A Walk Through Nutley’s Past

This past Friday I took the opportunity to meet with Nancy Greulich, the tour guide of the Nutley Historical Society, as she took me for a walk through the unpraised but fascinating history of Nutley.

As I arrived at the Nutley Historical Society at 65 Church Street, Nutley’s Museum, I was greeted by the tiny but delighted Nancy. After introductions, she invited me to sit on a shaded bench and began narrating a brief story about a large pine tree across the street from the museum known as the “clown tree.” When a traveling circus passed through Nutley in the 1890’s, a clown unfortunately died. With nowhere to bury the clown, his fellow entertainers were granted permission to bury him in the far corner of the Franklin Reformed Church Cemetery. However, the circus could not afford a tombstone and so, the following year on their return trip, planted in his burial plot the pine tree that stands now to this very day.

Nutley Museum, Nutley, N.J.
Nutley Museum, Nutley, N.J.

Just like that, Nancy and I were off to revisit the history of the small town nestled into the hillside. Nutley is located about 15 miles west of New York City and its population grew gradually over the past century and a half as people began to more heavily settle the area. Though home to a number of historic buildings and historical figures, Nutley’s modern image as a charming suburb may shadow some of its former glories.

Upon entering the museum, Nancy informed me that it was a former schoolhouse when it opened in 1875. The first floor was largely empty. This room, the original school room, can be rented as a party hall for events and is one of the methods the museum uses to earn revenue. Numerous paintings of Nutley’s parks and other places of interest were hung on the walls. A large placard showing Nutley’s fallen soldiers of World War II hung on the back wall; many of the fallen are honored and remembered by numerous street names in Nutley today. Yet, the main attraction was the upstairs, the genuine Nutley Museum.

By ascending the wide wooden staircase that was bound by a thick hand-carved bannister, I descended back into time. As I entered the room, it became quite clear who the most intriguing and most documented historical figure in the museum was – Annie Oakley. The famous female sharp shooter was actually a resident of Nutley for 10 years at the turn of the century. 12She owned a large property in the town where she honed her skills as a master markswoman, horseback rider, and entertainer. She often performed at town events like fairs and carnivals for fun in between her domestic and international touring. Hard to believe driving through Nutley now that it was once the pride of onetime resident and famous celebrity, Annie Oakley. One of her guns, a coin she shot out of the air at a Nutley fair, and a diverse multitude of her artifacts decorate the shelves.

In between the collection cases and high windowed walls, original iron and wood desks from the early 1920’s stood still resolute, a testament to days when things were built with craftsmanship. In the back of the museum, Nancy apprised me of a large, wooden telephone booth, Nutley’s first. This booth was used by Mark Twain during his visit to Nutley, believe it or not. Other relics of Nutley’s past include the town’s original telephone switchboard and memorabilia from Nutley’s schools systems, like vintage sports jerseys and uniforms, old brochures and leaflets, and
fasciMuseum Displaysnating pictures of years past. Indeed the most random and wholly unexpected artifact was a four-foot long narwhal tusk brought back from an Arctic expedition by Admiral Robert Peary, which was gifted to the Nutley Mayor in the early 1900’s.

Displays 1

To my surprise, my visit with Nancy was briefly interrupted by a group of school children who were part of Nutley high school’s Let’s Learn program. Children of varying ages were told of the history of the town as Nancy walked them through the numerous exhibits. One boy took a deep interest in Lenape Indian tools found in the town, such as arrowheads, while another girl was completely enamored by Nutley High School’s old cheerleader uniforms on display. As a young 21 year old, even I could appreciate the young children’s penchant for the diverse history of their town.Museum KidsI stayed for the children’s tour and followed them out with Nancy. As I stepped back out into the sunlight onto the slate patio of the Church Street building, Nancy was walking the children back out to the street. I stood for a moment under the waving American flag above the door and thought about how incredible my hour with Nancy had been. I already have an admiration for history, but my visit with Nancy left me content.

I began to realize that Nutley was not just some suburb of New York City but that it was an entirely unique place. It’s bittersweet to think that many people do not know the rich history Nutley possesses. However, that is also why it is important to continually keep learning history; it gives one a sense of culture, tradition, and familiarity.

Nutley is historic for so many reasons it would take pages to write about. Books can, have, and will continue to be written on Nutley’s plentiful history. The town’s history is now interwoven in its fast-paced, modern life. If one only slows down to recognize the history, uniqueness and character of the town, the town will continue to inspire so many like it has throughout its past, like Annie Oakley, or my new friend Nancy the tour guide, or even the young children present in the museum. Blissfully, as I caught up behind Nancy, she was chronicling to the children the tale of the “clown tree.”

By Andrew Konzelmann