People of the Pines: A Unique Examination of Various Ocean County Residents

Debra Simpson

Debra Simpson is a well-known basket weaver whose family has resided in Forked River for several generations. Her family settled in Ocean County at the turn of the 20th century, when her bayman grandfather, William V. Arnold, settled at the mouth of the Forked River, the shortest outlet to the bay.

Debra’s maternal ancestors were the Ford nee Abelson family, locally known as Lenni Lenape, the Delaware Indians.  She adds, “What I have always been told is that early on they spent their spring and summer months along the Delaware River and by the first fall frost, would move westward as far as West Virginia. I can construct what is known as a South Jersey Eel Trap, which was used by family members to fish and eel with.”

Debra also wove Baymen’s Baskets that were used during the time her father and uncles fished out of the Barnegat Bay. Having had the influence of basketry on both sides of her family, it makes perfect sense that she came to be recognized as a Master Basket Maker for the State of New Jersey.  Debra adds, “My love of baskets runs parallel to my love of family traditions. I have been repairing baskets since I was a teenager and weaving baskets all my adult life. In 1999 I received a grant from the State of New Jersey Council of the Arts, Folk Arts apprenticeship.”

Debra now passes on her practice by teaching boy scouts and girls scouts how to weave. She also gives seminars on basketry regularly, commenting, “Each time I teach a basket class I give a little seminar on what we are weaving and how that basket was used in my family, and how that basket can be used today. While attending local craft shows I’m always weaving a basket, or giving a demonstration how to lash a rim or how to lay out a base.”

Growing up, Debra’s family didn’t have very much in terms of financial security, so they depended upon their traditions and work ethic. She adds, “We developed a can-do spirit which I call Pine Barrens Pride, and it has stayed with my family for years. The essence of Pine Barrens Pride comes from knowing who we are and where we come from and from knowing at the end of the day when it’s all said and done; you get another crack at it tomorrow. I try to weave that example into my basketry, and in every aspect of my daily life.”

Debra also worked as a police dispatcher for the Lacey Township Police Department for over 25 years. “Because I was born and raised in Forked River, I have a strong connection to many of the local residents,” she stated. Adding, “Not everyone is cut out to be a Telecommunications Operator.  It can be a daunting task. Luckily for me I had a past Chief, Thomas Darmody and present Chief Michael DiBella that always believed in proper training. Education is the key to workplace success.”

Debra recalls the early face of Forked River when there was only 1 traffic light on route 9. She believes that the sense of community is still strong is Forked River, though. “Forked River (Lacey Township) has grown in leaps and bounds. Some of the faces have changed but the same small town spirit remains,” Debra remarked. She is optimistic too that with new knowledge on preserving the Pinelands, Reclaiming the Bay and being mindful of recycling and water/energy conservation, that we can enhance our town and lifestyles.

I asked Debra if she had any final thoughts she wanted to share with the community, to which she replied, “If you can look at yourself in the mirror and be satisfied with what you see, take a minute and give thanks.”

Make sure to check out her baskets that are on display and for sale at Ivy Cottage Gifts 407 Lacey Road in Forked River!

Chelsea Eriksen is a freelance writer and marketing professional who has over 8 years experience writing for major magazines, websites and blogs. She graduated from Wells College in 2011 with a Bachelor’s Degree in English and a minor in Advertising. Following her graduation, she interned for Relix Magazine and Big Hassle Media in NYC and soon after joined Effective Immediately PR’s publicity team in NYC and became Vice President until 2015. During her time there, she helped to grow their team from 5 publicists to over 25 in just 3 short years and expanded their offices to the West Coast. She has worked with a range of clientele, from independent artists and budding businesses all the way up to major brands including Clarks, Converse and Sonos. Currently she works as a PR/Marketing Coordinator for Direct Development PR in Hazlet, NJ and resides in Forked River, NJ. For any marketing, social media, public relations or content writing needs, you can reach Chelsea at