On October 24, 1938, playwright Howard E. Koch had less than a week to write the script for the next episode of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre on the Air. Producer John Houseman had given him the assignment: Dramatize H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds as a radio play.
Koch knew he would have to move the locale of the story from Britain to the New York metropolitan region. On Monday, his one day off, Koch visited his family up the Hudson River. On his return, he picked up a map at a gas station to determine where the Martians would begin their assault. Since he was passing through New Jersey on Route 9W, it was a map of that state. Back in New York, Koch closed his eyes and dropped a pencil on the map. It fell on the tiny unincorporated hamlet of Grovers Mill, New Jersey. And, thus, a small village near Princeton became ground zero for the Martian invasion of the earth — and entered media history.
The story of that radio broadcast, the public’s response, and the media furor that followed, have been well documented. As I outline in an article in Knowledge@Wharton, “From Martians to Fake Tweets: Media Mania Is Nothing New,” these events may offer insights into our current conundrum over the flood of information from new media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit.
In the ruckus that followed the broadcast, Welles seemed confused about whether the location of the Martian invasion actually existed. “It was a mythical town, but … it was near enough to a real name,” Welles stated in a press conference the day after the broadcast. “I’ve forgotten how we figured it out. It’s either Grovers Mills or it is Grove’s Mill or something. At any rate, we changed it slightly … a thing which H. G. Wells did not do — his names are quite real English towns.”
Despite Welles’ proclamation, Grovers Mill is, in fact, a very real place. The mill that gave the area its name remains at the intersection of Clarksville and Cranbury Roads. The building is now a chiropractor’s office. The former feed and farm supply store across the road has been converted into an office building, yet it still echoes the look of the original barn building with the village’s named proudly painted on the side.
The Grovers Mill community seems to have overcome any initial embarrassment it may have had serving as the unwitting springboard for a famous media hoax. For the 50th anniversary in 1988, a large bronze plaque with a time capsule was installed in nearby Van Nest Park. More recently, a series of descriptive signs were added along the path that leads from the parking lot to Grovers Pond.
In a suburban shopping center three miles from the landing site, the Grovers Mill Coffee Company maintains an archive of memorabilia from the area’s Martian encounter, including an original newspaper describing the furor the broadcast caused, posters from the movie versions, and a large painting by artist Robert Hummel that fancifully depicts a Martian attacking local buildings.
In visiting the scene of the fictional invasion 31 years later, Koch recalled a story he was told about a local resident shooting at a water tower that loomed over a house across the road from the mill, believing it to be a Martian war machine. The story may be apocryphal (Koch himself seemed a bit skeptical). Nonetheless, the old water tower still stands, looking eerily like a Martian tripod from Wells’ story (albeit with four, not three, legs in this case). Now barely visible behind the trees and overgrowth of vines, the silent sentinel seems more protective than menacing. Whether or not it was ever fired upon, it remains a monument to an important moment in media history.
For additional photos, see the Flickr gallery: Grovers Mill, NJ.