George Oglesby holds a piece of the USS Los Angeles, a rare Lakehurst rigid airship that didn't crash.
George Oglesby holds a piece of the USS Los Angeles, a rare Lakehurst rigid airship that didn't crash.

Hindenburg, Jersey Devil, Stuffed Dog

Field review by the editors.

Lakehurst, New Jersey

"I'm not an airship enthusiast," said George Oglesby, president of the Lakehurst Historical Museum. That's surprising, since Lakehurst is mostly known to history because of airships, specifically the Zeppelin Hindenburg that crashed in flames on May 6, 1937, less than a mile from the museum. It's also surprising because George, a spry 92 when he spoke with us, is one of the few people left alive who actually saw the Hindenburg -- or at least its charred wreckage. His grandfather, he said, drove seven-year-old George out to the crash site a few days afterward, when the airship's 800-foot-long metal skeleton lay like a blackened, collapsed whale on Lakehurst soil.

The museum occupies Lakehurst's former Roman Catholic church.
The museum occupies Lakehurst's former Roman Catholic church.

Hmmm... maybe those childhood memories explain George's lack of enthusiasm.

Surrounded by the museum's mementoes of dirigibles and blimps, George told us that he'd much rather talk about Lakehurst's history as a railroad town. We pestered him with airship questions anyway, so George explained that Lakehurst became America's first airship airport because of a large, open field just north of the city. The field had formerly been used by the U.S. Army to test World War I poison gas artillery shells on sheep ("That's not widely publicized," said George). After the war ended, it became a landing zone for airships.

Hand-carved Jersey Devil in his swampy Pinelands abode.
Hand-carved Jersey Devil in his swampy Pinelands abode.

When the Hindenburg or any other giant dirigible arrived, hundreds of men had to pull on ropes to lower the huge lighter-than-air craft to the ground. These men were mostly local day-laborers. When the Hindenburg crashed, the men pocketed some of the debris, which ended up in their Lakehurst homes, and later in the town museum.

Stuffy the Dog wears mouse-proof shoes.
Stuffy the Dog wears mouse-proof shoes.

A single showcase contains these grim souvenirs. There are charred letters, photos, a meal menu, and a flight schedule, some burned to pieces. Coins, ship's gauges, and silverware are all blackened from the fire. "We have a piece of what we know was the tail," said George, "because it's got a piece of the swastika on it. The tail fins didn't burn."

Framed paintings of the swastika-bedecked Hindenburg in flight (and in flames) hang on the museum's walls. There are models and mementoes of other dirigibles and blimps as well, most of them American versions of the German Zeppelins, from Lakehurst's 1930s heyday as the "Airship Capital of the World." Also hanging on a wall, easily missed, is a girder fragment from the USS Akron, another New Jersey airship disaster, whose crash was even more deadly than the Hindenburg's.

A quick tour of the museum reveals much that would be familiar to many local historical society collections: an old town telephone switchboard, fire department memorabilia, a showcase devoted to the trains that we didn't want to talk about, a Japanese bayonet, a model of the Lakehurst water tower made by its Cub Scouts. A miniature version of the Graf Zeppelin sits atop a large strap-iron cage that George said was the town's only jail cell until the 1940s. Some of these exhibits are colorfully illuminated by light shining through stained glass windows, because the museum occupies what was formerly Lakehurst's first Roman Catholic Church.

Graf Zeppelin model is parked atop Lakehurst's first jail cell.
Graf Zeppelin model is parked atop Lakehurst's first jail cell.

Goodyear blimp and stained glass window.
Goodyear blimp and stained glass window.

Don't let these hints of normality fool you. There are other quirky relics besides the museum's extensive collection of airship-abilia, such as a display devoted to Lakehurst's neighborhood monster, the Jersey Devil of the Pine Barrens. A photo of a skeleton assembled from bones of the Devil -- apparently there's more than one of them -- accompanies a wooden model of the creature hand-carved by Charles Cornell, a Lakehurst Historical Society member who died in 1996. The model depicts the Devil as part-dragon, part-dinosaur, happily hunkered down among stunted trees and boggy pools. "I have no idea what prompted him to make it," said George of the diorama.

Also in the museum is "Stuffy," a taxidermied Dachshund with boots on his little paws. George said that the dog was the mascot of the town's hardware store in the 1950s, and when he died his owner had him stuffed -- hence his posthumous name. The owner subsequently moved out of town, taking Stuffy with him, and when the owner died his family sent Stuffy back to Lakehurst because, according to George, "they said, 'That's where he belongs.'"

We asked: Why is Stuffy wearing little boots? George answered: "Mice ate his feet."

We told George that, while the museum does a good job of celebrating the town's railroad history, so do other museums in other towns. Lakehurst's museum, however, has Zeppelins, the Jersey Devil, and a shoe-wearing stuffed dog, a trifecta of treasures that visitors are not going to see anywhere else. "That's true," said George, who may never be enthusiastic about airships or monsters, but who recognizes their place in Lakehurst history. "I tend to remember things that are unimportant," he said. "It's only the important stuff that I forget."

Hindenburg, Jersey Devil, Stuffed Dog

Lakehurst Historical Museum

Address:
300 Center St., Lakehurst, NJ
Directions:
Lakehurst Historical Museum. East end of town, in Old St. John's Church. From NJ-70 turn south at the McDonald's onto Center St. and drive one block. You'll see the white church on the right.
Hours:
W and Su 12:30-3, or by appt. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Phone:
732-575-6904
Admission:
Donations welcome.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

InsectropolisInsectropolis, Toms River, NJ - 5 mi.
Popcorn Park ZooPopcorn Park Zoo, Forked River, NJ - 7 mi.
Family on the Half-ShellFamily on the Half-Shell, Toms River, NJ - 7 mi.
In the region:
Vietnam Era Museum & Educational Center, Holmdel, NJ - 27 mi.

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