Open your mind to a fun and fascinating experience
By Sue Baldani
The inventions of Thomas Alva Edison were numerous and changed the way people lived. And, he brought his ideas to fruition right here in New Jersey.
The Thomas Edison National Historic Park, located in West Orange, gives its over 60,000 visitors a year a fascinating look into Edison’s life and extraordinary works. Regardless of age or interest, there’s something for everyone.
At the Visitor’s Center, watch movies about the inventor and get a helpful orientation to the grounds. Then, take a tour of his laboratory where he developed amazing innovations such as long-lasting light bulbs, phonographs and batteries. Here, you’ll also find his library, heavy machine shop, music room and more.
“What I find fascinating is that everything that is on display is really inspirational because he experimented with every single thing, including hair follicles from animals,” says Susan McCartney, a trustee, board member, and educator for over 20 years. “He had his hand in everything.”
Another must see on the property is the Black Maria (pronounced Mariah). “It was the first movie studio, and where the first movie camera was invented,” says Michelle Mihalkovitz, chief of cultural resources. While the all-black structure that stands today is not the original built in 1893, it’s an exact replica and placed very close to the original spot.
“As a videographer and a photographer, I personally find a great deal of inspiration from it because I use the tools today every day that he invented and honed,” says board member, Rich Silivanch. “We’re all influenced day in and day out by what this man and his team did, and from an entertainment standpoint, a lot of that comes back to the Black Maria. It really was the birthplace of cinema.”
The building, which was built around 1953, is in dire need of renovation, and fundraising for that project is now underway. The roof, which slides open to let in light, needs to be replaced, the electrical system needs updating, the structure itself needs fortification, and many other changes, including accessibility, need to be done.
A “Raise the Roof” fundraiser was held in May, and other events are being planned. Of course, straight donations to the non-profit are always appreciated from individuals and corporations.
The complex also offers many interesting programs for children and adults. “We have a Junior Ranger program, which is like a learning scavenger hunt,” says Michelle. “At the end they get a National Park Service badge and are sworn in by a ranger.”
While in the area, also visit the Queen Anne Victorian-styled Glenmont estate in historic Llewellyn Park, where Edison lived with his wife, Mina. Built in the early 1880s, its lovely gardens and historic bird feeders won’t disappoint.
Volunteers are always welcome as well. Rich is the volunteer coordinator of the Friends of Thomas Edison Center National Historical Park, and is happy to speak with anyone who has an interest in carrying on its legacy. To date, they have raised $1 million for over 200 projects.
“We also have a volunteer program at the Park, and these volunteers assist visitors, present programs, work within the curatorial division, and perform other duties,” says Michelle. “They also help maintain the grounds, gardens and the greenhouse at Glenmont. We couldn’t provide all the services we do without our volunteers.”
Another way to support its mission is by becoming a member, which provides many benefits. Depending on the level you choose, you will have access to discounts on tickets and store merchandise, as well as events and parties, and even receive a private tour of laboratory.
Written for Chatham and Short Hills Lifestyle magazine in New Jersey.