PUNKIN DUSTER FINDS THE WOODCHUCK BOROUGH
A Centennial Review of Bergen County Borough Fever 1894-95
by Kevin Wright

Part One

It seemed that a new house was going up every day on a new street in some new borough. Bergen County experienced a 38.5% increase in population between 1890 and 1895, going from 47,226 to 65,415 residents. Farms were slowly fading as the mainstay of the economy. The Federal Census of 1900 would be the last of its kind to classify a majority (59.8%) of Bergen County's population as Rural. And there was no stopping the train.

By 1894, the ancient system of townships had served Jerseymen well for two centuries, providing a civic framework for an agrarian age with its devotion to the land, to interfamilial politics and to self-government by rural neighborhoods. At annual township meetings and elections, held the second Tuesday in March, citizens would congregate to "discuss their common wants, propose the remedies, and appoint agents to give them effect." Local affairs were managed by a five-member township committee, a township clerk, tax assessors and collectors, commissioners of tax appeals, highway surveyors and overseers, overseers of the poor, school committeemen, a judge of elections and a constable. Township government maintained pounds for stray animals, paid bounties for destruction of predatory wildlife, supported the indigenous poor, educated poor children and seasonally maintained roads. Taxes were light, expectations were low and government services few and far between. Under this neighborly system, a farmer "worked out" his road tax "at his personal convenience, by ploughing a ditch along the highway and throwing the dirt to the centre, where it was 'worked' by passing vehicles. This operation was repeated annually, the dirt being washed back to the sides with every recurring spell of soft weather."1 Education was largely a matter of personal initiative and private expense with little quality control. Two freeholders were chosen from each township to form a county administrative council known as the Board of Chosen Freeholders.2 Building and maintaining jails, poor-houses, court-houses and bridges was the business of the County.

Farmers initially regarded the railroad as a smooth track to city markets, providing cheap, reliable, all-weather transportation that saved horseflesh. These same railroads, however, by transporting the new fuel, coal, gave rise to the modern factory system. Manufacturing was no longer necessarily dispersed throughout the countryside according to the availability of natural water power, but could thrive in cities amidst a pool of cheap immigrant labor; the railroad carted raw materials and finished goods in a national marketplace. Though demand for farm products grew apace with the urban manufacturing population, the expanding network of railroads now brought the distant Western prairies, well suited to mechanized agriculture on vast tracts of land, into fatal competition with Atlantic seaboard farms.

The rails also began to carry urban refugees who came "in search of health, quiet and unadulterated rural felicity" where their families might dwell apart from the increasing squalor and pollution of smokestack cities. Well, not quite "unadulterated rural felicity!" For, while fleeing from the concentrated life of the industrial city, commuters had no intention of adopting country manners - their stake in the land was limited to building plots on quiet streets where they might sleep soundly in unlocked, pattern-book houses, all within easy walk or drive of the railroad station. In its retrospective on "The Vanished Year" of 1893, The Hackensack Republican observed how "these new-comers want everything 'up to date,' and so far as the environment will admit, they create in their suburban homes the comforts and convenience essential to city dwellings." They developed no attachment to bumpkin townships where public business moved in fits-and-starts as the agricultural calendar dictated. A large part of the native population naturally resented and resisted these newcomers whom they regarded as squatters and carpet-baggers. The 1776-1876 Atlas of Bergen County, New Jersey, compiled by A. H. Walker, illustrates the embryonic stages of railroad suburbanization. Speaking in the year of the American Centennial about Rutherford Park, perhaps the first successful railroad suburb in Bergen County, Walker recorded the cultural divide between old settler and commuter and the sparking friction between between past and future:

Fifty years ago [that is, about 1825] this township was occupied by farmers and gardeners, principally of the Holland Dutch stock, who plodded on from year to year, taking their truck to market in their wagons frequently over night, and reducing their expenses by such return loads as they could get for the country stores, etc. The old inhabitants were peculiarly jealous of strangers, and it was with great difficulty that they could be persuaded to part with any of their land. This feature held sway over them long after the building of the New York and Paterson Railroad, which was one of the first railroads in the country; and it is only within about twenty years that any serious inroads have been made on the domains of this peculiar people. Possessing one of the most desirous and attractive districts for the suburban residences of New Yorkers, they refused to use their land for improvements, and continued to plant and plod on as aforetime, while other localities, far less attractive, were being built up and making the land-holders wealthy. There was not even a village in the whole township.

Schools became a sore spot with Punkin Dusters and Commuters. The boundaries of a large majority of Bergen County school districts were set in 1873, when the effects of railroads were only first being felt, and over the next fifteen years the school population increased by 35% without corresponding adjustments in district boundaries. The boundaries of school districts did not legally have to correspond with township boundaries. The opening of new roads and avenues made it more convenient for a great many children to attend school in an adjacent district, and, hence, numerous applicants sought a change of boundaries. Longtime residents, fearing school improvements would augment their taxes, used this excuse to seek a change in district lines. Many rural schools employed but one or two teachers and were badly overcrowded; again, some residents, not wishing to pay for additional teachers, asked to be relieved of a portion of their territory, thereby reducing their school population. According to The Bergen Democrat of April 26, 1889, "much of the new element to the school census comes from the city, and these parents object to their children walking so far, and therefore ask for a division of the district." In March 1889, a bitter dispute over construction of a new school, fought between residents on the west bank of the Hackensack River in the Cherry Hill section of River Edge and their neighbors in the New Bridge section on the east side of the river, was finally settled by division of the school district and erection of two schools. This case, dragged into the courts, indicated the need for a mechanism by which the boundaries of school districts might be amicably redrawn according to pressing needs.

Unfortunately, in such matters, there was often more heat than light. After the Borough of Ridgefield incorporated on May 25, 1892, its citizens wanted to use the old school house for a town hall and to erect a $10,000 modern school building in its stead; but first they wanted their municipal and school district lines to coincide, which required including a portion of the neighboring Fairview School District. Fairviewers sent a strong remonstrance to County Superintendent Terhune. Finally, the State Superintendent of Schools visited Bergen County in March 1893 and personally approved the requested change despite local protests. At the same time, a new school district was established at Palisade (Cliffside?) Park and Northvale was separated from Norwood.

The new school district of Eastwood, only a year old in March 1893, already boasted "a pretty new school house" equipped with "an organ, library, flag, and so forth." The boundary lines between Eastwood and River Vale had been drawn because District Clerk Holdrum, who promised to move the old school "off the public road, where it always stood, and nearer the centre of population" was deliberately left in the old River Vale School District for that purpose. One year later, Holdrum's promised remained unfulfilled and a majority of the school's patrons harped relentlessly for a change. Storm clouds also gathered to the west. When the old settlers or Punkin Dusters of Park Ridge decided in March 1893 "that all school meetings in this place shall be held at such hours as shall debar from participation that portion of the population doing business in New York," The Hackensack Republican offered a timely warning that "those who inaugurated this system may not always be in the majority."

Equally ominous for the old ways of doing things, the 1876 Atlas described station-stops along the new Hackensack Extension of the New Jersey & New York Railroad through Washington Township - namely, Kinderkamack, Westwood, Hillsdale, Pascack, Park Ridge and Montvale - by noting that "it is but fair to state that the boundary lines between the different villages are not established by law, and that two places may sometimes claim portions of the same territory." Without success, Freeholder John Van Bussum argued in 1893 that the new line between Lodi and Bergen Townships be located further south, since the boundary as drawn (running from the railroad west to the Saddle River along what is now Passaic Avenue) inconveniently divided 300 acres on the Polifly road purchased for development as part of Hasbrouck Heights by the Boston Land and Improvement Company. Having gained sufficient numbers by 1893 to challenge Punkin Dusters at the polls, the Commuters of Bergen County led a political revolution in Home Rule that finally toppled the ancien régime. The old settlers did not go quietly and even succeeded in turning their opponents' weapons to their own advantage: in pre-emptive strikes, rural communities quickly and quietly incorporated under the borough act to escape the suburbanites' expensive taste for public improvements.

The fault line ran directly through Tenafly, a railroad suburb that was home to 1,500 residents. On January 26, 1893, a public meeting of property owners clamored for independence. As expressed in the pages of The Tenafly Record, public sentiment strongly favored borough incorporation though "its advocates were surprised to see so strong an opposition from merchants and mechanics."3 To put the matter to a legal test, a petition seeking a special election on the borough question, filed with Judge James Van Valen on February 16, 1893, was signed by forty-one property owners representing $102,000 in assessable property. Stephen G. Clark led the boroughites, assisted by James E. Butler, Benjamin F. Pond, Garret DeMott, F. L. Culver, Dr. J. J. Haring and Dr. Lansing. Ex-Judge Garretson of Jersey City, backed by William Parcells and David Westervelt, opposed the scheme and were granted a special hearing on February 25th. An election on borough incorporation, scheduled by Judge Van Valen for March 11th, was postponed due to a suit against the proceedings filed with the State Supreme Court. The Hackensack Republican summarized the opposition thus:

It is said that the borough government is opposed because it will give the town improvements which many people do not deem necessary and will add to the burden of taxes. These represent the class who do not want macadamized roads or sidewalks or street lights. Mud roads, mud walks and darkness were good enough for their grandfathers and are good enough for them.

Tenafly had its own fire department, supported by private subscription. The Hackensack Water Company installed a system of hydrants, supplying them with water for a term of three years at no cost to residents. The grace-period was due to expire and yet no method of using public funds to meet the expense could be found. In March 1893, Palisades Township voted $200 each for the Tenafly and Peetzburgh fire departments over the protest of many citizens "that the entire township cannot be taxed for anything that is only to benefit certain communities." Yet, the road to forming new municipalities with rational boundaries was dark and uncertain. On April 17, 1893, Judge James Van Valen declined to order a special election to consolidate Old and New Carlstadt into a single municipality on the grounds that the petitioners included territory lying outside their original boundaries.

The legal outcome at the Tenafly polls was favorable to borough advocates and a referendum, held January 23, 1894, successfully concluded a year-long campaign to have Tenafly secede from Palisades Township. On the eve of the vote, F. L. Culver, the moving spirit behind Tenafly's independence movement, was confident, stating: "I have no doubt the election will result in Home rule for Tenafly." Opponents T. L. McIntyre and J. H. Zabriskie feared tax increases while principal F. S. Manghan and druggist F. G. Remer, both proponents, thought that progress would only come through secession. Dr. J. J. Haring switched to favoring independence, claiming that, while Tenafly occupied only one-fifth of Palisades Township, it paid one half of the taxes. Echoing the cry of boroughism, he foresaw that, under borough government, "these taxes will be spent within our own limits." The election was "an exciting one" as both sides worked hard to persuade voters of the best course to take. On election day, 272 out of 290 eligible voters went to the polls, narrowly favoring the change by vote of 137 to 130 (five ballots being rejected). [To Be Continued]

1 "Bergen County Roads," New York Evening Post, January 26, 1894, reprinted in The Bergen Democrat of February 2, 1894

2 Despite misguided attempts to change it due largely to political sensitivities about being called "free loaders," the title of Chosen Freeholder is a true Jerseyism, used nowhere else in the United States, and a verbal relict of one of the oldest extant forms of local self-government in the world.

3 The Hackensack Republican, March 2, 1893

Continue to Part 2