Only one town in New Jersey — Chatsworth — was named among the “50 Best Places to Live and Play” by National Geographic Adventure magazine in its September issue. And the best time to visit this blink-and-you’re-through-it town is its annual cranberry harvest — the third largest in America — a two-day festival that draws 100,000 people each October. This year “the Capitol of the Pines” celebrates its 24th festival on Saturday and Sunday, October 20th and 21st. Net proceeds go to restore and provide maintenance for the town’s oldest building, a masterpiece of vernacular architecture, the White Horse Inn.

There is no better place to discover the people of the Pines — their stories, music, occupations, foods, and crafts, as well as the region’s sturdy beauty — than during Chatsworth’s annual Cranberry Festival. Speaking from personal experience, early festival arrival is smart. Signs clearly direct visitors to parking along Route 532 and at the school behind the municipal building on Route 563. The $5 donation is awarded to a different local charity each year — this year to fund Albert Morison’s handsome construction of the Blue Comet (celebrated local train) Display Box in the White Horse Inn’s front hall.

Fire House Breakfast is served both days from 6 to 11 a.m. Cranberry baked goods are sold in front of the inn. These goodies are the fruit of a natural partnership: Chatsworth supplies the Dutch Wagon (Pennsylvania Dutch) with cranberries, returned in the form of muffins, cookies, breads, and the like. Cranberry ice cream, from Leo’s Yum-Yum, vies with Hot Diggidy Dogs (hot dogs, hot sausage, cooked onions, cheese, relish, sauerkraut, raw onions, regular and spicy mustards, and ketchup) for the title of Festival Favorite Food. Chatsworth resident Robyn Bednar keeps her summer’s hot dog stand open just through this celebration.

Over 200 arts and crafts vendors await the 100,000 festival guests who will soon flood the tiny town, formerly known as Shamong. Musicians “Jersey Bound” will perform southern/classic rock music on Saturday and Sunday, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Niki Giberson will proffer her renowned traditional baskets on the porch of Buzby’s General Store, 3959 Route 563. Her Pine Barrens jellies and jams will be enthroned in a special festival container crafted by husband, Gary, decoy carver and memorable Mayor of Port Republic. Niki Giberson’s intensive research into Pinelands folkways has led to authentic touches such as basket handles formed of seasonally shed deer antlers. Prize-winning decoy and shorebird carvers, Ray and Barbara Nyman, will be featured on another Buzby porch. All three donate countless hours to teaching their storied crafts. Treasures created by both Nymans and Niki are available year-round inside Buzby’s. Hand-made soaps will be sold at Buzby’s — cranberry and blueberry, as well as lavender soap. The teaberry/eucalyptus soap has the scent of childhood’s colorful chewing gum.

The Antique and Classic Automobile Show will welcome over 100 spit-and-polish automobiles on Sunday, October 21, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thirty-five antique dealers specialize in articles from the inn’s heyday, accompanied by a traditional quilt display. Cranberry growers offer gleaming crates of vivid dry-harvested berries. Cranberry sauces, jams, honey, mustards, even necklaces join artifacts of yesteryear, often arrayed on cranberry-colored backgrounds. Festival committee members will be easily identified by aprons in cranberry tones. In October, in Chatsworth, there is no such thing as too many cranberries.

I recently took a tour of the interior of the White Horse Inn, whose renaissance I have watched from the outside since the late 1990s. The inn has presided at the confluence of Routes 563 and 532 for over 130 years. Lynn Giamalis, who has headed the festival committee for nearly a dozen years, foresees Opening Day sometime in 2008. This no-nonsense Chatsworth resident has worked seven years in Woodland Township’s Tax Assessor’s office, as well as serving for 24 years as animal control officer (“I don’t do bats or snakes!”). As our footsteps echo along honeyed random-width cedar floors, it becomes clear that whatever Giamalis wants around here, she gets. She is, however, quick to credit her extensive, long-term committee — and her stalwart husband, Al, whose work with festival vendors begins earlier than almost everyone’s.

Giamalis gives the impression that the inn would not look so welcoming were it not for groups of troubled youths, through an organization called Vision Quest, who removed lathe and horsehair plaster in the unheated structure. Participating weekly, winter and summer, these boys, says Giamalis, “ripped out walls and ceilings — just loved tearing out that plaster! They came here for over two years, and all we ever gave them was lunch. I never had any trouble with those boys.” If passersby now note strange lights in the building at odd hours, they will be not ghosts but vigilant policemen, braving heatless (until last year) echo-ey rooms to keep the White Horse safe.

Resurrected inside and out, upstairs and down, the inn will ultimately serve as a Community Center, with the Historical Society managing some of the space.

Renovated outside and in by Albert Morison, an artist of history and wood who admits only to the designation “carpenter,” the inn now exudes a remarkable dignity.

“Now all we have left to do is the kitchen,” says Giamalis. “The trouble is, we don’t want it to look modern.” As the structure takes on new life, objects from its past are being returned by locals. One original piece is a washstand in an upper bedroom, sporting a creamy pitcher and washbasin, backed by crisp hand towels. Furnishings of the period await in dim corners — a handmade cradle here; an embroidered tablecloth there; an iron too heavy too lift upon a restored mantel.

Festival-goers will be welcomed into a front parlor, jokingly termed “the media room,” to see videos of the cranberry harvest taking place in October’s bogs. For five years, Ocean Spray cranberry cooperative representatives, whose gathering station is slightly south on 563, led bus tours to working bogs. The festival, sad to say, has become too large and the bogs’ sand embankments too fragile to support ongoing tours.

Marilyn Schmidt rescued Buzby’s at a 1998 tax sale and had it named to the New Jersey and National Register of Historic Places (as is the inn). Thanks to her two dozen books on Pine Barrens facts, foods, and folklore, as well as a seemingly endless array of Pine Barrens words and images by others, anyone can now quest for Towns Lost But Not Forgotten.

The old folks no longer gather on cracker barrels around Buzby’s iron stove. Nonetheless, anything and everything going on in the Pine Barrens still filters through this place. Pumpkin, the orange (of course) cat, presides — proudest of having once been featured in the Times of London.

The Pine Barrens 1.1 million densely covered acres form the largest chunk of open space between Massachusetts and Virginia. At the time of the publication of John McPhee’s “The Pine Barrens” in 1967, the proposed jetport seemed inevitable. Now these secluded, beflowered acres stretch almost limitlessly above the 17-trillion-gallon Cohansey-Kirkwood aquifer. That legendary water, shipped in Pinelands Atlantic White Cedar kegs, along with the region’s wild cranberries, kept whalers alive and scurvy-free on multi-year voyages.

This trove of nature and history stretches back beyond even the Lenni Lenapes, who reported to early Europeans that Tuckerton’s shell middens — enormous ancient collections of shells, mostly but not limited to oysters — were left behind after shellfish feasts by the earliest natives, “our ancestors’ ancestors.” In 1978, the Pine Barrens region was the first in the U.S. designated as a National Reserve. In 1983, the Pinelands were named a United Nations International Biosphere Reserve. The New Jersey Pinelands Commission, an independent state/federal organization, keeps a weather eye on development. The Pinelands Preservation Alliance watches the Commission. Vigilance remains imperative.

Proud now to call themselves “Pineys,” and maintaining a website exultantly titled Piney Power, residents still do not take kindly to that description by outsiders. Psychologist Elizabeth Kite used this phrase lightly in her 1913 study. The press had a field day, and it has taken almost a century for Pine Barrens locals to get over the stigma she purportedly did not intend.

Photographs in Cranberry Festival programs reveal Piney characteristics of sturdiness and feistiness, humor wry and dry, independence and yet an intense pulling together when something so dear to the Pinelands as Chatsworth’s White Horse Inn is at stake.

The Pine Barrens steadily teach that “the journey is the destination.” In this region of bogs and berries, invisible frogs and carnivorous plants, pygmy pines and towering cedars, travelers find themselves.

Chatsworth Cranberry Festival, Saturday and Sunday, October 20 and 21, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., downtown Chatsworth, NJ. For directions visit www.cranfest.org/directions.html. More than 200 artists and crafters, Antique Row, cranberry jams/jellies, cranberry ice cream, 27 varieties of homemade fudge, wine tasting, Classic and Antique Car Show on Sunday, October 21, Chinese auction. Free. Parking at Franklin Field (on Route 532) for $5 donation. Proceeds benefit the restoration of the White Horse Inn. www.cranfest.org or 609-726-9237.

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