Friday, August 24, 2012

Visiting the almost town of Aeolia

Take a good look at a map of New Jersey's towns and cities, and you'll see the names of once mighty companies that built them or were the dominant employer.

Somerset County's Manville was once home to Johns Manville's massive asbestos processing operation.

Roebling, in Burlington County, was built to house employees of John A. Roebling's Sons and Company, manufacturers of the steel rope that still supports mighty bridges across America.

Helmetta was built around George Helme's snuff factory in Middlesex County.

And then there's Aeolia, in Union County.

Aeolia? Okay, I fudged that one. You might recognize it as Garwood, smack between Cranford and Westfield. The only indication left of the little-known alternative name is the header atop the entrance to the crenelated red brick building on North Avenue. Workers in this century-old building once made pipe organs, player pianos and perforated music rolls for the Aeolian Company, the leader in its industry.

These days, player pianos are a rare novelty, but apparently they were huge in the early days of the 20th century. A 1899 New York Times article stated that Aeolian became the sole player piano company in the United States after absorbing two of its competitors. The company consolidated operations at a new plant in Garwood, built along the Jersey Central Railroad line. As a condition of moving to New Jersey, the article said, the company had the option of naming the town Aeolia.

It's an interesting statement, given that Garwood wasn't even an incorporated town at that point. Rather, it was a real estate development the railroad had carved from the towns of Westfield and Cranford. Named for Samuel Garwood, president of the development company, the community was largely industrial, with Hall Signal Company and Hercules Tube Works being the major employers before Aeolian came to town.

Garwood was a tight-knit, working class community, but its uncertain status caused a fair bit of confusion. According to the town's website, Westfield and Cranford often disagreed over which town was responsible for providing essential services within the less than mile-square enclave. Which school system would Garwood students attend? Who was responsible for paving Center Street through the business district? The Aeolian Company settled the matter of fire protection by forming its own squad and buying equipment.

Most of the issues were resolved when the roughly 400 Garwood citizens achieved independence from their squabbling neighbor towns in 1903. It's an interesting thing to consider these days, as consolidation of municipal services is frequently raised as a cost-cutting alternative to the status quo. For the residents of the newly incorporated Garwood, however, it made a huge difference in solidifying what they could expect from their local government.

Over a hundred years later, much of Garwood's industry has left, and many of the old factory buildings have been torn down or repurposed as retail space. The office section of the Aeolian building still looks neat and manicured, though the factory portions could use some help. For a while, a paperboard recycler operated there, but in recent years the place has looked unused. Whatever becomes of the property, I hope they keep the brick building and the Aeolian sign above the main entrance.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the tip of the hat to us in Garwood. Your last sentence rings as a quest for us. Bruce of the Garwood Historical committee.

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