The Coopey family – parents George and Melba, sons George and Charlie, and Melba’s father, Mr. Ahrend – lived next door to my childhood home in Milltown, NJ. I lost touch with them many years ago and sadly learned only a couple of years ago that all are gone. Last year I came across a few photos of the Coopeys – the boys at school, at a couple of my birthday parties and one of the whole family and other friends at a bon voyage party – scanned and posted them to file-sharing site Flickr.
I normally use only first names in labeling photos of people that I’m in contact with. But for people that I’ve lost touch with I’ll usually include the last name with the thought that a web search will be more fruitful. That was the case with the Coopeys.
It was a thrill to receive a note from Charlie’s daughter, Addie, who found my photos at Flickr with a search for her dad’s name. She immediately contacted me and I promised to send her some memories about her dad. Since those memories are inextricably intertwined with her dad’s brother, parents, home, other family members, and the surrounding area, I decided to write a remembrance about the whole family instead of limiting it to just her dad. Perhaps other surviving family members will enjoy and appreciate it.
Unfortunately, I don’t have too many recollections about the boys. In large part I suspect that this is because we lost touch many years ago and didn’t have the benefit of recurring contact as adults to refresh those memories. That is the case with several childhood friends with whom I’m still in touch and where their memories tend to complement mine. As next-door-neighbors of similar age it is certain that we did a lot more than I can remember but then again, childhood friendships are closely tied to school grade levels. The Coopey boys were not in my grade so it is possible that we were not especially close. Whatever the case I’ll try my best to recall what I can.
As I got into writing this I realized that: 1) I’m rambling, and 2) I really don’t have a lot of specific memories about the boys. I hope that this will at least give family members an insight into the milieu in which the boys grew up even if it is long-winded and light on specifics.
The Coopeys lived next door to my house at 15 Cortlandt Street in Milltown on the side of my house toward Elkins Lane. There was one more house past the Coopeys before Elkins Lane. Some of the neighbors at the time included Steve Bittay and wife, the Kohlers, Dan and Estelle Mills and father Jim Mills (Jim was the former husband of Eleanor Mills, the victim in the Halls-Mills murder case), George and Peg Mackaronis and children George, Chris, Meg, Otto and Ada Ziegler and daughter Caroline, Hugo and Betty Stockburger and son Jimmy (Hugo was a NJ State Trooper and had a role in the trial of Bruno Hauptmann in the Lindbergh kidnapping case), and one more that may have been Liebnitzky.
Behind the Coopey house was a small patch of woods that was my favorite haunt a focal point of much of my play. While I have few recollections of playing with the boys in the woods I’m sure that we certainly did. I remember cutting trees in the woods to make a path, building a fort under one tree with a large piece of found wood, riding my bike in the woods, digging a large hole there, and I’m sure a lot more. From Elkins lane northwest toward US 1, from the back of the woods woods northeast toward US 1, and from the side of the woods southeast was a large field which, like the woods, provided endless hours of play. The field northwest from Elkins Lane was mowed grass and the location of many baseball and football games. As with the woods the boys were almost certainly involved in much of this but also like the woods I have few memories of them there. I do have a specific recollection of being in the field with the boys and their father, Mr. Coopey, who was hitting balls for us to catch.
The field on the southeast side of the woods extended behind my house to a large factory which was Personal Products division of Johnson & Johnson at the time. That field was owned by J&J but cultivated and harvested by the Rutgers ag school. I remember horse corn growing there for a while. That provided a source of corn for throwing at windows on Mischief Night, the evening before Halloween in NJ. Way out in the field was a small brick building only a few feet high that my friends and I referred to as the hot house. I learned later, during an eighth-grade field trip to Personal Products, that the building provided access to a tunnel that ran between Personal Products and other J&J buildings on the other side of US 1, probably Ethicon Sutures and Permacel Tape. The tunnel had pipes that delivered steam from the power plant at Personal Products. Thus the building was quite warm and provided an ideal place to dry the corn quickly. While I have no specific recollections of the boys involvement there is a good chance that they were involved as it was part of the local culture. I also remember using the building as a blast shield. With friends, possibly the Coopeys, I would ignite a very small pile of material with a 22 shell inside. The heat would set off the 22 but the building contained head of the bullet and the shrapnel from the casing. In hindsight, this, and many other activities during my explosives phase were quite foolish but I luckily survived with no injuries.
An explosives phase is something akin to fart jokes. People either get it and nod their head in knowing approval or they don’t and look at you with a blank stare of bewilderment. I worked in a technical environment with engineers and scientists, many of whom went through their own explosives phase and got it. But not all did, and certainly few of my non-technical friends got it. As part of that explosives phase I built a small proving ground in my back yard, an area secured with a log fence in which I would set off my home made explosives and rockets. Sadly, I never did quite get it right – my explosives took off like rockets and my rockets exploded. While I don’t remember the Coopey boys participating in my experiments they almost certainly did as they were so close and would have been curious if not directly involved.
I also remember wheat growing in the field for several years as well as barley. The barley wasn’t interesting but the wheat, being quite tall, relative to the height of a small boy, and with brittle stalks, was ideal for making paths and mazes. I remember developing a technique with a stick for such. One or two of us would hold the stick horizontally in front of us, push it against the vertical wheat stalks, lean forward pushing the wheat to the ground, stand up, move forward and repeat the process. In hindsight, this probably wasn’t appreciated very much by the Rutgers ag school staff. But then again, if the wheat was near harvest and the harvesting machine could pick it up from the ground then likely very little was wasted. The harvesting operation for some of the crops, I’m not sure if it was the wheat, barley, or something else, included making bales of the harvested material or maybe waste products of the harvest. Whatever the case the bales were quite large and made great building blocks for the construction of huts, forts, and more. The machine would drop the bale as soon as it accumulated enough material to make one. As a result, the bales were scattered individually all over the field. We would gather the bales together for our projects from where they were dropped. While our mazes may not have been appreciated, by collecting the bales together we actually saved the ag schools staff time as many were now in one place, making it easier for pick up.
My close friend and former neighbor in Milltown, George Mackaronis, reminded me of one more event in the field. When the ag school came to pick up the hay bales, they drove a tractor pulling a large trailer to load and store the bales. The trailer sides were made of some type of corrugated sheet metal and formed a perfect target for a BB gun. George claims I shot my BB gun at the trailer, hitting the side with a loud noise. He said that the tractor stopped, the workers jumped off looking for the origin of the sound, and he and I ran into my house. I don’t specifically remember it but it certainly sounds plausible.
As before, while I have no specific memories of the boys with me on these ventures, almost certainly they either were or had their own in the fields. I mention it to offer a glimpse into the environment of the boys childhood.
According to anecdotal legend the site of the Coopey home, the woods, and likely a lot more nearby land were the site of the Elkins farm, the namesake for Elkins Lane. The only artifact of this that I was aware of was a brick-lined well at the northeast corner of the woods, not far from a large tree. From an image of mine I believe that the well was only a few feet deep at the time. At some point someone realized that there was a snake in the well, probably a harmless Garter Snake, which I remember seeing in the well. Whether it was the bogus threat of the snake or the real hazard of an open well, even if shallow, one of the neighbors, Mr. Stockberger I believe, filled it with rocks.
The Coopey Home
From my own recollections I don’t know exactly when the house was built, only that I was quite young but old enough to remember some details, which I’ll get to shortly. From Middlesex County records I learned just now that the Coopeys bought the property from the Borough of Milltown in 1949 and recorded a mortgage on it in 1952. This would suggest that the house was built in 1952 or 1953. I have a very distant memory of looking at their lot from my yard with my dad before the house was built and possibly walking around the vacant property. These images are very vague but suggest a wooded lot and an even vaguer image of a metal-frame structure on the lot. This is possible as I know that there was a water tower on the property for the Borough water system, and I believe that the system was fed from an artesian well near the center of town, and that the water was pumped to tower for storage. This makes engineering sense as the property is one of the highest points of land in Milltown. While my memory of seeing the tower is uncertain, its existence is not. There was a large concrete platform in the back yard of the Coopey’s house, much too large to remove without heavy equipment, and which may even exist to this day. My understanding is that the platform was part of the base of the tower, possibly for just a foot of the tower or possibly at the center of the tower for the water pipe.
I have a few memories about the construction of the house. Mr. Coopey asked my dad if the builders could get water from our house for construction needs, likely for mixing mortar for the foundation and plaster for the walls. Later, after the house was finished, I remember Mr. Coopey giving my dad a large box of Band-Aids (large as in probably a foot long) as a thank-you for the use of the water. During construction I remember visiting the house quite often and playing inside, climbing ladders to the attic, running round among the open walls, and salvaging scraps of lumber from the waste piles. I still have a crude box that I made from scrap lumber when I was young that I may very well have gotten there. I got to know the workers and remember conversations with them. I have a vivid recollection of a large (perhaps a 55 gallon drum) of plaster that the workers had mixed. I was surprised that they let it sit around for a day or more before applying it to the wall. I hindsight they were slaking it, making sure that it was thoroughly wet and it may have sat like that for days. At this point I’m not sure if it was the sub-layer or the finish layer – I believe it was gray so it might have been the sub-layer – but I definitely remember a large tub of plaster of some sort. I was born in 1945 so I would have been seven or eight then.
From County records I learned that the Coopeys sold the house to John and Sylvia Adochio in 1977, that the Adochios live there until 1992 when they sold to Graham and Mary Beth Maby.
A Summer Home
Someone in the Coopey/Ahrend family had a summer home on the Metedeconk River in or near what is now Brick, NJ. With all that I have forgotten I have no idea how I remember that but somehow I do. I remember being there but only one or two images from the visit – that of a boat belonging to the family tied up at a bulkhead behind the house and possibly Mr. Coopey going swimming there. We may have gone out for a ride on the boat but I have no images of that. My mom (now 101) remembers catching soft-shell crabs in the water right behind the house.
I remember the family fondly. I remember staying over in their house one night in 1958 when my dad was gravely ill and my mom was spending every night in the hospital. I remember the night that Mrs. Coopey’s mother died. My mother went over to be with Melba, to try to console her, to offer some company, as I believe that George was working at the time and Melba was alone.
I don’t remember the exact chronology but I suspect that Mrs. Coopey’s father, who I knew as Mr. Ahrend, probably moved in with the family sometime after that. I have a vague recollection that her parents lived elsewhere in Milltown, possibly near the center of town, and later of Mr. Ahrend living with them so I’m guessing that happened after Mrs. Ahrend died.
I was building a bobsled in the fall of 1958 and had to make several cuts in wood for the foot rests that would have been very difficult to do by hand. I remember Mr. Ahrend helping me with that with a band saw in the basement of the Coopey house. I remember quite a shop there that I believe was Mr. Ahrend’s but it could also have been Mr. Coopey’s.
Mr. Coopey was quite a bit younger than my dad – a point I wasn’t aware of at the time but only when looking back on the period as an adult. I remember him being more active with the boys than my dad was with me as illustrated by my memory of him playing ball with us that I mentioned earlier. I remember a time when the family had rabbits in a cage in the back yard. One night a predator, not sure what, attacked the rabbits and left them badly wounded. I remember the unpleasant sight of rabbits with fur missing and Mr. Coopey having to deal with them the next morning.
I knew the boys were younger than I but I needed the help of George Mackaronis with the details. George M. is five years younger than I, remembered that the boys were both older than he, and estimated their birth years at 1946 for George and 1948 for Charlie. On-line records I found later indicate he was close: George was born in 1947 and Charlie in 1948. That made George two years younger than I and Charlie three years younger.
George Mackaronis has at least a different set of recollections than I, and probably a better memory of them. He recalled several stories to me when I contacted him after hearing from Charlie’s daughter. He remembers car pooling to grammar school, Milltown Public School, with the Coopey boys and me. George M.’s mom didn’t have a driver’s license when he first started school so he would come up to my house and ride with either my mom or Mrs. Coopey, whoever was driving that day. I’m glad the he remembered that as I have no recollection of traveling to school with either the boys or George M.
George M. saw a maroon Mustang at a car show in Wildwood some time ago. He remembered Charlie having one many years before and asked a woman tending the car about the owner. It turns out that the woman was Charlie’s wife. She found Charlie and George M. and Charlie reconnected for the first time in years. George M. also recounted how Charlie taught him to ride a two-wheeled bicycle and that Charlie even remembered that at the show. He also had a few other stories about Charlie but I’ll leave that for him to relate outside of this note.
In writing this it has become clear that I have few memories the day-to-day activities with the boys – playing in the woods, baseball games, and so on that were most certainly a part of our lives. Rather, what I remember are the one-off, non-routine things that we did. Among these I remember trying to help one of the boys with math while they were still in grammar school. There were only one to a few years difference between us and I was pretty good at math but the math they were learning was the so called new math and I was totally at a loss to help.
Another time we had a dirt bomb battle. That took a little planning as we had to fill up small bags (I’m pretty sure were made of squares fabric tied at the top, not paper) with dirt, which I remember as being pretty dry and dusty. At the appointed time we took up our positions in our respective yards and started lobbing the dirt bombs at each other. I have an extremely vague recollections that the Coopey cousins, Ellen and Elsie, who I’ll say more about later, may have been involved, too. That was all in good fun.
A similar battle took place another day that was not good natured and had the potential to cause serious harm. I have no memory of the circumstances but the boys and I were angry about something. This time, instead of dirt bombs, we were lobbing stones between our yards. I have no idea of the outcome, it may have involved parental intervention, but I don’t think any of us got hurt.
George wasn’t so lucky doing nothing more than coming out his back door. He broke his arm when he fell off the porch, no more than a few steps high. I remember him in a cast, and sometime after the cast was removed. He had a white line down his arm where the cast was cut. I suspect it was the remnants of a scratch from the tool that cut the cast.
One of my last recollections of being with the boys when when I was it college at Rutgers. By my sophomore year (1963-1964) I had gotten hooked on computers and was learning to program a Royal RPC-4000, a small computer in the mechanical engineering department that was a hybrid of vacuum tubes and transistor circuits and programmed with paper tape via a Frieden Flexowriter. One evening I brought at least George and maybe Charlie as well to the lab to show them the computer. That’s the last I remember of them.
I lived in Massachusetts the summer after graduation in 1966 but I was back home from the fall of 1966 until I got married in December of 1970. I have no idea if the boys were still living there then and have no recollection of seeing them during that period even though I was around the house a lot, especially for most of 1970 when I was doing a lot of outside projects.
The boys had two female cousins that visited once in a while. They were younger than I, probably around the age of the boys. I remembered the name of one of them, Elsie, probably because of an unfortunate association with large livestock that was no doubt a burden for her through childhood. In an idle moment almost three years ago I searched on-line for information about the Coopey family and came across an obituary for George Ahrend, Melba’s brother and Elsie’s father. That mentioned surviving daughters Elsie E. Ahrend and Ellen E. Meeham. I found them on Facebook, had a brief conversation with Ellen but never connected with Elsie. From that conversation I heard for the first time about the death of the boys but no further details.
Apart from playing with the cousins Elsie and Ellen when they were young girls I have one other memory of Elsie. Sometime around 1966 or 1967 I was having lunch at the Douglass College student center when a young woman at my table recognized me, either by appearance or context of the conversation, asked if I lived next to the Coopeys, and recalled playing together many years earlier. It turns out that she was Elsie, then a student at Douglass, and had somehow remembered me.
Sadly, this story doesn’t have a happy ending. From information I heard from Ellen Meeham and found on-line the whole Coopey family is gone.
George H Coopey: – 1921 – 1990
Melba Ahrend Coopey: 1920 – 2005
George H Coopey Jr. 1947 – 2010
Charles Coopey – 1948 – 2009
Mr. and Mrs. Coopey moved to Florida in 1977.
George served in the Air Force and lived in Florida, survived by his wife Mary, sons George H. III and Dana R., grandchildren Devon R., Seth A., Carson B., and Madison J.
Charlie served in the Air Force, lived in Michigan and New Jersey, survived by wife Alice, daughter Addie, son Charlie, grandchild Charlie.
The woods behind the Coopey house was cut down in the early 1970’s with only one or two large trees left standing.
A county park opened in 2011 in the field between Elkin’s Lane and US 1, wrapping around behind where the the woods had been and the first several houses on Cortlandt Street including the Coopeys and mine.
My mom still owns the house next door to the one where the Coopeys lived. She is the last of the original property owners in the immediate neighborhood but she moved out of the house in 2007.