Life in SOMA in the 1920s -- what do you think it was like? archived

When we speak of mills, are we talking about water powered "motors" that they used to grind grains into meal or flour? I know so little of agriculture.

I know next to nothing about mills, but consulting this fascinating book, I found out a bit more. On page 151, Charlotte I Crowell Salter recalls there were mills of different kinds in this region. “One of them was a grist mill in 1740 stood between the Rahway River and Dunnell Road near Oakland.” She goes on to explain, “ a woolen mill was built near the spot where the firehouse now stands on Dunnell road. James and Job Crowell and others were the builders, but the mill did no flourish and it was rented out to others until 1837, when Abijah Dunnell bought it and turned it into a paper mill. The paper made was mostly manila hardware paper, and some straw paper commonly by grocers for wrapping parcels.”

I can’t relocate another part I read that said the Dunnell mill was also used to make fine tissue paper for the jewelry trade in Newark.

The Crowell cider Mill was operated by the Crowell family and operated at the corner of Parker and Valley until 1919. It made cider and vinegar, and this area was also known as Vinegar Hill. The whole valley was famous for its orchards. The writer goes on to describe which apple types were combined to make the best cider, and in turn, the best cider vinegar! Since there was no refrigeration, vinegar was used for pickling and preserving.

Here’s a beautiful image… “Some who still remember the Crowell orchard in bloom on a May day, say there was never another orchard to equal it in pink and white beauty: gnarled trees bending over stone walls and thick, wind-blown grass.”

And one final one: Minnie Van Iderstine recalls that in those days, people carried lanterns when they went out at night. Evening services at the church (she does not specify which one) had a little vestibule that was filled with lanterns of all sizes and descriptions that people had carried there. After services, lights could be seen twinkling like fireflies along the roads as folks went home.

All of the people who contributed their recollections to this book share a nostalgic look back on what they recall to be simple, wonderful times. It sounds like it to me, but I’ll bet it was a lot of work for someone, doing all that pickling and preserving!

I've been doing intensive research on James Betelle, the architect of nearly all the SO/M schools (Lots of info is at my website, [](, so my perspective on all this is from that angle.

The 1920s were an incredible boom time. Cars, mass transit and technology converged to create the blooming suburbs, and the Oranges, situated closely to Newark and NYC, were ripe for growth. The "School District" book mentioned early is a fascinating read, insofar as seeing how the need for schools to deal with this was recognized as early as the mid 1910s (along with the wisdom to spend the money for lasting quality; a lesson that seems to be lost...).

As for "what was it like?"..well, I can only speculate, but imagine you live in a home on Ridgewood Road. You have a 5 year old child ready to start kindergarten, and luckily a brand new school has opened down the street. It's designed in the trendy Collegiate Gothic style, with modern fireproof construction, big, airy classrooms, an auditorium and gym. This is your child's first experience with school, so the kindergarten has a fireplace, pictures and curtains, making her feel right at home. It also has a separate entrance, so she won't get overrun by the big kids.

The photo below ([bigger]( was taken about 1925, shortly after [ Jefferson School]( opened (you can see it, upper right of center). It gives a wonderful panorama of the town. Sadly its cut off on the right, so we can't see the old [Crowell farm]( being razed to make room for Columbia High School. But you can see Maplewood Junior High as it looked after its first expansion from being just the Maplewood (Ricalton) School. Also note whole blocks of the village, e.g. where the [Theater]( will stand, is still residential.


I wrote a small article on the schools that will appear in the August issue of [Matters](, look out for that. I also have lots more photos of the SO/M schools at my [flickr]( site.


What a great thread. I have a six degrees of separation story about South Orange. It's not as odd as Mamma Bear's cause, well, I'm a Jersey Boy. But...

After we bought our house, my mother said that one of the homes my Grandfather was a butler/chauffeur at was nearby. She dug up a letter of recommendation written on his behalf. It was on a letterhead with a Montrose Ave. address. We live on the next street!

We had friends visiting from NYC and the wife said she had cousins who lived in the area. She pulled out her address book to see where, and her cousins live in the house my Grandfather worked at!

Weird, huh?

Cool pic of Maplewood.
I was rasied up on 44th st. On the Olampic park area.

George Hood

The picture of the CHS property Steve linked to is really excellent. Just to give a sense of prospective, the white house essentially sits where the driveway/front door of CHS is now. He has posted other pictures with the school half built, and that house sitting on the front lawn (construction office?). It is a lucky co-incidence that the train just happened to be going by when that picture was taken! It doesn't appear that Parker Road even exists yet... In the left side there are five or six identical houses. just to the right of them is another "Crowell" related building. In the Maplewood Past and Present book it mentions that cluster of "Crowell" buildings were demolished to build the present Shell station. When the Shell station was rebuilt in the 1950's, they found singles off the roof of that original building... they were an inch thick. Now thats a recollection of something I read 15 years ago so someone with a copy should verify it for me!

But to the original point of this thread... I always liked this quote from the New York Times describing Maplewood (and in relation to the original movie theatre):

"The Maplewood theatre soaked up the very solid substantiality that stands out all over the town. One expensive-looking suburb runs imperceptibly into the next in this New Jersey commuting belt. Streets are wide and wind languidly between rows of landscaped mansions, huge places in French provincial, with towering copper-patina turrets and carefully sagging roofs, in Southern colonial on the grand scale, in English Tudor with mullioned windows, and all the other romantic styles that architects figure out for the best people.”


I meant the white house you really can't see... above the barn, not to the right. (dumbass)

Actually, you can't see the construction office shack in that panorama. Parker Ave does exist, you can see it behind that row of houses which sit on the street (if you look carefully, you can see the corner house with the wrap-around storefront that still exists, next to where Ralph's Diner is/was). Those houses are where the CHS parking lot is now, so the photo (taken from a window or roof of Fielding School) clips off where the shack would be.

Being the big dork I am, I can illustrate this, with a [triangulated map](,-74.266784&spn=0.003105,0.00449&t=k&z=18&om=1) approximating the scope of the panorama.

wow JB...that is cool! It's are these two little towns and we all have so many stories...I love it!

Sometime in the late 20's an oil tank may have been buried at Columbia High School to heat the school....

here's my 6 degrees of seperation story. when i was in college in Knoxville Tennessee i dated one of my professors. He grew up in NJ in Morristown. It turns out that his mother grew up in South Orange. She lived on Wyoming and her father was a millionaire (she was probably born in the 20's). she was driven to school in a limo with a chauffer. he lost all of his money when she was 18 years old (depression related, i think). Her last name was Tyler, and now i live in South Orange with the same last name! and i'm not a millionaire either!

Posted By: crazy_quilterSometime in the late 20's an oil tank may have been buried at Columbia High School to heat the school....

CHS originally had a Kewanee Boiler Company steam boiler (the big old stack is still there), and it was most certainly coal-fed. I don't know much about heating technology, what do you know about this oil tank?

i don't know anything. i had just read that the oil spill that disrupted the enrichment camp last week was from an oil tank that may have been original with the building, but now that you point out that they would have started out with coal then i realize it would have been put in a little later.

Call in the Hazmat crew!
I've actually always wanted to go rooting around the boiler rooms/cellars of CHS. I bet there's great stuff down there...

On the subject of coal and oil heat----
What do we do when we feel cold in the Winter? We turn up the thermostat. Back in the twenties and thirties most homes were heated with coal. This required someone to shovel coal from the chute and put it into the boiler. The house I grew up in was built around 1928, and it was obvious where the coal chute entered the basement. Too lazy to get up and turn up the thermostat? Imagine having to go down to the cellar and shovel coal in the middle of the night!

And on the subject of someone being driven to school by limo, my mother was driven to school by her father's chauffer in Newark. Not a limo, but a Packard. She was embarassed and had him drop her off a block before the school so no one would see. They weren't rich, just living the life of a doctor's family.

Many of the houses in SO and MPL, including ours, are very close to neighbors and with small lots. Does anyone know why this is from a historical context -- was land at a premium; was it the style of the times; more efficient to run plumbing and other infrastructure this way? This is similar to many of today's development where land is extremely expensive.

I can't say, but perhaps it seemed widely spread out at the time, if many people were moving from the city.

Did you know that the average home in this country is twice as big as the average home was 50 years ago? And I believe the average family is smaller now, too.

Swishliquor, ah nostalgia. When I was a little kid we lived in a house with a coal fired boiler. The first thing my Mom or Dad did in the morning was to go down to the basement and shovel some coal on the fire. My recollection (as a four or five year old) was that if you damped the fire correctly you could get through the night without having to make a basement trip. You also had to shovel the ashes out and lug them out of the basement.

Around the same time my Uncle built his dream house and being a conservative type didn't want oil heat so he installed an automatic coal furnace that had an auger that fed the firebox from the coal bin. I remember as little kid it scared the stuffing out of me when it started turning. It was like something out of a horror movie.

rbcole, I have often wondered the same thing. I think there are a number of reasons. First, land was pretty expensive this close in to Newark (and NYC). Second, MW especially grew up in the 1920s as a suburb for the middle class and cost was an issue for people buying land and building homes here and third, while twenty years previously it was common for even middle class people to have a maid of all work on staff that was dying out by the mid-1920s and keeping up property became the job of the homeowner. I imagine mowing a acre lot with a reel mower would have taken quite some time. Not a problem for a rich family in Short Hills with "staff", but an issue for the less affluent.

Around 1920 most of what I call Middle Maplewood was still agricultural. As is now the case west of here, it became more profitable to sell off the land than to continue to farm it. Developers bought the land, cleared it and set up streets and lots. I guess, and it is a guess, the 50 foot frontage provided the highest profit margin. A 100 foot frontage lot isn't going to go for twice as much as a 50 foot lot and conversely smaller lots were hard to build on and most of the plan books were, I think, set up for 50 foot lots. .

Related question: in my neighborhood, many houses have the "back" or side door facing not the driveway side, but the other side of the house. Also, many of these doors face the door on the neighboring house, which seems counterintuitive now.

Can anyone speculate on this?

We have a wrong-side side door. I wonder, too. The house was built in 1888, though, so who knows what was going on then? I suppose the property it was built on was carved up to create the neighbor's properties.

Three possibilities, all purely speculative:

First, most of the houses in "Middle Maplewood" were built by the owner choosing a design from a plan book and then hiring a contractor to build the house. I suspect what are now called "reverse plans" weren't available.

Second, having the sun coming in the livingroom instead of the dining room most of the day might have been a factor in not reversing the plan, if that was possible way back when.

Third, there might have been some concern about safety with kids going out a side door into the driveway while dad drove up in the Model T.

In my case, the house next door is 1880s and mine is 1920s. They were -- at one point -- each owned by folks with the same last name. So either someone sold and moved next door (totally possible -- house size quite diff), or someone sold to a family member to build the newer home. In that case, I can see that having the doors face one another might be natural.

The plans makes sense too, more generally.

bobk, your first two make sense, but there's no sense in having the kid run out into the neighbor's driveway.

I have looked at the old maps- and a lot of the older homes appear to have had larger lots- with out buildings, sheds, orchards on some of them - perhaps the families sold off the land- before zoning- I think you could build anywhere/anything with no input or planning.
My brothers home in Millburn is circa 1890 and there is a small cape cod literally next to his back door- - One of the older street residents told him that his garage was originally a stable and the cape cod house sits on what used to be a large vegetable garden.

Tom, I have only one thing to say, DAH!! You are correct

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