It’s been 80 years since West Windsor, then a sleepy farm town, found itself at the center of a fictional Martian invasion. On October 30, 1938, Orson Welles broadcast in his infamous “War of the Worlds” radio play that spaceships had landed near Grovers Mill—and millions believed him.
To commemorate, the West Windsor Arts Center is gearing up to launch a new public arts project, hoping to install at least 10 martian-themed sculptures around town over the next couple years. They are targeting the broadcast’s 80th anniversary this October for the installation of the first.
What was intended as a Halloween prank stirred national frenzy; some historians believe Americans were already on edge in 1938 due to pre-World War II tensions.
According to legends, one West Windsor resident shot at a nearby water tower, thinking its ominous shape looked quite alien. Others packed their bags and escaped north to upstate New York and Vermont.
The next day, Welles’ broadcast made the front page of the New York Times: “A wave of mass hysteria seized thousands of radio listeners throughout the nation… [In Newark], more than 20 families rushed out of their houses with wet handkerchiefs and towels over their faces to flee.” From Atlanta to Kansas City, listeners bombarded local newsrooms, warning of fake meteor strikes and asking for details.
‘Public art can bring inspiration, connection and beauty to communities.’
Today, most residents are familiar with this nugget of local history by word-of-mouth, though Grovers Mill, once a household name across the country, is now remembered only by the most avid sci-fi fans.
There is a monument in Van Nest Park, in the heart of Grovers Mill, and the “War of the Worlds”-themed Grovers Mill Coffee House in the Southfield Shopping Center, but for most townspeople, West Windsor’s claim to infamy remains out of sight and mind in day-to-day life.
West Windsor Arts Council executive director Aylin Green the upcoming anniversary as an opportunity for “creative placemaking,” as cited in the current ongoing review of the township’s master plan.
“The board and I always had a vision for creating some kind of public art project as a way to engage the town with the Arts Center and to create more community opportunities to get together and be inspired,” says Green.
She adds that she first thought to connect the town’s history with a public art venture during a community input meeting held by the Art Council last spring.
“That got my gears going,” Green says. She talked to Arts Council board member and West Windsor resident, Doreen Garelick, about it and they came up with the locate to plant martian-inspired art throughout the township.
Now titled “the mARTians project,” the West Windsor Arts Council plans to commission martian-themed public art from across the country—especially targeting young, local artists enrolled in undergraduate and graduate programs.
There will be a stipend awarded to selected artists, likely around $1,000, in addition to a featured page on the council’s website. The application for proposals will be released online within the next month or so, Green says.
In evaluating proposals, there will be a preference for local artists. Adherence to the martian theme is a must, but that could mean anything from a spaceship to some kind of mutant pet. Though Green says the selection committee isn’t set in stone, it will most likely include herself and Garelick, who has been “spearheading” the project.
“Public art can bring inspiration, connection and beauty to communities,” Garelick says. “By installing family-friendly Martian sculptures throughout West Windsor, The mARTian Project will help reconnect our town’s identity with it’s unique history, through art.”
There’s much to do before Oct. 30. Besides selecting the best proposal, the council is still working to raise funds for the artist’s work. “We are looking for sponsors,” Green says. “We don’t have anything confirmed at the moment, though we are in talks with a few different entities.”
As for the sculptures’ locations, Green says nothing has been confirmed, though there has already been interest from local business owners and public stakeholders.
“We’re interested in a variety of public and private partnerships,” Green says. “Businesses might seek to have them installed on their property or it might even be the case that private property owners would sponsor the sculpture.”
For example, one possible location could be in front of the Grovers Mill Coffee House.
“It’s really a multi-purpose project,” Green says. She hopes to engage the community with public art and celebrate the town’s history, all while supporting local business.