entropic remnants photography: everything passes...everything remains...
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Signs of Life: Revelation in Remains

People and things don't last, but the mysteries of their passing can be persistent...

Signs of Life: The Old Homestead

"Childhood has its secrets and its mysteries; but who can tell or who can explain them!" -- Max Muller

Posted May 16, 2015

The Genesis of a Fascination

I grew up as a young boy just outside a very small village founded in the 1600's by Quakers. The place was (and still is) called Crosswicks, New Jersey. At the time it was a town of perhaps 300 to 500 or so people, surrounded by farms, and it was quite rural indeed.

Modern sign commemorating the village – something that was not there when I was growing up.

At some point when I was 12 or 13 years old (around 1967) I was drawn to a modest house outside of town, hidden in trees and overgrowth, that some of the local kids described as “haunted”. It was definitely not in use, the yard overgrown, and a broad open carriage house behind it filled with gloriously rusted antique bicycles. In those days, it was not so common for kids to break the windows of abandoned properties and litter it with graffiti like you almost always see these days. This place was completely intact, but long abandoned.

But more compelling was that on looking through the dirty windows, one could see the house was fully furnished – in the kitchen clean but dusty dishes were in the drainboard. Pictures were hung on the walls and throw rugs on the hardwood floor.

A mystery of a high order to the adventurous young man I was.

Main Steet in Crosswicks -- originally built on a winding Indian path.

I found an unlocked window and entered the dim environment. No ghosts met me there, or at least none of the “Hollywood style” ones – though the place was in a sense “haunted”. It was haunted by the signs of the life that had been lived there.

Rural Exploration

Back then I was photographing things with slow slide film and a very modest camera but I had no thought to photograph this place... sadly. But I did explore it thorougly taking with me only an interesting book on card tricks I found in the attic. I can still do a few of them.

But something that fascinated me was the photos on the walls. So much that I can still see them in my minds eye. In later life this experience inspired a poem of mine that opened:

Faded pictures under cloudy glass
In a hall where the light is low
Memories that recall the past
Of a place that nobody knows

People neither spoke of this place nor seemed to have any knowledge of it. It was not for sale. It was a mystery. Of the folks I asked about it I told none of them that I had been inside it.

I think this one experience was the beginning my fascination with abandoned places.

A Chance Find, The Need to Know

The opening photo in this set is from a recent find in very rural western PA where I was commissioning a propane pumping station on an NGL (natural gas liquid) pipeline system. It was located immediately adjacent to the already very out-of-the-way pumping station. I saw the house and on a morning when we were starting late I went early to see if there was anything there worth photographing – and got quite the surprise.

Not quite 100 years old.

Kids and “scrappers” (people that invade abandoned properties to steal anything worthwhile – mostly copper piping and wiring) had broken into the basement from the doorway in back of the house. But for all that the house was still full of the family's things and that is an amazing find these days.

Coming into the basement over the crumbling threshold of the broken door was immediate evidence that the home had not been “cleaned out”.

Signs of Life: Barrel of Not-So-Fun
Barrel of Not-So-Fun

The house had not one but 4 oil tanks that could hold a combined 1000+ gallons of fuel oil. This area is not in a place where you could expect to get what you needed anytime you needed it back-in-the-day – not with the kind of winters they have at that altitude.

Moving up to the first floor (carefully on the rotting treads) one was confronted with the following scene.

Signs of Life: Interview with a Spirit
Interview with a Spirit

As I set up to take this photo in what had clearly been a den, study, or light workshop; it was almost as if someone was in the chair waiting to be asked questions. It was a spooky idea but not a frightening one.

I noticed a VFW membership card on the desk with the name “Ronald L. Mathews” on it. As it turned out, that was the fellow who lived here with his wife who appear in a late portrait below.

Signs of Life: Husband and Wife
Husband and Wife

Just beyond this room was the kitchen area with things still in the cabinets and an incongruously bright umbrella on the floor. I thought about the old “saving for a rainy day” idea – somehow this scene seems to illustrate how that day came and went.

Signs of Life: After that Proverbial "Rainy Day"
After that Proverbial "Rainy Day"

The dining room was just a disaster and not really too photogenic even to my sense of composition. But just beyond the dining room was the living room with an odd and surprising element in it: dry cleaning, still in the bag, and hanging on a little rack.

Signs of Life: The Last Dry Cleaning
The Last Dry Cleaning

This item puzzled me no end. First off, it was not destroyed by anyone and people had clearly come into the place with varying agendas. Second, how was it just left in the living room to begin with and why?

A little digging revealed that the man and his wife lived there up until the 1990's. She apparently died first – something I had the other way around as I looked at the scene. An elderly neighbor from some distance down the road told me a little bit of the family's story from which I got the order of things straightened out. But that made the woman's dry cleaning in the living room even more strange.

I haven't found the wife's information out, but Ronald Mathews died in 1997 according to a notice I found in the archives of a local newspaper. His wife had died some years before according to the neighbor.

As I was scratching my head over this I showed the picture to a technician who was working with me. He's from the area and he said that it was probably some of the clothes that were selected as possible things for her to be buried in. The funeral home likely returned the items that were not selected, and Mr. Mathews never had the heart to do anything with them. One can only presume that he was more than a little depressed over his wife's passing. There's more evidence of that as well which I'll show later.

As far as it still being there unmolested, I think that it was not of value to anyone, and that it was such a strange sight that it somehow generated a certain “respect” that caused the vandals to leave it be.

The Life Story Builds

Ronald's birth year can be estimated from a certificate that he was obviously proud of that was awarded for his penmanship in the 8th grade in 1937. He was born circa 1924 or 1925 most likely. This put him at enlistment or draft age during World War II and his military service was likely done then.

Another certificate shows that after the war he studied horology (the study of time – generally involving making timepieces) and received a degree as a master watchmaker in 1949.

I'll take this opportunity to remind you that most of the photos here can be “clicked through” to see higher resolution versions on my Flickr site.

Signs of Life: Accomplishment

It also confirms his age at death was about in his mid 70's.

It's probably a logical path for a watchmaker to also become a jeweler. It appears that they had a firm called “Mathews Jewelers” and later “Mathews Cards & Jewelry” . They sponsored a ladies bowling league in the 1960's. They won the championship in the 1965-66 finals.

I saw that the spelling of the last name on the trophy was wrong. Perhaps the people who made the trophy simply erred. The official name of the business was definitely “Mathews” as seen on other documents there.

Signs of Life: Champion Pride
Champion Pride


On the second floor was the most persuasive evidence that Mr. Mathews was highly affected by his wife's death. What I found originally had me thinking that the husband must have died first – as so often happens.

The upstairs closets were mostly filled with the wife's clothes, again undisturbed by the vandals and treasure hunters – although everything else in closets or rooms has been “tossed” looking for valuables. The upstairs rooms I mostly didn't photograph as they were a total mess from being turned inside out by people.

Signs of Life: Shoes

I just find the thought of this man not having the heart to empty any of the closets of his wife's clothes, or even move the dry cleaning downstairs, both heart breaking and utterly charming. I can only hope it was to keep them as a sort of shrine and that he was not too depressed by his time alone before his own passing.

In the attic were many things including papers, various old appliances and lamps, and some old stock from the card store. Mostly things not worth photographing or perhaps too personal. There was an old Zenith radio/phonograph at the top of the attic stairs – a quite heavy piece.

Signs of Life: At the Zenith
At the Zenith

Final Thoughts

After just under two hours in the house, I had already gleaned quite a bit about who lived there. Normally places like this are empty or so disturbed that one doesn't learn a lot.

An elderly neighbor down the road whom I ran across driving to the pumping station one day (he was walking his dog) told me a little bit about the place. He was the one who had boarded it up after it was broken into the first time, though he has not gone back to fix the door in the basement that was broken in (and was my entry point).

I told him I'd been in there and what I'd found and he told me that Ronald and his wife had two boys. After Ronald's death, one of the sons brought around a trailer and hauled off Ronald's tools and I'm presuming most of his clothes perhaps. Other than that he left the house as it was. Both the brothers live hundreds of miles from the house; one in another state entirely quite far away.

After the first break-in through the front door, he called one of the brothers and asked about securing the house and the man said he didn't care. The neighbor boarded it up at his own expense just because it seemed the right thing to do. But since then neither brother has come to inspect or secure the property, and it apparently hasn't been offered for sale – although the surrounding land was sold to a pipeline company for a very high price per acre.

He also told me that my read of the timeline was wrong: that the wife had died first some years before Ronald – though I didn't learn how many years before.

Personally, I find the attitude of the two brothers towards their parents home where they grew up a little strange and perhaps callous. But I don't know, and don't need to know, what went on in that family or why things turned out the way they did. Sometimes as a story starts to come together you realize it perhaps isn't appropriate to look any deeper. Maybe what I've done already is not considered appropriate by some.

But I do hope the reasons for the observed outcome do not bode ill for anyone involved and I hope the Mathews rest in peace.

One lives in the hope of becoming a memory.” – Antonio Porchia

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