Marking 325 years in the Jersey Shade

Maple Shade's firehouse and municipal building in the 1930s, left, now home of Cafe Fontana.
Maple Shade's firehouse and municipal building in the 1930s, left, now home of Cafe Fontana.
Posted: November 04, 2013

When Betty Procopio's uncle got back from World War II, he headed straight for Maple Shade's Main Street.

Young people gathered at the Rexall soda fountain across from the Roxy Theater, "and he wanted to see his friends," says Procopio, president of the Maple Shade Historical Society.

"He was glad to be home."

Vignettes like this one are expected to be a centerpiece of the township's 325th anniversary celebration, which will include an after-dinner open-mic session for sharing Maple Shade memories.

The event is set for 6:30 Friday at Cafe Fontana and is sponsored by Main Street Maple Shade, a nonprofit working to improve downtown.

"We're all about Main Street because Main Street is the heart and soul of our town," says Ellen McDowell, 53, an attorney who is also the organization's president.

McDowell grew up near Buffalo and lives in Pennsauken. But she opened her law office on Main Street 16 years ago and loves the town.

The open-mic idea was inspired by the "I'm from THE SHADE" Facebook page, where more than 1,900 members swap stories, photos, and queries.

"It's all 'Can you remember this, can you remember that?' " McDowell says. "People love to riff off each other."

A 3.8-square-mile Burlington County community of 19,000, Maple Shade did not officially become Maple Shade Township until 1945. Earlier, it had long been a section of the much larger Chester Township (founded: Nov. 6, 1688).

Hence a 325th anniversary that many in Maple Shade, including the Main Street organization, hadn't realized was imminent "until about six weeks ago," McDowell admits.

Nevertheless, descendants of several founding families with surnames such as Roberts, Rudderow, and Stiles are being invited to a gala organizers hope will boost Main Street revitalization.

This tidy expanse of low-rise buildings offers a decent array of mostly locally owned stores, restaurants, service businesses, and professional offices. But it's no longer the busy shopping and social hub older Maple Shaders fondly recall.

"I have to believe we can bring it back," says Joanne Mortimer, 62, a Realtor and retired Camden High School math teacher who grew up in the township.

Mortimer, who is executive director of the Main Street group, remembers the vanilla Cokes at the Rexall fountain; the quarter matinees at the now-demolished Roxy; and the apparel store, millinery shop, and other long-gone retailers.

"It's been an exponential change," says real estate appraiser Harry Renwick, 70, citing the postwar suburbanization that transformed Maple Shade's farms and orchards into housing developments with names like Alden Park. He moved to Maple Shade from Moorestown when he was 5.

"When I was a young child, the town was semirural. But it's very urbanized now," Renwick says, adding that "a sense of community" has nevertheless endured.

"People here are very down-to-earth," McDowell agrees. "They're not showy or ostentatious. They have a very, very strong sense of 'We're all in it together.' "

While lower Northeast Philadelphia was the source of many new Maple Shade residents in the postwar years, more recent arrivals have traveled a greater distance.

Consider Lou Gino Vojnika, 50, who emigrated from Albania 20 years ago and owns Cafe Fontana.

That's the restaurant - on Main Street - where his adopted hometown will celebrate its 325th birthday.

"He donated the use of the space," McDowell says, noting that the $15 ticket charge will cover the cost of the food.

"Maple Shade has such a strong sense of community spirit. And Lou wants to be a part of it."


kriordan@phillynews.com

856-779-3845 @inqkriordan

www.inquirer.com/blinq

For information about the gala, e-mail hiapalucci@aol.com

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