Book review by John R. Barrows
By Randall Gabrielan
The History Press, 2021
$21.99 160 pages
Perhaps the very first history book to speak nostalgically about a special region that became thought of as “lost” was a poem published in 1667. While technically a work of fiction, John Milton’s Paradise Lost is at least likely to be the first to use the word “lost” to characterize a special place no longer extant or available.
As veteran historian and author Randall Gabrielan points out in the forward to his newest book, Lost Monmouth County, the words “gone” and “vanished” are common synonyms for “lost.” But publishers like The History Press (THP) know what John Milton knew, which is that the notion of things being “lost” is a much more powerful sentiment compared with things that vanish, or are simply gone. Perhaps this explains why THP, one of the foremost publishers of regional history books in the United States, currently offers well over 100 different titles using the word “lost,” while only about ten speak to things that have “vanished,” or are “vanishing,” and only four reflect on what is “gone.”
The power of the word “lost” lies in the deeper connotations that attend things that have been lost. Things that vanish are typically a source of mystery; ships in the Bermuda Triangle are rarely lost, but they do sometimes vanish. When something is gone, that usually has a sense of permanence, while things that are lost sometimes turn up again, or can be found, even if they did simply vanish, and even if they are very much gone. There is something forlorn about what is lost, while one tends to be resigned to accept what is gone.
John Milton aside, the use of the construct “Lost City X” has been in use for many years. Randall Gabrielan said, “The first ‘Lost’ title that I found compelling is the 1963 Nathan Silver Lost New York (Houghton Mifflin, New York, N.Y.). It is the first book in my regional history collection, acquired before I ever imagined becoming a collector of regional history.”
Since then, a number of publishers have latched on to this and have produced literally hundreds of such titles, with formats ranging from coffee table hardcovers to trade paperbacks. Virtually every major city in America has a “Lost City X” book, from Lost New York and Lost Los Angeles all the way to Lost Southborough, which is a suburb of Worcester, Massachusetts, with a current population estimated at about 10,000.
With all of the many historians and authors who have written about Monmouth County history over the years – there is even a history book about Monmouth County historians – it’s a bit surprising that we have not had a “lost” book of our own, until now. But fortunately, this one is well worth the wait.
Not all history books that look at what has been lost are focused on a city or region, there are books about lost restaurants, lost circuses, lost ballparks, and so on. But what all of these books have in common is that, for the most part, they focus on structures, physical structures, i.e., buildings.
And this is true of Lost Monmouth County as well. Mr. Gabrielan’s book is divided into six categorized chapters: businesses, transportation, military installations, residences (“Domestic Life”), leisure & recreation, and public life. Within each of these chapters are a series of different examples of the most compelling things, places, and structures that once were commonplace and important aspects of daily life, and are now relegated to memories.
For example, the opening chapter on business has ten entries. The author relates ten very different types of lost businesses or business-related structures, from a uniform factory to a flower and garden nursery, and from the oldest distilleries to a migrant labor camp. This approach doubtless omits some very important business structures of similar types, but the author is up front that this is not intended to be a complete list.
Mr. Gabrielan’s stated intent is not to recapture everything lost in Monmouth County history, but rather, to show how the dynamics of progress, of change, of evolution, and time, all produce endless lifetimes of change, so much change that so much of what finally disappears from view, or becomes run down and useless, is considered lost, and becomes forgotten over time.
The author said that his process for choosing the topics to include in this book included “compelling history, a need to correct and supplement the existing historical record, countywide representation, some nostalgic items with a likely popular resonance, and a few that represented substantial transformation after the loss of original purpose, e.g. Eisner’s to the Galleria and Jersey Homesteads resettlement to a suburban residential community. I consciously omitted what some subjects that have been extensively covered, e.g. Shadow Lawn (the West Long Branch Guggenheim mansion that was Woodrow Wilson’s summer White House). A couple of subjects are rather unpleasant, e.g., the poor farm and migrant labor camps, a needed reminder that history is not always pretty, appealing, or nice.”
Many books published using the “Lost City X” title are largely then-and-now picture books, and the author is well-known for his extensive personal collection of historical images, which have formed the basis for a number of his previous books, of which there are more than 30 all told.
But while this book is illustrated, with images from the author’s collection and elsewhere, images not commonly found elsewhere, it is not a picture book. This is a very thoughtful collection of essays that all focus on the processes of change and the relentless march of progress in a region that has been evolving for more than 400 years.
The author is to be commended for including within the limited space allowed by the publishers a full list of sources used for each story, making this a valuable resource for history students and researchers, in addition to both those who enjoy a serious take on history as well as those who simply like to dwell on the vagaries of our long-gone past.
Mr. Gabrielan is also to be saluted for including one lost structure that is wholly human in nature, and not a building. This is somewhat curious in that the majority of items in this book vanished, were gone, or lost, many decades ago, he reflects on the decision made in 2020 by Monmouth County elected officials to change their name from “chosen freeholders” to “county commissioners,” how and why they came to be known as such, and why the old name was invited to get lost. It’s just one page out of 160, but its inclusion demonstrates both that change is a constant, and that this was a change the author considered long overdue, although he noted that this was not a popular move with the actual freeholders.
Mr. Gabrielan’s writing style is conversational, accessible, so while there are no wasted words, this book is a fun read perfect for the train or the beach. Serious students of history will want to own a copy as it will serve as a useful reference work for years to come. To whatever extend the vanished portions of old Monmouth County are gone, with this wonderful new book, they are found once again.
About the author:
Randall Gabrielan began his second career as a local historian during the 1980s while engaged as an insurance broker, a spell during which he wrote articles, delivered his first talks, mounted museum exhibitions and began a long tenure as president of the Middletown Township Historical Society. In the 1990s, Gabrielan published the first of his many books, titles primarily on Monmouth County subjects, but also elsewhere in New Jersey and New York City. In 2000, he began a thirteen-year run as executive director of the Monmouth County Historical Commission, a body he now serves as vice-chair. Gabrielan and his wife, Carol Stout, live in Middletown.
John R. Barrows is founder and editor of MonmouthTimeline.org, a website that presents the illustrated history of Monmouth County, New Jersey.