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ARGONNE PARK: Little Action in Teaneck's Wild Woods

By Howard Prosnitz, Staff Writer
Teaneck Suburbanite, October 15, 2008

Teaneck's largest park is also its least accessible.

Only about 10 percent of Argonne Park's 54 acres is set up for traditional park activities. The rest is woods.

But unlike other passive township parks, Argonne's woods are wild, trail-less and unmaintained.

The developed section is at the north end bordering Englewood Avenue and features a baseball field, two small soccer fields that are heavily used by township junior soccer league, basketball courts, a playground and tennis courts that were resurfaced in 1999 and have become one of the busiest courts in the township.

But south of the recreation area to East Forest Avenue, west to the Englewood border and east to Hubert Terrace, the park becomes a dense woodland.

In 1972, the township received a $750,000 grant from state Green Acres Funds to extend recreational facilities into the wooded area. But the council ultimately rejected the plan and returned the Green Acres money.

"It was a matching fund, and would have required the town to put up $750,000 of its own money," said George Reskakis, chair of the Parks Playgrounds and Recreation Advisory Board. "The council was not prepared to do it at the time."

The land that comprises Argonne Park and the surrounding area, like much of Teaneck in the 19th century, was farmland. The Argonne Park area was farmed by the DeFlore family.

In the 1920s the farm became the property of the Nelden Sanatorium, which was located on Nelden Road, west of the park. The sanatorium treated patients suffering from a variety of chronic physical and mental diseases. Those who were able assisted in the farm work, both to improve their health and help pay for their treatment, said township historian Larry Robertson.

The sanatorium closed in the 1930s and the vacant building was destroyed by an arson fire in 1944.

Over the years, rumors have circulated that the township has allowed the Argonne Park wilderness to remain undeveloped to set up a barricade between Teaneck and Englewood and to discourage African Americans from moving into the township.

But there is no evidence to support the rumors, said Robertson. A more probable explanation for the lack of development pertains more of geography and economics rather than discrimination.

The Argonne Park wilderness is the western extension of Overpeck Creek, and much of the interior is wetlands, Robertson said.

In the 1920s, the land was privately owned, and the landlords hoped to develop their parcels. But the Depression wiped out their dreams, and the township seized their land when they were unable to pay taxes.

Votee and Tokolka parks also owe their existence to private land on which the township foreclosed, Robertson noted.

But developing Argonne Park would have been difficult, even if the land had remained in private hands.

"Swampy areas were not developed because they were too expensive to drain," Robertson said, noting that storm drains were not introduced until the 1920s.

The park was named to commemorate local residents who died in the Battle on Argonne Forest, a decisive battler fought late in World War I in which thousands of American troops, many from New Jersey, lost their lives. Some streets bordering the park are named for Teaneck residents killed in the battle, including Schoonmaker Road, named for Capt. Stephen Schoonmaker, and Hubert Street, named for Pfc. Hubert Roch. A former street, Basil Street, which was located where the developed area of the park is today, is named for Basil Smith, another soldier killed in action.

Loraine Street, on the western edge of the park, owes its name to the Loraine region in France where the Argonne Forest is located.

The impetus for naming the park and adjoining street to memorialize the Battle of Argonne Forest and the local residents killed in it came of Wallace Beveridge, a World War I veteran. Beveridge, himself, is memorialized by Beveridge Road.

At one time, Genesee Avenue continued through the park to Englewood. But in the 1970s, the township closed the stretch because it was unoccupied, a condition that encouraged dumping. Although weeds and woods have overgrown the former street, its outline is clearly visible. A few unpowered street lamps still stand amid the woods.

Dumping remains a problem, and old refrigerators, appliances and tires occasionally trun up in the woods. But Reskakis notes that dumping has declined since the DPW has begun mowing the perimeter of the woods, which once grew curbside.

Unfortunately, dumping of a more sinister kind sometimes occurs. in 1986, the body of 23-year-old Renee Spates, of Howard Street, was found in the woods. The murder remains unsolved.

Although there are no marked trails in the woods, there are informal pathways. Board of Education President Henry Pruitt said that he has walked the park from Englewood Avenue to its southern edge.

"It is a beautiful walk. It is like walking in the Poconos," Pruitt said.

He noted that 15 years ago when he was a member of the Parks, Playground and Recreation Advisory Board he proposed establishing a trail through the park, but no action was taken.

 

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