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The Establishment of Harding Township One Hundred Years Ago

By Dorothy W. Hartman & Mary A. Prendergast. Originally published in The Review, Spring 2022, Volume LXI, Number 1.

From 1720 to 1739, the area that is now Harding Township was in the western part of the town of Hanover in Hunterdon County in the province of East Jersey. When Morris County was created from part of Hunterdon County in 1740, the area which became Harding was in the newly formed Morris Township. In 1866, Morris Township was divided and the southern section including New Vernon became Passaic Township.

The township’s earliest settlers came from eastern New Jersey, Connecticut, and New York, populating farms and villages with blacksmiths, masons, carpenters, storekeepers, saw and grist millers, tanners and cider makers. By the mid-nineteenth century, the villages of New Vernon, Logansville, Pleasantville, Green Village, Meyersville and Millington were well established.

Beginning in the 1870s, Morristown became a country retreat for wealthy families from New York. Growth and prosperity followed the railroads, which were far enough away from New Vernon and Green Village to ensure that they remained rural. By 1909, though, railroad service to Morristown improved, the Hudson Tubes, now known as the PATH, opened, and automobiles began to make the town easier to reach from New York. Farmers were able to get good prices for their land from the newcomers, who competed with each other to amass the largest holdings.

A perceptive article entitled “The Big Estate Problem” appeared in the Newark Evening News which described the changes taking place in the county: “The farms are sold by the former owners for good prices, sometimes for very high prices. Some of the farmers purchase farms in other localities, but most of them go into the nearby towns, purchase houses and take up some new line of work. . . . The new owner razes the poorer structures and erects a fine house. Many acres which formerly produced crops disposed of in the town are turned into lawns.”

Workers were required to keep up the estates, increasing the population in and around Morristown, Madison, and Bernardsville by laborers. The towns were obliged to spend more on schools and social services. The article continued: “The owner of the estates, however, requires men in his stable and house, a foreman and a few other resident employees, and this condition is immediately seized upon by the township politician. Often the superintendent becomes a factor in the political situation. Naturally the owner desires to keep his tax down and get improvements, and if there is not approval, at any rate there is seldom active objection.” It wasn’t long before the small-town governing body of Passaic Township felt the impact of these new estate residents.

The town was spread out over thirty-three square miles, from Millington, Stirling and Gillette in the south to the outskirts of Morristown and the wooded hills of Jockey Hollow in the northwest. For voting purposes, it was divided into two election districts in 1898, and the 1900 census used the election district line to divide Passaic Township into northern and southern enumeration districts.

By making the town more accessible, the car was partly responsible for dividing the town. Owners of these expensive new machines were frustrated by the heavily rutted, muddy, unpaved roads. The roads were often the only topic of discussion at Passaic township committee meetings from 1907 to 1922.

The system of road maintenance set up during colonial times was still in use in the 19th century. A man could pay his local road taxes by “working them out” with his labor. About 1846, a general road law created overseers of the highways and towns were divided into several road districts. Each town government chose its overseers and budget. In the early 1900s, roads were graded with a horse-drawn scraper and bad spots given a layer of crushed stone. Often, residents appeared at town committee meetings begging for some repair on a road which was described as “almost impassible.”

In 1907, the first of the wealthy residents took action. George W. Jenkins, uncle of Marcellus Hartley Dodge the Chairman of the Board of the Remington Arms Company, had the road committee meet “at Blue Mills” where he lived, and “Joseph Dickson was instructed to make changes in the road, Mr. Jenkins to pay half.” The following year, Mr. Jenkins accepted an appointment as the road overseer, spending his own money along with the town’s on his section of the road. In 1910, Jenkins agreed to spend two dollars for every dollar the town spent on the road past his house.

In 1911, Fanny L. Tiers spent her own funds on Sand Spring Road. Over the next four years, the McAlpin family, William Jenks of Mount Kemble (now Hurstmont), William Bayard Blackwell of Sand Spring Road, and Cornelius von Erden Mitchell on Van Beuren Road all complained to the committee about the state of the roads and complained of heavy personal expenditures to maintain them.

An aerial view of Holly Hill on Blue Mill Road in 1923 from the Christmas card of Henry Auchincloss Colgate, vice-president of Colgate & Co. Blue Mill Road was later moved away from the house.

A few of the large landholders took the next step and ran for the Passaic township committee. William Blackwell was elected chairman in 1915, but died the following year. James McAlpin Pyle, heir to the Pyle’s “Pearline” laundry soap fortune, became a road overseer and was then elected president of the board of education in 1916, and township committee chairman in 1917. At the first committee meeting over which he presided, their first action was to authorize bids for 1,000 tons of the cheapest grade of road stone “for use in and around New Vernon.” They also authorized bids for road stone for the southern half of the town. To cover the costs, the committee voted to raise taxes ten percent.

When the first World War broke out, several other wealthy men took interest in the public affairs of the town. They included Howard Bayne, a Manhattan bank executive; Seth Thomas, Jr. of the clock-making family; Henry Auchincloss Colgate, vice-president of Colgate & Co., now Colgate Palmolive; and T. Towar Bates, a New York stock broker. All had estates in the northern part of Passaic Township.

Marcus Northup came to Morris County in 1918 to be the estate superintendent for Joseph Wittman on Van Beuren Road. He got to know Seth Thomas and William McKay, president of the New Jersey State Senate, through the county agricultural fairs. Northup ran for Passaic Township Committee in 1920 but lost by four votes. In an oral history made some sixty years later, Northup recalled, “Mr. Seth Thomas, Mr. Bates, Mr. Kinney, Mr. Bayne were disappointed that I had not been elected and asked me to set up a group with the idea of breaking away from Passaic Township.”

It was primarily the estate residents in the northern district who agitated for separation from Passaic Township, but they apparently had the support of many of the “old-time agricultural families.” A month before the referendum, farmer and township clerk Harry W. Hardt explained to a local newspaper, “The reason given for the division is that the interests of the residents in the northern and southern section of the present township are entirely different. Persons living in the northern part are devoted to farming and do not desire such improvements as sidewalks, electrically lighted streets and road and other improvements such as are wanted by the residents of the southern section, who live in towns, many of whom commute to the city to business.”

In the fall of 1921, Marcus Northup was elected to the township committee. Another committee member resigned and McAlpin Pyle was appointed in his place, giving the northern section a majority on the three-man committee. They voted to proceed with the creation of a new town.

Signatures of eighty percent of the voters were gathered on a petition presented to the legislature on February 6, 1922. State Senator Arthur Whitney of Mendham introduced Bill #142, “An Act to incorporate the township of Harding.” President Warren G. Harding was riding a wave of popularity after his first year in office.

The voters in town approved the referendum on May 9, 1922. The act took effect on September 1, 1922 when the township was incorporated. On January 1, 1923, the first Harding Township Committee met, consisting of Heston R. Walling, chair, John L. Wenman and Paul Weichert.

The southern part of town retained the name Passaic Township until 1992 when it was renamed Long Hill.

Rathmelton, the home of Howard Bayne on Long Hill Road.

Bayne donated land for Bayne Park to the township in 1937.

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