Montclair 150: In business – Some closed; others stood test of time
COURTESY MONTCLAIR PUBLIC LIBARY ARCHIVES
By DEBORAH ANN TRIPOLDI
Beginning in the 1850s, businesses opened in what is now Montclair reflecting the needs of a rural community. As the Industrial Revolution hit and the population grew, businesses’ services and offerings became more sophisticated. Some survived for decades only to close in recent years due to even more modernization. This list touches on only some of the many Montclair businesses.
Highlights of Samuel Watkins’ brief but extensive listing in “Reminiscences of Montclair” of Montclair businesses states that in 1880 there were about 40 storekeepers and businessmen engaged here in various occupations. By 1888, there were not less than 125: “blacksmiths, five; barbers, three; bakers, three; butchers, seven; books and stationery, three; carpenters, ten; coal and wood, four; carriage makers, three; cigar and tobacco, three; druggists, three; dry good and millinery, five; flour, feed and grain, three; florists, three; furniture, one; fruit and vegetables, three; grocers, eleven; harness, two; hardware, three; hotels, two; jewelers, three; lumber and masons’ materials, one; label factory, one; livery stables, four; laundries, two; masons, seven; newspapers, two; newsdealers, two; plumbers and gas fitters, five; painters, six; planing mill, one; picture frames, one; restaurants, two; real estate, five; shoes, five; tailors, two; upholsterers, two; undertakers, one; well drillers, two; wheelwright, one.”
By the late 1920s, there were 232 stores, 15 garages, 19 barber shops, 12 real estate offices and 14 restaurants.
The Montclair Weekly Journal of April 18, 1876, had the following to say about the Montclair Hotel, which stood on the southeast corner of Bloomfield Avenue at Valley Road [sic]: “In 1865 sold it to the present proprietor, who made extensive improvements, and lately refurnished it thoroughly, so that today it stands as one of the best appointed and best kept country hotels in the state.”
The Morris Canal ran near the eastern boundary of Montclair. The proprietor was Edward E. Wright. The hotel had a game room with billiard tables, also accommodations for card, domino and checker players. Famous New Jersey apple and peach brandy or common everyday beer were served to gentlemen at the tables by dumb-waiter from the bar in the basement below. Beyond the billiard room was the big public parlor with black walnut furniture, marble-topped tables, and flowered Brussels carpet. From the mantle piece hung a dark green felt lambrequin trimmed with mottled red plush, wormlike tassels, and goldenrod, and nasturtiums embroidered in chenille. From gilded, black walnut cornices at the long windows, hung magenta curtains, looped back by big brass tie-backs. Large steel engravings, hanging from the molding by tasseled cords, decorated the walls. On the ground floor, beside the barroom, were a barbershop, kitchen, and dining room with its cane-seated black walnut chairs and oval tables each with its pressed glassware for condiments. Here the winter sledding parties or summer tallyho loads which drove from Newark and Jersey City, making the hotel their objective, supped on suckling pigs, turkeys, or great hams. After supper there was country dancing, according to “Montclair in the Elegant Eighties” by Gladys Segar.
The 24 sleeping rooms were furnished with inexpensive cottage suites decorated with painted flowers, birds, or snow scenes; and a washstand with its crockery toilet set. Floors were covered with Japanese matting in summer, and in winter with ingrain tapestries. The scenes such as these that brought hordes of summer boarders to the village of Montclair.
In October of 1880 the hotel name became ‘The Mansion House.” It was probably at this time that Wright sold out to W. R. Courter. The Montclair Times of Dec. 31, 1881, said, “R. Courter, proprietor of the Mansion House, has made it one of the best places of resort for the driving public. There are enclosed sheds for the horses, and handsome parlors and retiring rooms for ladies and gentlemen. The delicacies of the season are found on the lunch table. Yesterday the bill of fare embraced duck, chicken, cold tongue, corned beef, cheese and crackers, pickles, nuts, apples, and Florida oranges. This was not a special spread but can be found at all times by pleasure drivers. From the number of turnouts yesterday there it is evident that the tide of pleasure driving is turned that way.”
In the fall of 1888, a further improvement was added for the comfort of guests: a “Florida System” steam heating plant was installed. Winter guests were chiefly transients, but during the summer important Newark or New York families came to spend the season, according to “Montclair in the Elegant Eighties.”
Toward the end of the decade, with other changes in ownership, the character of the establishment changed, and days of disrepute were foreshadowed. The proprietor made connections with the famous gambling house of Canfield. His wife, who had seen better days, spent hours poring over a box of old letters written to her by Robert E. Lee, then at West Point, when she was a Southern belle, according to “Montclair in the Elegant Eighties.”
Records of the period also mention the Washington Hotel on the Old Road, Grand View Hotel high on the mountain, and the Central Hotel on the southwest corner of Valley Road and Bloomfield Avenue. In 1884 the Township Committee decided that four hotels were sufficient for the needs of Montclair.
The first financial institution in town was The Bank of Montclair, built in 1889 at 418 Bloomfield Ave. It had assets of $50,000, according to the book “A Goodly Heritage; A Commemorative History of Montclair, New Jersey.” by David Nelson and Mary Travis Arny Alloway.
First Federal Savings and Loan Association of Montclair was established on Jan. 1, 1922, and headquartered at 29 South Park St. The bank had branches at 602 Valley Road and 320 Orange Road, and then moved across the street to 323 Orange Road. It was acquired by Penn Federal Savings Bank on Sept. 11, 1989. On April 2, 2007, it merged with New York Community Bank, which is still at the Orange Road location, according to usbanklocations.com.
On Jan. 12, 1976, Sgt. Alfred L. Sellick Jr., 48, was shot and killed trying to disarm a gunman during a bank robbery at the Orange Road location. Three days later the gunman and three associates were arrested. Sellick was a 25-year veteran of the Montclair Police Department, according to police records.
Charles, William and Rosher Hooe opened the first African-American business and news stand in Montclair on the corner of Bloomfield and Glenridge avenues. The family also started the first home newspaper delivery in Montclair. “The entire family worked at the store. They did well for themselves selling out of the store and delivering the newspapers. They didn’t have competition,” said Betty Holloway, a historian. They ran the business until 1910, according to “Legendary Locals of Montclair.” The building is no longer there.
The young flocked to Baldwin’s, a handsome drug store on the southwest corner of South Fullerton Avenue, in the afternoon or early evening. Baldwin installed a new Tuft’s Arctic Soda Fountain of colored marble and silver trimmed. Its upper portion was decorated with a large plate glass mirror, a bronze statuette and a gilt chandelier. In summer it could keep cool 75 glasses of soda, and from it in winter hot soda, flavored with lemon, chocolate, tea, or coffee, was dispensed, a treat not heretofore obtainable in town. In 1888 it was said, “Ice cream soda is one of the new drinks dispensed at the soda fountain in Mr. Baldwin’s drugstore,” according to “Montclair in the Elegant Eighties.”
Diamond Cycle (Desent Cycles)
The first bicycle shop in Montclair was Desent Cycles, founded in 1900, by 26-year-old Philip Desent, an Italian immigrant, in the Doremus Building at 10 North Fullerton Ave. Desent came here through Ellis Island; records show his name spelled both as Philippe Decént and Philip Desent, according to the book “A Goodly Heritage; A Commemorative History of Montclair, New Jersey.”
In 1912, the shop moved to its current location at 409 Bloomfield Ave. Desent died in 1952, but the building remains owned by the family to this day.
Currently, the building is home to Diamond Cycle, which has been headed by Craig Cornell since April 1988, according to the shop’s website.
The property for the Wellmont Theater, at the corner of Bloomfield Avenue and Seymour Street, was purchased in March of 1921 by theater manager H.H. Wellenbrick. The name Wellmont is a combination of his name and the town name. The theater opened in 1922 and was used for acts such as burlesque comedy, song and dance and stage plays. Famous people such as Charlie Chaplin performed on the stage, but the Wellmont was mainly used as a movie house. Thomas Edison viewed some picture shows there.
A pianist would play the theater’s Wurlitzer pipe organ during silent movies. When film started adding sound to the movies, the Wellmont Theatre added sound sync equipment. At that time the Stanley Fabian theater chain took over the Wellmont Theatre.
In the 1980s, the Roberts Theater chain made some changes, converting the single room to a triplex focusing on independent films. The entrance was moved from Bloomfield Avenue to Seymour Street.
In 2006, the theater was sold again. It was closed for two years for renovations, which brought back the original single stage and flexible floor seating. In 2008, it reopened again as the area’s largest concert venue. In 2013, it changed ownership again and more repairs were made to the crumbling ceiling, while the name was changed from Wellmont Theatre to the Wellmont Theater. Live Nation took over booking and it reopened in September 2015.
Applegate Farm was established on 616 Grove St. in 1848 by the Sigler family, producing dairy such as Golden Guernsey milk products on the working farm. The original farm house still stands today. According to the website applegatefarm.com, during the Civil War the farmhouse saw many slaves to freedom.
In the late 1800s, it was taken over by Julian Tinkham and in the late 1920s Frank Oliver joined him with fresh ideas. Oliver perfected the first ice cream cone at the location.
Oliver hired his son-in-law Donald Littlefield as a driver and he delivered ice cream for decades. Soon after, Littlefield brought the new items into area bakeries and markets.
Betty Vhay took over the business in 1980 and her family moved into the original farmhouse. In 1991, Vhay’s nephew Jason Street took over and is still the owner.
DeCamp Bus Lines
Major Jonathan W. DeCamp had the idea to operate a stage service between Roseland and Newark from the Newark-Mount Pleasant Turnpike, known as Mt. Pleasant Avenue.
He constructed a covered wagon with a team of horses and opened his stagecoach line. The round trip would take the entire day.
In 1878, his son Benjamin “Cap” DeCamp joined the business, creating another route, from the General Store and the Post Office in Livingston to the Orange Post Office. Rides were 25 cents.
In 1905, after Benjamin DeCamp’s death, his son Robert took over and added another route, to Caldwell. In 1909, he snagged the first motor bus, which changed the transportation industry. However, the motor bus was difficult to handle. There were difficulties going uphill and buses sometimes had to be pushed by the passengers. Horse-drawn carriages were still used.
In 1917, after Robert died, Ralph D. DeCamp, a dentist, gave up his dental practice and took over the family business. Ralph gained two new “up-to-the-minute” motor buses, ending the era of horse-drawn carriages.
The company’s first garage was built next to the Central School on South Livingston Avenue in Livingston. In 1926, the business was expanded to fit 40 buses at 49 West Mt. Pleasant Ave. in Livingston. The business expanded yet again, adding more routes from Journal Square in Jersey City and areas of North Jersey into New York. The only line relinquished was the one that fundamentally started the business, now called Bus Route 144, the Caldwell-Roseland-Livingston-Pleasantdale to Newark run. The only line to cease operation was the original route. DeCamp added a bus garage in Clifton.
Robert and Stuart DeCamp expanded the business to 175 motor coaches and in the 1970s the company relocated to New York City.
After World War II, DeCamp transportation, like many other businesses, struggled.
Stuart DeCamp died in 1978 and the family almost sold the over 100-year-old business. In 1979, DeCamp relocated to the former Public Service bus company in Montclair. The company dropped to 73 buses and sold two routes. Robert DeCamp Jr. came on board in 1968 and his sister Suzanne joined in 1979. In 1982, the family was again pressured to sell, but the siblings kept the business running.
Robert DeCamp Sr. retired in 1991 and in November of 1997 Suzanne left the business to explore other opportunities. Robert Jr. bought his sister out. The company is the oldest privately-owned and operated bus company, according to DeCamp’s website.
Keil’s Pharmacy, which was established by Herman Keil on 732 Valley Road and opened in 1933, was bought out by Benzer Pharmaceuticals in March. For decades it was a landmark in Montclair, run by three generations of the Keil family. Stuart and Mona Keil, along with their son Andrew, were the last of the Keil family to own the pharmacy, according to previous reports in Montclair Local. In the early days, pharmacists made, as well as prescribed medicines, and remained community medical counselors until the 1950s.
With the passage of new regulatory laws in 1951, pharmacists needed a physician’s prescription to dispense many medications.
Irving Hollander, an employee in a drug store on the corner of Grove and Walnut streets, bought the store. In 1941, it became Grove Pharmacy when it moved north to the old A&P. Its located at 123 Grove St. Read more about Keil's Pharmacy.
Kent Hallander family owned Photo Cullen in Montclair for nearly a half century until closing in January of this year. The business began in 1882 at 551A Valley Road, and gave way to the rise of digital photography and decline of film photography, according to previous reports in Montclair Local. Read more about Photo Cullen.
Hampton House, a high-end furniture store at 467 Bloomfield Ave, closed its doors in June 2017 after being in town for 70 years. The business was last run by Ron and Joan Fisch. It too was hit by modern online shopping, and the building remains vacant, according to previous reports in Montclair Local. Read more about Hampton House.
Jaimie Winters contributed to this article.