1900’s. This piqued our curiosity, and so we did some Google investigating when we returned.
Some highlights about Alcyon Speedway include the fact it was a 1/2 mile track with five turns, the prevalence of harness racing from the 1920’s until 1935, high school football and baseball games during the 1930’s and 40’s, at which point thrill shows became popular and drew in big name drivers from the Midwest and Northeast. Then things started going downhill as the last harness race was held in the early part of the 1940’s, and the ban on use of rubber tires and gasoline in the thrill shows during World War II reduced the number of events there. As the decade came to a close, the first stock car race was held at the speedway, and the next ten years saw drivers come from as far away as Florida to showcase their skills in Alcyon. In fact, it is noted that many of NASCAR’s popular and most successful drivers chose it as one of their tops spots for racing in the Northeast, and even the Women’s Stock Car Auto Racing Association held their first “Dollie Derby” on that track.
Though the future of the speedway seemed promising, Alcyon was purchased and then closed by the owner of Vineland Speedway in the hopes of drawing dedicated dirt racing fans to the paved track. The lease on that speedway was lost in 1965, which brought stock car racing to an end in South Jersey up until Bridgeport Speedway opened in 1972. My father-in-law remembers going to races every weekend when he was younger, and I know I have read stories about other speedways that were once scattered across the Garden State. It is sad that these pieces of history become replaced, but I am always grateful to have the opportunity to learn about something new and find yet another reason to love being a Jersey Girl.