Provided by: Peter Zablocki, Denville Historical Society
As we recently welcomed the year 2020, let us go back in time and see what our town looked like when its citizens welcomed the last twenties; the 1920s.
Back in 1920, Denville was more of a country village than the busy town we call home today. Just 7 years prior, in 1913, Denville Village, Union Hill, Cedar Lake, Rockridge Lake and all the adjoining areas joined and separated from Rockaway Township, becoming their own municipality.
Prior to that, the area had no representation in their government, paid a disproportionate share of taxes and had to travel to remote parts of Rockaway if they desired to vote. Much of the present Broadway was cranberry bogs. The Morris Canal was almost 90 years old and its canal lock at the Peer Store (today’s La Cucina Restaurant) used more as a local swimming spot for kids than the transportation hub it had been just a few years prior. Trolley cars were operating from Denville Junction to Dover and points further west. The best way to put it, Denville was a perfect country summer getaway from the bustling cities of New York or even Newark.
Original inhabitants of the town during its first decade recalled Denville having good air, soil, milk, home grown fruit and vegetables; as well as excellent transportation, communication, water ways, river, a canal and lakes, level land and hills. In essence, it was the worst kept secret, as by the time World War II came around Denville became more of a busy town than a summer village. It wasn’t really until then that people began to see it as the perfect place to live year-round instead of just for the summer.
Old letters and memoirs recall children racing trains on the dirt road alongside the railroad from Denville to
Morristown – now Route 53. The run would end in what is today the town center. In actuality, there wasn’t much of a town center. Apart from the cranberry fields, the present time Broadway, was a dirt road with a large house located at the point known as Hinchman’s corner (where the Denville Clock now stands). The Dickerson Home of equal grandeur was located directly across the street, on the other corner where Diamond Spring Road meets Broadway (or where the pharmacy now stands).
In fact, most of Denville’s roads were dirt roads where it was as common to see horses as it was to see cars. The post office was on the south side of Main Street (in a building that today houses a shoe repair business). Town residents often had to wait a few hours each day for the mail to be sorted and placed in the recently installed individual boxes as the town’s post office did not yet offer delivery service.
Public water did not reach every house and for those that had it, it was often brought to their homes via above ground water lines that were turned off in winter. There were no sewers and not many street lights. As for technological innovations, there was about 200 telephone party lines served by the New York-New Jersey Telephone Company; with rapidly expanding yet still not whole-town-encompassing electric service provided by the Rockaway Light and Improvement Company.
Kids attended school at either of the two schools in town; a recently converted from a 2 to a 4-room school on the site of the former Main Street School (across from current ACME) on West Main Street and the Union Hill School at the corner of Mt. Pleasant Turnpike and Openaki Road.
The town population did not extend far past 700 residents and if you saw anyone in town with a new vehicle outside of the summer months, you knew somebody was lost. Cisco’s Ice Cream Store at the Morris County Traction Co.’s main junction located on Denville’s Main Street, was the town hub. Here friends met friends and conductors stopped for refreshments and to talk over their runs, or to call the office for information as it was one of the earliest places in Denville to have a telephone.
Elsewhere, farmers, who still depended on their horses, hitched their heavy draft animals to the family surrey or spring wagons and ventured into the town center’s few stores to place their orders – which were often delivered later. Denville contained only a few stores and no real industries. In fact, the only ones were those which kept a limited stock of groceries and a few medicines. Of course if you had enough money you could spend an evening rubbing elbows with the wealthy – and sometimes very known to pop culture and history for that matter– vacationers staying at the town’s various inns and/or dining halls. Namely the St. Francis Health Resort, the Diamond Spring Inn and/or the Wayside Inn. But those are stories for another time.
Keep a lookout for more stories about our town’s rich history, as the Denville Historical Society and Museum is gearing up to celebrate its 50th anniversary next calendar year and will be sharing more of the good, the bad, and the sometimes odd side of Denville’s history.
Peter Zablocki is a local historian and the vice-president of the Denville Historical Society in Denville, New Jersey.