April 9th, 1931 a telegram came through to the Denville newspaper office – collect. The news once again made the front page.
“LEWISTOWN PA, Apr. 9 – Boys return today. Two-thousand-mile round trip. Land slide rock smashes fender, none injured. Trip very adventurous. Little engine trouble. Money low. Boys in good health.”
In 1931, the United States was in the midst of the Great Depression. Two years had passed since the stock market crash, and Denville, like many other towns across the nation, was feeling the pinch. The effects of the national malaise affected the people not only fiscally, but also socially. Marriage rates fell by 3.7 percent in Morris County since the crash, as prices of new homes in Denville dropped from an average of $5,100 to $4,200 in just one year. There were two suicides reported in town in 1930 alone, with one person leaving a note on how the world had “failed him.” The room over the post office on Broadway was turned over to the Township Committee on Unemployment, with specified registration days for all unemployed and needy people of Denville seeking work or help. Herbert Hoover was President and FDR’s New Deal was still a distant idea rather than reality. To add insult to injury, the newspaper printed the names of all people on unemployment relief in town; 100 one month, another 80 another, and so on. By 1932, a family with young children was found in town by Police Chief Kinsey and sent to Dover Hospital, as it was reported they were all “near starvation.” That same year, a full-page notice appeared in the paper outlining the specific plots of land for sale in Denville, from various local citizens who lost them through failure to pay taxes.
Things looked bleak indeed, when three teenage friends from Denville, Harold Ford, Jim Miller, and Spence Roberts, not seeing any prospects for work, decided to pack a Ford, and hit the road. The story was so out of the ordinary, even for its time, that their exploits became the talk of the town. In fact, their journey was reported on the front page of the local paper throughout the duration of the trip. The 2,000-mile journey saw them visit Tennessee, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, both Virginias, and Ohio. The stories that made their way back via the telegram sure did entertain the locals that Spring – after all, they did read like a Hardy Boys novel.
Harold slept through the flat tire and was quite surprised when Jim and Spence woke him up to walk to the nearest town. They were in Kentucky, and if it wasn’t for the lack of a spare from the still unfixed flat they got a day prior, they would not have found themselves entering a one-room local courthouse while looking for a living soul that could help them. They stumbled on a trial of a medicine faker and the whole countryside, who had been “jipped,” was out to see him “done justice.” The boys reported that from the entire town, there were only six cars with the greater part of the population traveling either on donkey back or with horses and wagons – many were barefoot. When the medicine man entered the courtroom, everybody began shouting “lynch him!” When the man near them looked at them questionably and asked who they were, Jim swallowed hard and explained their predicament. The man broke out in a big smile showing a big gap in his yellow teeth. It just so happened that he owned a local shoppe and agreed to help them. The boys did not stay to see the end of the trial, but their telegram stated, “we don’t think his chances are any too good.”
On their way back, the young men stopped in Luray, Virginia for a bathroom break. It just so happened that the dirt side road they chose was directly in a path of a local gang’s hideout. One that had been committing armed robberies in the area. When Harold went to find a good bathroom spot, he returned to the car just in time to see his friends “held up by a gunman and just about to part with their money.” The young man crept up behind the robber and “wolloped him over the head with a wrench.” As one of them took the car to seek a nearby place with a telephone to call the police, the two remaining boys stayed with the criminal until help arrived. The police searched the area and found the gunman’s accomplices laying low in a nearby shack. With the local gang in jail, the boys had plenty to talk about as they proceeded on their journey.
True to their word, Harold, Jim, and Spence blew into Denville about three o’clock in the afternoon, on April 9, 1931, just as the speedometer showed 2,001 miles. “The boys are plenty tired, and inform us that Denville looks darn good, and that they hadn’t seen anything to beat it on the whole trip,” reported the paper. And so, for a few brief minutes each week, the adventures of three young men, provided an escape for local folks, albeit a small one, from the desolate reality of the Great Depression. Sometimes, we could all use a little distraction.
Peter Zablocki is a local historian and the vice-president of the Denville Historical Society in Denville, New Jersey.