When I worked at Grounds For Sculpture, I trained new docents. During this multi-week course, I would invite speakers to talk about various aspects of Grounds For Sculpture (GFS). One of the speakers whom I especially enjoyed was Bruce Daniels, Facilities Director/Project Manager at Grounds For Sculpture. Bruce would tell stories about his initial encounters with the organization, and how GFS has grown into what you see on a visit today. To supplement his talk, he would show rarely seen historic photos of the old Fairgrounds and the beginnings of GFS on the site. Here, in today’s blog, Bruce writes about his first visits to the New Jersey State Fair and how he came to work for Grounds For Sculpture. -Christina Ely
By Bruce Daniels, Facilities Director / Project Manager for Grounds For Sculpture
My first encounter with the New Jersey State Fairgrounds was in 1969. My parents had never taken me to the State Fair as a child, and when my girlfriend Becky heard this, she insisted that we go. She said that I had obviously had a deprived childhood, and that the State Fair was an experience that was not to be missed. I was twenty. She was seventeen. We were sort of fledgling hippies in a Princeton kind of way.
I have to say, I was more than a little apprehensive about this proposed venture to the Fairgrounds. Trenton in the late sixties seemed a cyclone of anger, instability, and racial tension. Add in an array of carnies, motor-heads, hill-rats, and the bib-overall set, and this did not sound like a place where young pseudo-hippies were going to be made to feel welcome. I was not exactly envisioning an evening in Kansas filled with carousels & cotton candy.
I arrived at the Midway with trepidation, and I was not disappointed. It was like running a gauntlet of sneers, jeers, leers, and stares. At the end of the night, I was less than inclined to return to the Fairgrounds, and I would not return again for another six years.
In 1975, I was working at the Highfields Residential Group Center in Hopewell. I had finally graduated from college (after eight years of off & on), was enrolled in graduate school (what was I thinking?), and had a full-time job working with juvenile offenders. My work schedule was constructed around my class schedule, so for a number of years I worked the Saturday night shift. I loaded up a green State of New Jersey school bus, and shepherded fifteen to twenty adolescent males out into the community for shopping and recreation, trying desperately to keep the level of terror inflicted on the local towns to a minimum. Think about managing a group of 15 to 18 year old juvenile offenders on their one night a week out in the world, and you can imagine how that usually went.
Then the assignment came to take the residents to the New Jersey State Fair. I was not exactly thrilled. And it went about as well as I anticipated. We entered through the Motor Exhibit Building.
I gathered them together under a Maple tree. “Do not leave the Fairgrounds! Do not annoy the girls. Do not get in any fights. Do not terrorize the Midway and DO NOT GET HIGH! Be back here under this Maple tree at 10:00 PM.”
Then I spent the next three hours worrying about what was going to happen. Every time I heard a loud noise, I expected to turn around and see a brawl erupting with Highfields residents at the center of the melee. I foresaw local police officers dragging a couple of my charges away in handcuffs. I anticipated running into a few of them stumbling through the crowd completely stoned. I expected to hear my name called out over the loudspeaker: “Bruce Daniels. Please report to security.”
But ten o’clock eventually came, and every last one of them straggled in under the Maple tree. Enough of my rules had apparently been followed that none of them had been arrested.
After my first two visits to the Fairgrounds, I really did not think that it could get much worse. Then came the spring of 1984. I was the newly minted Property Supervisor of the Atlantic Foundation, a job totally unrelated to my educational background, and a job for which I was totally unprepared. “We just bought twelve acres of the old State Fairgrounds, including three old exhibition buildings. It’s right behind the new Atelier site, over by Trenton. Drive over and take a look around. We want you to secure the property.”
The place was a ruin. The grass was above my knees. The buildings had been abandoned. Their windows were broken. The doors were ajar. I walked inside. There were pigeons and their droppings, everywhere. There were piles of trash and debris. People had been crowbarring off decorative tiles & terra cotta. The lakefront was a public beach.
My anxiety level skyrocketed. This time it was not just a Saturday night. This was my new job. This looked a lot like a long term relationship.
Now, nearly thirty years later, I sit here at my desk in the Motor Exhibit Building, thinking about my initial encounters with the Fairgrounds. Ghosts of the rowdy midway flicker through my brain. I look out the window at the same Maple tree that I once gathered the Highfields residents under. It’s been struck by lightning recently, and had its damaged limbs cut away. Yet the peacocks continue to roost on what remains, and the garden that I’ve helped to create moves in the evening wind.