By Peter Zablocki
It was a pleasant summer morning in the year 1898 when John Hinchman hopped on his two-wheel cart hitched to a team of oxen. Hitchman’s large home occupied the space where the Denville Clock now stands, and his vast cranberry patch where the Denville downtown now is, was the center of town. There were no stores, or even streets to hang around but local kids loved the old man and would often jump on his wagon for a ride or to hear stories of days’ past. That day was no different. With a couple of youths attached to the cart and others walking alongside it, the seasoned
storyteller shared a story about a married couple who came through the area on their way to the mines. They would stop each time to forage for firewood and water. The family’s name was Dennis, said the old man. And as others followed the couple on their work commute, their encampment in the area became known as Dennisville, and the brook, Dennisbrook. Old John concluded his story by proclaiming that once it became a full-fledged settlement, the area became simply known by its shorter name, Denville.
The kids thanked the man for the ride and ran off to seek yet another distraction. At least one of them enjoyed the story enough to repeat its telling long after Hinchaman’s death. Yet, it was not the first, nor the last story told about the town’s founding.
By 2020, past and present local historians have settled on two most likely origins of the town of Denville. The town’s earliest documented history comes from survey maps ordered in 1715 by none other than William Penn of Pennsylvania fame. It is now accepted that most likely Denville got its name from the impenetrable swamp that once occupied the area, and specifically the den of wild animals that lived in it. Another likely story centers around John Den who during the Revolutionary War lived in a lonely log cabin where the Den Brook and the Rockaway River meet. There is however another “legend” about our town’s founding that is not as commonly known.
Thirty years after Hinchman told his story, Jim Miller, the editor of the Denville Herald, was walking to his office when he was approached by a local man who shoved a paper in his hand to read – first making him promise that the newspaper would never breathe to a soul who the owner was. The paper handed to him was old and torn. Jim described it as most definitely “over 150-years-old and looking as if it had been tucked away in a drawer for a very long time.” When he entered his office, the editor unfolded the letter and noticed that the handwriting was small and the paper signed in a large scrawl, Wilyam Jones. The man who handed him the letter was reported to be very reputable in town and swore that the piece of paper had been in his family’s possession for over a hundred years. Mr. Miller put on his glasses and began to read…
“Daenvill, Jan’y 3, 1757
While recentile makinge a fur of mie trappes around the Rockaway River, I keam opon an old indium who made a fier and wuz brouling venizen. He akes me to sate downe. So I deid. We sate sociable and I wuz aboute to gate up, he sez to me, ‘friend, you live in a territorie that has greate blessing.’
I wuz immediatlie interested an he went on to say ‘before you cam here an injun owne all lande, no white men nowear. Aliowowa, him great chief he defeat in war all his enemies, Chowae, bade monster chief from Mowhawk indiuns (must have meante the injuns up Albanie ways). Aliowowa no knoew what doe. Him take squaw an babies go sou’ east. He an injun finnalie land here. Old chief he to tire to go farther, so they stoppe. They fall downe and worshippe Manytowe. Manytowe apeare in dreame, telle chief him and land blessed foreevar. Eve’ since then, land verie luckie. You verie luckie live here. I die soon, I mus tel some one.’
I laffed at hiem at first, but as I wente alonge the banke of the river, I thot maybie he rite. I was alwaies luckie hear. So I wente backe an thanked him and took him home. The Lord told me to do it. He wuz verie grateful and saye Manytowe blesse me. I say, ‘Trust in the Lord,’ In the morninge, my wief Belhsheba called men an saide, “he is dade,’ That was two year agoe. I wunder if it is tru.”
The letter’s contents were published in 1931. There was no follow up, and to this day, there is no knowledge of what happened to the old piece of paper except that it was given back to its owner, never to be seen again. It begs the question; how many more Denville secrets are there?
Perhaps Jim Miller said it best, “Legend? you say. ‘Why I had no idea that Denville had a legend; has it?’” Today we could try and separate fact from fiction; or we could just accept that one can always find a little bit of truth in both. Until next time…
Peter Zablocki is a local historian and the vice-president of the Denville Historical Society in Denville, New Jersey.