Dunellen at 50

(taken from The Story of Dunellen, 1937)

This book is a compilation of memories borrowed, still warm and vivid, from living Dunellen residents; of records gleaned from yellowing files of newspapers and from handwritten minutes books; of stories handed down from grandfather to grandson and kept alive by affectionate retelling. It has been written in the belief that history is not so much a matter of dates and figures as of people-their homes, their businesses, their amusements; their reasons for banding together into church congregations, volunteer fire departments, whist clubs, and boroughs. It could not have been written at all without the assistance of Dunellen’s residents of today and yesterday. To them it is gratefully rendered.

The community of 6,000 residents which they built and are building is just fifty years old on the occasion of the publication of this book. Fifty years old as an official entity-but the history of the square mile of territory which it occupies goes far back to the beginnings of East Jersey in the seventeenth century when Piscataway Township was settled by a small band of Baptists from Maine who sought a spot where they might worship as they pleased.

Though the town-its houses and streets-dates only from 1868, its pioneers and many of its present residents descend directly from the first settlers in this area. Dunellen’s first families were recruited from surrounding communities already in existence, some of them since before the Revolution. New Market, a mile to the south, scented an opportunity for profit in this new real estate development, as did nearby Plainfield, Bound Brook, and New Brunswick. Small tradesmen in the little villages of the Watchung Mountains came down to the green plain to invest their life savings in the projected city which the railroad was to make rich and flourishing.

Later on, business men were to move their factories the twenty-odd miles from Jersey City and New York to take advantage of the cheaper land and better transportation facilities of the little community which was just barely within the metropolitan district. New York’s workers, too, came to Dunellen to live, and commuted to their jobs in the metropolis.

Given birth as a by-product of America’s railroad era, coddled in infancy as a protege of John Taylor Johnston’s Central Railroad of New Jersey and its affiliated land company, taken over as the home of the huge Art Color Printing Company, Dunellen has managed, nevertheless, to develop its own unique personality and to preserve the hardy spirit of independence of its English, Dutch, Scotch, and French forebears. In Dunellen today these early racial stocks have been augmented by Slovaks, Poles, and Hungarians brought in to supply labor first for the railroads, and then for the factories; although there are but three Negroes in Dunellen, many more live just outside its boundaries in South Plainfield and New Market.

As its heritage from the New Jersey Central Land Improvement Company which designed it, Dunellen’s streets are neatly laid out in straight and symmetrical blocks upon which comfortable and attractive frame houses of conventional small-town architecture stand amid lawns and gardens. Rows of tall maples line each street and accentuate the air of peace and serenity which pervades the community. Despite its factories Dunellen has none of the appearance of the grimy industrial towns which abound in New Jersey.

Due to the fact that the town was built after the railroad was constructed, its designers were able to accommodate their plans accordingly, so that today the wide black right-of-way does not cut an unsightly scar across the community’s face, but seems rather to be an integral part of the town’s physiognomy.

Perhaps a passenger on the railroad, which parallels Dunellen’s main street, is unable to see very much of Dunellen as his train pauses briefly at the olive drab wooden station and pulls out again past backyard fences and a handful of factories.

Should he step out on the platform for a moment he will see, directly in front of him across the station’s green park cut with cinder walks, the main business block of Dunellen’s principal street, North Avenue. There are the red-fronted five-and-ten-cent store, chain groceries, a few restaurants, clothing stores, and two modern-facaded banks. Trolley tracks still lying along the street are unused; but their overhead wires are tapped for power to run the snub-nosed yellow-bodied busses which carry Dunellen’s passengers to Bound Brook, Plainfield, Elizabeth and Newark.

To his left, beyond the town’s newest and most resplendent garage, is the new borough hall; its simple colonial architecture sets a stamp of dignity on Dunellen’s first half-century of life.

The buildings on North Avenue are in many instances the ones erected there for Dunellen’s first shop keepers. Store fronts have been mod. ernized, and neon signs flash at night, but numerous brick and wooden structures stand today as they stood almost fifty years ago; and shop keepers invariably know their customers by sight and by name. Perhaps this informality, this friendliness of business dealings, is one of Dunellen’s outstanding characteristics. Gatherings that once were held at the old Taylor’s Hotel or Maier’s Central Railroad House are more apt today to be brief meetings over a cup of coffee at one of the borough’s two quickservice diners; but the geniality with which men greet one another is based on the intimacy that only a small town can know. And the hearty welcome of present-day proprietors follows a tradition of hospitality that always characterized the town’s hosts.

Dunellen is small enough that washlines flutter on Monday mornings only a block away from the station, and friendly enough that fences are few and better designed for leaning-on than for shutting-out.