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Sandor Fekete I (1879-c1970)

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Sandor Fekete I (1879-c1970) aka Sándor Fekete, was the last bridge tender at Blackwell Mills along the Delaware and Raritan Canal in New Jersey He was born in 1879, in Sokoró Pátka, Hungary and he died circa 1970 in Franklin Township, Somerset County, New Jersey. He was the son of József Fekete and Paulina Pár. He emigrated from Hungary via Antwerp, Belgium to New York City. He left Antwerp on May 4, 1907 and arrived in New York City on May 14, 1907 aboard the ship "Finland". His final destination was the Hungarian community in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Sandor married and his children include: Anne Fekete; Sandor Fekete II (1906-1983) who was born in Hungary and married Louise X (1912-?) and lived in Princeton and worked as a bridge tender also; Mary Fekete; Helen Fekete; Frank Fekete; Elizabeth Fekete; John Fekete who married Regina Marie Case; and Margaret Fekete.

Brian Szente writes:

Sándor Fekete was the third child of József Fekete and Paulina Pár, born on January 20, 1879 in Sokoró Pátka, Hungary (northwestern Hungary, a small village south of Gyõr). He was one of ten children, at least three of whom died in their infancy. He came to the US on May 14, 1907. To the best of my knowledge, only one of his siblings came to the US, that being his younger sister, Roza (my great-grandmother).
Brian Szente writes again: The following is verbatim from a letter which my grandmother sent to me during my inquiries into our family tree:
He [Uncle Sándor Fekete] first worked on the [Delaware and Raritan] Canal. Then he became a bridge tender at Griggstown. He spent the rest of his life at the bridge at Blackwells Mills. He lived in the house for $1.00 a year until he died at about 89 years of age. The house is now designated as a Historic Site. In his later years, he survived by having his own vegetable garden and obtained meat and eggs from a neighbor in exchange for taking the cows to pasture and bringing them back. He also grew his own tobacco for his pipe. He refused help from his children when they were grown. He never had or wanted electricity or running water. He had a pump in his kitchen and a well outside. He had heat from a coal stove in the kitchen and accepted a kerosene stove for his living room from [his sister Roza]. In his younger years, he also trapped small animals for food and their hides. His rocking chair is still at the canal house.
A short biography written by Betty Scott reads as follows:
Immediately upon his arrival in America, Sandor went to work on the canal. His first job was that of a laborer, assigned to the task of laying brick and breaking up rocks that were too large to be moved. Before long, his boss, who he described to his granddaughter Theresa as a very big, very strong, very loud Irishman, being pleased with his work, recommended Sandor for the job of supervisor on the work boat, Relief. These boats traveled the length of the canal inspecting the waterway and performing necessary repairs. Sandor was soon promoted to foreman of the entire twenty-eight-man work crew. But even though the work wasn't as arduous as what he had been doing, he wasn't happy because, being obligated to live on the boat, he had very little time to spend with his growing family. Annie, born in 1909, was the first child born in America. Three more girls and two boys were yet to come. While he lived on the boat, his wife and children occupied an apartment on Conduct Street in New Brunswick. Here she and the children no doubt enjoyed looking out over the river and canal, probably watching for her husband to pass by as he went about his duties. In 1916, perhaps by request, because he was now a family man and the father of young children, Sandor was transferred from the work boat to a new position in Griggstown. He became the locktender. Griggstown, a short distance along the canal to the south of the Blackwell's Mills Canal House, was home to the muletenders barracks, a swing bridge adjacent to the barracks, and a canal lock, which was located about 1/2 mile upstream of the barracks and bridge. Locktending, when Sandor was hired for the position, was a twenty-four-hour-a-day job, shared by Sandor and a man name Mr. Slover. The two alternated twelve-hour shifts, two weeks on days, and two weeks on nights. Lock tending was an art, an operation that had to be done with precision. The approach of vessels could be detected by the rise in the depth of the water, due to the release of the water from the lock further up the canal. The boats were guided along a wharf built along the canal at the lock to keep them from hitting the banks. When the boat was positioned, the drop gate would be lowered and the wickets opened slightly, bringing the vessel into the lock. The speed at which the water flowed into the lock had to be carefully controlled to prevent the boat from hitting the gates. When the water was at the correct level, the gates would be opened and the boat pushed out with a great whoosh, making way for the next one. The mules were unhitched during the passage of the boats through the locks. The first of the three canal houses in which the Fekete family lived was next to the Griggstown lock. The canal company built homes for the people who tended the locks and swing bridges. While the houses had been built with nearly identical interiors, their exteriors differed in that some were stone, others clapboard. Initially they had been built with cooking fireplaces that were walled up in later years. The Feketes discovered this quite by accident. One evening as the family sat to dinner in the kitchen of the Griggstown locktender's house, they smelled smoke. A chimney fire was discovered. In order to put it out, Sandor broke through the wall, revealing the fireplace. No significant damage was done by the fire, but Mrs. Fekete soon began to complain about the draft that the opening had created, so Sandor replaced the wall. The house occupied a little more than an acre, large enough to allow the family to keep a cow and raise chickens and a few pigs to supplement Sandor's income and provide for his growing family. This was where he planted the first of the beautiful gardens, in which he grew many different vegetables and flowers. And this is where his children grew up in an atmosphere that those of us today might find hard to imagine; a virtual perpetual summer camp, fishing, swimming, and camping along the banks of the canal. Now the father of eight children, Sandor worked hard to provide for his family, and took advantage of every opportunity for gain. The boats passing along the canal moved slowly, allowing plenty of opportunity for conversation between the men on shore and those aboard the vessels. One day, Sandor got into a conversation with a boatman who was towing a barge carrying some very large pigs to market. The conversation became a challenge when the boatman, who doubted the comparatively diminutive Sandor's ability to handle the pigs, told him if he could pick up one of the weighty animals and put it on the canal bank, he could keep it. Sandor did it. The boatman became very upset at this, saying the pigs weren't his and that he would have to pay for it if Sandor kept it. So, having proved his point, Sandor returned the animal. Working from 'can see to can't see' as was the custom in the old world and one that Sandor maintained all his life, left little time for recreation. The Fekete family did, however, enjoy music, and both Sandor Sr. and Sandor Jr. played the harmonica. Their musical entertainments were enhanced for a time when they were given a pump organ that Sandor learned to play by ear. When the family moved to their second Griggstown house, however, the organ was left behind; the bellows no longer worked, rendering it inoperable. There was plenty of work to fill the hours of the day, with the operation of the bridge and the small farm. Yet Sandor, a compulsive workman, constantly looked for additional chores. So, perhaps because he had developed an aversion to large rocks early in his American career, he decided that a huge boulder near the house, even though it wasn't causing any problems, was an annoyance and should be disposed of. To accomplish this, he dug a huge hole next to the obstruction, pushed it into the hole, and buried it.

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