Middlesex County in New Jersey covers over 322 square miles. With over 820,000 residents, it is the state’s second-most populous county. It is home to a world-renowned university in Rutgers, and is also the location of the headquarters of pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson. Among the numerous people who have called Middlesex County home are actress Susan Sarandon, illusionist David Copperfield, author Janet Evanovich, former NFL quarterback Joe Theismann, current Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, and rock musician Jon Bon Jovi (via
Wikipedia, My Central Jersey, and nj.com).
However, on a hot summer day in mid-August, I learned that Middlesex County is also home to some really cool, hidden, and flat-out strange tourist sites. This summer the county government is running a scavenger hunt of sites big and small throughout its twenty-three towns, boroughs, and cities: The
Middlesex County Quest! My wife saw an ad for the Quest online, and suggested I try to get to at least a few of the fifty-seven recommended stops along the trail. So despite the heat and humidity, I set out to see what Middlesex has to offer… and I had quite the adventure in the process!
As always, though, a few updates are in order before we begin:
My wife and I recently spent yet another weekend in Cape May. This summer we’ve joyfully been a couple of beach bums!
On the way home, after stopping again for lunch at Lucille’s Country Cooking in the Pine Barrens, we saw a sign for Laurita Winery. We decided to detour and check it out. Expecting a small operation, we were blown away by the sheer scale of the vineyard – it was huge!
The winery is comprised of two 150-year old barns that were saved from demolition when the owners of Laurita decided to take them apart and use them to construct this building.
Opening in 2003, Laurita produces over 14,000 bottles of wine each year. The winery plays host to weddings, live music, cultural events, and even art installations.
We decided to indulge ourselves in a wine tasting, and Laurita is one of the best wineries we’ve visited in the state of New Jersey. If you’re driving near the town of New Egypt, it is definitely worth a stop!
And a quick automotive update: “The family that Nokians together…” After hearing me rave about Nokian tires for years, my Dad fitted a set of the newest WR G4 tires onto his 2015 Honda Accord sedan. Good choice!
New tires all around! Dad found a great sale on Nokian tires, getting a phenomenal deal at Mavis Discount Tire. I had planned to replace the old WR G3 tires on my Accord before the winter, but with the sale price knocking several hundred dollars off the final cost, I took the plunge as well.
Nokian WR G4 tires are classified as “all-weather,” not “all-season.” All-season tires harden and freeze when temperatures drop below 40 degrees. This hardening leads to a loss of traction, such as sliding through snowy intersections or being unable to climb icy hills. All-weather tires are designed to stay soft and flexible even in the coldest weather, helping to maintain adequate traction. My Accord is now ready for winter!
And now… onto the Middlesex County Quest!
Middlesex County is located in central New Jersey. My adventure would take me from the north of the county all the way to its southern border. The World’s Largest Light Bulb
Located in the town of Edison, the Thomas Alva Edison Memorial Tower and Museum was built in 1938 to honor the famous inventor. The “World’s Largest Light Bulb,” fourteen feet tall, sits atop the 131-foot tower.
While I toured Thomas Edison’s laboratory in West Orange last summer, Menlo Park was the location of his original lab where some of his most important discoveries were made.
Here Edison invented both the incandescent light bulb and recorded sound. A small museum is open Thursdays through Saturdays from 10:00 am until 4:00 pm.
All right, one stop down… fifty-six to go! Light Dispelling Darkness Fountain
A few miles away from the Edison Memorial Tower is this sculpture fountain, also created in 1938. “Light Dispelling Darkness” was commissioned by a Works Progress Administration (WPA) artist, Waylande Gregory. The WPA was a government program to reduce the unemployment levels during the Great Depression – at its worst, fully 25% of the United States’ population was without a job during that economic catastrophe.
The top of the sculpture presents the “good” of society – farmers, builders, scientists, and technological advancement.
Fleeing from the “good” of society are its evils – the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse surround the fountain’s base.
This horseman is Death, fleeing from the light of the fountain.
These five heads, also fleeing the light, represent Materialism. The fountain, located in Roosevelt Park, is a fascinating work of art, and I’d highly recommend a detour to check it out! You can also read more about it through this article. Okay, that’s two sites! Only fifty-five left… The Three Stooges Tombstone
The next stop was to a cemetery in the town of Metuchen. Why a cemetery? Well, there is definitely something unusual about the tombstone on the lower right.
“Why I oughta…” Before James Bechtold, a longtime Metuchen firefighter, passed away, he commissioned this headstone for his grave. If you can’t tell, he was quite the fan of the Three Stooges. The tombstone says, “Laugh, don’t weep. It feels better!” The tombstone is located in Hillside Cemetery. And with this stop, I’ve checked off three stops on my scavenger hunt! The Parking Lot Gravesite.
My next stop took me to… a movie theater? It is here that I learned the story of Mary Ellis and the parking lot grave. That’s a strange plot of ground on the right…
There, on the top of this plot, is a tombstone. Mary Ellis was a resident of New Brunswick, NJ in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Legend has it that a sea captain promised to marry her, but he never returned, and she would come to this spot (which once overlooked the Raritan River) to watch for him. She, along with several members of her family, are buried here.
While the gravesite originally was located on the family’s farm, the land here was sold several times, and commercial development over the years has ended up with the grave now located in the middle of a movie theater parking lot! Fascinating! Okay, four sites down… how many more to go? Butterfly Park
My next destination took me to East Brunswick, and a small county park with a unique feature. From the parking lot, however, it didn’t seem that special.
Venture into the tree line and you encounter Butterfly Park, which is home to over 50 species of butterflies.
I began walking through the small park, but my enthusiasm waned as the heat and humidity began to affect me. It was HOT. I was HOT. But as I was just about to turn around and leave, nature decided to give me a little show…
This monarch butterfly landed nearby and didn’t move as I began to take her photo.
I’m pretty sure the butterfly was showing off… I was able to take about twenty photos of her before she flew off to her next destination. This is my favorite shot… and yes, despite the heat, this park was well worth it! Okay, five stops down! Elsie the Cow
My next destination took me to a residential neighborhood in the southern end of Middlesex County. I parked at the end of a street and began my search for the next site.
About thirty yards from the end of the road was this small gazebo and a tombstone, erected to commemorate the life of a cow. But not just any cow. This is the grave of Elsie the Cow.
Like the Michelin Man, the Energizer Bunny, and the Marlboro Man, there was once Elsie the Cow. Created as the icon of Borden Milk, Elsie is still featured on the company’s logo. When Borden needed a live cow to star as Elsie at fairs, a Jersey cow named You’ll Do Lobelia was chosen. You can read more about this quirky story at RoadsideAmerica. I’ll be honest, though… while I appreciate Elsie (New Jersey has a large dairy industry – the state produces approximately 120 million gallons of milk per year), the site was a little underwhelming. Fortunately, there was another site nearby, not on the Middlesex Quest, that helped to make the trip more worthwhile.
Only a few miles from Elsie’s tombstone, Van Nest Park in Grover’s Mill has a history of extraterrestrial importance…
On October 30, 1938, The War of the Worlds, a science fiction novel by H.G. Wells, was adapted as a radio play. Produced by actor and director Orson Welles, the story of a Martian invasion was broadcast as a news program, as if the Martians were actually invading. Despite numerous disclaimers throughout the broadcast, many listeners believed the invasion was real.
“I have been requested by the governor of New Jersey to place the counties of Mercer and Middlesex… under martial law.” Signs throughout the park tell the story of Welles’ radio play, along with the real-world reactions to it.
So real was the radio broadcast that, according to some sources, local Grover’s Mill residents shot up a nearby water tower, thinking it was a Martian spacecraft. The town has certainly embraced this moment in its history! Milltown Ice Cream Depot
And after a long, hot day outside, I was thrilled to reach my final destination for the trip: Milltown Ice Cream Depot!
With temperatures in the mid-90s and high humidity, it felt great to sit in the air conditioned ice cream parlor and enjoy a cup of cookies and cream! The Ice Cream Depot has been in business for over 25 years and is located on Main Street in Milltown, NJ.
Back home after a long day, and the Accord is now well past 136,000 miles on the odometer. Fortunately, the Accord’s A/C kept me cool on a summer day, and delivered me to each destination comfortably.
Seven destinations out of fifty-seven possible stops isn’t bad in one day. Certainly, the Middlesex County Quest requires several trips to complete. The Quest runs until September 15 of this year, and you can complete it in teams of up to five people. Everyone who completes the Quest receives a free T-shirt, and teams that complete the Quest enter the grand prize drawing: a free round of golf and tickets to a show at the New Jersey State Theater! You can read more about it on the Middlesex Quest
website, where you can also download an informational brochure.
While not every site I visited would be worth an individual trip, the Quest certainly encourages you to explore locations you might not otherwise see. While sites like the tombstone of Elsie the Cow are only worthy of a quick stop, other sites such as the “Light Dispelling Darkness” fountain are worth spending significant time visiting. If you live in New Jersey and are looking for a fun, family-friendly activity for the last few weeks of summer, the Middlesex County Quest is worth a try!
Thanks for coming along on another journey down the open road ahead!
‘Til next time.