Riverdale History

She's an encyclopedia of Riverdale lore and legend
by Dorothy O'Connor (Sun., April 14, 1996, Suburban Trends).

Did you know that Babe Ruth donated baseball uniforms to the Riverdale school team 1942? That "The Windbeam," once located at the top of Windbeam Road, was a popular watering hole during prohibition, serving "Jersey Lightening?" That the first school house was built here early in the 1800s, even before the state legislature enacted laws mandating free public education?

All of this and more local lore, legend and history of the borough were offered to members of the Woman's Club recently by resident Dorethea Walker. A relative newcomer to the borough, living here only since 1947, Walker's husband's family reside in Riverdale since the early part of this century.

Bringing with her artifacts and historic memorabilia, Walker traced the history of Riverdale from its earliest inhabitants - the Pompton Indian tribe - through the Dutch and English settlers, to the early part of the 20th. Century when this borough was formed.

It was the school, Walker explained that has played an integral part in this community from the beginning, even at the core of the borough's formation.

The very first, one-room school house, built between 1800 and 1812, was, Walker said. "a crude building of rough hewn unpainted siding with plank floor and few window; with a fireplace at one end for heat."

"The firewood was furnished by each family according to the number of children that were in attendance," Walker said, "The furnishings were crude, consisting of several rows of wide boards stretching almost from one end of the room to the other. The students sat on long benches made of slabs, supported at intervals by peg legs. There were not blackboards. The children had scraps of paper or slates to write on."

By 1856, this school building, located a few feet east of the present kindergarten room, had deteriorated and was replaced by another one-room wooden building. Additional land was donated by a nearby neighbor, Daniel Piatt, who lived in the Wooten home on Newark-Pompton Turnpike.

After the coming of the railroad in 1870, Walker said, "the population increased rapidly and a new two-room school was built in 1904." The issue of school space, according to Walker, played an important role in the decision to form the borough as a separate entity from Pequannock. "One of the determining factors was that Pequannock had built a new, fairly large school in their section of the township, and the Riverdale section felt that, most assuredly, they would be taxed for this project. After many meetings in Trenton, legislation was finally passed granting Riverdale residents the right to form a borough of it's own in 1923. In 1930, with the advent of the great depression, and with 25 percent of the U. S. Adult population out of work, The Works Progress Administration was formed to build public buildings and put skilled people to work. This is how the original section or our present school was financed and built."

While the area was originally farm country, Walker said, "with the railroads coming and the arrival of DuPont in Pompton Lakes; the quarry on Hamburg Turnpike, which was then known as the Stone Crusher; and two rubber factories on Butler, there was an influx of people, so more houses were build and together with existing houses, there are some interesting stories to be told."

Among those was Hunters Inn (then located on the southern corner of Hamburg and Newark Pompton turnpikes). The Inn was owned by Bert Lamb, a New York entrepreneur, who catered to a number of celebrity sports figures, including Babe Ruth, who, Walker said, donated baseball uniforms to the Riverdale School team in 1942.

During her historic tour through the borough Walker painted a picture of times gone by when there were card parties on the front lawn of the Wooten home to raise funds for the local PTA, of a gladiola farm in bloom, to Slater's Mill where fur and felt hats were once made, and to Federal Hill, named "because was a lookout for Washington's Federal Army."

In closing, Walker relates two stories passed on from her in-laws, "My mother-in-law told an odd story about the occupant of the large white house on the right side of Matthews Lane just off the Hamburg Turnpike. A family named DeBow lived there. However, about the turn of the century, if you had been bitten by a rabid dog, you would hurry to this house, which was known by the locals as "The Mad Dog Bite House," and the woman inside would administer medication which prevented hydrophobia, so the story goes."

A second story as related by her in-laws, Walker says, "was a little sad. It seems that during the early part of the century, shortly after grandfather Pearson had purchased the property where I lie, my mother-in-law and her fiancé took a Sunday derive in a new one-lunger, as they called the early motor cars. They decided to drive past the summer camp. When they arrive there, they noticed that at the far end of the property a cross had been burned. They were aghast. My mother-in-law, Margaret Pearson went across the street to a neighbor who seemed to know everything that went on in town. The neighbor volunteered the information that the Ku Klux Klan had fount out that Grandfather Pearson had married a Catholic, woman, and that seemed to be reason enough to burn the cross on his property."

While most of Dorothea Walker's memories are sweet of her adopted hometown, she said, "I guess I am glad I didn't live in those days."

     

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