To call Robert Griffin a history buff is quite the understatement. Over the past 30 years, the former president of the Bergen County Historical Society and retired professional genealogist compiled an extensive collection of rare atlases, maps, and other ephemera related to New York, New Jersey and Bergen County history.
His collection, valued at more than $130,000, comprises more than 1,600 books, many of which are rare volumes, unique 18th and 19th century documents, including slave documents, and multi-volume sets.
Like many retired people, however, Griffin and his wife are looking to downsize. After moving from Englewood to Bucks County, Pa., he no longer has enough space to keep the massive collection as he would like.
"The collection requires approximately 116 linear feet of shelf space for books and periodicals, plus atlasses, art and ephemera," explained Griffin, who served as the president of the Bergen County Historical Society, chairman of the Historic New Bridge Landing State Park Commission and still serves on the New Jersey Historical Commission. "On average, there are about 10 books per linear foot or a total of about 1,600 individual volumes. Assuming 36-inch wide shelves, that approximates 37 shelves. Several large map cases and at least three four-drawer file cabinets would be needed to hold the other materials."
To get a better idea of just how big that is, here is a partial list of the size of the collection, not including maps (framed and unframed), art and other paper ephemera:
- Bergen County general history, 8 linear feet
- Bergen County town histories, 10.7 linear feet
- Bergen County vital records, 3.8 liner feet
- Bergen County genealogy, 10.5 linear feet
- Bergen County clippings (in binders), 5.8 linear feet
- Hudson County general history, 5.3 linear feet
- Passaic County general history, 2.7 linear feet
- Other NJ Counities general history, 5.3 linear feet
- New Jersey general history, 26.7 linear feet
- New Jersey vital records and genealogy, 7.3 linear feet
- New Jersey genealogy periodicals, 6 linear feet
- New York City and area history and genealogy, 13.5 linear feet
- NYG&B Record, 4 linear feet
- Revolutionary War history, 6.5 linear feet
The collection also includes numerous fine and rare atlases, maps and other ephemera relevant to New York, New Jersey and Bergen County. Many of the individual volumes of books and some of the ephemera —including slave documents and eighteenth century deeds — are quite valuable, he said, noting that some of the atlases alone are worth more than $2,000 a piece.
There are maps, postcards, photos, letters, and many other items that pertain to Camp Merritt, America's largest Embarkation/Debarkation camp during WWI, which Griffin noted "is especially relevant as we approach the centennial anniversary of the Great War."
"It is a comprehensive Bergen County Collection," explained Princeton-based antiquarian bookseller Joseph Felcone, who appraised the collection. "It is an excellent county collection, which he has built very carefully."
Amassing Local History
It took Griffin more than three decades to amass his collection. During that time, he enjoyed a long career as a professional genealogist specializing in Northern New Jersey and the Lower Hudson Valley history and families. His collection reflects that passion, with items of great use to local historians and genealogists.
"You either have the genealogy gene or you don't," he explained. "If you are blessed, or cursed, with it, it is like a crossword puzzle," you work at it until you find a solution.
Most of his materials were acquired from used book stores, garage sales, and more recently, on-line auctions and used book sites. The 18th century manuscripts were a gift from a fellow local historian, the late Leonard Hansen of Englewood.
"Len told me he found them along with much other historical materials and books in a dumpster outside the home of a former mayor of Englewood, who was disposing the items," Griffin told Patch. "The property described in the manuscripts lies in today's New Bridge Landing area in Teaneck and New Milford. It once belonged to a famous early Bergen Co. family by the name of Van Buskirk."
The pursuit of his collection, he insists, he acquired mostly through items that became available to him, with a few exceptions. Most notably, a now out-of-print book by Bergen County historian and author, James Ransom, "The Ironmines in the Ramapo."
"The book regularly fetches well over $100 in the rare book market," he said. "While it's not the most valuable item in the collection, when I spotted it in a Vermont used bookstore for $10, I thought I had just acquired the Hope Diamond!!"
His favorite find, however, is one he insists found him: A marble bust of a Edith Van Buren, of Teaneck, that was sculpted by female American artist Luella Varney in 1894.
"In 1985, I received a call from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. They were planning an exhibition of items from the famous 1894 Chicago World's Fair — aka the Columbian Exposition, it was the granddaddy of all World's Fairs," he explained. "An early catalog from the Fair listed it, along with the artist's name and the notation 'Miss Edith Van Buren, of Teaneck.' There being only one 'Teaneck' in the world, the Smithsonian called me, the town historian. Well, not only had I never heard of the marble bust, but I didn't know anything about a Van Buren family in Teaneck."
After much research, Griffin prepared a slide program about it, which was turned into a hour long video he describes as "a sort of 'Ken Burns does Teaneck.' The bust, however, was never found..."
Until, that is, almost 9 years to the day of the call from the Smithsonian, when a friend informed him the "Edith bust" was up for auction in Englewood.
"Needless to say, I HAD to have her!" he said, noting that he hopes to donate the bust to the Teaneck library.
Another favorite piece: an itemized bill circa 1899 from the Bergen County Jailer to the County Attorney for the cost of housing and feeding inmates, which names several "slaves," among them.
The Search for a New Home
Earlier this year Griffin began a search for someone to purchase his collection in its entirity. He offered to sell the collection (at a substantial discount) to his local library. Unfortunately the library was unable to accept his collection.
"I was hoping my collection would inspire [the local library] to expand their local collection. They chose not to," he said. "On that basis, I thought maybe I should not look to sell it, but look for a place that has the wherewithall to take care of it."
That path led him to Rutgers University and he is currently negotiations to transfer his collection to Rutgers' Special Collections department. He said he is pleased they are interested in his collection, because they have the ability to properly take care of it.
"Certainly Rutgers already had 75 percent [of my collection] in their collection," he said. "It is mostly the maps they are interested in."
It is very important to him to find a new place for his collection "before it disintigrated any futher," he said. "I wanted to give it to someone who could take care of it and enjoy it."