By Eileen Moon
RED BANK – Red Bank Public Library was about to celebrate its 80th anniversary in 2017 when Linda Hewitt, the library’s circulation supervisor, outreach and program coordinator, decided it might be fun to conduct a walking tour of the town as part of the celebration.
To make it happen, Hewitt enlisted the help of retired teacher, lifelong borough resident and dedicated library volunteer Kathy Lou Colmorgen.
“She’s crazy for history,” Hewitt said.
Colmorgen, a veteran traveler who taught elementary school in Middletown for 37 years, considers the borough library her second home. It was here that she signed up for first library card and here also that she spent one summer trying to read her way through all the biographies in the children’s room.
Her family’s roots in Red Bank span generations. The daughter of milkman Carl Colmorgen and his wife Catherine, a nurse, Colmorgen lives today in the same Oakland Street house her parents settled in when she was a year old. Her oldest brother Carl returned to Red Bank after 35 years in Florida and is now known for the humorous hats he dons for his job as a crossing guard. Her brother Rob is retired from the Red Bank Police Department.
Her grandmother Karoline Dietz was a German immigrant whose family owned Dietz’s Market in downtown Red Bank, and all the male members of the family were volunteer firemen with the now-defunct Relief Engine Company.
Growing up on Oakland Street, Colmorgen remembers hearing the cadence as soldiers drilled in the National Guard Armory on Chestnut Street, now an ice hockey rink. Winters, she would skate on Mohawk pond, near what is now Count Basie field, or race across the frozen river from the foot of Front Street to Marine Park, leaping over the holes eel fishermen had cut into the ice.
Although she’s traveled the world, Red Bank still holds a special place in her heart. “It’s survived a lot of changes. Some good, some bad,” she said. “But it’s a place I’ll always come back to. It’s still home.”
So when Hewitt asked for her help with the walking tour, there was no question she would say yes.
“We have the perfect person,” Hewitt said.
Their first task was to do their homework. Using the abundance of resources available in the library’s book and periodical collection and in the Local History Room, they made a list of the borough’s historic sites, tracking down the facts associated with each one.
Colmorgen then compiled a notebook containing photographs, illustrations and background information on each site featured on the tour. There was plenty of fact-checking involved.
“We’re a library, so it has to be accurate,” Hewitt said with a smile.
“We’re not going to say it if it isn’t correct,” added Colmorgen.
In the spring of 2017, Hewitt and Colmorgen shared the fruits of all that research as they led the library’s 80th anniversary walking tours. “We did two of them the day we celebrated the 80th,” Hewitt recalled. “It was a collaborative effort.”
It was also a big success.
It was then they realized the tours could be a regular offering. In 2018, the library hosted six tours; three more are scheduled for this spring. To accommodate those who can’t make a Saturday tour or prefer to explore on their own, another library volunteer, Mary Ellen Mess, created a map of the tour sites that can be downloaded on the library website at redbanklibrary.org.
The tours begin at the Red Bank Public Library and end at the Galleria shopping center on Bridge Avenue. “I call it the Eisner to Eisner tour,” said Colmorgen, who was named the library’s Volunteer of the Year in 2017.
Sigmund Eisner, an immigrant from an area then known as Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic) began a manufacturing business in Red Bank at the turn of the previous century. Beginning with one sewing machine, Eisner built a thriving commercial empire that made uniforms for the U.S. Army and the Boy Scouts of America. The Galleria shopping center was the center of the Eisner manufacturing business for generations.
The Eisner enterprise also brought workers to Red Bank from many places in the world. To accommodate the growing number of Italian immigrants who were working in his factory, Eisner also helped acquire the land for the construction of St. Anthony’s Roman Catholic Church.
At one time, someone suggested Theodore Roosevelt had worn an Army uniform from the Eisner factory. Colmorgen called Sagamore Hill National Historic Site in Oyster Bay, New York, the home of the 26th president for more than 30 years, to check on it. It turned out Roosevelt had his uniform made at Brooks Brothers.
“Anything we can’t verify, we don’t say,” Colmorgen stressed.
This year the walks will take place April 27, May 28 and June 22. The tours are free, but donations are always welcome, and you do have to sign up in advance. “We try to limit the walk to 20 people to make sure everyone can hear and the sidewalks don’t get too crowded,” Hewitt said.
She’d also be delighted if someone who reads this article has some volunteer time to give to the library.
“We’d like to do more. We’d like to have more historical tours – artists, writers. These are things we’re going to work on. We need more people to actually do the tours.”
Visit the library website at redbanklibrary.org for more information.
This article was first published in the Jan. 10-Jan. 16, 2019 print edition of The Two River Times.
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