Nutley Historical Society celebrates 75th anniversary

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NUTLEY, NJ — Back on March 5, 1945, more than 200 Nutleyites gathered in the Stockton Room of the Nutley Public Library for the momentous formation of the Nutley Historical Society. Seventy-five years later, approximately 50 Nutleyites gathered at the Nutley Museum to celebrate the society’s anniversary and many successes.

On March 5, 2020, Nutley officials gathered with residents on what was also the 102nd anniversary of Nutley’s incorporation.

“There probably is no more important place in Nutley than the Nutley Historical Society, because it keeps the memories and the memorabilia of our town. There is no better place to be,” John Demmer, Nutley’s township historian, told the Nutley Journal at the event.

Keeping Nutley’s history alive and accessible is no easy feat. In a presentation about the historical society’s recent undertakings and accomplishments, Nutley Museum Director John Simko discussed the mural project undertaken at John H. Walker Middle School, where, beginning in 1934, back when the building was the high school, the community painted five murals into five of the six niches in the building. 

“This project required taking off 75 years of dirt, grime and coal dust,” Simko said, adding that the historical society decided to complete the project and paint a mural in the sixth niche. Just as the original project had enlisted the help of students, 17 middle schoolers submitted designs for a mural celebrating the Nutley Amateur Circus, an 1894 fundraiser at which Annie Oakley performed to raise money to create a Nutley Red Cross chapter. Just this past winter, the sixth and final mural was hung among the completely restored other five murals.

Simko also highlighted a project in which the society rescued two tons of cast-iron gates from Vincent Methodist Cemetery. The 19th-century gates are notable for many reasons, among them that there was no welding involved in their creation — only pins and bolts. Having already cleaned the gates, the society is now discussing what needs to be repaired and where to put the fully restored gates.

“Our mission is to collect and interpret and preserve that history and especially to share it,” Simko said.

As part of that mission, the Nutley Museum has also been expanding its holdings and its scope. The museum now features art, as well.

“For such a small place, Nutley has got a lot of interesting history. Nutleyites are proud of their town and love that there is a place that celebrates our past. It doesn’t hurt that our collection is housed in such a charming setting,” Simko told the Nutley Journal. “The museum has made the effort to reinterpret our collections for new generations. We’ve also gone through the hundreds of items that have sat in storage for many years to see what might be interesting to today’s audiences. We have expanded and reorganized our incredible Annie Oakley collection and have made an effort to acquire works from Nutley artists, past and present.”

The society’s work wouldn’t be possible without so many committed members.

“We’re here to promote and preserve Nutley’s great history,” society President Domenick Tibaldo told the Journal. “We’re blessed with an exceptional board — a tremendous, tremendous board.”

At the anniversary celebration, members truly enjoyed remembering back 75 years to when the society was first formed.

“I remember it like it was yesterday; I think I was negative 13 at the time,” Tibaldo joked.

While Tibaldo may not have been there at the founding, one attendee was: Silas Mountsier. Back in 1945, Mountsier was a student at Nutley High School, and he attended the formation at the urging of his teacher, who was active in the campaign.

“The historical society has been growing very nicely,” Mountsier told the Journal. “It’s a great organization and this is a great thing for them to have.”

In addition to preserving Nutley’s history, the society also helps residents connect to their town on a deeper level. This was the case for Dianne Wilson, who has lived in Nutley since 1965 with her husband, Dave, who is a lifelong Nutley resident. 

“When I moved here I didn’t know any of the history, and then when I started learning the history I was amazed,” Wilson said.

Wilson’s love of Nutley’s history began when she learned that Annie Oakley is one of the town’s famous former residents. According to Wilson, she loved Annie Oakley when she was young, so much so that her father taught her to shoot, and her family used to call her “Di-Annie Oakley.” But her connection to Oakley goes deeper than a silly nickname; just as Oakley performed at the Nutley Amateur Circus to help found Nutley’s Red Cross chapter, Wilson was heavily involved in the Red Cross, campaigning on the local and state level for CPR certification to be open for anyone to acquire. 

“Nutley was the first town to teach anybody” — even nonmedical professionals — “first aid and CPR, then all of Essex County, then New Jersey was the first state to have it as a law,” Wilson said.

Perhaps a few decades down the line, future Nutleyites will gather at the Nutley Museum for an exhibit on Wilson, the Nutley Red Cross and CPR for everyone.

Photos by Yael Katzwer