Party like it’s 1799 — A look how Montclair’s early residents spent their winters
(COURTESY OF MONTCLAIR HISTORY CENTER)
By REBECCA JONES
For Montclair Local
As the snow piles up, our thoughts may turn to how our early residents of Montclair survived, thrived and entertained themselves in long, dark winters.
“Drinks for Cold Winter Nights” — the latest in a History Happy Hour series by Montclair History Center — gave Montclairians a chance to dive into those topics as well as four winter cocktails: the Hot Toddy, Irish Coffee, Gold Rush, and the non-alcoholic hot chocolate. The series was held last summer, then returned for this month’s event.
Past themes have included “Immigration and Beer Making,” “The Temperance Movement,” and “Drinks of the Colonial Era” Montclair History Center Collections Manager Erin Benz said the idea was inspired by a similar series run by the Jamestown Settlement and Museum in Virginia.
What constitutes a good winter cocktail?
“It’s viscous, spirituous, and comforting,” beverage expert Sam Freeman said on the event Feb. 12. He’s been co-hosting these events since the series began. Freeman sprinkles in stories from his 10 years of working in New York City restaurants (including four years at Michelin-starred Del Posto) while he demonstrates how to make the classic libations and delves into their histories. Recipes are sent out prior to the event so participants can stir them up at home too.
For the local history segment, Benz — speaking by video chat with the remote audience from the Crane House and Historic YWCA — shared her research on how people passed the cold winter nights before the advent of electricity.
“From the Colonial Era to the mid-19th Century, people mostly stayed indoors, especially here in Montclair,” she said.
Most people were farmers, so winter meant a break from work.
“They might go to the tavern, but that was mostly for the men,” Benz said. That’s where men learned of the news and goings-on in town. For women, there were gatherings such as quilting parties.
Kids only went to school in the winter because [during the growing season] they were needed on the farm,” Benz said.
And when night came around, people sat by the warmth of the fire and told stories — sometimes spooky stories, sometimes simple stories about their day.
When it snowed, however, that’s when the fun began. Just like now, snow brought residents of Montclair out to play.
Before the automobile, when there was no traffic except for the occasional horse-drawn sleigh, Bloomfield Avenue was a favorite spot for sled rising, Benz said. Kids and adults would gather at Upper Mountain with their wooden sleds and coast or race all the way to Elm Street, or sometimes farther.
Benz showed an example of the kind of steerable wooden sled on metal runners they would have used, and read a passage from S.C.G. Watkins’s book, “Reminiscences of Montclair.” The book contains tales and anecdotes of the author's 53 years in Montclair, from 1876-1929. Watkins was the first dentist to practice in Montclair.
“We would hardly ever meet more than one or two sleighs on the road during the evening, and they were generally milk sleighs or farm produce sleighs going to or from the Newark market, so that we would practically have the street to ourselves,” Benz read. “Mind you, those were the days of real sport! How I enjoyed them!’”
Freeman said his favorite History Happy Hours are those when people dress up and share their own stories. When someone came in a pork pie hat and suspenders for a discussion of prohibition, “that was amazing. My jaw dropped.” He said the 1950s and 1960s were also great eras to spur engagement — as some participants had actually lived through those decades. For that event, Freeman made martinis and dressed up in clothing inspired by “Mad Men.”
“It’s been keeping me sharp because my restaurant has been closed,” he said.
Benz said the pandemic has taught the history center there is an appetite for online programming.
“It’s been a great way to keep people connected,” she said.
The pandemic has made this one of the most trying winters in modern history. But Benz said her research into how early settlers endured difficult winters offers lessons on how we can too, and maybe even have a little fun while we’re doing it.
The Montclair History Center’s next History Happy Hour is scheduled for Friday, March 12, from 5 to 6 p.m. Tickets will soon be available on montclairhistory.org for $10 each. Montclair History Center members attend for free.