Our travels around South Jersey are about more than just culinary explorations; they’re about discovering (and rediscovering) the area that we grew up in and have now come back to and call home. Along the way, we’ll be taking pictures of some of the sights and locations that we find interesting, funny, beautiful and unique.
This one falls under unique.
Every state in the country has its ghost towns – towns that once existed that have long since disappeared. And yet, many of these towns-no-more have little reminders that keep their memory alive. Maybe my favorite South Jersey ghost town, or at least favorite ghost town name, is Ong’s Hat. There are a lot of theories about Mr. Ong and his hat: either his chapeau was stomped on by a scorned lover, thrown up into a pine tree in anger and never to come down, or just simply a fancy hat on a sign for Mr. Ong’s tavern. Another theory is that it’s not actually a hat but a muddling of the pronunciation of Ong’s Hut, supposedly a stopover for traveling farmers.
The anecdotes about the name are amusing enough, but the story of Ong’s Hat takes a turn for the weird. Very weird. And whether it’s actually all true or not is open for debate, but it makes for an intriguing story nonetheless. Author Joseph Matheny has written a book called “Ong’s Hat: The Beginning”, and in this book he contends that Ong’s Hat was the meeting place for dissident Princeton physicists from the 1930s to the 1960s, and they discussed theories way way WAY outside the norm of the day. Why Ong’s Hat? The remoteness of the place allowed them to be free from the watchful eye of the federal government. What kind of theories were they discussing, you might ask. Well, nothing short of gateways to other dimensions! It’s the kind of stuff that Weird NJ just eats up. And, in fact, they did just that.
So how does one find Ong’s Hat? Well, unless you want to go trudging through the Pines, the only visible sign via drive-by is taking Ong’s Hat Road (also known as Ong’s Hat-Buddtown Road). To get to Ong’s Hat Road, you need to get to the Four Mile Circle, which is where Routes 70 and 72 meet. One of the roads you can take off of the circle is Magnolia Road; you’ll know it by the “Welcome to Pemberton Township” sign. Head down Magnolia Road until you see this charming little place:
Hey look…it’s the Magnolia Road Tavern, kids! Kind of scary, isn’t it (even with the cartoon characters painted on the outside)? It’s also kind of closed with a “For Sale” sign in front. Whenever I pass this place, two questions come to mind: 1) What kind of clientele did the Tavern get?, and 2) Exactly how many bodies are buried underneath the building? When you see this landmark come up, you’ll want to make the left turn right before it, and that will be Ong’s Hat-Buddtown Road. The road itself is only a few miles long, and other than a few houses here and there and a lot of tree, there’s nothing too distinct to see here.
To tie in some sort of gastronomic angle to Ong’s Hat, the closest eatery in the vicinity is Anapa’s Restaurant and Diner on Magnolia Road. It’s kind of a run down-looking place, but my folks have eaten there on one of their trips to and from visiting us and have lived to tell the tale, so we can declare it safe. If, however, you come across any dissident physics professors or hat-stomping scorned lovers sitting near you, you might want to hightail it out of there to the Red Lion Diner, which is situated on the Route 70 and 206 circle – unless, of course, finding a gateway to other dimensions is your idea of a good time.