Because I have ADD, I like to do an occassional book review to go along with all the hiking, backpacking, canoeing, camping, history, and national park write ups (along with other assorted nonsense) that I do for this esteemed website. Today’s book is William J. Lewis’s New Jersey’s Lost Piney Culture, which came out last month. I’m not particularly good at writing reviews, so in case it wasn’t clear in the review below – I really enjoyed this book!
New Jersey’s Lost Piney Culture by William J Lewis
The History Press – 2021
First time author William Lewis decided to tackle the question – what is a Piney?
This is not an easy topic to take on. To too many in New Jersey, a Piney is some combination of a backwoods yokels and dangerous degenerates, a more local variety of the plot of Deliverance. Lewis traces this ugly stereotype back to its source, the 1912 hack science The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of Feeble-Mindedness. This book argued that it was bad genetics that made pineys evil, drawing “proof” from a nonsensical made-up genealogical history of a pine barrens family. In the short term, this book helped fuel the eugenics movement in the United States. In the long term, it’s created an image that is still casually tossed around in conversation across the state, and it’s not a good image.
Lewis takes a different look at pineys – as a group of hardworking individuals who supported themselves and their families by living off the land. Far from being “feeble-minded”, pineys used an encyclopedic knowledge plants in the pine barrens to eek out a living. While acknowledging that this way of life has passed, Lewis preserves a slice of it as walks the reader through the cycles of collecting, using information gathered from interviewing those that lived by those cycles. He didn’t have to look far to start his research, as his own family were involved in making money this way, and Lewis himself made some money this way before going into the Marine Corp. He takes the reader on this journey with a sense of celebration about this way of life, honoring those who worked hard to support their families. He also takes an honest look at its downfall and the reasons behind it, including the modern environmental movement and how it impacted Pineys.
He also also takes a look at how “piney” has reclaimed by those who live in the pines. As the bumper stickers say – “Proud to be a Piney, from my nose down to my hiney.” He lays out the many kinds of Pineys that inhabit the pines today, all with a sense of humor.
The gem of this book is probably the sections detailing the remarkable life of John Richardson. To keep it short and sweet – John built a small family business into a powerhouse wholesaler for pieces for dried floral arrangements. Along the way, he put hundreds of families in the pines to work collecting for him.
While there are many books about the pine barrens dealing with its unique ecology, its early history as an iron manufacturing area, its ghost towns, and even some of the earlier piney industries (like charcoaling), this is the first book I’ve read that directly tackles the last 100 years of Pineys. It’s a lot more fun a book that this review might let on (keep going after that early chapter on the Kallikak era), even it tackles some hard questions. You might not agree with the whole argument Lewis puts out, but you’ll certainly learn a lot and see Pineys in a much different way that the old stereotype. Looking forward to more books from the author!
This book is available to buy online or directly from the author. Check out the Facebook group or find out how to get the book directly from the author at https://www.facebook.com/pineytribe/
You got the statement wrong, at least that on the t-shirt: “I’m a Piney from the head to the hiney”.