By Jaimie Julia Winters
From unique traditions and history, to strange hauntings and discoveries, Montclair has some interesting lore. The following stories are just some of Montclair’s interesting history.
Circa 1894 the number of saloons went from 16 to 48 in Montclair creating almost a bar on “every dark corner.” A liquor license was easily obtained. All it took was 12 men to sign an application requesting a liquor license and $40 payable to the County of Newark, where a judge would approve the application. A place to have a drink away from the eyes of the wife and kids after a long day at work was a much appreciated attraction to the working poor in Montclair. “Poor because all their money went to the saloons,” according to Henry Whittemore’s book, “History of Montclair Township.”
The Commonwealth Club for men had its startup in keeping men out of the saloons in 1904 in the original Union Congregational Church. “Word got around of plans to open a saloon north of Watchung Avenue, in what would later be called Upper Montclair. A couple of dozen men decided to form a social organization. With sports and games, they would try to keep young men and boys away from spirits, and the Commonwealth Club was born,” according to the recorded history of the club. The club offered socialization with other men and entertainment in the ways of theater, cricket and a bowling alley and even a circus at one point. In 1907, construction of an addition was complete. The church was the ballroom.
The club was nearly lost before World War I. The $10,000 debt-load cost them their baseball and cricket field, which is located where the Commonwealth Gardens Apartments are now. Many Montclairites attended the club’s baseball games. “With crowds perched in a magnificent grandstand, our guys even took on the New York Giants one day,” according to the history.
In 1984, a fire took the church portion of the club. The tradition of the club continues in the addition and the club’s floats continue to win awards in the July 4 parade.
Golfing at Edgemont
Before it was a park, Edgemont Park was Montclair Golf Club in 1986, then Erwin Golf Club. A committee for park construction in 1906 purchased the land for the park with a $100,000 bond issue, following a town referendum. William B. Dickson backed a quarter of the bonds issued. There is still a “No Golfing” sign up in the park as residents continued to use the grounds for putting practice, according to historian Helen Fallon.
The mummified Mr. Munn
In 1877, a graveyard at Church and Trinity streets and Bradford Place was dug up to make way for development. The bodies were exhumed to be moved to Rosedale Cemetery. But upon exhuming the petrified Mr. Munn, it was discovered he was missing his lower jaw and one leg. He was put on display for all the town’s people to see. “There was no fake about him,” writes Henry Whittemore in “The History of Montclair.”
In Montclair’s early beginnings there were no banks. Any passerby on Bloomfield Avenue might be asked by shopkeepers if they were going to Newark, and if so, handed a wad of money and asked to make a deposit in the Bank of Newark on their behalf. One such passerby’s story was recalled in the “Reminiscences of Montclair” by Samuel Watkins: “Not even knowing me, storekeepers came out as I was passing by at noon and handed me money to deposit into their accounts in Newark.” In 1886 the first bank opened, Montclair Building and Loans, and passers-by were relieved of their duties.
New Year’s day Tradition
New Year’s Day was considered the “gayest day of the year” in the late 1800s. Men and women would don their finest, while women would vie for the most callers by preparing the best food, always reported in the Montclair Times. The men would attempt to make the most calls in one day – sometimes up to hundreds according to the book “Montclair in the Elegant Eighties.” Each home visit typically took five minutes. “No one took off their coat or were relieved of their hat. Enough time was spent to say ‘Happy New Year’, mention the weather and how remarkedly well the ladies looked on the day,” according the book.
Tierney’s odd shape, hauntings
Tierney’s Tavern is on Valley Road in a section once known as Frog Hollow. The Lenape Indians called this area home until they were driven out by the English and Dutch settlers in the late 1600s.
William and Kate Tierney farmed the land that the tavern now sits on before the bar was established in 1934. They soon became fixtures in the community, and were known to take care of the neighborhood during troubled times. The family still operates the tavern to this day.
The place was investigated for paranormal activity in 2013 after whispers and voices were heard throughout the building. “The bartenders on the main floor often hear footsteps on the second floor long after the building has been locked. The distinct sound of bottle caps hitting the walls or floor is quite common, yet none are ever found by the clean up crew,” according to Bearfort Paranormal, who conducted the investigation. Ghosts were quiet during the 2013 investigation.
Tierney’s odd shape is due to a right-of-way by the railroad that was supposed to erect a third line next to the saloon, which never happened, according to Fallon.
Washington and Lafayette stayed here
A tiny monument at 551 Valley Road marks the spot where Gen. Lafayette reportedly stayed when Montclair was known as Cranetown. According to the book “Revolutionary War New Jersey,” on Oct. 23, 1780, Lafayette and his troops moved from their encampment in Hawthorne now to what is now Montclair. Lafayette, a French officer, came to America to fight on the American side in the Revolutionary War. Three days later, they marched to Elizabethtown — now Elizabeth — with plans to attack British troops on Staten Island. The attack never happened because Lafayette’s boats never showed up. Lafayette and his troops marched back to their position at Cranetown on the 28th, where they remained until the next day when they returned to their camp at Hawthorne. The small, fenced-in area on Valley Road contains what tradition says was the stone doorstep of the house Lafayette used as a headquarters while in Cranetown. The house is no longer standing.
Lafayette developed a close friendship with George Washington. Another small monument on Valley Road and Claremont Avenue marks the spot Washington reportedly used as headquarters on Oct. 26, 1780. Placed on a boulder by the Daughters of the Revolutionary War in 1922, the plaque is now in front of an office where William Crane’s house once stood. It reads, “used by General George Washington as temporary headquarters on October 26, 1780, while on the march from Totowa now Paterson to support Lafayette’s expedition against the enemy on Staten Island.” However, according to Revolutionary War New Jersey, there is speculation about Washington’s stay in Montclair. Washington’s and Lafayette’s letters during this period make no mention of Washington actually coming to Cranetown while Lafayette was here. The source that Washington stayed in Cranetown is an article written over a century later by the Rev. Oliver Crane, great-grandson of William Crane. He recounted family traditions about Washington using the house as his headquarters. Washington may have had reason to briefly venture to Montclair during that period and stopped at the Crane house, especially considering his friendship with Lafayette and the planned battle. The house was there at the time when Lafayette and his troops were at Cranetown.
Following a snowstorm in Montclair, families would take their sleds to Bloomfield Avenue and sled the entire route from Pompton Avenue to Elm Street. Today children sled off the mound near the field off Chestnut Street. Although some say the mound was created by Native Americans, Fallon said it was more likely created from the soil from the Chestnut Street underpass or from digging out the pool.
One of the first penny shops
On Old Road opposite the school Miss Mary Ellen Phippe ran a penny shop in her front room off her living room, which sold penny candy and toys. A tinkling bell would alert her of a customer. “She would become impatient with customers who took 10 minutes on how to get the most enjoyment from their penny. Marshmallow filled chocolate mice, 15 jelly beans, 10 candy coated peanuts, five coconut squares or four caramels?” according to “Montclair in the Elegant Eighties.” When children had a dime, they could then purchase such enjoyments as jacks, rubber balls, paper dolls or marbles.” On the other side of the store away from the children’s items, Miss Phippe also sold cigars and cigarettes to her older customers.
Carrie the cow
The Wilbur family from Brooklyn, who summered in Montclair in the 1880s, always brought along their livestock — dogs, cats, horses, chickens and their well-loved cow, Carrie. They claimed the grass never needed mowing when they had the family cow grazing the property, plus they had the milk man at their door. Carrie became a resident in 1886 when the family took up permanent residency in Montclair.
The Paterson Pearl
In what is now known as Bonsal Preserve where the Third River runs through, mussels and pearls were abundant. The river was once called Pearl River due to the discovery of the Queen Pearl or Paterson Pearl found in the river’s mussel population. The Paterson Pearl, a 93-grain pink pearl, was one of the first freshwater pearls to be discovered in the U.S. In 1857, a poor shoemaker or carpenter named David Howell discovered a large round pearl weighing nearly 400 grains, in one of the many mussels collected from Third River. “His wife had transformed the mussels into a delicious dish for dinner, by frying in lard. While he was enjoying the fried edible mussels with his wife, Howell accidentally bit something hard in his mouth, and on investigating found out that the hard substance he bit was an unusually large round pearl. Unfortunately the heat and grease used in the cooking had destroyed the beauty and luster of the pearl, which was now worthless. Had the pearl been discovered in time, its estimated cost would have exceeded $25,000, and the pearl would have become one of the largest freshwater pearls ever discovered,” according to Dr. Shihaan Larif of InternetStones.com.
In 1808, Joseph Baldwin owned so much land on Orange Road that it was known as the Baldwin neighborhood. He carefully cultivated fruit trees. He was known from as far as New York and Pennsylvania for his Jersey cider and vinegar from his apple orchard, according to “Montclair in the Elegant Eighties.”
Beware of dog
Matthew White and his wife, of Mountain Way, lived in a two-room house where they kept chickens and pigs. They kept a big dog chained in the front of the home, which children feared. They kept clear of his property for years due to the dog’s ferocity. Upon Mr. White’s death, “they found he was a toothless dog,” according to “Montclair in the Elegant Eighties.”
Opera in the night
In the late 1800s, 100 workers were hired from Italy to dig Montclair’s water system. They lived in quarters built for the migrant workers in an empty lot on Midland Avenue. In the evenings, they built bonfires and sang Italian songs. Residents would come out of their home and linger along the street to hear the Italian songs, according to “Montclair in the Elegant Eighties.”
The first telephone
The first switchboard was set up at the Yost home on Bloomfield Avenue in 1882 for 50 lines. Only six Montclairites subscribed. The first phone was owned by Mr. Crump, who lived on Orange Road. In 1889, Montclair phone subscribers grew to 55 and the switchboard was moved to the second floor of Mullen’s Livery Stable. People continued to use telegraphs as a preferred “quick” communication, which took up to a week. The early phones required a lot cranking, operators, waiting, hangups and callbacks to reach another party.