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

Part Three

In June 1894, The Paterson Guardian correctly noted that "Bergen is the isolated representative of New Jersey's 21 counties that has gone into the wholesale borough business, and the lawyers look upon it as a good thing." The editor of The Bergen Index thought that the sixteen townships of Bergen County had been "visited by an epidemic which there is no resisting. It attacks a village first as a murmuring complaint; in the latter stages of the attack the case is hopeless, and inevitably results in amputating the affected part from its township connection. Sometimes an eruption of embryo officials mark the disease through its course, at other times a selfish antipathy to being taxed for other people is observed." In either case, the election of a mayor and other municipal functionaries generally had "a soothing effect". But over the span of seventeen months, Bergen County townships were "Boroughized" to death.

About the first of July 1894, the Leonia Improvement Society authorized a committee to hire "a good speaker opposed to boroughism." Though the Punkin Dusters of Leonia were reportedly well satisfied with the status quo, even they would tolerate incorporation of a new borough rather than submit to an alteration of the boundaries of School District #6 in Ridgefield Township.1 On July 6th, ex-Senator Cornelius S. Cooper renewed his application for a new borough; this time dropping the name of Kensington in favor of the old name of Schraalenburgh.2 He also changed the proposed boundaries to exclude Peetzburgh, thereby eliminating certain "kickers" who had defeated the previous attempt. Judge Van Valen initially declined to grant Cooper's petition "on the ground of the indefiniteness of the boundary lines."

The borough referendum at Hasbrouck Heights on July 31, 1894, was described as "a high old time" that "excited the entire town." According to The Bergen Democrat, "a Presidential canvass could not have more thoroughly arouse the citizens of Hasbrouck Heights, especially its voting population." Meetings held prior to the vote "were not of the enthusiastic nature, for the people seemed pretty evenly divided and the discussions were animated; feeling has run high, and it showed itself, too, on election day." Both sides were confident of success and debate continued into the polling booths. Here as elsewhere, "the discourse went so far as to become bitterly personal, and charges and countercharges flew through the air." To add fuel to the fire, a circular was distributed on election day, promoting "Home Rule" and expressing "the belief that its people know what its needs are better than Lodi and Little Ferry." When the polls finally closed, Pioneer Hall was crowded with citizens anxious to hear the results. The final vote, announced "amid wild applause," stood: 72 votes for the borough and 60 against it. The losers threatened to contest the outcome on the ground that it violated the Ballot Reform Act.

On July 31, 1894, about thirty residents of Woodcliff met and appointed a committee to decide upon the boundaries of yet another new borough. Their intention was to take in part of Orvil township, thereby securing a Freeholder. Walter Stanton and Warner W. Westervelt were the prime movers. On August 1st, Ridgefield Park held a public meeting to consider changing from an incorporated village to a borough; the Democrat's local reporter believed that "the new school law has much to do with the agitation for a change."

"A mild form" of borough fever was detected in Montvale, where agitators drew lines to include a portion of neighboring Orvil Township, thereby securing one of that township's six school houses and gaining the right to elect its own Freeholder. On August 13, 1894, Judge James Van Valen scheduled the Montvale election for August 30th at the public house of John A. L. Blauvelt. There was "little or no opposition" and it was thought the vote would be "about all one way." Stunned with being "out generalled by the Montvalians," citizens of Park Ridge suddenly felt "lonely in consequence" of the fact that they had not been foresighted enough to include some portion of a neighboring township within their corporate limits and thus gain Freeholder representation for themselves. Mayor Wield of Park Ridge took office and, on August 10th, the Park Ridge Borough Council initiated steps to annex a portion of Montvale, calling for an election on the question to be held September 13th. Unfortunately, the timely acceptance of Montvale's petition by Judge James Van Valen and the order for its borough referendum outflanked the Park Ridge land-grabbers. Ironically, boroughite Justice Smith of Park Ridge objected to Montvale's independence movement, but to no avail. It was even said that some discontented landowners in Park Ridge wanted to secede from that borough by a change of its boundaries, but the prevailing wisdom held that the Park Ridge referendum had been legal and therefore the unhappy parties would either have to abide by the consequences of the referendum or move away.

Residents of Midland Park had been "quietly at work for the formation of a borough," hoping to take a slice of Ridgewood Township and thereby gain a Freeholder. On August 17, 1894, The Bergen Democrat noted that borough talk was "still to the front" with every promise of success, although a petition had circulated that objected "to calling the borough Midland Park." The Hackensack Republican reported completion of the preliminary steps with the observation that: "in population it is a more suitable movement than almost any borough enterprise entered into this year." This was not another political scheme "merely to avoid the working of roads" since its boundaries, where marked by highways, ran to the center of the road. Incorporation of Midland Park was approved 112 to 30 on September 4, 1894.

An independence movement, headed by Abram Godwin Munn (a member of the New York Cotton Exchange) and his grandson, Rogers Godwin Munn, was "in active operation" at Bogota where a meeting of property owners was held September 20th to advance the cause of borough incorporation. Bogota boroughites briefly toyed with the idea of including a portion of the meadow belonging to New Barbadoes Township, on the west side of the river, in order to secure representation on the Board of Chosen Freeholders. Although this proposition was quickly abandoned, a second idea - to run Ridgefield Park within the lines of Bogota - was seriously considered; it was thought that "the Parkites may not relish being absorbed, but that doesn't count." In the first week of October 1894, an application for borough incorporation was filed. As matters stood, there were only 250 men, women and children within the proposed limits of the Borough of Bogota. The referendum was held at the Bogota Water & Light Company on November 14th.

A meeting was held August 23, 1894, at the Grove School-house in Ridgewood "to make a preliminary move for forming the borough of South Ridgewood." According to the Republican, Hohokus Creek would become the east line of this "woodchuck municipality," which would extend west to Rock Avenue, north to Grove Street, and south into Saddle River Township, taking in Fairlawn and Cherry Lane. The name was soon changed, however, to Glen Rock. Residents of Ridgewood, interested in the proposed borough of South Ridgewood, claimed that "their application was filed in time to prevent liability for the $47,000 school house." To the north, a proposal to form a borough of Undercliff (Hohokus) was initiated for the same reason. Judge Van Valen ordered an election to decide incorporation of the Borough of Glen Rock, comprising 3.25 square miles, to be held at Andrew V. D. Snyder's greenhouses, near Ridgewood, on September 12, 1894. The borough was approved, 80 to 2.

On August 9, 1894, K. M. Hart appeared before Judge James Van Valen on behalf of borough advocates in Woodcliff (formerly Pascack) and secured a referendum for August 28, 1894, to decide upon incorporation of a borough, encompassing 3.75 square miles, to be held at the former hotel of Peter J. Wortendyke on Old Pascack Road. Woodcliff was described as "one of the smallest villages in Bergen County," consisting of a depot on the New Jersey & New York Railroad, a grocery store and "not more than 60 voters." There was little opposition, voters approving creation the County's sixteenth borough, 46 to 16. Walter Stanton, a millionaire banker, was prominently mentioned as a candidate to be Woodcliff's first mayor. In mapping their boundaries, Woodcliff and Montvale had included a dozen voters from Orvil Township and, by so doing, added another two Freeholders to the County Board. Within the space of only three months, dismemberment of the old Township of Washington left only the neighboring towns of Hillsdale, Etna and Old Hook within its limits and residents of Hillsdale now wanted to "join the procession" toward borough government.

With the formation of Schraalenburgh Borough, Peetzburgh and those portions of New Bridge and River Edge lying east of the Hackensack River were all that remained of Palisade Township. On August 17, 1894, the Peetzburgh correspondent for The Bergen Democrat noted that agitation for a borough had been renewed and "it begins to look as though Peetzburgh will in the near future become a municipality." The population of the town was "almost equal to that of the Borough of Delford." The remainder of the township to the south, however, only comprised a dozen or so farm families.

The question of annexing Windsor to the Borough of Carlstadt was narrowly approved at the polls on September 4th.3 It was necessary in this case for borough residents and for those of the territory to be annexed to vote in separate ballot boxes. The vote of Windsor approved annexation, 13 to 11; Carlstadt voters approved the question 77 to 1. This action placed the electric-railway car shops and power house within the Borough's limits and consequently deprived Bergen Township of a valuable tax ratable.

On August 28, 1894, The Bergen Index stated that Fairview wanted to become a borough "because its polling place has been removed to Edgewater." Rumors circulated that Leonia residents intended to form a borough including Nordhoff.

Rivervale was "talking borough" by the first of September, as was Waldwick. On September 4th, L. R. Van Wagener presided over a meeting at the Manor House in Hillsdale where borough incorporation was discussed and the necessary steps initiated. It was thought that Hillsdale taxpayers were "strongly in favor" of independence. A petition seeking incorporation of a Borough of Etna (later Emerson) circulated in the second week of September. Tucked into the Hillsdale column of The Bergen Democrat on September 14, 1894, was news that G. H. Hering had completed a map of the proposed borough of [Old] Tappan. Residents of Old Tappan reportedly had become "alarmed at the proposal of River Vale to take their school-house, along with a strip of Harrington township into the proposed borough of River Vale."4 The Old Tappanites outflanked the River Vale boroughites by submitting a petition for their own incorporation. At this point, a question was raised as to the legality of Eastwood's creation, since it contained only $94,000 in real estate valuation, short of the $100,000 required by the enabling legislation.

On September 6th, The Hackensack Republican reported that the movements to create the boroughs of Undercliff and East Ridgewood out of parts of Ridgewood, Orvil and Washington Townships had "temporarily balked" and consequently two additional Freeholders had died aborning. If these schemes had succeeded, then Ridgewood township would have been reduced to Ridgewood village and old Bob Lewis's Spikertown. In response, some of Ridgewood's citizens determined "to check the crazy borough rush" by calling a meeting for September 4, 1894, to promote incorporation under the Winton Village Act. The movement was led by Milton T. Richardson, editor of several trade journals including the Boot & Shoe Weekly; Dr. E. F. Hanks, Postmaster J. F. Crane and Joseph F. Carrigan. The necessary papers were completed by lawyer William M. Johnson of Hackensack and submitted to Judge Van Valen the following morning. It was felt that residents would "be found almost or quite unanimous in favor of this movement as not less than 130 taxpayers, representing $380,000 of valuation in the village territory" signed the petition. The total valuation was about one million dollars and the law required taxpayers representing only one-fifth of that amount to sign. It was felt that village incorporation would "save the populous portion of the original township from dismemberment by absorption in woodchuck boroughs." Republicans felt that the loss of their Freeholder from Ridgewood Township would amount to nothing since "it is pretty safe to believe that the creation of freeholders under the baby borough act will be changed next winter." On September 22, 1894, The Bergen Index concluded that the people of Orvil and Saddle River Townships were "attempting to overcome the objectionable features of the new school law by resolving themselves into boroughs, following the old school district lines." This, concluded the Index, was "an expensive solution, but possibly an effective one." At the Ridgewood election on November 15, 1894, 277 voted for village incorporation and 62 against; consequently, the Republican correspondent remarked that "to all intents and purposes Ridgewood township is obliterated."

On September 16, 1894, State Senator Winton, editor of The Bergen Democrat, informed his readership that a bill would be introduced at the regular session of the Legislature in January next "to amend, if not to wipe out of existence altogether, the present Borough act." Bergen County, he noted, was "about the only county in the State which affords a full and fair exemplification of the mischief which has followed the practical workings under the borough system." He mused how some boroughs barely possessed enough population "to fill the numerous offices which pertain to the borough organizations which are within the township limits." He thought the "Borough craze" might be regarded as a "roaring farce, if not for the fact that these numerous municipal organizations, each with a dozen office holders, is bound to prove a very expensive luxury in the near future unless abandoned." The various County Boards of Election, Assessors and Chosen Freeholders had grown to "undreamed of proportions" with taxpayers paying the freight and lawyers reaping the profits. The Board of Chosen Freeholders had increased from sixteen to twenty-five members and its expenses were expected to rise proportionately. Senator Winton believed that the size of this Board needed to be restricted without delay by an act of the Legislature to either five or seven members, thus assuring a large savings and more efficient service. Quoting from an article in the Evening Post, Winton agreed that "Home Rule" would unnecessarily inflate the costs of government.

With changes in the air, the Etna correspondent for The Bergen Democrat speculated, on September 28, 1894, that "consideration of the borough question will resume next month, provided the legislature does not knock out the entire borough system." Two weeks later, however, the same reporter thought that the movement in Etna had fallen "dormant." On September 28th, the Ridgefield Park Town Hall proved inadequate to accommodate the crowd of taxpayers. A majority favored continuance of the present village government but boroughites engaged them in hot debate and the meeting finally broke up without reaching any conclusion. While Hohokus was "not borough crazy," its neighbors in Allendale and Upper Saddle River were busy helping themselves to slices of Hohokus Township in order to gain Freeholders by crossing township lines.

Owing to the multiplication of boroughs, the number of election districts in Bergen County rose in one year from twenty-nine to forty-three. Boards of Election were required to organize their respective districts by October 9, 1894 and then to proceed with a house-to-house canvass to register the names of all legal voters. On October 1, 1894, the meeting of the Bergen County Board of Chosen Freeholders was attended by three new Freeholders: Elmer E. Williams (R) for Hasbrouck Heights, Garret M. Ackerman (D) for Woodcliff, and Garret F. Hering (D) for Montvale. Under advice of counsel, Andrew V. D. Snyder, Freeholder from Ridgewood Township, announced his resignation since he had been nominated as Freeholder candidate from the new Borough of Glen Rock. With twenty-three Chosen Freeholders in attendance, the Board's membership at this meeting was the largest since repeal of the law which years before gave each township two representatives. New Freeholders from Glen Rock, Little Ferry, Midland Park and Montvale were expected to attend the November session.

By the middle of October, Allendale had been stricken by borough fever which The Bergen Democrat thought "will probably result fatally."5 A week later, the borough question was being "favorably agitated" in Ramsey. The borough movement at Leonia seemed to have "fallen through" since the exploratory committee "could not agree on boundaries." Election for incorporation of the Borough of Old Tappan was held at the Old Tappan School House (formerly School District No. 19) on October 16, 1894.

Borough sentiment in Wood-Ridge reached unstoppable proportions and, on October 29, 1894, Judge James Van Valen ordered an election on the question to be held at the Wood-Ridge Fire House on Tuesday, November 15, 1894. According to their original petition, the boundaries of Wood-Ridge extended south to the center line of Division Avenue, thereby including New Carlstadt. On November 2, 1894, the Democrat correspondent thought that the borough movement at Hillsdale appeared "to be dead sent at any rate." Despite strong opposition, however, the borough question at Ridgefield Park was "not quite dead" and advocates held private meetings to further a change.

On November 8, the Republican surmised that the new Borough of Upper Saddle River would be "strongly Democratic" as only sixteen Republicans could be found within its limits. In trying to implement the school-district consolidation act, County Superintendent Terhune had found Orvil to be "the most aggressive and uncivil township in the county" whose residents would not listen to any requests made by their new Board of Education and where "harsh and threatening language...not a little of it slanderous and malicious in character" dominated meetings. According to rumor, Orvil citizens had even conspired to waylay and assault the County Superintendent if he attended a certain meeting. Terhune dryly reported to the State Superintendent that "it was openly asserted that if I dared to come into the township, my eyes would be pulled out. This looked like cruelty to animals." Four of the six school houses of Orvil Township had been taken by the new boroughs of Montvale, Allendale, Saddle River and Upper Saddle River, leaving only the schools at Waldwick and Hohokus under township control.6

The Borough of Bogota was approved by voters on November 14, 1894 after "an energetic campaign of several weeks in which Abram G. Munn, who is to be the first mayor, won a signal victory." The move toward independence was opposed by Judge Bogart and Major William P. DeGraw. When the votes were finally counted, the boroughites prevailed 38 to 19. Word of victory sparked "a happy jubilation at the house of Mr. Munn, where the boroughites assembled in force and celebrated enthusiastically, tooting the water works whistle, blowing horns, and otherwise manifesting their delight."7 Munn promised the crowd "that he would give them a model borough - better roads, police protection, lights, etc., and that the taxes would be kept down to the lowest possible percentage, as he had no desire to pay a higher tax rate than anybody else." He also announced his plans to build two more cottages and more stone roads at once. On November 15th, the proposed Borough of Wood-Ridge was defeated by a majority of eight votes. The special election to form the Borough of Allendale from about three square miles taken from the Townships of Orvil, Hohokus and Franklin, was held in Archer Hall on November 18th. The referendum to create Saddle River Borough, comprehending 2,200 acres in Orvil township, was was approved by voters at Saddle River Hall on November 19th, 56 to 6. The election here was "extremely quiet, no solicitation being made for or against." On November 20th, voters entered John Walthery's wheelwright shop and approved incorporation of the Borough of Upper Saddle River (containing 2,374 acres, including a slice of Hohokus Township), 46 to 4. Rumors now circulated that the Paramus valley portion of Orvil Township was about to form a borough. On November 21, 1894, citizens of Leonia, by vote of 64 to 9, expressed disapproval of their borough incorporation movement. Palisade Park, adjoining Leonia to the south, planned its own referendum in the near future, submitting an application for a borough whose proposed northern boundary would be the Hackensack and Fort Lee Road. Cornelius Christie of Leonia quickly revived the borough movement in his community to forestall this invasion from the south and suggested new boundaries to eliminate most of the opposition. The election at Palisades Park was scheduled for December 4th.

As in Leonia and Wood-Ridge, borough advocates at Edgewater refused to accept defeat and revived their efforts to form a borough under the name of Undercliff, despite the fact that a railroad station and post office along the Erie Railroad, situated between Ridgewood and Hohokus, was already known as Undercliff. The new boundaries abandoned the $9,000 school house at Edgewater on the hill and instead included the brick school house under the hill at Fort Lee. On December 5th, the election was held at Edgewater, resulting in a majority of 65 in favor of incorporation. This new borough comprised all of the district under the Palisades from the southerly line of the Dupont property at Edgewater to the northerly line of the lands of the Fort Lee Park & Steamboat Company.

Bringing its readers "Up To Date" on November 22, 1894, The Bergen Democrat counted thirty-four active or successful borough movements: Tenafly, Delford, East Rutherford, Riverside, Eastwood, Park Ridge, Westwood, Maywood, Hasbrouck Heights, Bergenfield, Schraalenburgh, Glen Rock, Cresskill, Woodcliff, Midland Park, Old Tappan, Montvale, Little Ferry, Carlstadt, Saddle River, Upper Saddle River, Allendale, Bogota, Leonia, Woodridge, Englewood Cliffs, Lodi, Palisades Park, Wallington, Undercliff, Fairview, Teaneck, Ridgewood Village and Englewood. Furthermore, the borough question was being agitated at Highwood, Fairlawn, Garfield and New Bridge.

Twenty-seven Chosen Freeholders met at Hackensack on December 3, 1894, their number now augmented by the appearance of John D. Miesegaes from the Borough of Little Ferry. Fourteen Democratic Freeholders barely outnumbered the thirteen Republicans.

On December 5th, the Borough of Woodridge separated from Bergen Township by vote of 56 to 40. Non-residents supposedly took an active part in this hotly contested fray and wagons were sent to bring voters to the polls. Boroughites lost a previous election by only eight votes and Wood-Ridge's borough lines were consequently redrawn to exclude New Carlstadt; a second election order then brought success. In a quirk that survives to the present day, the northwest boundary of Wood-Ridge ran along "the center of the public road known as the River road leading from Lodi to Passaic Bridge" (that is, Saddle River Avenue\Lodi Road) southwest to the Bergen Short Cut Railroad, thereby excluding a tiny fragment of Bergen Township, bounded by the grounds of Felician College in Hasbrouck Heights, Saddle River Avenue and the Saddle River, which now forms one of the isolated parts of South Hackensack. As noted by The Bergen Index on September 15th, Lodi's proposed borough limits also excluded a small parcel of Lodi Township containing about 600 acres, "occupied by a half a dozen farmers," tucked between the Boroughs of Lodi and Hasbrouck Heights.

Residents of the New Village of Carlstadt (having eluded Wood-Ridge's grasp), applied to the Carlstadt Borough Council on December 20, 1894 for annexation; separate elections needed to be scheduled in both places to determine the question. On December 21, 1894, citizens of Lodi village voted at McGrath's Hall, to form a borough: out of 181 votes cast, 163 favored incorporation and 10 opposed it. Wallington (named for pioneer settler Jacob Walling) was thought "likely to follow suit." Mayors Shafer of Rutherford, McKenzie of East Rutherford and Oehler of Carlstadt, assisted by other leaders of boroughism, addressed a public meeting at Wallington on Saturday evening, December 29th; on Monday, December 31, 1894, the vote to incorporate passed 94 to 14.

Commenting upon "The Girdle of the Year" on December 27, 1894, The Hackensack Republican spoke of the closing year's hard-fought contest among urban, suburban and rural interests:

The new school law and the borough craze - two features of political policy inextricably interwoven by the failure of divergent opinions to assimilate - have created an unusual degree of discord in several townships; but this is only an illustration in miniature of greater conflicts for supremacy in the highest branches of government. "Whatever is - is best," and in the end our politicians will reach their level, if not through their own wisdom, then by force of the popular will. Meantime our schools are making excellent advancement, keeping well in the position they long since assumed at the head of New Jersey's educational department, in face of the complication of studies that tend to clog the minds of youth.

1 The southern boundary of School District #6 ran along what is now Central Blvd in Palisades Park.

2 From the Dutch, Schraalenburgh literally means "thin or narrow hill" or "the little ridge" and describes a hill between two valleys. Anyone driving Schraalenburgh Road, especially through Haworth, can easily see the accuracy of this description.

3 The Windsor section probably comprised the area west of Lincoln Street, including Orchard Street, Garden Street, Industrial Road and Interstate Place.

4 The Bergen Index, October 6, 1894

5 The Bergen Democrat, October 12, 1894

6 The Waldwick district had bonded for $5,000 and contracted to have a new school built only days before the new Consolidation act took effect.

7 The Hackensack Republican, Nov. 15, 1894

We changed the format to 3 columns for easier reading. Stay tuned for final section.

Continue to Part Four