It can be difficult to determine whether a particular person or site deserves a historic marker in Union City.
“It’s tough to decide what is and is not historically relevant,” said Union City’s official historian, Gerard Karabin. Karabin curates the city’s history museum at the William V. Musto Cultural Center and spearheads the research that goes into producing a historic marker.
The city currently has eight historic markers.
“A lot of our historic markers haven’t been my idea,” he said. “They’ve come from distant family members of people who did something here or from people who have lived here a long time. But the thing is, we can’t put 10 markers on a block, or else they’d lose importance.”
Most of them commemorate the actions of a person, but a few commemorate a site. The commonality between them is that they all honor something or someone who has contributed to the development of, or brought positive attention to, the town.
Two of the markers honor local brewers, Daniel Bermes and William Joseph Peter. Both giants of industry in Hudson County, they are honored as much for the hundreds of jobs they created as they are for their brewing prowess. Another commemorates William Tylee Ranney, whom art critics have deemed one of the most important pre-Civil War American painters. He was one of the first major artists to call Hudson County home and influenced a generation of artists.
“The markers are not so big that you can fit a lot of material on them.” – Gerard Karabin
“And Pietro Di Donato, he wrote a very famous book called ‘Christ in Concrete,’ which beat ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ for a national book award,” said Karabin of the Italian-American author, who was given a marker in May of 2010.
Di Donato’s story is indicative of the markers’ other goal, to show citizens of present-day Union City how much they have in common with generations past.
“A lot of these stories are immigrant stories,” said Karabin. “These people are the children of immigrants, or immigrants themselves, who did their best to try and do something, and many of them did. These stories are parallels of what happens here still today.”
Karabin explained that most of the ideas for the markers do not come from him. The process usually involves a family member bringing the idea for a marker to local government officials, usually the commissioner for public affairs, Lucio Fernandez, who then involves Karabin.
Karabin has worked with the families of many of the honorees to uncover images and artifacts from their lives. However, the hardest part of the process is deciding what will be written on the historic marker.
“The markers are not so big that you can fit a lot of material on them,” he said. “We usually can fit about 150 words.”
Following the construction of the marker, the city holds an unveiling ceremony, usually accompanied by speeches from Fernandez, Karabin and, if present, from a relative, too.
“For a lot of the family members, it’s like they’ve come home,” said Karabin.
Susan Scherman, the great-great-niece of Daniel Bermes and catalyst behind the production of his historic marker, said that her uncle’s unveiling ceremony was one of the most important days of her life.
“I feel like I’ve come full circle as a human being,” she said.
Karabin hopes that the next historic marker to be unveiled will honor Frank and Irma Haubold, gymnasts who competed in the 1960 Summer Olympics and ran a training gym in town.
The work has been a collaboration between Karabin and some of the Haubolds’ relatives, who produced a documentary about the pair, “Frank and Chip.”
“You know, I really have the easier job here,” said Karabin. “The families do so much work and it’s very important to them. My job is really to enable our residents to learn their history.”
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org