WEST ORANGE, NJ — The Downtown West Orange Alliance’s Historical Marker Initiative unveiled its tribute to local patriot Mary Williams in the vicinity of the Quigley Parking Lot during a ceremony on July 7, 200 years after her death.
West Orange historian Joseph Fagan was joined by township officials and downtown business owners to officially dedicate the marker, which is located across the street from where Williams once lived on her farm. The plaque is the initiative’s second such tribute, and follows the placement of a marker at West Orange Public Library for Anna Easter Brown, who helped start the nation’s first black sorority.
And though only two markers have been installed thus far, Fagan said they are only the beginning of the initiative’s quest to raise awareness for often overlooked local historical figures or events. He said that is because letting residents know about their town’s past benefits everyone, as the turnout for the Williams marker demonstrated.
“It gives them a sense of appreciation for the community in which they live,” Fagan told the West Orange Chronicle in a July 7 phone interview. “There’s always something negative that makes it to the newspapers, makes it to the TV or makes it to the rumor mill. But when we start having positive things, it generates civic pride.”
Fagan said the reason Williams was high on the list for a marker stems partly from the fact that her previous Daughters of the American Revolution plaque at what is now the Board of Education building was stolen in 1974, and never replaced. But above all, the historian said the local legend deserved one due to her courage during the American Revolution.
In 1777, Williams’ family was divided by the Colonies’ desire for independence. Her husband Nathaniel favored the British, and he and their two oldest sons abandoned the rest of the family to fight for them in New York City. Yet Williams remained loyal to the Colonies and stayed on the farm with her other children although, as a woman, she did not own the property. Fortunately for her, the residents of the surrounding area thought so highly of her that no one bid on the land when it was put up for public auction — Williams ended up placing the only bid and got to keep her home for a price far less than what it was worth.
Life was not easy for Williams, though. As Fagan explained, it would have been extremely difficult for a woman to support her family alone in that era, especially for one who sided with the Colonies. But she managed to do so, continuing to reside on the farm until her death in 1816. In fact, the DAR claimed in its plaque that Williams even provided supplies to George Washington’s troops during the Revolutionary War, though Fagan said he personally has never found any evidence to support the claim.
Now that Williams’ marker is up, Fagan is already looking forward to the Aug. 4 tribute unveiling for the Eagle Rock Hill Climb, which was the first hill climb in the country used to test automobiles at the dawn of the 19th century. He said the initiative also has markers planned for St. Mark’s School, the first public school in West Orange; Amos Alonzo Stagg, a college football and basketball hall of famer and the namesake of Stagg Field; Anthony Thompson, the last surviving slave in Essex County; and the first trolley to reach West Orange in 1892. All plaques will feature information about its subject, but residents who wish to learn more can use a QR code to access extended YouTube videos hosted by Fagan himself.
So far, Fagan said the initiative has collected more than $7,000 to pay for the plaques, which cost a little more than $1,000 each. And while he has applied for a grant to cover costs, the historian hopes that residents will continue to make tax-deductible donations to the program. The initiative needs as many markers as possible for its long-term plan of creating a historical walking trail throughout West Orange, which Fagan said would be a boon to local businesses.
“They’ll be able to stumble upon all the great businesses downtown,” Fagan said. “And as they start to notice the businesses downtown, it’s going to have a ripple effect. It’s going to increase commerce. It’s going to increase foot traffic. It’s going to increase the overall quality of life.”
DWOA Executive Director Megan Brill said she thinks the historical markers are a brilliant way to get people to explore the downtown area. But it is not the only project she is working on to attract people. Last week’s marker unveiling was actually the launch of the new “Downtown Thursdays” program, which presents interactive events for residents in the corridor every Thursday evening for the rest of the summer. Upcoming events include a Lego contest at PNC Bank on July 21, and a Zumba party at Don Juan’s Restaurant on July 28. July 14 will mark the kickoff of the Downtown Discovery Club, which challenges West Orange children to complete a list of 30 activities for the chance to win three grand prize gift bags.
By hosting such events, Brill said she wants to give downtown locales the chance to promote themselves in a community-minded way. At the same time, she said Downtown Thursdays gives people a reason to check out the Main Street corridor and see for themselves that it has a lot to offer.
“If people knew more about the stores and what is offered downtown, they would at least consider coming to them,” Brill told the Chronicle in a July 8 phone interview. “Our job this summer is to really showcase that there is something for you downtown. And we encourage you to find something that you like and support it financially.”
Though the program has only just begun, Councilwoman Michelle Casalino is already optimistic about its success when she considers the amount of support it has received so far. Casalino, who serves on the DWOA’s promotions committee, said it is exciting to see numerous volunteers and businesses participating in Downtown Thursdays. She said that is a positive for everyone because a program like this can create a more vibrant Main Street, which in turn makes the whole community more attractive.
Moving forward, Casalino told the Chronicle that she hopes even more people will get involved for everyone’s sake.
“Everybody could complement each other,” Casalino said in a July 7 phone interview. “It should all be a no-brainer. With everybody helping everybody, you build a stronger community.”
Photos Courtesy of Michelle Casalino