Vintage Picture of Radburn
Radburn Building at bottom. Plaza Road North to left. Howard Avenue is large road running down center.
This abbreviated history of Fair Lawn is quoted by permission from the book Fair Lawn: Know Your Town as published by the League of Women Voters. To contact the Fair Lawn League of Women voters call 201-797-4723 or 797-7855 or visit the League of Women Voters website.
In the Beginning:
No historic account of Fair Lawn would be complete without recognition of the Lenni-Lenapi (“original people”), native tribes of northern New Jersey. Their trails, campsites, rock shelters and hunting grounds became the roads and towns we use today. When the first Dutch settlers made their way up to what we know as the Hackensack and Passaic Rivers, it was to establish fur trading posts with the Hackinghaesaky Indians, one of the tribes of the Lenni-Lenapi. The great chief of the tribes was Oratam. As settlements grew, the Lenni-Lenapi were forced further west to unsettled land. They left behind place names of Indian origin. Few of us realize how many such names are still with us, for example: Passaic (either “where the river goes over the falls” or “valley”), Paramus (“fine stream” or “place of wild turkeys”), Wagaraw (“crooked place” or “river bend”). Typically, River Road, one of the oldest roads in the eastern part of our country, was once an Indian trail, leading to the “Great Rock” tribal council site in Glen Rock.
The most interesting Indian relic in Fair Lawn is the fish trap (weir) in the Passaic River. It can be seen during low water 200 yard upstream from the Fair Lawn Avenue bridge. The trap consists of two rows of stones forming a V-shaped dam into which the Indians drove the fish during migration, closing the opening at the point of the V with weighted nets. The Dutch called this the “slotendam,” or “sloterdam” from the verb sluiten, “shut.” This gave rise to the name of Slooterdam (also spelled Sloterdam) which was used to describe the surrounding area. Fair Lawn was known as Slooterdam as late as 1791, and River Road was called the “Slauterdam Road” until after the Civil War.
Life in the area was rigorous but settlers prospered. Farms were fruitful; fish and game were abundant. Suprisingly, slavery was encouraged by the early proprietors. A bonus of land was granted the freeholders for every slave brought into the colony. Slaves worked the farms and cut the sandstone that went into building the farmhouses. By 1790, Bergen County has approximately 2,300 slaves.
Probably the oldest structure standing in Fair Lawn is the Garreston-Brocker home, now known as the Garreston Forge and Farm Restoration, on River Road, south of Morlot Avenue. The west wing, the kitchen, was the original building built some time between 1708-1730. The main wing was built before 1800 but the gambrel roof, dormer and porch were added in 1903. The property, known at its purchase in 1719 as the Sloterdam Patent, was originally a huge plantation stretching between the Passaic and Saddle Rivers. The Garreston household had as many as 18 slaves.
Another structure, almost as old, was built by Jacob Vanderbeck. It is located off Fair Lawn Avenue (formerly Dunkerhook Road) east of Saddle River Road. The west wing, the original structure, had five rooms and the unfinished second floor was used for the children and slaves’ quarters. General Lafayette is said to have visited the local militia headquarters here during the Revolution. The east wing of the house was built in the 20th century.
Nearby, on Dunkerhook Road (“Donckerhoek” or “dark corner” in old Dutch) is the Naugle House, built in the 18th century by Jacob Vanderbeck’s son-in-law, a paymaster to General Lafayette’s troops. Lafayette stayed in this house for several days in 1824 when he returned to this country after the Revolutionary War.
Another old structure is on Fair Lawn Avenue, east of Plaza Road. It is known as the “Dutch House” and has been a restaurant or tavern since 1929. The sandstone construction is typical of the early Flemish Colonial style. No early ownership has been established but it is believe to be the Bogert House built between 1740 and 1760. The land stretched to the Glen Rock area and was farmed until the Radburn developers bought it in the late 1920’s.
The Thomas Cadmus House was moved to its site north of the Radburn railroad station from nearby Fair Lawn Avenue to save it from demolition. It is now the official Fair Lawn Museum. It has a typical dressed stone front and roughly coursed sides, wide board floors and have hewn beams. It is thought to have been built before 1815.
The only other old sandstone house still standing in Fair Lawn is the G.V.H. Berdan House on River Road between Berdan and Hopper Avenues. Although the exterior was carefully reconditioned with respect for it’s historic style when the building was converted to offices, the end facing the street has since been marred by numerous signs.
The “Old Red Mill,” is located along the Saddle River south of what is now Route 4, is another well-known landmark of the area. the original mill, believed to have been located on the Fair Lawn side of the river, was a central meeting place for the neighboring farmers. It gave the name “Red Mill” to the area. the mill, a large red wooden building, was built in 1745 and stood two and one-half stories high. At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, the mill was converted to manufacture woolen blankets and yarn from flax grown in Fair Lawn. During the Civil War, the mill produced blankets for the Union Army. The mill was visited by at least two famous persons: Aaron Burr was honored at a Christmas party there during the Revolution and President William McKinley visited Easton’s renowned lake and fountains.
Only a few minor skirmishes were fought during the Revolutionary War in the area later to be known as Fair Lawn. But Bergen County had the distinction of being the only county in all the nation which saw George Washington during each of the eight years of the War. When Washington and his troops retreated from the British across New Jersey to Pennsylvania in 1776, it was John H. Post of Sloterdam who dismantled the bridge across the Passaic River, preventing pursuit by Cornwallis after Washington’s troops reached safety on the other side. With foresight, Post stacked the bridge planks on the far side of the river for future use.
Bergen County demonstrated pro-slavery sentiments during the early part of the 19th century. Although there were only 41 slaves remaining in Bergen County according to the 1850 census, the people showed their pro-slavery opinions by voting against Abraham Lincoln when he ran for the presidency.
A black settlement on Dunkerhook Road, where slaves had been quartered in Colonial times, it thought to have been a “station” on the Underground Railway.
As the century progressed, parts of the large original farms were sold to others and by 1861 there were about 80 homes, most of them farmhouses. The Fair Lawn area became known as “Small Lots.”
The farming life continued after the Civil War, unaltered in spite of the industrialization of nearby Paterson. As late as 1876, the Borough was wholly agricultural. What is now Fair Lawn was part of Saddle River Township, created in 1784 and extending westward from the lower Saddle River into what is now Passaic County.
The railroad came through town in the early 1880’s and the trolley line to Hackensack and the Hudson River in 1906. Toward the end of the 19th century and in the early 20th, homes were built near the Passaic River, off Fair Lawn and Morlot Avenues (“the flats”) and at Columbia Heights, to house workers for Paterson’s mills and factories and for the Textile Dyeing and Finishing Co. on Wagaraw road. Warren Point also developed at the end of the 19th century, with a railroad station and post office, but most of the development was in what is now Elmwood Park.
Within Fair Lawn’s boundaries is a unique community called Radburn. One of the first modern planned communities in the United States, it was intended originally to be a self-sufficient entity known as “Town for the Motor Age.” The architect-planners Clarence S. Stein and Henry Wright enlisted the practical aid of financier Alexander Bing who had organized the City Housing Corporation in 1924. Bing’s enthusiasm brought his corporation to New Jersey, and Radburn was born in 1928.
Unhappily, the Great Depression in 1929 struck Radburn hard and in 1933 the corporation went bankrupt. The hope-for 25,000 residents had reached only 5,000 by 1964 when Anthony Bailey wrote his “Radburn Revisited” report in the New York Herald-Tribune. The Radburn idea did not die, however; it was admired, copied and improved on in England, Scandinavia, India, Canada, Russia and in many “new towns” in the United States.
Fair Lawn’s greatest period of growth was during the 1940’s and 1950’s. Vast areas of farm lands were developed for single-family homes and several large garden apartment complexes. The population grew from 9,000 in 1940 to an an estimated peak of about 37,000 in 1968. Fair Lawn Industrial Park on Route 208 was developed during the 1950’s with several additions in the following decade. Among the Industrial Park’s corporate residents are internationally known firms such as Kodak, Nabisco and Lea & Perrins.
By 1970, the last large tracts of land had been utilized. The last farm in Fair Lawn was a 20 acre tract in the Industrial Park at Fair Lawn Avenue. In 1998 this tract was developed into apartments.
What began as an agricultural hamlet has grown into a suburban town providing homes, schools, parks and shops for residents and jobs for thousands of workers in businesses, offices and industries.