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Denville: A Brief History

By Vito Bianco, Past President of the Denville Historical Society

The land we have known for a century now as Denville Township, was already rich in the lore and traditions of the native Lenape peoples, when the first Dutch traders and prospectors traversed the region in the mid-17th century in search of gold, copper, iron, and pelts. The conquering English would soon follow, divvying up their new territory among a privileged handful of the King’s loyalists – their interests eventually passing to the Quaker Proprietors who claimed the most productive lands for themselves. Among them, William Penn in 1715, then John Bellars and William Biddle in 1716 were the first to lay claim to 5,250 acres collectively, land that would eventually become part of Denville Township.

The migration to the area that followed was inevitable: Quakers came from Philadelphia in search of a “New Promised Land” where they could practice their faith without persecution; Dutch farmers occupied the flatlands of the valleys similar to their native Holland; and English iron masters from Long Island sought to tap the area’s rich mineral deposits.

Iron ruled the economy of Denville’s 18th century with five forges operating along the Den Brook and Rockaway River, all anchors of the small communities that arose around them. Those forges were so vital during the War of Independence, with local forge men producing the munitions necessary to repel the British. So too were Denville’s leaders prominent in the cause of freedom; William Winds, a gentleman farmer and local legend originally from Long Island, served in the war-time State Assembly and openly defied oppressive British tax laws. Achieving the rank of Colonel during the French and Indian War, Winds earned an honored place in Revolutionary War history for his containment and arrest of New Jersey’s last Royal Governor. By Revolution’s end, he would be counted among George Washington’s generals, the only one from Denville.

After the war and throughout the 19th century farming became the cornerstone of Denville’s economy and would remain so until the early 20th century. The need to transport farm produce spurred Denville’s continued development and growth. The early 1830s saw the opening of the Morris Canal through Denville and a connection to the goods and markets in Newark. By decade’s end the railroad would cut a several days journey along the canal to several hours; and many rail workers would start to make their homes near the depots at Denville Village and Mt. Tabor.

At the turn of the 20th century, Denville was just a sleepy little hub in the southern district of Rockaway Township that was often omitted on road maps of the day. Diamond Spring Road and Main Street were narrow dirt roads, lined with majestic elm trees, century-old homes of early settlers, and many acres of farmland. A general store, post office, schoolhouse, and church were the centers of social activity. The only grand structure was the Wayside Inn, the most recent incarnation of taverns that have stood at the corner of Bloomfield Avenue and Main Street as far back as 1767 by some accounts.

By 1912, local farmers like Frederick Eugene Parks became disenchanted with the taxes they were paying to Rockaway Township, and chatter quickly spread about the possibility of forming a separate Township of Denville. Petitions were circulated and debates for and against the notion were held in the public schoolhouses. On April 14, 1913, then Governor Fielder signed into law the act creating Denville Township. The Daily Record reported that “[w]hen the news reached [Denville]…a serenade was given. Guns, horns, tinpans and bonfires in all directions were seen. Certainly Denville was alive for a few hours over the good news.”

In the century that followed, Denville would see tremendous change that would forever transform the little village at the dirt crossroads into a chic and sophisticated community still retaining that small-town feel.