wrecking car

Earl Eckel

Earle S. Eckel (January 24, 1892 - 1978) was a 1930s entrepreneur with pioneering business interests in automobiles, fuel oil, and aviation from Pleasant Valley, New Jersey . Pleasant Valley, NJ transportation significance stems from the autogiro airfield that he established on the property in the early 1930s (two of whose hangars survive), which probably was the first airport in the United States built exclusively for autogiros, and his commercial aviation pursuits which included advertising promotional tours for the Tidewater Oil Company. The district has engineering significance due to the hydroelectric generating plant built in 1929-30 by Eckel who designed the small facility to provide power for his own domestic consumption (which included the first local use of electric heat) utilizing the remains of a 19th-century grist mill and its hydro system. In addition to Eckel's power house and autogiro hangars, Pleasant Valley's architectural significance results from several 19th-century dwellings whose construction and detailing are representative of the rural region's vernacular architecture in that era. One of these houses, the 19th century mill owner's residence which Eckel occupied, is also notable for the Colonial Revival remodeling and related improvements undertaken by him c.1930.

Eckel commenced his varied business career at an early age. His boyhood pursuits included helping the local electric company superintendent to install house wiring after school and on week ends, engaging in his own door bell installation business at age twelve, building a steam engine to run his mother's washing machine (which used the exhaust to heat the water), and after being hired to operate the projector for the community's first motion picture theater, acquiring his own projector which he took to surrounding villages to show films. On his summer vacation at age sixteen he received the contract to string telephone wire the several miles between Phillipsburg and Stewartsville, NJ and install more than a dozen telephones. After taking an electrical engineering course, he secured a job with the Edison Cement Company in 1908, and upon the closure of the Edison plant a short time later formed his own firm, the Washington Gas & Electric Installation Company, which prospered doing local residential and commercial work.'

Earle Eckel's interests also encompassed motor vehicles. He entirely rebuilt his first automobile, a single-cylinder Oldsmobile with tiller steering, which purchased jointly with his father in New York City in 1906 broke down repeatedly on the trip home and, thereafter, opened a well patronized repair shop in his father's barn. In 1908 he acquired his first motorcycle and, in the following year, began motorcycle racing, winning a gold medal in 1910 in an endurance run between New York and Atlantic City. While continuing his racing activities with professional board track racing and building his own racing machine, he opened a motorcycle dealership, selling fifteen Indian motorcycles in his first year. Giving up motorcycle racing, he used his winnings to built a large automobile service garage at the west end of Washington on the old turnpike road in 1912/13, a substantial brick structure with an upper story apartment where he lived upon his marriage to Harriet Thatcher in 1915. In conjunction with conducting an up-to-date repair and service operation, which included power-driven machine shop and air pumps (a small generator was used to power the machines and air condenser independently of the local electric company), curb side gas pumps, and the area's first wrecking car. Eckel opened an automobile dealership which throughout the World War I era sold a variety of makes including Ford, Overland, Cadillac, ~Stanley Steamer, Studebaker, and Dodge.

In the 1920s Earle Eckel moved from automobile sales and service into the gasoline arid fuel oil business. He sold his garage in 1922 and built a modern "filling station" a few hundred yards to the west which opened on August 5th of that year, the scheduled completion date of the concrete state highway from Washington to Phillipsburg. Modeled after a station which he saw on vacation in Florida, the elaborate, classically detailed building with drive through bays was constructed according to his own designs and specifications. His business plan for the new operation included buying gasoline wholesale in railroad tank car lots and piping it by gravity from a railroad siding installed for that purpose to storage tanks at the station. Taking his brother Wilmot as a partner in 1924, he formed the Eckel Oil Company whose wholesale and retail operations grew over the course of the decade to include nine service stations around the region, as well as several gasoline and fuel oil bulk tanks for its own supply and the wholesale trade. Advertising was not neglected, and a number of billboards were erected, the most notable of which was the large sign located one mile west of Washington painted with a picture of the "flagship" station and illuminated with electric light at night. The Eckel brothers sold their business to the Tidewater Oil Company in 1930, realizing a handsome price that allowed them to pursue other interests.

One of Earle Eckel's main interests in this period was the old Larison mill and farm which he had purchased a few years earlier with the intention of making his home there. He began with the renovation of the mill's hydro system in 1929/30, work which included dredging and enlarging the mill pond, rebuilding the mill pond dam/causeway in reinforced concrete and stone, and digging a supplementary channel from the creek to the pond with the object of utilizing the water power to generate electricity for his domestic use (and incidentally creating a pond large enough for a motor boat). A blueprint for the dam/causeway, which includes several spillways and outlets, drawn by an engineer after its completion noted that Earl Eckel designed all the work.'After the destruction of the grist mill just before Christmas in 1929, Eckel erected a brick and steel building on the old mill foundation to house his hydroelectric plant and provide garage space. He salvaged the 30 horse power turbine from the burnt mill, which was rehabilitated and connected to 20 k. v. a. generator. He found this system to be inefficient for summer, when low flow allowed the large turbine to run only several hours each day, and in 1934 he installed a small new type of turbine and generator for summer usage. Thus modified the plant (which remained in use until the 1950s) met all of Eckel's domestic electric needs, including heat for which he recycled electric heaters scrapped from abandoned trolley cars. These heaters, which, although not now in use, remain as he installed them in the walls of the house, represent the first known instance in the area of the use of electricity to heat a dwelling.'

Eckel's reworking of Pleasant Valley's hydro system inspired other prominent area residents to attempt similar projects: actor Harry Bannister (husband of actress Ann Harding), who had purchased an old stone mill which he converted into a summer residence about six miles downstream on the Pohatcong near Stewartsville, sought his assistance in installing a similar power system, and John C. Willever, a Warren County native who became vice president of the Western Union Telegraph Company, built a similar dam on the Pohatcong several miles upstream to create a small lake on his farm.

In renovating the main house at Pleasant Valley, Earl Eckel evidently sought not only to upgrade grade its structure and systems for modern living, but to preserve and enhance its historic character. Upon rebuilding and leveling the floors, for example, he covered them with Goodyear rubber tiles resembling random width floor boards, a rather uncommon treatment, which along with the addition of more typical features like the classically detailed sun porches and front entry transformed the house into Colonial Revival country residence, as was done elsewhere in the area in the early 20th century by prosperous individuals like industrialist Harry M. Riddle who remodeled the old McCullough house at Asbury in 1909.

Earle Eckel's other main interest in the 1930s was aviation which, like his other endeavors, he approached with an entrepreneurial spirit. The acquisition of a small airplane (a four place Stinson), while on another Florida vacation in 1930 led to the establishment of Eckel Air Service at the airport in nearby Easton Pennsylvania which, expanded to a fleet of several other small planes, specialized in flight instruction and charter flights. While he disposed of this business which proved unprofitable within a few years, Eckel's involvement in aviation increased. His desire to keep an airplane at Pleasant Valley resulted in his becoming the owner of a Pitcairn autogiro. Developed by the Spaniard Juan de la Cierva in the 1920s, the autogiro, unlike conventional aircraft, has top mounted rotary blades (whose spin creates lift as the airplane is moved forward by a conventionally mounted propeller) and consequently requires only a short runway for take off and can accomplish vertical landing, features which recommended it to Eckel. The autogiro attracted the attention of aircraft manufacturer Harold F. Pitcairn who acquired the American rights to the plane in 1929. Pitcairn made certain improvements, most importantly the development of a mechanical starter which decreased the size of the area needed for take off, which were widely recognized and resulted in the production of an autogiro which he hoped would "lead to the general adoption by the public of flying for utility and pleasure."

In the vanguard of the flying public, Earle Eckel purchased a Pitcairn autogiro in the fall of 1931 and immediately built a runway with flood and boundary lights and a small hangar in the level field Just west of the barn complex at Pleasant Valley; a second hangar was built in 1933 after the acquisition of another autogiro. As probably the first airfield exclusively for autogiros in the United States, Eckel's Autogiro Port has a small, but notable place in American aviation history.

One of the few individuals in the United States involved with autogiros in the early 1930s, Earl Eckel received three autogiro licenses (private pilot, industrial, and transport) in 1932, and in the same year secured a contract from the Tidewater Oil Company to conduct a promotional tour of the southern states for its product Veedol. This five state tour, which included guest rides, parades, and musical programs at each stop, was followed by another tour of New York and the New England States the next year. Eckel calculated that he carried over 4,000 guest passengers during his promotional work for Tidewater and made over 800 takeoffs and landings without accident. Other activities included student instruction, banner towing, and carrying air mail from his airfield to Newark, New Jersey during National Air Week in 1938. For a short time in the 1930s he also was associated with National Air Shows of Columbus, Ohio in whose exhibitions he gained renown for his mastery of autogiro flying. Difficult stunts and maneuvers in his repertoire included the loop, hammerhead stall, and hover descents and landings.

Earle Eckel received an aircraft and engine mechanics license in 1932, and thereafter did consulting work for several aircraft manufacturers and the federal government. He was employed as an aeronautical expert by the bureau of Air Commerce and was associated with the Skinner' Motor Company of Detroit in the development of an experimental slide valve, 4 cylinder, flat, all aluminum aviation engine. Filter problems on autogiro flights to the New Jersey shore lead to his development of an air filter that would not clog with sand, and during World War II he was hired by the federal government to do research on aviation filters.

His government research on aviation filters, however, did not take place at Pleasant Valley which he sold to Paul Minton in 1942, but on the small property about one mile to the west where he subsequently moved and erected a small concrete block building for the purpose. Paul Minton was an engineer and used the upper story of the power house for the manufacture of pipe filters patented by him. The hydroelectric plant remained in operation until the 1950s when after Minton's death his executors sold the equipment for scrap. Eckel continued to keep his autogiros at Pleasant Valley for some time, but the airfield was eventually abandoned and plowed over for agricultural purposes. Helicopters supplanted autogiros in the 1940s, and after World War II Eckel focused on his old interest in steam engines (over the years he had owned and/or operated a variety of steam equipment and vehicles) and established a machine shop and small museum at his new residence. There he restored and rebuilt several steam engines, automobiles, and a fire engine. A founder of the American Antique Automobile Club and the Steamer Automobile Club, he was well known in antique automobile circles and participated in parades and antique automobile exhibitions for many years before his death in 1978.

While the airfield has been plowed over and the mill pond silted up, Pleasant Valley remains today much as it was in the 1930s under the ownership of Earle Eckel. The barn complex, however, was demolished some years ago, and the open fields to the west are currently slated was high density residential development which threaten one of the two surviving hangars. Aware of this threat and recognizing Pleasant Valley's unique and significant place in the community's history, township officials sponsored the nomination for the National Register of Historic Places.


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