By Kelly Nicholaides
for Montclair Local
A reenactment of the April 15, 1868 formation of Montclair at Glenfield Middle School depicted a community’s desire to grow culturally and civically while clinging to its agricultural roots. Clad in 19th century costumes, seven sixth graders called the meeting to order and began to set off a portion of Bloomfield into a separate township of Montclair — marking the town’s 150th anniversary.
“Today is a monumental day in history,” one re-enactor said.
Organized by social studies teacher Dan Gill, the reenactment included 42 students and promoted civics, the freedom to express ideas and opposing viewpoints and the importance of understanding how local government works—all lessons that Gill has been teaching his middle school students for the past three years.
On Sunday, April 15, after the town’s borders were approved by the students acting as the governing body, they opened the public comment portion of the meeting. Questions and dialogue were created through students’ imagination. Issues were as complex as funding of public services, educational facilities and immigration, and as basic as noise and traffic.
“What are you going to do about the night riders galloping at full speed?” one reenactor asked.
The governing body offered a curfew as a solution.
Expressing concerns over a culturally evolving community, one speaker noted, “We’ve never had problems until these Irish immigrants came into the community, started getting tipsy and causing a ruckus,” she said, adding that maybe they should be required to carry “paperwork.”
The speaker was quickly rebuffed by another, who took the stage and decried such a move. A member of the governing body said that none of the councilmembers carry citizenship papers.
Pressing issues included providing public services through the government.
“Every time government forms, people expect government to do everything. Why not create a volunteer fire department and have free public education? I agree we can do it and raise taxes,” a “councilman” said, prompting laughter.
With two thirds of Montclair being agricultural in 1868, property owners were concerned about growth. A farmer reenactor worried about burgeoning commerce industry.
“As the town grows, we’ll have more hotels and restaurants. We should have limits on the amount of property people can buy in Montclair so it doesn’t turn into a bustling city,” he said.
Transportation and agricultural concerns were the primary reasons that residents wanted Montclair separated from Bloomfield, Town Clerk Linda Wanat noted after the event.
“We wanted to split off to have our own train station and there were evolving agricultural community needs,” Wanat said. She added that some similarities exist between the town’s early government business and today’s practices. “We still use vellum, which is a heavy paper, to record our meeting minutes on.”
Mayor Robert Jackson said the event marked 150 years of achievement.
“Montclair is known for diversity, talent, schools, libraries, festivals and as a community that embraces all cultures,” Jackson said.
Through Gill’s lessons and the reenactment, students learn about how towns pass budgets and how current issues such as minimum wage, healthcare and education evolved, he explained.
“The students learn how we organize, govern and provide services,” said Gill. “They know we have responsibilities as voters and that a republic is a mess, not intended to be neat, but one formed from conflicting ideas at all times. That’s the value of our government. It’s important for people of varying opinions to understand what the other side believes, make sense of it and enact good policy and law.”
The free event included cupcakes, courtesy of Sweet Kitchen bakery of Montclair.
Costumes were donated by On Cue Costumes/Connie’s Vintage Trunk.