Friday, November 4, 2011

The Martians Invade Grover's Mill

It has become an annual tradition for old-time radio fans to listen to the 1938 "War of the Worlds" panic broadcast on Halloween Eve. After listening to the broadcast more than a dozen times, it still surprises me that I catch something I overlooked the prior times, from bloopers to historical references. This year, however, I made the trek to the Grover's Mill Coffee Roasting Company, inspired by the 1938 panic broadcast.

Four years ago, I joined my good friends Neal Ellis, Ken Stockinger, Dr. Mike Biel and his daughter Leah Biel, to Grover's Mill, New Jersey, the real-life town where the fictional Martians invaded. Visiting the supposed landing site is like a Civil War buff touring the Civil War battlefields. After talking to locals and discovering new facts behind the broadcast, the significance of Orson Welles' 1938 broadcast has more meaning today than it did when I was a kid.

Bronze monument at Grover's Mill.

On October 29, 1988, the citizens of West Windsor Township dedicated a monument to the memory of the Martian Invasion. The bronze monument depicts a skyscraper-high Martian war machine in the upper right corner; in the left center, a brilliant, twenty-three year-old Orson Welles stands in front of a microphone; and in the lower two-thirds, a fairly typical American family listens to the radio broadcast. It not only reminds us of the broadcast that panicked Americans but also recalls the fateful night when America lost its innocence. Naturally, we went there to visit the monument, located a few miles away from the coffee shop.

We were shocked to learn, during our first visit to Grover's Mill, that tourists flocked to the memorial every Halloween, but after the 50th Anniversary of the broadcast, interest has diminished and rarely does anyone come by to check out the memorial, or question the local citizens about the Martian scare. This is dis-heartening, but a fact of life as the fan base continues to age.

Supposedly during the night of the Martian scare, locals unfamiliar with the territory, took pot shots at the Martian machine that roamed the city. In reality, what they shot was the water tower which was found, weeks later, to have buckshot inside. One of them was a farmer, Bill Dock, who admitted afterwards that he was among the people who took aim and fired at the outer space intruder. It didn't take long for Life magazine to pick up on the story, and asked Mr. Dock to pose for their camera (pictured below).

Bill Dock posing for a photographer of Life magazine.

The end result was that many of the locals in Grovers Mill wouldn't talk to the press. When Ken and Neal wandered about Grovers Mill a few years ago, they discovered some of the locals still won't talk to people about it! More amusing, they found the mill (pictured many times as a local landmark around the corner from where the monument is) which is where Mr. Dock posed for the photographers. The owner of the mill would not talk to us about the Martian scare, initially, until he was convinced we were historians and then opened up about the local tourist attractions.

Franc Gambatese
On the plus side, a recent visit on the anniversary, October 30, 2011, sparked an attempted revival from Franc Gambatese, originally from Patterson, NJ, owner of the Grover's Mill Coffee Company. Franc and his wife have been in the coffee business for seven years and three years ago opened the Grover's Mill Coffee House and Roastery, located at 295 Princeton Hightstown Road, Southfield Shopping Center, in West Windsor, New Jersey. Every year on the weekend of the "War of the Worlds" anniversary, they organize a celebration which includes re-creations.

"We're deadly serious in the coffee business, as much as we are in preserving Grover's Mill," Franc told me. "Our place has become a museum and all of the donations originate from other people. They've even given us radios. People seek us out and make donations and we put them on display for everyone."

Inside the Grover's Mill Coffee House

Martian machine made of coffee pots.

Martian cupcakes

Robert Hummel painting

Whether it was a Martian war machine made out of coffee pots or an original newspaper from 1938, the most impressive display was an original painting by Robert Hummel, created in 2008 specifically for the coffee shop. "I know Robert as a friend and I saw him one day and told him we were opening a coffee house and asked him to make a contribution. We gave him an old coffee pot and he used it as the model of the Martian machine. What he did was wonderful. Robert even has copies of the painting available on his website."

For anyone wanting a copy should visit Robert's website,
Photos on display at the Grovers Mill Coffee Shop.

During an interview on Radio Once More, broadcast live from the coffee shop, we learned that Franc also wrote a thesis about Orson Welles and the "War of the Worlds" panic broadcast, while attending the William Paterson College. His passion for the "War of the Worlds" broadcast was clearly evident (though he remarked that his wife was the brains behind the business). They offer tee shirts, DVDs, CDs and books for sale, all related to the panic broadcast.

The crew of Radio Once More broadcasting live.

Anyone who came in with a costume got a free coffee.

The coffee shop not only offers a museum of artifacts from posters, models and autographed photos, but some great coffee and tea. During our visit, they served Martian Moca Java. Turns out they have their own specialty blends, which are really good. I'm not a coffee drinker, so I chose the caramel apple cider and it was fantastic.

If you ever want to check out their inventory, purchases can be made at

If you are looking for something different to do next Halloween, why not consider visiting the Grover's Mill Coffee House & Roastery in New Jersey next year. You won't regret it.