When I write about my hometown of West Orange in my 1940's-based mystery novels, it is an entirely different place than it is now. Back then, more than half of the town's twelve-square miles was either wooded or farmland. Families had been in place for generations handing down their homes to children and grandchildren. There was also an awkward charm in that the middle-class populace could never manage to put the finishing touches on any endeavor as though that was too far out of their grasp. In defensiveness, such perfection would always be dismissed as unnecessary. It was a quirky place which never seemed to fit with surrounding towns. After World War II, that began to change with farms being sold, trees being felled, and homes being built. The population began to boom. Still, it was a nice Leave-It-to-Beaver kind of place in which to grow up but by the late 1960's, the town was completely unrecognizable from its longtime self. I was fortunate enough to know the tail-end of the town's previous existence. I sorely miss it. Now, the town wants too much to be a city.
After initial inquiries as to what book I am working on and when it will debut, "Why is there no West Orange town museum?" is usually one of the next questions asked of me. As in all things related to West Orange, the answer is complex and the result (or at least the proper result) most probably will never happen.
To my knowledge, the idea of a town museum first began to get kicked around during the town centennial back in 1962 (which was celebrated on the wrong year since the town was founded in 1863 giving you an idea of exactly how interested the town is in actual historic facts). The idea never got farther than being kicked around during the daily late-afternoon gatherings at Epstein's Hardware Store in which both my great-uncle and my wife's father took part. The idea at the time was to give then town historian, Stanley Ditzel, a formal place to hang his hat. Stanley is the one who stoked my interest in my hometown's origins. He was a family friend. But when the centennial celebrations ended, so did any further discussions about a museum.
During the country's bicentennial in 1976, the idea was once again revived to once again install Stanley Ditzel as curator. This time, the discussion was not only at Epstein's Hardware Store. My uncle, the head of the school system's speech department, had a hand in organizing and directing the bicentennial pageants and he recalled the museum discussion being raised on a more townwide basis. Once again, when the celebrations ended, so did any further talk about a museum. That fever had once again passed
The bottom line was that no one had any expertise and after both the centennial and bicentennial everybody realized how much more work would be involved.
Since Stanley Ditzel was the switchboard operator at the Town Hall, everyone knew him and he was an extremely likeable guy but with his passing, no one took up his mantel as historian. People learned of my interest and began giving me their old photos and memorabilia. They knew I'd keep such things safe. They knew I placed value on the items and would never sell them (or as has happened of late, rent them to make a profit). The library reference department began phoning me with town history questions since they knew I had researched everything about the town out of sheer interest because my ancestors had gone back to the town's beginnings. But even the library shared in the town's shame. Staffed by a great many outsiders who had no vested interest in the town, they discarded a great many vintage photos which had been gifted to them. Thomas Edison lived and worked in West Orange for the last fifty years of his life yet the library discarded almost all of its Edison books (some quite old and valuable) considering them to have no relevance. Those books are now part of my collections.
One of my summers working as assistant manager at the town pool, I discovered a stash of 8x10's encompassing recreation department events from the early 1950's to the late 1960's. I made photographic copies and then dutifully returned the originals to the recreation offices. Within six months, those originals were discarded. So much for respecting property and returning it. That only got it thrown away.
The board of education has gone so far as to discard both banners and trophies from both of its high schools when the schools were combined and given new colors and mascots. There simply is no thought in the value of the past yet people kept asking why a town with colonial roots and home to Thomas Edison had no museum of its own. It boggled my mind that people would care for one brief moment and then be utterly and completely careless the next. Unfortunately, I kept getting dragged into the discussion.
In 1992, when asked by a childhood friend to undertake a formal history of the town fire department for its centennial (West Orange Fire Department Centennial Album 1894-1994) I once again wandered into apathetic territory. It was harrowing. It took me more than a year and thousands of hours to single-handedly restore dozens upon dozens of vintage photos which had been stored in a damp basement then stapled and scotch-taped as a means of repair. On top of that, people on the committee were feuding and trying to pass off vintage photos as being of the town even though they blatantly were not. They even took to hiding vintage photos from each other and losing some in the process. Just before my work on the centennial, someone wrote a remembrance of his childhood in town during the 1930's and 40's and he "borrowed" some of the fire department photos never to return them. It left me to search every and any outside source for similar photos which I could substitute. Not one single person had any iota of the value in things historic. To them, care and accuracy didn't count; let's just get on with the party and food and drinks and dancing.
It was maddening then and it still exists. Not only does the town commemorate it's founding on the wrong year (no matter how many times they are corrected) but at least two of the historic markers around town are in the wrong places. No one notices or knows the difference. To the town, a museum would only be a place to host wine and cheese parties with an historic spin. It might as well be a rented tent.
Then in 1995, I was contacted by another friend who, having seen all of my work on the fire department's behalf, was convinced that a town museum was a "must" but only if I was the curator since I had worked closely with museums thereby gaining the knowledge of how to archive and restore artifacts and photographs. My friend was representing a group of people who wanted me but he admitted it might be a hard-sell because I had successfully sued a town councilman for swiping one of my copyrighted restored photographs and putting it in his campaign literature without seeking permission or even feeling he had any need to do so. That arrogance is what landed him in a lawsuit.
The reason my name caught the attention of this particular group was because the old Tory Corner firehouse was up for grabs and my friend remembered how I had said during the fire department festivities that the building would make a dandy little museum just big enough; in the heart of where most of the town's history had taken place; and just down the street from the Edison National Historic Site which made it a perfect and easy way to attract visitors.
When a new firehouse was built a few doors away, the old 1903 building had been used for a makeshift community center and then taken over by the recreation department. The rec department wanted out since it was too far removed from any playgrounds (why it had ever been put there made no sense at all).
To me, having the museum in an old firehouse would certainly add to its atmosphere. The group asked for my opinion on reshaping the building. First, the brickwork had to be repointed. Second, under no circumstances was the brick to be painted. The doors were to be replaced with vintage style doors. The rounded archway from horsedrawn days would be restored either with real brick or faux brick and the current roll-up main door would be replaced by a non-functioning replica of the original rounded wooden doors. (To save a small fortune, I would recreate that myself since I had the skill combined with degrees in both stage and film set design.) The rusting cast iron cornice had to be replaced and I found a company in upstate New York who produced an almost exact fibreglass replica. I contacted the new fire chief, who had been a year behind me in school, and asked if the old brass firepole still existed. He had me come to fire headquarters. When I got there, he took me out to the end of the rear parking lot and pointed into a ditch. There, savagely hacksawed in half was the 1903 firepole. "Who the hell would butcher it like that?" I asked. "Hey, it's West Orange," was his response. "Can it be saved?"
I climbed down into the ditch and made an inspection. "Yes, I think it can." By cutting off the damaged part and getting the inside of the two halves threaded to accommodate an interior coupling, it might lose six or nine inches which could be made up at the top and bottom when reinstalling.
It all seemed too simple. A few weeks went by with no problems. Then the politicians got involved. Was this the right place for a museum? Shouldn't it be in a new building? Shouldn't it be in a nicer part of town? And of course, why is that so-and-so [me] involved? The councilman I had sued began manipulating things. Instead of trying to make amends after he wronged me, especially since I was the only one who had the credentials for the curator position, the museum became a no-go. My friend was ousted. The group dispersed. The firepole went to scrap. The police department took over the old firehouse and made it a substation, which in true West Orange fashion was incorrectly named after the wrong section of town.
When the discussion comes up about places discarding and/or debasing their own history, there's always someone who'll say, "It's like that everywhere." And then they'll cite only one or two examples as though that supports the claim. Well, having my background and my experience with museums and history venues within small towns both here and abroad, I can honestly say that I have never run into anything as careless and deliberate on such a large scale anywhere else. If you want to know what makes a place what it is, look into its history or its abuse of its history.
Now when people ask me why West Orange has no museum, I just smile and tell them that my collections are slated for the Library of Congress where they'll be safe.
Copyright © 2018 by John Dandola, Ltd. All rights reserved.
A Rather Constant Question Over the Years:
"Why is There No West Orange Town Museum?"