JOURNEYS INTO NEW JERSEY
If you travel through the seemingly endless sprawl along Route 22, near Watchung, you'll come across a sign announcing "The Blue Star Shopping Center." To most the sign merely distinguishes it from similar retail counterparts to be found up and down the road and around the state.
But to others the "Blue Star" has meaning.
Some of us are able to recall those purple buses of the Somerset Bus Lines that once traveled local roads adorned with stars describing the "Blue Star Line." That "Blue Star Line" has been gone for almost 40 years — one of the many casualties of the consolidation of various bus companies that ultimately resulting in the modern-day NJ Transit.
Back in its time the Blue Star Lines were one of the many colorful buses to be found on the state's roads and highways — some others included the Orange and Black Lines, The Red And Tan Lines, the yellow and red of "The Manhattan Lines," and the blue and yellow of the Asbury Park-Long Branch Lines. Today they are but a memory.But the name Blue Star remains, though few seem to know just what the Blue Star is all about.
So we approached a few stores at the Blue Star Shopping Center for some insight. Everyone was stumped.
Determined to find the owner of the mall, we called the Borough of Watchung, home of the Blue Star Shopping Center. Well, they did manage to supply a phone number for the real estate development company that manages the mall.
A first call to the mall owner produced an intrigued receptionist, but little help in answering the question (we did receive some help later).
So, in this journey into New Jersey, we next ventured onto what used to be called the information highway. Here's what we found:
According to a the Federal Highway Administration of the Department of Transportation, the idea dates to 1944 when the New Jersey State Council of Garden Clubs beautified a 5-mile stretch of U.S. 22 from Mountainside to North Plainfield (The mall's narrative sets this date as 1938). Approximately 8,000 dogwood trees were planted as a living memorial to the men and women in the Armed Forces from New Jersey. The Blue Star, taken from the blue star in the service flag, was chosen to symbolize the memorial because it was used during World War II on flags and homes of families that had a son or daughter in the service. The New Jersey Legislature approved a Joint Resolution on January 22, 1945, designating this highway "Blue Star Drive."
Interestingly, that FHA history also quotes from a period article in the September 1946 issue of Contractors and Engineers Monthly describing the planting project:
"... Most of the planting has been done on a 5-mile stretch between North Plainfield, Somerset County, and Mountainside, Union County. At this location, U.S. 22, or State Route 29, is somewhat west of the commercialized and industrialized east side of the state. So the natural beauty of the countryside is being enhanced by roadside planting ... ."
Clearly, that commercialized and industrialized area eventually outgrew the east side and came to overgrow the rest of the once Garden State. Over time, Interstate 78 came to siphon off most of the inter-city traffic heading west towards Pennsylvania and beyond. But in its time, Route 22 was cited as a model for other similar projects around the country.
As that 1946 article chronicles:
"The project was organized as a demonstration of roadside beautification, to show what could be accomplished through united strength, as a protest against billboards, to educate the public to higher standards of roadside development, and to determine how the National Council could best work with the civil authorities for major achievement."
Now Blue Star Highways can be found throughout America - in places as diverse as New Market, Virginia (I-81); Price Georges County, Maryland (U.S. 50), and a north-south route through Michigan from Indiana to the Upper Peninsula (U.S. 31). The program has also since been expanded to include Memorial Markers and Memorial By-Ways. These markers are used in National Cemeteries, parks, veterans' facilities, and gardens. Through it all, few know that it all started here in New Jersey.
As for Route 22, there still remains a scenic area without stores near Watchung, a historic marker (see attached picture supplied by the mall owner), and some dogwood trees (but how many of the 8,000 still exist is anyone's guess).
And, if you miss all that there's always the Blue Star Shopping Center. It touts a Kohl's, Michael's Crafts, Becker's School Supplies, Shop-Rite, Toys 'R' Us, Kids 'R' Us, Petco, Marshall's and several smaller specialty stores.
But good luck trying to find anyone on site who can tell you about the Blue Star Memorial created by the New Jersey Garden Clubs decades ago.
Eric Model explores the "offbeat, off the beaten path overlooked and forgotten" on SIRIUS-XM Radio and at www.journeysinto.com.