Stanley Saperstein has managed to juggle three “careers”: the one paying the bills, personnel officer for the state of New Jersey; master craftsman; and local historian. As a master in woodcarving with a master’s degree in history and education from Trenton State College (now the College of New Jersey), he became a colonial woodcarver at the craft fairs that sprouted during the Bicentennial, and eventually found his way into historical reenactment.
One of the characters Saperstein created is a town crier, which he will play, wearing period clothes, at Pennington’s 35th Holiday Walk, sponsored by the Pennington Business and Professional’s Association, Friday, Dec. 7, starting at 5:30 at Howe Commons.
Festivities open at Howe Commons at 5:30 p.m., where restaurants will offer snack trays, followed by tree lighting by Santa at 6:30. Elves from Dance Works, the town crier, and George and Martha Washington will escort Santa in his lit-up sleigh to Ocean First Bank, where he will pose for individual pictures. Dance Works will also perform in the middle of town, as will the Pennington Studio for Dance and Creative Arts (which will also perform indoors at Pennington Presbyterian Church). Ice sculptor John Goeke will carve two big blocks of ice, and Mike Tusay will play holiday songs on his guitar. PBPA member Kevin Ryan urges community groups and choruses to join in the celebration.
As town crier, Saperstein will open the festivities by announcing “Oyez” (pronounced ‘oh yay’), the old French word meaning “hear” (and the source of Hollywood’s “hear ye, hear ye”). “The town crier’s job is very misunderstood,” Saperstein says. “Hollywood thinks it is the guy who yells and rings the bell and makes announcements, but that is a small portion of job.”
In fact, they were the town clerks who recorded and kept the files of all court and legislative documents. “Probably because of literacy problems, they would go out and read whatever the decision or the law was into the record,” he says.
Familiar with Saperstein’s work, Vanessa Sandom “thought it would be nice to have an official town crier for Hopewell Township” and got the town council to appoint him as town crier by resolution. So when the PBPA was looking for reenactors for its Holiday Walk, Saperstein, elected last year as vice president of the American Guild of Town Criers, stepped into the role. This will be his third year opening the festivities, announcing the tree lighting, and introducing Santa and escorting him down the street. Saperstein’s version of the town crier—which he created originally for narrating George Washington’s Christmas crossing of the Delaware, for the Washington Crossing Park Association, where he is on the board of directors.
Saperstein’s path into historical reenactment grew out of both his craftsmanship and his passion for history. Under an apprenticeship with Larry Grinnell, Saperstein had become a master craftsman and furniture maker. Then, during the Bicentennial, he got his start as a living historian by recreating a colonial woodworker, who would demonstrate woodcarving and basic furniture making. He also founded the New Jersey Guild of Professional Craftsmen, which included 50 mostly colonial craftsmen.
Encouraged by a friend, Saperstein joined the Fifth Pennsylvania Infantry as a camp carver who built fortifications and did weapon repairs. The first character he created was Eli Carver.
Saperstein then got interested in artillery and, based on his woodcarving expertise, started to build cannon carriages and then repaired them for local historic sites. Next came rifles, where he created the wood parts and bought the metal ones.
As he got tired of old historical characters, he would create new ones based on detailed research about the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. “I would pick out characters who were very famous in their time but unknown today,” Saperstein says. His first military character was Tim Murphy, who he calls “the premier rifleman of the whole Revolution, a national hero.” Playing Murphy, Saperstein carried a double-barreled rifle that matched the one Murphy used.
His latest character is Col. Benjamin Flower. Saperstein explains: “I picked him out because, next to Washington, he was probably the most important person in the Revolution, but no one has ever heard of him.” Flower brought the Industrial Revolution to the United States, he says. “There was no industry here, and England wouldn’t allow any under its system of mercantilism. So he took all of the cottage craftsmen and brought them together in ‘manufactories.’ By the end of the war there were 837, and we were out-producing England in things you need to run an army with.”
The town crier joined Saperstein’s stable of historic characters when he suggested to the New Jersey State History Fair that they needed a town crier to announce events. The fair’s organizer, Beverly Weaver, thought it was a good idea. First he had to acquire a custom-made pants and vest made of red wool, which, he says, can be expensive. “Plus you have to hire very skilled people who make these things, mostly by hand,” he says.
The uniform cost $800, the haversack, hat, and boots an additional $200 to the bill, and, if the figure is military, “when you add firearms, it really gets expensive,” he says. The uniform he uses for town crier was based on a picture of Col. Benjamin Flower, painted by James and Charles Willson Peale, at the American Revolutionary War Museum in Philadelphia. Saperstein sent a photo of the painting to a sutler (the old word for a military vendor), and she used it to create the uniform.
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Saperstein’s paternal grandfather immigrated from Lithuania and ended up in Trenton, where he owned a huge junkyard as well as real estate. He had one daughter and seven sons; one was Saperstein’s father, Samuel. His mother came to the area to attend Rider College.
Samuel Saperstein taught himself to rebuild parts on old cars, and in 1915 opened Trenton Auto Parts with his brother, Jack Saperstein; the store stayed open until his uncle died in 1985. His father and uncle had seen that “the small auto parts store will not exist when I’m ready to take it over because all the chains were coming.” Also parts had to be sent back to the factory to be rebuilt.
The craftsmanship that eventually enabled Saperstein to craft weapons and period furniture got its start during his summer-long visits with his grandmother on her truck farm in Hudson, New York.
The 40-acre farm, which included 20 dairy cows, 10 acres in vegetables, big apple orchards, a 3-acre vineyard, as well as pasture and hay fields, was not generating sufficient income to support a family, so the family also owned real estate in town and three gas stations, one on the farm itself.
Saperstein used to sit and listen to the retired farmers, many of them World War I vets, who gathered at his grandfather’s gas station and shared outsize tales of their hunting and fishing exploits. As they talked, three of them whittled wooden chains from solid blocks of wood. Like every farm boy, Saperstein had his own pocketknife to do chores like cutting the bailing wire from hay bales at feeding time; and he had a small sharpening stone to keep his knife at the ready. The farm also had plenty of wood lying around, and he found worn-out slats from apple crates particular useful as whittling targets.
Saperstein would sit with these men, fascinated by their stories, and whittle a hunting knife or a pirate’s sword, props for his imaginary play. Eventually, he says, “they started to teach me how to make chains and little figurines,” a hobby he continued through college.
Saperstein’s woodcraft took a different turn after his wife happened to meet Larry Grinnell, then 75, a master furniture maker and woodcarver from the Iowa family that was the namesake for Grinnell College. When Saperstein went to meet Grinnell, he took along some of his work. Grinnell told him, “You have good hands–would you like to learn to be a professional woodcarver? These are not woodcarvings—they are country whittlings. If you want to get real money, make furniture.”
Saperstein entered an apprenticeship with Grinnell, eventually becoming a master woodcarver and opening a shop in his home, Artisans of the Valley, which is now owned and run by his son, Eric, also a master carpenter. “We are considered one of the best furniture restoration studios in the whole country. We make period reproductions that really nobody can make anymore,” says Saperstein, who still works half days in the business.
Pursuing his history avocation, Saperstein has also led tours to the Gettysburg Battlefield for Mercer County Community College; taught history on and off as an adjunct; spoke at historic societies; offered offering classes on “weird and unusual history” in the Hopewell Senior Explorations program; done a seminar with Princeton historian James McPherson; and written history-related articles and books, including one on civil war drills and “A Field Guide to American Period Furniture. He also served for years as the “ferry man” and senior tour guide on the Pennsylvania side of Washington Crossing Park, taking out tours and explaining the 10 crucial days during the Revolution, including the battles of Princeton and Trenton and the crossing.
Saperstein’s historical novel “Sharpshooters: The Story of the U.S. Sharpshooters in the Arm of the Potomac, 1861-64,” offered a detailed picture of what it meant to be a sharpshooter. “Sharpshooters were terribly disliked by both their own and enemy troops. Sharpshooters were considered dishonorable—you weren’t supposed to aim at anybody.” Because the troops used mass volley fire, he explains, “it was God’s will whether you were killed or injured, and you were not murderer. If you aimed and killed someone, you were considered a murderer and could be hanged.”
His 30-year “career that paid the bills” was in human resources for the state of New Jersey, starting at motor vehicles, then moving to the public advocate, then environmental protection. But he spent most of his career in the corrections department, where he started as compensation officer, then was in charge of the personnel offices in all the state’s jails.
As the department grew, he was put in charge of compensation, then recruitment, hiring all the corrections officers, juvenile officers, and parole officers. “They all have police authority within the State of New Jersey, so recruitment has to be very careful,” he says. These jobs had high turnover and only certain people were suited for them, so the hiring was complicated, requiring screening, background checks, and medical and psychological exams. Because the state’s department of personnel was too slow in producing test lists of people who had passed the civil service exam, his department was allowed to administer its own test. Saperstein retired from the state in 2001.
Saperstein has lived in Hopewell for 39 years this September, initially moving in because he wanted a good school system and a more rural area. Although, he says, “my retirement dream was to go live near where my grandmother’s farm was. I never did that.”