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The Teaneck Diamond Jubilee 1895-1970, 75 Years of Progress - Teaneck Public Library Online

The Turn Of A Century

Source: The Teaneck Shopper, Wednesday, October 21, 1970, page 5 - Supplement

TEANECK WAS A PLEASANT farming community in the latter half of the 19th century. There were 35 farms between Liberty and Fort Lee Roads with mileposts all the way from Jersey City to Tappan.  Teaneck Road was a sweet sight in the spring when cherry, peach, pear and apple blossoms perfumed the air.

JOHN V. H. TERHUNE operated a saw and gristmill in Fycke Woods below Teaneck Road at about Johnson Avenue.  A creek ran through the Fycke to the Overpeck in the vicinity of the present Thomas Jefferson Junior High School.  One of the stones from Terhune's mill is now a doorstep at the Teaneck Public Library.

THIS WAS the atmosphere in Teaneck when William Walter Phelps arrived.  he came in a horse-drawn station wagon, draped in morning for President Lincoln, who had been assassinated on April 10, 1965, the day before Phelps signed an agreement to buy the Garrit Brinkerhoff Place in Teaneck from Jacob Finck.

THE LATER Mrs. Nellie Clausen, mother of Charles Clausen, told me of hearing her parents often speak of Phelps' dramatic arrival in Teaneck.  Her parents, Charles, and Mary Kuntze, owned a farm, which was later bisected by the Jersey City and Albany Railroad tracks, now crossed by the Grayson Place Bridge. 

PHELPS WAS 25 when he came to Teaneck. He and his bride, the former Ellen Maria Sheffield, had returned from a year in Europe and he had set up law offices in New York. He was a man of aesthetic tastes and delicate health. He wanted a home in the country to use as a summer place. 

PHELPS' SELECTION of  Teaneck as his place of residence, determined the character of what was to become a township of distinction. At first he intended to use the Dutch farmhouse built by the Zabriskie family before the Revolution as a temporary home and later build a large new house. Following the birth of a daughter, Marian, the old place became so dear to Mr. and Mrs. Phelps, that they decided to keep it and add on to it.

AND ADD ONTO it he did!  The Grange, as he called it, stood on the site of the present Municipal Building. With the aid of architects he made additions and alterations until at last, in 1886, the old Dutch farmhouse had been transformed into the residence he and Mrs. Phelps desired. The low, rambling building was about 350 feet long and varied from 25 to 50 feet in width. He occupied a room at the north with a fireplace so high, a man could stand in it. His bedroom was a platform above the huge room that served as a study, office and workshop. Adjoining this room was a huge library. The living room, dining room, and music rooms looked out over the broad park that surrounded the house.

UPSTAIRS WERE the sleeping rooms. In the basement the billiard room, kitchen, servants' quarters and laundry. The final touch to the home, described as the most pretentious in Bergen County, was the picture gallery at the southwestern end of the building.

WHEN PHELPS' father, John Jay Phelps, who was a noted financier, died in 1869, he left an estate so large that looking after it became a full time job for his son. He gave up his growing law practice and settled in Teaneck. It was his dream to make Teaneck a select residential community like Tuxedo Park. He continually added to his land holdings, buying up a farm here and a farm there, until he owned more than 2,000 acres in Teaneck. Before the panic of 1873. he formed the Palisade Land Company at Closter. Among the investors in this enterprise which bought large acreage between the. Hackensack and Hudson rivers, were U. S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, Samuel J. Tilden and General Van Buren. 

YOUNG PHELPS so charmed a group of commuters with whom he traveled to New York, that he was sent as a delegate to a political convention in Paterson in 1870. There he met several influential Republicans and started a brilliant political career. President Garfield later appointed him minister to Austria. President Harrison sent him as ambassador to Berlin. He was twice elected to Congress and was appointed judge of the New Jersey Court of Errors and Appeals by a Democratic Governor.

HE ATTRACTED and courted the favor of bright people. Many of these followed him to Teaneck. General Van Buren, who married one of the Phelps' sisters, moved here and lived in a large house on the site now occupied by the Volk Funeral Home. Van Buren was for many years, consul general in Yokohama. Lebbeus Chapman, a New York banker, moved into a comfortable house at Teaneck Road and West Englewood Avenue. Griggs, a New York cotton broker, built a handsome home on the present site of Holy Name Hospital.

ALTHOUGH PHELPS traveled extensively, Teaneck was on his mind wherever he went. Trees and roads were his absorbing interests. He began planting trees the year after he came here and did not stop until he died. In all, he planted 600,000 trees here. He grew 2,000 great oaks, experimented with chestnut trees, planted 70,000 Norway spruce, 65,000 American elms and 50,000 white pines. He made the most of every dip and rise in the land he owned. He built 30 miles of roads on his own property.

ROADS TO the Teaneck and Englewood railroad station radiated from The Grange. He built gate lodges at intersections with public thoroughfares. Carriages could pass comfortably through the arches which were closed by gates part of one day a year to maintain legal privacy of the roads. One such gatehouse still stands at Mackay Park in Englewood.

THE PHELPS mansion went up in flames on April I, 1888. An explosion in the art gallery which was lighted by 75 gas jets caused the fire.  Phelps was in Washington at the time. There were no telephones.  Messengers summoned fire departments from Englewood and Hackensack.  When Phelps returned and viewed the ruins of his home, he leased the Griggs home on the south side of Cedar Lane, later buying the house and 20 acres of land.  Later he purchased more land, so that his farm took in both sides of Cedar Lane.

He served as ambassador to Berlin from 1889 until 1893 when, in failing health, he returned to New Jersey and was appointed to the judgeship.  Tuberculosis forced his retirement in the spring of 1894.  He died at his Teaneck home on June 15, 1894, a year before Teaneck became a township with William Bennett, superintendent of the Phelps property, as the first chairman of the Township Committee.

MANY OLD TIMERS remember the Phelps ruins, which stood for years on the site of the present Municipal Building.  Covered with vines and lush growth, the tall chimneys, foundations and the eyeless windows were beautiful reminders of past grandeur.

WILLIAM WALTER PHELPS made an impression of Teaneck that is felt to this day.  At the time of his death he owned a good half of the present Township.  His estate was left equally to his widow and three children and provided that his wife live on the Englewood Farm, as the Teaneck property was called, as long as she cared to.

MRS. PHELPS died in 1920 after which the first property belonging to the Phelps Estate was put up for sale.  Sheffield Phelps died of Typhoid fever in 1902, leaving minor children; Marion died in 1923 and John Jay Phelps in 1948 at the age of 87.

TO THE PEOPLE whose families had been here long before Phelps' arrival, he was a rich man with some good ideas and some odd ones.  He paid good priced for the land he bought.  Many residents found they could make more money selling their farms to him than by farming themselves.

PHELPS WAS A good judge of people and brought capable men into the community.  Such a man was William Bennett whom Phelps brought from Binghamton, N. Y. in 1882.  Bennett, who lived in a house on the site of the present Eugene Field School, became superintendent of the Phelps property.  In the hearts of the people Bennett was the father of the township.  He was selected chairman of the first Township Committee without a dissenting vote.  He was chairman for 14 years during which the form of Teaneck's organization was set.  At his death on July 13, 1912, the Township Committee offered a resolution stating that the town was genuinely proud of his record.

JUST HOW SMALL Teaneck was at the turn of the century is indicated by the fact that only 66 houses antedated 1900.  There was an average of 26.3 acres per family or 5.15 acres for each of the 768 residents.  Early in 1900 the community, which had been growing at the rate of about two new houses a year, started to grow faster.  Newcomers had to buy land on the periphery of the vast Phelps Estate.  A. Thorton Bishop, who took an active part in the later planning of Teaneck observed:

"THE DEVELOPMENT of Teaneck differed from other towns because of the large private estate in the center of its territory.  Most towns grow from crossroads or a railroad station.  Teaneck grew around the perimeter of the Phelps property."

THE FIRST new section developed near Bogota where some employees of the railroad had settled.  The next development was in the Tryon Avenue section then called Washington Heights.  In 1901 Walter Salvage, an energetic contractor, came from Brooklyn and bought the Henry Brinkerhoff Farm of 70 acres on Teaneck Road, north of Cedar Lane.  He called this the Selvage Addition.  Then he added Manhattan Heights in the area of Bedford Avenue and Arlington Avenue.

SELVAGE'S WIFE, Katherine, was the daughter of Mrs. Anastasia Kelly, women of means who had come to Brooklyn from County Wexford, Ireland.  She moved to Teaneck with her daughter and son-in-law and decided that the Catholic people of Teaneck needed a church of their own.  The only other church in town was the Presbyterian Church on Teaneck Road and Church Street, organized May 24, 1906 as an outgrown of the Washington Avenue Union Sunday School.  (Teaneck Road was also called Washington Avenue).

Mrs. Kelly donated the little Catholic Church on the present site of St. Anastasia School.  It was dedicated Aug. 2, 1908.

THE TEANECK Methodist Church was the outgrowth of the Lower Teaneck Sunday School Association formed in 1901.  it met in the schoolhouse on Fort Lee Road with C. P. Bogert as superintendent.  The group purchased a lot just north of the trolley line on De Graw Ave. in 1905 and later assumed a $1400 mortgage to build a chapel on the present site of the Teaneck Methodist Church.

STREETS IN THE Selvage Addition were named by Mrs. Selvage for her friends and members of her family.  Stasis and Anna Streets for her mother and sister; Katherine for herself; Margaret, Alicia and Julia for her friends -- Margaret Daughty, Alice and Julia Crotty.

ACCORDING TO the Englewood and Northern Valley Directory published in 1900 the following people resided in Teaneck at that time: Edward Cleary and Misses Effie and Jennie Cleary, River Road north of Cedar Lane Road; George Coe, farmer, River Road South of Cedar Lane Road; Mrs. George Blanck, Westfield Avenue near Teaneck Station; Henry G. Parker, farmer, Teaneck Road South of Cedar Lane Road; Miss Edith Van Buren and Mrs. Harriet S. Van Buren, Teaneck and Cedar Land Roads; Richard Stack, bridge tender, Cedar Lane Road near Hackensack Bridge; William Stack, coachman, same address; Charles Henderson, seeds, Cortlandt Street, N. Y., River Road; George V. Demarest, bookkeeper New York, Teaneck Road North of DeGraw Avenue; Sheffield Phelps, journalist, Washington Avenue North of Cedar Lane Road; Mrs. William Walter Phelps, widow, Teaneck and Cedar Lane Roads; John J. Phelps, florist, River Road north of Cedar Lane Road, and Japer Westervelt, retired farmer, Teaneck and Fort Lee Roads.  There were others not listed.

SOCIAL LIFE in the early 1900s was largely limited church going, visiting and making trolley expeditions to Paterson or New York on Sunday.  There was a great fondness of horses, each family owning the finest horse and carriage it could afford.

THE HACKENSACK Driving Association help harness races on fine Saturday afternoons at its track on the southeast corner of Cedar Lane and River Road.  The Phelps Estate and Jacob H. Kipp loaned the land.  Capt. John J. Phelps was the first president of the Driving Association; P. Charstie Terhune was secretary and treasurer.  Lemuel Lozier, a member, surveyed the ground for the half-mile track.  Among the spectators was Miss Saretta Demarest who took a keen interest as she sat in her carriage with her ruffled parasol, long gloves and an elaborate hat resting on her pompadour.