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Teaneck's Oral History
By Mildred Taylor
The vine covered ruins of the William Walter Phelps mansion were the main attraction in Teaneck from the time the mansion burned to the ground in 1888 until the present Municipal Building was erected on the site in 1925.
Old timers like John P. Sullivan recalled the ruins during an interview for a Bicentennial oral history project, undertaken by the Woman's Club of Teaneck in cooperation with the Teaneck Public Library.
"The ruins were like a castle, "he said. There were a lot of cellars and iron doors. You could go underground from about where the 7-11 store is. You went way down. Once a kid from New York came out. He said he could lick anybody. We played dumb when we took him there, but we made sure some one was ready with a cow bell and a sheet. When we got where it was good and dark, we'd howl and scare him."
After the fire. Mr. Phelps moved to the Griggs house, where Holy Name Hospital now stands. He died in 1894 owning most of the land in Teaneck; but the property was not opened for development until after the death of Mrs. Phelps in 1920.
Mrs. Ida Damrau Mortensen, who was born in a house where the Grand Union stands, recalled the ruins and many other aspects of life in Teaneck. We had no near neighbors" she explained. My best friend was Lorena Carroll, whose father was a partner in the Fiss, Doerr and Carroll Horse Farm at Queen Anne Road and Cedar Lane. Lorena had a governess and a pony cart."
Mrs. Mortensen's father, an Alsatian who came to Teaneck in 1893, worked in the Phelps greenhouses, which were across from what is now the Municipal Building. Later he had his own greenhouse on the Grand Union site.
Greenhouses flourished in Teaneck, Eleanor Encke, a teacher in Teaneck for many years before moving to Florida, told how her whole family worked on the greenhouse on Fort Lee Road that still carries the family name.
"My father emigrated from Germany. He worked as a nurseryman in Carlstadt, while he saved enough to set up his business and send for his family. He built three long sheds for greenhouses and we lived in those sheds before he built a big house. During World War I those sheds were moved to Cresskill, to become army barracks at Camp Merritt. "We worked hard in the greenhouse, boxing flowers which my father took to the New York market driving a horse and wagon."
Charles Clausen, born in Teaneck in 1905, remembers the horse farm well. Fiss, Doerr and Carroll brought hundreds of carloads of horses to Teaneck for shipment overseas. Cedar Lane would be blocked off to get the horses to the railroad station.
"When I was a boy, my father would put me on a horse and tell me to go to Hackensack, and get the sheriff, when he had trouble with the cowboys on the horse farm. It was like wild west with robbers and horse thieves."
Mr. Clausen, who operated a moving business for many years, was born on his grandfather's 13-acre farm which ran east from the north end of Votee Park to Teaneck High School and beyond Route 4. His grandparents worked for Mr. Phelps. When his mother was born, she was named Ellen for Mrs. Phelps. Ellen married Henry Clausen, a truck farmer from Ridgefield Park who became quite a figure in Teaneck's civic life, serving four terms on the Township Council. The newlyweds spent their honey-moon at the New Bridge Inn (built in 1739), destroyed by fire in 1964, and now replaced).
They started housekeeping in what had been a slave house on Teaneck Road (now the site of a Gulf station). During the 20's a group of civic minded women known as "The Library ladies" acquired the structure and started a circulating library there. When the building boom began in Teaneck, the women sold the property at a substantial profit and turned the money over to the town to build the Teaneck Public Library.
"I went to Englewood High School," Charles Glausen recalled. I remember our graduation party. We took the trolley to Edgewater and the Day Liner to Bear Mountain. My dad started a fat factory in about 1900. It was about where the Public Service Company's generator is now. He shipped two carloads of Grade A tallow and a carload of hides every week. Colgate-Palmolive used the tallow for making cosmetics."
Mr. Clausen, who died recently in Keene, N. H., where his daughter lives, sold all that was left of the farm -- to acres -- to the township before he retired in 1976. The Richard Rodda recreation Building now stands on the site where Charles Clausen operated his moving business.
Among the interviews taped during the oral history project was one with Mrs. Fannie Borden Schultz, who will celebrate her 100th birthday Nov. 20. Her father operated a dairy farm in the area of Bogert Street, Longfellow Avenue, and Beaumont Avenue round 1907. They had 40 jersey cows. The area became known as Borden's Fields, and was the center of much athletic activity.
Former Mayor Clarence Brett recalled the town-wide treechopping in the mid-20's, when everyone in town turned out to clear what is now the Teaneck High School Athletic Field: Mr. Brett was a member of the School Board when the Board of Education brought 10 acres of land for $25,000 to build a high school for Teaneck. The athletic field came first. The cornerstone of the high school was laid in 1928.
Teaneck Public Library
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