Imagine if Mayberry had a psychiatric hospital. Or if a psychiatric hospital had a Mayberry.
That's how the "Ancora kids" think of the unusual company town in Camden County they once called home.
In 1955, New Jersey built about 100 single-family rental homes for patient-care, clerical, maintenance, and other workers at its new Ancora Psychiatric Hospital near the facility's main entrance on Spring Garden Road in Winslow Township.
Surrounded by woods and close to Ancora Lake, Edgewood Homes was a picturesque patch of postwar suburbia where children could enjoy the outdoors, while being exposed to the realities of mental illness.
"We did everything on [the] grounds. Swimming in the pool, tennis, Little League. . . . The patients would watch the games," recalls Lisa Carney, 51, of West Deptford.
"We volunteered at holiday parties and events for the patients," adds Carney, an insurance agent and grandmother of four. Although friendships were unusual, "we grew up with the patients."
While Ancora Psychiatric Hospital still exists, Edgewood Homes - frequently called Ancora Village - is gone.
In the early 2000s, the village's tiny ranch houses, and the streets where the Ancora kids roller-skated, got torn down, dug up, and carted away. The woods are fast reclaiming the site.
"It's almost like they took our childhood and erased it," says Ann Ziller, 57, a Realtor in Arizona who was known as Linda Lynch when she lived in Edgewood Homes in the 1950s and '60s.
"But the memories live on," says Beth Kaminsky, 39, who lives in Clementon and works at Ancora as a clerk. Her family moved out after the prefab houses began falling apart and going vacant in the 1980s. The last tenants left in the mid-1990s.
In the last year the Ancora kids, a loose aggregation including many baby boomers, have found one another through a Facebook page, Growing Up in Ancora, established by Kathy Longo.
"It was special, growing up there," says Longo, 46, who lives in Buena, Atlantic County. "We grew up with a huge mix of nationalities, and everybody got along."
About 40 people, turned up last summer - Zimmer came from Arizona, others from as far as Boston - for a reunion at a Hammonton church hall. Their reminiscences also are the focus of an online presentation, "Of Innocence and Insanity," by the Camden County Historical Society (historiccamdencounty.com).
"Some of the most marginalized and stigmatized people were their neighbors," says society board president Sandy Levins, who did the research. "And now the people who grew up there can't go home again."
I joined Levins, a couple of former residents, and a hospital official on a recent afternoon to tour the site.
Not only are the houses gone. So is a way of life that - the threat of nuclear annihilation aside - felt safer.
Bob Blazer, 55, grew up in Edgewood Homes delivering newspapers, playing baseball, and catching catfish in the lake. "Nobody locked their doors, unless they were going away for a week," he recalls.
With its own post office, store, and coffee shop, the grounds were a self-contained community at a time when few families had two cars and Hammonton was the closest place to shop. The hospital's ties with Edgewood helped connect the institution to the outside world as well.
"It is important that that era is not forgotten," says Lorie Triantos, executive assistant to Ancora executive director Allan Boyer.
"Memorializing the history . . . helps to remove the stigma from places like Ancora," Triantos adds.
Carney remembers some Winslow Township classmates "snickering" when she told them where she lived. But she and Kaminsky believe living there made them more tolerant.
"I grew up . . . with a lot of respect for everyone, especially people who might be a little bit different, or have a disability," Kaminsky says.
Ziller recalls being frightened only once by a patient. She was 11, and saw a man "having some kind of a meltdown" near the pool on the grounds.
"Our parents were always very protective of us," she says.
Kaminsky agrees. In the '70s, when some of the Edgewood Homes became "program houses" where higher-functioning patients could have family visits, she was cautious, but not afraid. "It's very bittersweet to be here," she says, in front of a grove of trees on Forest Drive, where her house once stood.
"I drive by, and see how it's all grown in, and I think, 'Gosh . . . I used to live there.' "
Revisit the vanished neighborhood of Ancora Psychiatric Hospital.