We moved to Florham Park less than six months ago, and yet I feel like I already know more about the area and the history of the town better than I did after ten years in Wanaque. Maybe it’s running around a far more accessible town, seeing more of it, maybe it’s the tighter sense of community, or maybe it’s the pride the town has in its history through volunteer clubs and a historical society. No matter, whatever it is, it means that I feel a more deeply rooted connection to this town and the history of everyone that came before.
It’s weird living in a newly built house that sits on a plot of land that was carved out from another plot in a town with so much history in the ground. I know that no one lived directly on this land before. I know that the street itself didn’t even exist until the 80s, and was only paved and widened fairly recently. There is no history in our house before us. It’s only what we’ve done so far, seen, and made of it. The history here starts with us.
But the rest of town is quite different. This land itself was almost certainly part of a large family holding of one of the millionaires who owned basically all the estate land around this area until the years following the two world wars. Before that, like all of the land around here, and even what I can tell from maps is that it was part of one of the farms that constituted the area since the revolution. While these were often expanded, carved up, then built up, because of the slow pace of growth in this area, it’s fairly easy to trace much of it back. Before all of that, the area was of course part of the tribal lands of the Lenape (on the border of Munsee and Lenni-Lenape). It’s only very recently in the grand scheme of time that it became Lund land.
Thanks to our town library and historical society, I’ve started learning far more about the town through firsthand accounts and pictures. Our town also has a historical society that has done a great job of preserving the history of the town and the families that called Florham Park home through the years. Every day, driving to the kids' preschool, I passed the old red one room schoolhouse that houses part of the historical society, but I hadn’t realized it was actually moved back to expand the main road through town, and that it marked the actual center of town for over a century. Many of the roads I run on and past each morning share names with families that lived and devoted their lives to the town. Our library and borough hall took over land from one of the rich industrialists who built up the town. The town itself even came from the merging of Flo(rence) and Ham(ilton), from the marriage of two children from these rich families. The beautiful colleges in town and the convent that gives our local train station its name have stood in town far longer than I realized and have their own unique history. Saint Elizabeth’s was the first school to grant degrees to women in NJ. I wouldn’t have known any of this without discovering some books about the town’s history.
On the shelves of our awesome library, which I still can’t get enough of, I found a section dedicated to the town beneath some historic framed pictures of the town from the early 1900s. One, a collection of pictures from throughout the town’s history showed the evolution of the town from a few farmsteads to a spread out village to post-war suburb through the people that lived through it. In it, I saw pictures of numerous familiar sights like the old Afton (the name before Florham Park) Firehouse, the Library itself, our town gazebo where concerts in the 50s look much like they did this summer, and some of the houses along the street that connects us to town. There were also pictures from families with names I see on street signs, the names of our nearby parks and schools, and some of the municipal buildings. While the streets have certainly changed, going from dirt single track paths to multi-lane paved roads, the town looks surprisingly similar to at least the developed parts of the area for the last hundred years and more.
The second book is unique in that it doesn’t seem to have been fully published, only through the town. Called “Fondly from Florham”, it’s a collection of letters that were written by a girl who moved to the area in the early 1900s, writing to her friend from her previous town, Cranford, and features a lot of the same families, farms, and other town locations including so many of the streets I’ve learned to love on my runs. She even talks about her father taking a bus down to Madison to hop on the train into New York City, much like I may end up doing eventually. Many of the letters were written during World War 1, right as the town was changing substantially with more industrialization displacing farms and cars taking over from horses. The letters were almost lost, but she decided to publish them all in a series of installments for the local paper in the 70s and the town collected and preserved them all in a book. It was fascinating to me to see how much is the same around town over 100 years later.
This town loves to celebrate its past and I can see why now. There is a rich history here of agriculture including some of the largest rose greenhouse growing operations in the world, wealth from industrialist families, and a welcoming community that actually sheltered gypsy families for much of the late 1800s and early 1900s. It’s always been smaller than the neighboring towns of Morristown and Summit, but that’s another point of pride here. The tightly knit community supports each other and celebrates the unique parts of town like the one room school house, the mansions that have become college and municipal buildings, one of the longest continually running 4th of July parades in the state, and the summer concert series that’s funded and organized entirely by volunteers.
I’m glad I discovered a little slice of the town history. I think it’s important to understand what’s happened on the earth beneath us and how it’s shaped the land and the people. Sure we could ignore all of this and just treat our town as any other suburban NJ town, but as citizens and inhabitants of the town, I feel it’s our duty to understand what came before. Knowing the past of our town helps us understand some of the community events and feel more connected here. With our kids on the eve of kindergarten, we feel even more rooted here and a stronger desire to know our neighbors and what makes this town tick. Reading about how it got to the present day builds our sense of shared community and will probably keep us here even longer in the future. Maybe one day someone new to the area will read about how our family shaped the area as well.