It’s genuine live walking tours that Rick Epstein is planning for Frenchtown, N.J. It’s not video or Zoom.
“I’m ready to mask up and resume my historical tours of Frenchtown if you are,” Epstein says. “In observance of the Pandemic of 2020, tours will be limited to two or three quarantine-mates who won’t mind standing close to each other while I holler out my amazing facts across six or seven feet of space.”
And the walking tours have become a fundraising project for the local food pantry. At $15, it’s a reasonable price to pay for an outdoor activity with other people.
“Usually that money goes to line my pockets, but for now I’ll be shoving that money over to the Frenchtown Presbyterian Church for its food pantry,” Epstein promises.
“Tours are pretty much whenever you want them. Weekdays, weekends, mornings, evenings, afternoons, whenever.” Just send him a message at RickEpstein@yahoo.com or text him at 908-200-0480 to set up a tour.
Four different tours of the historic New Jersey town are available.
The Downtown Tour explains how the guillotine caused the town’s founder to flee France and come to America. It also covers the mystic rites of the Odd Fellows; why Frenchtown had three hotels; the Great Fire of 1878; Senator Martin’s alligators; the Flood of 1955; the boy who fired revolvers in the movie theater; the girl who liked to smooch in the covered bridge; why Annie Oakley and Mary Tyler Moore slept here; and the three economic eras of Frenchtown – manufacturing wagon wheels (1800s), hatching baby chickens (1900s), and enticing tourists (2000s).
“Are you enticed?” Epstein asks.
If you’re not, maybe you would prefer the Cemetery Tour. You will hear about a grieving father’s pink granite monument to the victims of a spinal meningitis epidemic in 1907; headstones made of zinc; monuments to soldiers killed in wars and to a civilian lost at sea; and graves of the Frenchtown-famous –our first mayor, Miss Frenchtown of 1931, the constable who was slain by a madman, the mayor who came to town with the circus, a man who swam away from the Milford train wreck of 1877, the Civil War captain who got a boost from Abe Lincoln, Frenchtown’s first car owner, a patent-medicine brewer, the owner of Uhlerstown, Pa., and the man who worked one day a year.
Then there’s the Bad Luck and Poor Choices Tour. “This tour covers much of the same terrain as the Downtown Tour,” Epstein says. “but it is more of a true-story tour and less of the basic history of Frenchtown.”
That tour includes true stories squeezed from the Frenchtown archives, including the banker who outsmarted himself (1926); truck hits a hotel and spills a drink (1984); why Aaron Burr never slept here (1806); a bank robbery foiled by a woman’s screams (1873); gunplay in the drug store (1939); Tippoo the killer elephant (1869); why the A&P opened a day late (1922); the deadly boiler explosion and George Hummer’s narrow escape (1879); lunch-break electrocution (1888); and a little tale of small-town benevolence (circa 1915).
Maybe you don’t want to miss the Uptown Tour, which moves north of Tranchtown’s center. It covers Old Frenchtown High School and the home of the Original Terrier (Delaware Valley High School’s mascot), the former doll-carriage factory, the Doughboy statue and the waitress who was obsessed with it, the first mayor’s mansion, the old Pontiac dealership, the Barn Theater, Doc Mullins’ hospital, and a World War II love story.
“We’ll also see the subtle Fifth Street seam where the first developer left off and the next developer took over in 1866,” Epstein says.
The former local newspaper editor has plenty of tales to tell.
“The best job I ever had was one that turned up in 1977. That’s when I was hired to run the Delaware Valley News in Frenchtown,” he wrote for the Hunterdon Democrat last year. “Back then Riegel Paper had four mills in operation, and Frenchtown still had a couple of factories. But tourists had not yet found Frenchtown. Half its storefronts were growing cobwebs. Business was so slow here that the owner of the National Hotel gave me a key to the front door so I could rent a room, as needed, for $4 a night.”
In those days, before computers, Epstein worked on an IBM Selectric typewriter and smoking was still allowed in the newsroom. Epstein absorbed all the stories around them and today, he tells them on his tours.
Epstein dresses up in a straw hat and summer shirt and guides guests in fun excursions through a town full of mystery and history.