Elephants, the golfer and the compound: ‘The Weight of Living’

There was some dispute about George Dickinson’s ancestral claims, but Nagler didn’t care. He had lived in the area for eighty-five years and his family settled in these hills before the Revolution, whether it was the right Dickinson family or not. Besides, Nagler thought, how could you not like a man playing golf in a lime-green shirt, red knickers, a white hat and shoes and knee-high argyle socks?

Newspapers recently had a story about  the old Ringling compound  in Jefferson being put up for sale. The mansion is owned by a Catholic order, which now wants to sell it. The place  was once home to animals used in the  Ringling Brothers Circus before they shifted the  winter base to Florida. A segment of the old complex in now part of the Morris County golf course at Berkshire Valley. A note: I changed the name of the Dickerson family to Dickinson, just ‘cus.

In “The Weight of Living,” the third Frank Nagler book, I needed a remote location for a compound  owned by the family at the heart of the mystery and the old Ringling mansion  seemed like just the place to start.


This is the scene:

“You the cop?”

“Yup. You George Dickinson?”

“Be so.”

“Then we know who we are.”

“That’s a fact.”

George Dickinson claimed to be a distant relative of the old New Jersey governor on whose family’s land iron ore was discovered, boosting a centuries-long industry that put Ironton on the map. While the forges and mills filled Ironton’s sky with black smoke, miners cracked open holes in the ground in the northern hills to drag out the ore.

The forested hills were deeper and darker than Nagler recalled, as if the sunlight skipped over the tops or was absorbed by the dense forest. Nightfall would come early here, he thought. Steep-sided valleys carved by glacial water and ancient rivers split the hard-rock hills into segments that made up a mining district that ran to eastern Pennsylvania and produced iron ore, zinc, slate, coal, and limestone. He had read somewhere that the hills he had driven through had once been clear cut of all the trees as the need for wood outstripped Nature’s ability to replace it.

The narrow river valleys left no room for roads, so old Leni Lenape Indian paths that hugged the valley floors had first become trails for settlers, then wider paths for wagons, until finally a couple rail lines were cut for the mines.

That’s all gone now, Nagler had thought as he drove through the beautiful yet unsettling landscape; overgrown, collapsed on itself, the history of industry and struggle worn down through time; it was a closed-in and moody place, perfect, he decided, for the twisted visions of Remington Garrettson.

There’s probably nothing left of the old compound, he guessed, even if Lauren spotted a powerline. But after a couple weeks of poking into every vacant fallen-down shell of a building in the city, every empty home with windows of gray, soggy plywood and even some of the addresses attached by paperwork to the Mine Hill Foundation, there had been no evidence that Tank Garrettson and his buddies had been staying in any of them.

We’ve looked nearly everywhere else, so why not here?

There was some dispute about George Dickinson’s ancestral claims, but Nagler didn’t care. He had lived in the area for eighty-five years and his family settled in these hills before the Revolution, whether it was the right Dickinson family or not. Besides, Nagler thought, how could you not like a man playing golf in a lime-green shirt, red knickers, a white hat and shoes and knee-high argyle socks?

“I play every day since they turned that chemical dump into a golf course.” Dickinson winked at Nagler. “That was a pleasant change. But I had played here as a kid. There was a little course of water and I used the old sheds as a green.”

Nagler shaded his eyes from the sunlight with one hand.  The clear blue sky rose like a dome above the green valley.   I’m never ready for this stuff, he thought with irritation.   I never bring a hat and always leave my sunglasses in the car.

“Those walls the remains of the elephant sheds?” Nagler asked.  He nodded toward a stone framework with arches in the middle of one of the golf holes. A stand of medium-tall trees grew near the sheds; Nagler imagined the tree from which Sarah Lawton was hanged would have been taller.

“That’s it.  Can you imagine? Old Ringling had about a thousand acres for himself, built that mansion down the road that’s now owned by the church, and had lions, tigers, and elephants and what-all here. They used to drive the elephants down the valley road to the train stop. What a sight!”

“Can imagine.  Were there more trees near the sheds back then?  The land’s been worked.”

“I recall a stand of oaks, maples, and ash trees back then, but the chemicals probably killed them.  Lot of dead wood and soil was taken out of here to build the golf course. Why?”

“Just wondering. Beautiful spot. Can see why folks settled here. How many people lived up here?”

Before Dickinson could answer, the echo of a distant explosion rolled off the hills and across the golf course.

Nagler flinched. “What the hell was that?”

“Ha! That’s the arsenal. They develop weapons there and once in a while blow stuff up.  It kinda announces itself without warning,” Dickinson said, winking.

“Damn it. So how many people…” Nagler asked again.

“Few hundred, scattered.  The end of the mining cleared it out pretty much. When Ringling was here in the Twenties, there was the start of a lake settlement.  When old Remington lived here, weren’t many others. He managed to find the one flat spot of land up on the mountain, worked a stand of apple trees, and then by luck after a washout, found an iron vein right near the surface. There’s two versions. One, he worked it hard for a couple of years, set aside some reserves and fixed up the house and all; and the second, that he barely made a go of it. Truthfully it’s somewhere in between. Mind if I play through here? There’s a foursome three holes behind me. They let me play as long as I don’t hold up the paying customers.”

Nagler smiled. “Swing away.”

Dickinson settled the ball on a tee and pulled out a driver with a head the size of a grapefruit. Nagler recalled a line from Jimmy Dawson, who said in other sports the players took steroids, but in golf it was the equipment that grew.

Dickinson took a smooth swing and the ball jumped out maybe a hundred and fifty yards, driven less by the power of the swing than the size of the metal clubface.

Dickinson picked up the tee and walked on.  “You play?”

“No,” Nagler said, shaking his head.  “Bad feet, no time.”

Dickinson said, “That’s good, make ya crazy.”

“So where’s the old Garrettson place from here?” Nagler asked as Dickinson lined up another shot: He topped it and the ball bounced out about thirty feet.

“Maybe a mile south.  The old mining camps, where the real money was, were about three, four miles southwest of here over the mountain. His place is at the edge of the fields. No one looking to make real money would have opened that vein.”

“Anything left there?”

“Yeah, heard hikers say there are some buildings, roofs caved in, windows shot out.  There’s a hiking trail that heads up that way. It’s generally smooth since all the rocks have been picked out.”

“I heard there was something called ‘Garrett’s Way?’”

“It’s an old creek washout. He used it as a way to his place.  Heard he blocked it off half way up with blowdowns.”

Dickinson took another swing and with an iron drove the ball cleanly down the fairway.

“All I heard about Garrettson was that he was crazy. People would see him on the valley road with a shotgun yelling at something, probably God. They had learned to stay away. I mean, Detective, they weren’t stupid. The wife dies when there were three kids. Then there’s ten kids and no new wife? Just wasn’t anybody’s business. I guess.”

“Makes sense. Anyone been seen up there recently?” Nagler asked.

“Don’t think so. Wait, heard at the gas pump the other day that some skinny red-haired woman was seen there, maybe a week ago.”

Nagler turned away and stated into the green hills. Has to be Calista. What the hell?

“Haven’t heard of anyone else, or heard that she was seen again. Might have been a hiker. Hey, watch this.”

Dickinson set his ball on a tee and turned away from the center of the fairway.  “I could do this as a kid. Let’s see.”  He struck the ball hard and it sailed in an arc into the stone frame of the elephant sheds. “Ha!” he shouted.

Nagler just laughed at the old man’s joy. He shook his hand and walked back to his car.

“Any time you want to play, call me,” Dickinson yelled.


The Frank Nagler Mysteries are available at:

Amazon: http://goo.gl/hVQIII

Kobo: https://goo.gl/bgLH6v

NOOK: http://goo.gl/WnQjtr




An audiobook version of “The Swamps of Jersey” is available at:


and itunes, and Amazon.


About michaelstephendaigle

I have been writing most of my life. I am the author of the award-winning Frank Nagler Mystery series. "The Swamps of Jersey (2014); "A Game Called Dead" (2016) -- a Runner-Up in the 2016 Shelf Unbound Indie Author Contest; and "The Weight of Living" (2017) -- First Place winner for Mysteries in the Royal Dragonfly Book Awards Contest.
This entry was posted in Fiction, Greater Lehigh Valley Writer's Group, Imzadi Publishing LLC, Michael Stephen Daigle, Mystery Writers of America, Sally Ember, www.michaelstephendaigle.com and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply