Barn on Montclair’s High Street was a longtime hub for Yale alums (History and Heritage)
By MIKE FARRELLY
For Montclair Local
There is a brand-new house being built at 87 High St. Right behind it is an old barn. As of this writing (November 2021), the old barn is being rebuilt.
It would be quite natural to assume the barn belonged to some ancient farm that once occupied the site, but when you look at old maps the barn isn’t there. A building somewhat like it first appears on the 1930 map. The image on the map represents the original building before it was expanded.
Barns are usually very plain, functional buildings, without any frills. This barn has “flying” roofs at either end. They are much higher than the rest of the roof and don’t seem to serve any particular purpose. They certainly seem like unnecessary frills for a typical old Montclair barn.
In fact, the building never served as a typical barn.
The building was built about 1920 by Nicholas “Nick” and Ruth (Converse) Roberts. It was originally their garage. Nick was a graduate of Yale University, class of 1901. He became one of Yale’s biggest boosters and one of its best-known alumni.
He invited some Yale colleagues to a party at his house in 1922. They sang Yale sports songs and enjoyed the affair. They did it again the following year and the year after that.
The parties became a tradition, and soon there were too many people to fit into the Robertses’ house. There was a large loft in the garage, and they started holding the parties there. The garage could hold 100 people comfortably; 200 people could be shoehorned in. The revelers liked the acoustics in the garage better than the acoustics in the house anyway.
The Robertses became famous for these parties, especially the annual Win, Lose or Draw party that revolved around Yale sporting events. Normally the departing captain of the Yale football team, the varsity football squad and prominent members of the coaching staff were invited to attend, along with a number of prominent Yale graduates.
The guest list kept getting bigger. Soon the entire squad and the entire coaching staff were invited, as were other Yale sports figures. The “master of song” was usually Alan “Pops” Hirsh, who was a catcher on the Yale baseball team in the late 1890s.
Pops Hirsh was also in the marching band and wrote the famous Yale song “Boola Boola.” He lived nearby on Clinton Avenue.
There was a piano in the garage, and the annual parties were broadcast nationally over the radio; the garage became known as the Yale Barn.
The Robertses had a nice, big house. Some even considered it a Montclair showpiece, but it was the barn that became the talk of the town. Pops Hirsh wrote the music and George Fowler, Yale alum and advertising executive, wrote the lyrics for a once-popular song called “In the Barn.”
In 1926 the festive, song-filled Win, Lose or Draw party added a serious note by honoring a Yale graduate who had made his/her mark on the world. Or, as the Yale Barn committee liked to put it, “Had made their ‘Y’ on the world.”
The first award went to Gen. W. W. Atterbury, the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The next year the committee chose to honor Army Maj. Preston Brown. The following year (1928) the award went to the speaker of the House of Representatives, John Q. Tilson.
It became an annual award known as the Montclair Yale Bowl. It was given out most years, with a few exceptions, until the 1990s, to a remarkable group of people, including senators, Supreme Court justices, authors, editors, businesspeople, religious figures, politicians and a future president, George H. Bush Sr. (in 1972, when he was the ambassador to the United Nations).
Following are the honorees who received the award at the Yale Barn.
In 1929 two bowls were given out, one to Robert M. Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago, and one to Saunders McLane, a Yale senior who performed incredibly well on a scholastic level. In 1930 the award went to Dr. Harvey Cushing, an eminent brain surgeon. Cushing was a Yale alum, but he taught at one of Yale’s biggest rivals, Harvard University.
In 1931 Eugene Meyer, governor of the Federal Reserve Board, garnered the award. The next year the bowl went to Wilbur Cross, governor of Connecticut. In 1933 Thomas Day Thatcher, solicitor general of the United States, was honored.
(In the early 1930s, as the number of attendees got larger, Nick decided it was time to make the barn bigger. The annual party was drawing between 300 and 400 guests. He knocked down the chicken coop that was also in the backyard to make space and added two wings to the barn that are still visible today.)
There were no awards given out in 1934 or 1935.
The award resumed in 1936 when Fred E. Williamson, president of the New York Central Railroad, received it. In 1937 the honoree was Henry Robinson Luce, chief editor of Time, Life and Fortune magazines.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stanley Reed got the award in 1938, while Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio received it the following year. In 1940 Juan T. Trippe, president of Pan Am Airways, was the recipient, and in 1941, Francis B. Davis, president of the U.S. Rubber Corp. There was no award given out in 1942.
In 1943 the event started to be held at the Montclair Golf Club. Nick Roberts passed away in 1945.
“History & Heritage” is a series on Montclair history written by representatives of the Montclair History Center and the Montclair Public Library. Mike Farrelly is a trustee of the Montclair History Center and has been the official township historian, a volunteer position, since 2004.