West Orange, New Jersey
Do you know that the entire town of West Orange, New Jersey, has celebrated its founding on the wrong date for at least the past seventy-five years?! Embarrassing but true. It's about misinterpreting but, above all, it's about political one-upmanship.
In 1862, a town named Fairmount was carved out of massive Orange Township because the farmers there complained about taxes and getting nothing in return when it came to police and fire protection. Since the area was at the top of two mountains and far removed from the populated centers, if a crime was committed there, the perpetrator usually got away. If a fire broke out there, the building burned to the ground. Unfortunately, the hamlet of Fairmount couldn't sustain itself; its tax base consisted of too few citizens and practically no businesses. It lasted barely a year.
In 1863, the Town of West Orange and the City of East Orange were carved out of massive Orange Township* for the same complaints about taxes and getting nothing in return but both municipalities had many more citizens and many more businesses for their tax bases. Since Fairmount was on the verge of going bust and it bordered West Orange, the State Legislature simply had West Orange absorb Fairmount.
Here's where things went off track: If Fairmount had absorbed West Orange, the founding date would be 1862 (the year when Fairmount was created). But because West Orange absorbed Fairmount, the date is actually 1863 (the year when West Orange was created). One person got it wrong at least seventy-five years ago and things just keep getting repeated instead of being rectified.
So why did it happen in the first place?
A very educated argument can be made that the mistake was intentional. At the time of the fiftieth and seventy-fifth anniversaries of the town, West Orange was the largest of the Oranges with the smallest population since it still had a substantial amount of farmland. East Orange was the jewel of Essex County, a very upscale municipality which was repeatedly awarded the title of "Best Small City in America." None of the Oranges ever really meshed well with one another after their 19th-century break-up and the very thought of being overshadowed by East Orange's anniversary celebration would have undoubtedly moved those in power in West Orange to fudge things and go with Fairmount's founding date as their own so as not to compete with East Orange's very deep pockets and East Orange's media connections for publicity.** I personally knew a great many of the old guard in West Orange while I was growing up. I know how they thought and maneuvered and I do not question in the least that the date change was done for those very intentional reasons.***
They stuck with the 1862 date for the town centennial at a time when East Orange was still affluent and could create a rivalry. The 125th anniversary was completely forgotten. But in the current scheme of things, East Orange is no longer even a glimmer of its former self and West Orange now has the most population of the Oranges due to urban sprawl. Isn't it time to show some intelligence and finally set things correct historically?
Of course, any expectation of that happening is futile since this is the same municipality which has misnamed entire sections of town and relocated historic place names thereby obliterating the historical significance of the original locales entirely. Case in point: the latest celebratory undertaking is the monthly release of a sticker which will depict each historic section of town. The only problem is that the February sticker representing "Watchung Heights" bears a vintage postcard of a street NOT in Watchung Heights!****
* The City of Orange had been created in 1860 and the Village of South Orange had been created in 1861.
** It was a valid concern and East Orange still managed to get itself much too involved in M.G.M.'s World Premiere of
Edison, the Man in 1940.
*** Several of the old guard even confided to me that my supposition was indeed correct.
**** Watchung Heights is a very specific grid of streets carved out of farmland during the 1890's. I not only grew up there but my family had lived in Watchung Heights from the time of its inception.
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