By Jaimie Julia Winters
A small, nondescript clapboard home with an extraordinary history has stood at 369 Claremont Ave. since around 1780. Built by William Crane, it may have been one of the first homes, maybe to house slaves. And the house was there when General George Washington may have set up temporary headquarters on the corner of Valley Road and the Old Road, now Claremont Avenue, which is why it may have been called the “George Washington Wayside Home” by many. But more importantly, the home was bequeathed to James Howe, the first freed slave in Montclair, and is now known as the “Freed Slave House,” said local historian and architect Frank Godlewski.
Howe was purchased by Maj. Nathaniel Crane, one of the descendants of Montclair’s founding family, in 1813 for $50. In fact, Montclair was first known as Cranetown, according to Godlewski.
Whether Crane had other slaves is unclear. As para- phrased in C.G. Watkins’ 1908 book “Reminiscences of Montclair,” Crane’s 1831 will suggests that Howe was a survivor of former slaves of the family. In the will, Crane freed Howe and left him the house, five acres of his “best land” and $400.
Watkins quotes early historian Philip Doremus, who describes how Crane “made provision for his old colored servant, James Howe, who was a survivor of the former slaves of the family and was known as Uncle Jim. He gave him a good tract of land on the north side of Clairmont [sic] Avenue running west from North Mountain Avenue, where he lived many years. A part of the house he occupied is still standing. As children, we used to enjoy visiting the old man who had become blind, and listening to his stories of our ancestry.
Major Nathaniel Crane had no children and made the West Bloomfield Presbyterian Church the residuary legatee of his estate, which amounted to about ten thousand dollars. This fund requires it to be held in trust by the church and the annual income to be used in support of the gospel in this church.”
Holding slaves was commonplace in New Jersey until 1866, when the adoption of the 13th Amendment made it unlawful. In 1690 nearly all the inhabitants of northern New Jersey owned slaves, according to slavenorth.com. Most of the members of the founding Crane family held slaves as did the Speer family, who owned much of Upper Montclair.
Howe and his wife Susan lived in the home on Claremont Avenue until they died, passing the house on to their son Henry.
The house is important piece of Montclair’s history, said Jane Eliasof, the Executive Director of the Montclair Historical Society.
“Because of its history, the house became known as the ‘Freed Slave House.’ Francis and Mary Oliver, also African American according to census data, bought the house from the Howe family, most likely in the 1840s. It stayed in their family for 60 years,” writes Eliasof in 2013, when fire struck the house. “In a 1933 Newark News article, Blanton Welsh, the owner of the house at that time, states that she and her husband bought it from the Olivers in 1904. The author of the article notes that the Welshes renovated the house, but kept many of the original features, such as the beehive oven and large hearth fireplace with a crane intact. According to the article, the house was sided with hemlock clapboard. The shingles you see today were added in a later renovation, using the firm and sound clapboard as a base. There is some speculation that the small wing in the back may pre-date the larger two-story wing that faces Claremont Avenue.”
In 2013, the New York Times reported that the home was a rental property belonging to Robert Van Dyk.
“Van Dyk also owns an adjacent nursing home and expressed an interest in donating the structure to the Montclair Historical Society [behind the Crane Mansion], freeing up the land for a more substantial, lucrative structure than the 800 square foot James Howe House, which currently houses a mother and her young son,” writes Stacey Patton, history professor at Montclair State University.
Descendants of James Howe became farm real estate developers with the Crane Family and were among the founders of Llewellyn Park in 1850, Godlewski said. Llewellyn Park, originally extending from Llewellyn Road in Montclair’s South End, was America’s first gated community, conceived for like-minded lovers of nature. The Stonebridge section preserves a remnant of the original 1850 Llewellyn Park and the Llewellyn Haskell landmark house still stands.
The Crane House, owned by James Howe’s former master, now houses the Montclair History Center after the building was saved from the wrecking ball and moved to Orange Road in the 1960s. The Federal-style mansion was built 20 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence when Montclair was still known as Cranetown. The original owner of the home was Crane, a prominent merchant with ties to the cotton industry and an owner of slaves. Nathaniel Crane Jr.’s home is now the gift shop.
Before the move when it still was on Glenridge Avenue in the 1910s, Crane’s mansion became the Trinity Presbyterian Mission, for blacks who left Virginia and North Carolina in search of better lives in this northern suburb. In 1920, it became the African-American YWCA where classes were held to teach women and girls etiquette and reading and writing. W. E. B. DuBois, Langston Hughes and Booker T. Washington also spoke there. For a while in the early 1920s, the upper attic of the building was a dormitory for black female students who could not live on Montclair State University’s campus because of their race, said Godlewski.
After pushback from the community who wanted the house to remain where it was built, the Howe house was never moved to what was then the Historical Society. Tenants currently live in the home.