West Milford continued to grow in the 1940s

Needs still dictate more space for government services

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  • PHOTO BY ANN GENADER The West Milford Township Hall, pictured when it was built in 1957, at a cost of $135,000, did not have the two wings that are now on either side of the building.


This is a second article in a history series about the development of the Township of West Milford.

After the first local governing board in the Township of West Milford was formed in 1834 with five township committeemen, somewhere along the way the number of committeemen was decreased to three members by the 1940s. They were elected by registered voters from throughout the township. The first township meeting was held in Newfoundland at Brown’s Hotel.

The sections of Newfoundland and Oak Ridge seemed to be more connected to the rest of the township 60 years ago than they are today. Now, current council members often speak of “the town” – not “the township” - as local legislators did in the past. The township, however, is still governed by the township form of government.

The area around the present municipal building was known as West Milford Village – but that designation is seldom heard today. In the 1940s, Newfoundland was also recognized as a center in the Township of West Milford. It had its own town hall near today’s intersection of Route 23 north and Union Valley Road.

There were two Township of West Milford local governing body meetings each month – one on the first Friday at West Milford Village town hall and another on the third Friday in the month at Newfoundland town hall. When Route 23 was constructed, the Newfoundland town hall was torn down to make way for the new highway.

The small building where the Newfoundland meetings were held once a month had been a one-room rural school house with a large pot stove in the middle of the floor for warmth. It sat on a small hill that was leveled after the highway was reconstructed.

After the Newfoundland town hall was torn down, meetings continued for a time at the Community Fire Company of Newfoundland and Oak Ridge building on Allison Ave. and the highway. Township meetings were held on Fridays so that residents at vacation homes for a weekend could attend local meetings if they chose to do so.

The meetings in West Milford Village were in the former town hall that is now the West Milford Museum.

Not much transparencyIn the 1950s, my lifelong friend Jennie VanderStad Sweetman covered news for the Paterson Evening News and I covered for the Paterson Morning Call. She grew up in Oak Ridge where children either had their eighth grade education in the Oak Ridge or Newfoundland schools and I went to the two-room Echo Lake School. After eighth grade graduation, we went to Butler High School for our high school education.

We always knew to arrive at the council meetings at both town halls early or we could miss the meeting. Mostly everything was done in executive session in those days with “transparency” and associated laws of open government being non-existent. Open meetings could be as short as 10 or 15 minutes. When the real discussions were to begin, we got a polite “good night” from the three councilmen and Township Attorney Louis Wallisch. Jennie and I were usually the only people in the audience.

“I make a motion to adjourn,” Township Committeeman Noble Rhinesmith would announce and then routinely with a laugh say, “Time to go home and milk the cows.

The case for a new buildingWallisch was the township attorney and members of the township council in 1957 were Robert Little, Chester Pulis and Noble Rhinesmith. With the township population starting to grow and need for more services developing, some people saw the need for a bigger, modern municipal building.

“I was almost thrown out when I recommended the purchase of six and a half acres for a new township hall on Union Valley Road across from the old town hall (current museum),” said Wallisch when he was a guest presenter in a local history course I offered for the West Milford teaching staff in 1985.

Wallisch proudly announced to the teachers who had gathered in his office that he had been able to get the property for the municipal building for a low price of $7,500. He said it was large enough not only for a town hall but provided space for the first aid squad building and library.

He recalled that a larger building was proposed first but voters rejected the proposal that included provisions for recreation space. Voters still were not happy with the second plan that was finally chosen for the initial section of the current municipal building and they rejected that too.

Divine interventionThings changed, Wallisch said, when West Milford Presbyterian Church minister Dr. Lewis Gaston Leary marched into a township committee meeting in the Newfoundland Town Hall and told Wallisch and the committeemen that they should be ashamed of themselves for not going ahead and building the structure. His announcement apparently caused the councilmen to rethink the need for a new town hall.

A few days after the usual committee executive session, the local officials announced that the building would be built.

$135,000Leary, a former Vassar College professor, served as pastor of the West Milford Presbyterian Church for 16 years. He died at age 73 in May 1951.

Wallisch served as township attorney for 32 years and attorney for the West Milford Board of Education for 49 years. He died in March 2001 at age 90.

Wallisch said E-bonds were popular at the time and the township had been saving money. (Series E United States Savings Bonds were marketed by the US Government as War Bonds from 1941 to 1980. The guaranteed minimum investment yield for the bonds was 4 percent compounded annually.)

The township therefore had the $135,000 necessary to pay for the building. The two wings on either side were added later.

Back to the futureCurrently the officials are faced with a decision about how to best deal with aging problems of the current municipal building.

Some meetings and activities will be moved from the existing West Milford Municipal Building to the newly built 2017 library. Some people have expressed the opinion that mold, other environmental problems and a multitude of other needs to correct problems in the existing building would be best met by tearing it down and constructing a new facility.

Seeing serious deficiencies with the current municipal building during this year’s budget talks, the engineering department said $2,300,000 was needed to resolve a number of environmental, utility and usability issues to make the structure usable for the next several decades.

It was reported that office space in the existing building is limited due to ADA access issues; HVAC systems are marginal; and existing facilities, roof and electrical systems have exceeded their useful life.

No decisions have yet been made about the future of the present West Milford Municipal Building and no doubt talks about what to do with it will continue.

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West Milford, NJ