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A Historic Walk Down Valley Road

By: Tessa Payer, Museum Specialist at the Wayne Museum and the Passaic County Department of Cultural & Historic Affairs


Though Wayne Township doesn’t have a Main Street (except for the short Main Ave off of Fairfield Road), Valley Road could be considered a de-facto main thoroughfare. Extending through the middle of the township, it’s quite a hub; the Municipal Building, Wayne Public Library, shopping center, Wayne Valley High School, churches, housing developments and neighborhoods. Driving through the busy intersections that mark the roadway today, it’s hard to imagine that this was once a center of agricultural life in the township.


Today, I’ll be taking you on a virtual walking tour, of sorts, to several locations on old Valley Road, diving into Wayne’s agricultural, athletic, and academic past!


Figure 1. A close-up of Valley Road in the 1870s. [1]

The Nellis Farm


The next time you walk into the Wayne Public Library, take a look at the plaque on the left side of the front doors. This plaque highlights the previous identity of the library and municipal building’s property as the Kipp-Nellis Farm, one of numerous farms along Valley Road.


The Kip family first came onto the scene in 1723; George Doremus and Cornelius Kip purchased 600 acres of land in Lower Preakness (what the Valley Road area was called) from the heirs of Thomas Hart, who had negotiated the original land deed with Munsee Lenape leaders in the area. Successive generations of the Kip family operated a farm, saw mill, and grist mill onsite; Nicholas Kip built the distinctive farmhouse around 1840.


In the 1860s, Isaac Blaine purchased the farm from the Kip family, adding onto the farmhouse. Jacob and Ella Nellis then bought the property from Blaine in 1903, and it remained in the family’s hands until 1973, when it was sold to the township.



Figure 2- The Nellis House in 1979. [2]

While families lived and developed farms throughout the whole township, Valley Road was an epicenter of agriculture. Truck farms, like the Nellis’s, lined the street up until the 1980s. It was a bustling, productive area. Interviewed later in life, Dorcas Berdan Bascombe Barton would recall the Nellis’s property “contained seven or eight outbuildings- a large barn, bunkhouse for laborers, farm machinery sheds, chicken coops, pigpens, garage” and a spring house. [3] A 1902 advertisement in Paterson’s The Call described a typical Preakness farm: “61 acres, 42 acres under cultivation, and orchard, 19 pasture and woodland- well fenced around and watered. Good dwelling with seven rooms and bath, running water through house, hot air furnace. Barn and hobble for 12 cows, corn crib, woodshed, barracks." [4]


A variety of fruits and vegetables were grown. Peter MacDonald, whose family owned 81 acres along Valley Road, grew up cultivating “potatoes, cabbage, corn, cucumbers and eggplant." [5] When farmer John Casella died in 2009, his obituary noted that he was known for “corn, zucchini, peppers, tomatoes, string beans, cucumber, spinach, [and] watermelon”, which were sold from a stand on Valley Road and at Paterson’s farmers market. Peter Rillo managed a “truck farm and flower business for 26 years.” [6] While the Leckel’s Red Barn Farm sold flowers, vegetables, and Christmas trees- depending on the season- the property was previously a dairy farm. Barton described the farming cycle at the Nellis farm;


“In producing crops for the truck farm, tender plantings were started in sheds and transferred to gardens to mature. Corn, potatoes, turnips, beans, carrots, [melons], strawberries, apples were [harvested] by hand in crates, baskets, and burlap bags. They were sorted in the market barn, cleaned, waxed, packed, counted, weighed and priced. The produce was carried to Paterson, Newark, and Belleville markets by horse and wagon for sale and barter. This was the farmers only means of income.” [7]

Figure 3- Joseph Nellis (1892-1959), who inherited the Nellis Farm from his father, Jacob. [8]

As Wayne’s population grew in the mid-1900s, the number of housing developments rose along with it. Valley Road’s farming properties were sold one by one, as their land proved more profitable than the crops grown on it. Kathryn MacDonald Nellis, whose husband, Joseph Nellis, inherited his family farm after his father’s death, sold the Nellis Farm property to Wayne Township in 1973. The library and municipal building were constructed on what were once pastures and fields, while Preakness Commons was built on the site of the Nellis House.


Lower Preakness School


In April, we published a “A Brief History of Wayne’s Early Schools” on our blog, guiding readers through the development of Wayne’s public school system from five elementary schools to nine. The Lower Preakness School, one of the original five, was located on Valley Road, just across the street from the Nellis property. In 1894, when all of Wayne’s schools were consolidated under one school board, the Lower Preakness School was designated as No. 3. Albert Smith, author of the second volume of Preakness and the Preakness Reformed Church, describes the building as a one-room schoolhouse, however, minutes of school board meetings held in 1894 suggest that it was large enough to hold outside events. As of October 1894, “there had been a standing rule in No. 15, now No. 3- that a charge of three dollars was made when the Hall was used for Church Fairs or Entertainments and a charge of Five dollars for all other Exhibitions not connected with the school.” [9] Though the size may have encouraged rentals of the property, the conditions may have done the opposite. Another 1894 meeting reported building work estimated at $35, including “school building wants cleaning both up stairs and down, the walls outside want pointing up, some new stove-pipe needed; [and] the water closets want repairing.”. [10]


The Valley Road students, including members of the Nellis, MacDonald, Post, Laauwe, and Cappio families, followed the academic standards set by the school board. School days were five and a half hours from December to April and six hours for the rest of the year. Students had a full list of textbooks; Reed’s Word Lessons, grammar books by Reed and Kellog, Greenleaf’s New Primary Arithmetic, and works on geography, history, book-keeping, and penmanship. However, a December 1894 report from the school board suggests the students may not have been as diligent in their studies as expected; “charges were made that proper order is not kept in School No. 3, and that the teacher is inefficient.” [11]


The Lower Preakness School closed in 1923, and its students were reassigned to the new Preakness School.


Preakness Farms (and the Van Saun Property)


In 1865, Milton Holbrook Sanford moved to Wayne Township. He was already a well-established businessman in Massachusetts, having built a fortune on his father’s cotton-thread mills and his own jute mill. He settled amongst the farmers on Valley Road, purchasing about 70 acres from the Van Saun and Berry families. However, he wasn’t interested in crops and harvests; instead, he set up a training farm and half-mile track for racehorses, which he called Preakness Farms.


This wasn’t Sanford’s first step into the horse racing world. He was one of the founders of the American Jockey Club and ran in social circles with racing figures, including Maryland governor Oden Bowie, who led the Maryland Jockey Club. Bowie was amongst the attendees of a celebratory dinner held by Sanford in Saratoga Springs, NY in 1868, after his horse, Lancaster, won the Saratoga Cup. As drinks flowed, one attendee, John Hunter, suggested that a new stakes race should be held to commemorate the evening. Thus, the Dinner Party Stakes was created, to be held two years later, the headlining race at the newly built Pimlico Race Course; Bowie had overseen construction of the site on 70 acres in Baltimore. Amongst the seven horses slated to race was Sanford’s entry, aptly named Preakness.



Figure 4- A sketch of Preakness during his racing years in England. [12]

Preakness’s namesake and home had developed into an active training facility on the corner of Valley Road and Preakness Avenue. Alfred Cappio reports that Sanford “built three stables with forty-two stalls, a blacksmith shop, a training ring, and a three-quarter of a mile track.” [13] The Van Saun houses onsite were also repurposed. The Thomas Van Saun house, built circa 1840, was used as a dormitory for Sanford’s jockeys, though Sanford’s property may not have included the Samuel Van Saun house, built circa 1770 and used as the Marquis de Lafayette’s headquarters during the Continental Army’s 1780 stay in Wayne. William ‘Billy’ Hayward worked as Sanford’s trainer, and he also rode 3-year-old Preakness to victory in the Dinner Party Stakes on October 25th, 1870.


He wasn’t the favorite going into the 1870 stakes race, but Preakness went on to have a storied career, winning the Maturity Stakes, Westchester Cup, and Pimlico States. In his last race, the 1875 Saratoga Cup, his time “was the fastest ever run over a distance of two and a half miles.” [14] Sanford entered Preakness in a series of European races before he was purchased by the Duke of Hamilton for breeding. Even after his racing career ended, he continued to win prizes, earning first prize at the London Horse Show ca. 1877. In Famous Horses of America, published not long after, he was described as “dark bay in color, stands fully sixteen hands in height, with capital back and loins, strong, powerful quarters, clean head, well set on a thick, muscular neck, and legs like iron and clean as a foal’s.” [15] Tragically, Preakness was killed by the Duke, leading to a new series of animal cruelty laws in England.


Preakness’s debut win brought Wayne Township into the horse-racing world, at least in name. When the Pimlico Race Course created a special race for three-year-olds in 1873, they named it the ‘Preakness Stakes’ after Sanford’s winner. Today, the Preakness Stakes is part of the Triple Crown, along with the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes.

However, Sanford’s Preakness Farms was not the only race track in Wayne Township. Preakness Race Track, active in the 1930s, offered harness racing and motorcycle racing. It was located on the current site of Edward Sisco Senior Citizen Housing and may have been called Runnymede Park.


Figure 4- A 1930s advertisement for Runnymede Park. [16]

In 1969, Ruth Fetterman of The Herald News reflected on Wayne’s changing character, writing, “within a relatively short period of time, Wayne has been transformed from a tranquil rural atmosphere into a bustling suburb.” [17] This transformation is never more apparent than driving down Valley Road, where housing developments, stores, and the municipal complex now sit in the place of one room schoolhouses, pastures, and race tracks. The traffic lights and intersections on a once sleepy rural road perfectly show that “Wayne now is two cars in the driveway instead of two cows in the pasture.” [18]

The Wayne Museum operates under a shared services agreement between the Township of Wayne and the County of Passaic. The County manages and operates the Wayne Museum on the Township’s behalf through the County’s Department of Cultural & Historic Affairs.


Notes


  1. Atlas of Passaic County, New Jersey. (New York: E.B. Hyde & Co., ca. 1877): 100-101.

  2. Ken Fedor, The Nellis House, 1979, photograph, The Wayne Museum, Wayne, NJ.

  3. Dorcas Berdan Bascombe Barton, interview about her childhood in the Nellis House. Interviewer Unknown. Wayne, NJ, date unknown.

  4. "For Sale or Exchange," The Call, September 12th, 1902. https://www.newspapers.com/image/552448712/?terms=%22Preakness%20Farms%22&match=1.

  5. Joan Wiessmann, "Friends, family join to fete MacDonalds on golden jubilee," The Herald-News, February 5th, 1973, https://www.newspapers.com/image/528470806/?terms=%22truck%20farm%22%20and%20%22wayne%22%20and%20%22Valley%20road%22&match=1.

  6. Barton, interview about her childhood in the Nellis House, Wayne, NJ.

  7. "New Jersey Market Basket," The Herald-News, September 1st, 1955, https://www.newspapers.com/image/525858489/?terms=Nellis%20Farm&match=1.

  8. “Record of Business Transacted By the Board of Education Of the Township of Wayne in the County of Passaic and State of New Jersey, Beginning July 23rd, 1894.” Reprinted in 100 Years Excellence in Education. (Wayne: Wayne Historic Commission, 1994): 21.

  9. Ibid, 6.

  10. Ibid, 23.

  11. Famous Horses of America (Philadelphia: Porter and Coates, ca. 1877): 30.

  12. Alfred P. Cappio, “Wayne’s Most Famous Resident- The Horse ‘Preakness,’" Passaic County Historical Society, 1971, https://lambertcastle.org/waynes-most-famous-resident-the-horse-preakness/.

  13. Ibid.

  14. Famous Horses of America, 31.

  15. "Horse Racing at Runnymede Park," The Morning Call, July 3rd, 1930, 03 Jul 1930, 23 - The Morning Call at Newspapers.com.

  16. Ibid.

Bibliography


Atlas of Passaic County, New Jersey. New York: E.B. Hyde & Co., ca. 1877.



Berce, William. Under the Sign of the Eagle. Wayne: Louis J. Vorgetts, 1965.


Tobin, Cathy. Images of America- Wayne Township. Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2001.


"Kipp-Nellis Farm." The Historical Marker Database. www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=62874.


Jackson, Carolyn Mumford. “The Kip-Blain-Nellis House in Wayne, NJ.” Wayne: Wayne Township Historical Commission, 1985.


Dorcas Berdan Bascombe Barton, interview about her childhood in the Nellis House. Interviewer Unknown. Wayne Township, date unknown.


Tuohy, Cyril. "Developer Will Raze Landmark Farmhouse." The Herald-News. April 28th, 1997. https://www.newspapers.com/image/528600043/?terms=%22Nellis%22%20and%20%22farmhouse%22&match=1.


“How the Preakness Became The Preakness,” US Racing. May 18th, 2023. https://www.usracing.com/news/how-the-preakness-became-the-preakness.


Kelly, Jennifer. “Saratoga Stories: A Dinner Party to Remember,” America’s Best Racing. July 18th, 2022. https://www.americasbestracing.net/lifestyle/2022-saratoga-stories-dinner-party-remember.


Martens, Heather. “Land values force farmers to move,” The Herald News. May 23rd, 1988. https://www.newspapers.com/article/64014281/.


Tuohy, Cyril. “Wayne’s Farms Disappearing,” The Herald News. September 8th, 1966. https://www.newspapers.com/article/64016039/.


Smith, Albert. Preakness and the Preakness Reformed Church, A History. Volume 2. Wayne: Linda Applegate Smith, 1990.


“Record of Business Transacted By the Board of Education Of the Township of Wayne in the County of Passaic and State of New Jersey, Beginning July 23rd, 1894.” Reprinted in 100 Years Excellence in Education. Wayne: Wayne Historic Commission, 1994.


“Preakness- Class Reunion Marks Birthday Celebrations,” The Paterson Morning Call. August 11th, 1937. https://www.newspapers.com/image/554278708/?terms=%22Lower%20Preakness%20School%22&match=1.

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