Some Random Local Thoughts on this Most Unusual of Election Years
Journeys into River Edge
This extraordinary election and its different manner of voting got us to wondering what it must have been like when folks first started to organize in such matters here 126 years ago.
The first selection of municipal officers in this community occurred in 1894 just after the formation of the Borough during a period called Boroughitis (many neighboring boroughs were formed at the same date, usually by referendum. Attempts by the New Jersey Legislature to reform local government and the school systems led to the breakup of most of Bergen County's townships into small boroughs. This occurred following the development of commuter suburbs in New Jersey, residents of which wanted more government services than did the long-time rural population. ).
At that time we called ourselves Riverside (River Edge would become the Borough name in 1930).
Unfortunately, our history texts do not provide any details about what early elections were like. Instead routinely we get a recitation of names of early officials, their backgrounds and their lengths of service in office.
For example, our first mayor was John G. Webb (Webb Avenue). He became Mayor on July 18, 1894 when he was “elected” at a first borough meeting that occurred at Bogert’s Hall – a large room on the second floor of A.Z. Bogert’s coal and number company building on River Edge Road (See Image Below)
Webb was a retired school teacher who entered the real estate business as a second career. He was also called “Squire” as he was a Justice of the Peace. Known as a dynamic speaker, he led church services often at the River Edge Chapel Association, forerunner to the First Congregational Church.
Webb is credited with guiding the borough through its formative years. It was his administration that started the Board of Health and it set the tone and style for those that would follow. As significantly, it was Webb who led the community response to the tragic tornado of 1895 by providing marshals to keep the peace in North Hackensack and by spearheading fund drives to provide financial aid to those victimized by the event.
Webb’s term ended in 1897. He then left town and settled in Oregon.
Other “founding fathers” of River Edge coming out of that first 1894 meeting include some now familiar names like Bogert (Albert), Christie (James D.), Voorhis (John R.) (Nicholas) and Zabriskie (D. Anderson) (Nathaniel).
Though not successful in gleaning much about early elections as initially intended, my search turned up some interesting facts new to me. For example, I had been aware that Margaret Watkins was our first woman mayor. Prior to that time she had served on the council, but I only recently did I discover that she was not the first woman to serve on the council. Dolores Rabin was elected to council in 1974.
Similarly, I had been aware John Curran was the Borough’s first Democratic Mayor. His election in 1972 was considered a real milestone. Just a bit earlier, when John Sarafian was elected to the council in 1970, it ended some 48 years of Republican only rule on the council (and Mayor). With those facts I had been familiar. But I did not know that there existed an earlier period in which Democrats had a presence on the council. James D. Christie was in that first group of council persons selected at the organizational meeting at Bogert’s Hall in 1894. He was a Democrat. Christie served from 1894-1896 and then again from 1898-1901. So too was Jacob B. Voorhis a Democrat – his tenure lasted from 1902-1922. However, these two individuals were exceptions – for the most part this was a primarily a Republican town until the 1970’s.
My own personal recollections of the impressionable mayors included the names F. Walter Wanner, Kenneth B. George, and Karl C. Christriansen. They were heroes to kid and grown-up alike in those days – a reflection of the faith and attachment we had at the time for our institutions and those who were entrusted with them.
Now we live in different times. Many see the world in blue and red – like the campaign signs on our front lawns. The composition of our council and mayor reflects today’s community and world beyond.
While politics at times intrudes, more often we have fortunate locally in that those we select are neighbors, and citizens from various philosophical and political perspectives committed most of all to representing us and the common good through these challenging times. Some have been more political than others, but, almost all have been self-sacrificing public servants. After all, they are neighbors. It has especially gratifying for me to be able to recall how often over the years, people first known to me as names on a ballot under a party designation later evolved into true public servants and friends. Because they so cared about our community, to me they no longer were identified as an R or a D. They were “R.E.”
Do you have any recollections of those who served from years ago (Mayors, Council)?
Do you remember going to the polls for the first time – whether as a voter yourself or tagging along with a parent who to see how they were fulfilling a civic duty?
Along those lines, do you routinely feel civic pride on Election Day? Is it merely a day to record a political or budgetary preference or does it represent something more to you?
For my part, this year I am especially missing seeing the old time regulars who staff the polling sites. I understand why we could not be together. A highlight of my voting ritual is the chance to see familiar faces behind the desks and next to the voting machines at Cherry Hill and Roosevelt. They graciously volunteer and serve with such pride and quiet dignity. I thank them for their years of service, wish them well, and hope that they will stay safe and take care of themselves until the Pandemic has passed.
Credits and Acknowledgements:
The History of River Edge (1693-1964), Sigmund Umanski
Musket, Anchor and Plow - The Story of River Edge, Naomi and George Howitt
Image credit (Notice of Election for Incorporation for Riverside (River Edge name at that time) (1894): Bergen County Clerk