History of Kingsland Park and the UN Garden in Nutley, NJ

By Dave Wilson

Little more than 100 years ago, the ten-acres now known as Kingsland park was mostly private land, however, following World War 1 and the creation of Memorial Park to honor those who served and died in that war, Nutley's town fathers saw the need to preserve more public space in our town. Here, Dave Wilson who grew up mid-century with the park as his virtual backyard traces the evolution of the wild woods to the beautiful park today.


CREATION OF KINGSLAND PARK

What were Nutley civic groups and elected officials doing in 1921 to enhance the town’s appeal to current and prospective residents? What was being done on a national level to preserve open space and provide recreational opportunities?

We now know that from 1872-1938, the golden era of U.S. National Park authorization, our forefathers forever protected vast areas of land and resources from private development. Nutley was creating our wonderful park belt following the Third River as it flows through the township. These preservation activities ensured no development within the flood plain and provided a multitude of benefits for the public.

Kingsland Park originated in June 1921 with ordinance #35 to create, acquire, layout, improve, and embellish a public park along the easterly shore of Kingsland Lake from Rutgers Place to Kingsland Street. $7,500 was appropriated to purchase five parcels of land from Nutley Realty Co., Emil Schneider, A. Paul Geger, Wilhem B. E. Hirsch, Theodore Zeigler, and Gerardo Cetrulo. This action created the main body of the park.

In August 1930, ordinance #565 provided for the acquisition of certain lands for park purposes either by gift, condemnation, or purchase. Nutley acquired six more parcels for $12,000. These lots made up the area around the baseball field and the right of way for stairs to McKinley St. This ordinance was later amended to include construction of cinder paths, clearing of land, and other such improvements, along with funds for tools and payroll.

Final land acquisition was provided for by ordinance #767 dated November 1935.  This included the northwest path from Passaic Avenue and the stairway access from Lakeside Dr.  Maude A Maguire was paid $1,500.  A grand total of $21,000 was spent to acquire this beautiful park with additional improvements to provide fishing, wading, walking, picnics, weddings, bird watching, sleigh riding, ice skating, baseball, and other outdoor recreational activities.

 Three locally quarried brownstone set of stairs leading into the park were constructed under Works Progress Administration grants. These New Deal projects provided public infrastructure improvements and jobs for the unemployed during the great depression of the 1930s. Seven bridges were installed for people and vehicle access.

Playground equipment was installed in the late 1940s among a grove of weeping willows and picnic tables on the island. There were monkey bars, see-saws, swings, a sandbox, sliding board, and carousel for exercise and fun. Modernization occurred over the next several decades as storm damage and safety codes necessitated improvements of the playground. We used to sit on wax paper to make the sliding board really fast and get dizzy on the carousel we pushed as fast as possible.

The lowering of the dam in the 1950s and a new bridge at Passaic & Rutgers in the 1960s was supposed to help alleviate flooding on Passaic Ave. Continued erosion of the river banks inspired some Comprehensive Education & Training Act projects, using old sidewalks and curbs as walls. These walls proved unsightly and prone to failure. Grants, capital ordinances, and DEP permits led to the Gabion rock basket walls that are now used and can be naturalized with plantings.


KINGSLAND PARK as BACKYARD for ROBERT, DAVID, and PALS

A couple saves up money to buy their dream home and raise children. A yard would be nice for swings, pets, and play area, but oh those taxes on a big lot! My parents figured it out: buy a home abutting a park.

Our family lived on Wharton Avenue and then moved to Lakeside Drive, each house a spit-and-a-holler from the park. My brother, our friends and I visited the playground in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Every time one or the other of us fell in the river, which was quite often, our Mom was sure we would drown before age 12. The 1960s was our peak play time in the park but skated and enjoyed other outdoor activities in the 1970s, too.

Kingsland Park was our backyard. This park had everything: a ball field, playground equipment, a “mountain,” streams, waterfalls, trees, and paths for running and biking.

Summer break meant dawn to dusk fun. Recreation program with caroms, baseball and field trips. Fishing in the pond and beneath the waterfalls. Endless hours climbing weeping willow trees that have, alas, succumbed to age and storms. The playground equipment provided exercise and confidence building.

We walked the top of the dam to answer a dare. We had old sneakers for wading and always checked for leeches. Construction in the neighborhood meant cement tubs to “borrow.” With bamboo poles and tubs, our Tom Sawyer river adventure began. The Great Rotary Duck Race happened here. There was space for water powered rockets, balsa wood gliders, badminton, and bike riding lessons with Dad.

We watched many picnics, weddings, celebrations, and concerts from our patio. We even supplied electric for the music sometimes. The First Aid Squad, Nutley Fire Department, schools, families, civic groups, businesses, and churches all used this great park. The Bicentennial Wagon Train camped overnight here in 1976, thanks to Everett Johnesee.

We ice skated from the end of December until March. We even shoveled the snow off the ice. The bonfire was the main attraction for us, as we collected wood and discarded Christmas trees to light up the park and keep warm. Our curfew was ten o’clock and no skating until homework was done.

Many games of chicken over thin ice, manhunt, hockey and speed skating were supported by our winter purchases from Savino’s and Drewes’. Skating socks and hooks to tighten our laces kept us on the moonlit ice for hours.

We normally changed on the “steps to nowhere” at the foot of Howe Ave. and hid our sneakers in the U. N. Garden so no one could take them. During really cold spells we would put our skates on at home and walk right onto the ice behind our home. My brother Robert remembers skating all the way to the Mudhole.

We built snow forts for our snowball battles. The hills at the foot of McKinley Street and Howe Avenue were the sleigh riding spots that fulfilled our need for speed. Flexible Flyers with steel runners were the choice - no sissy saucers or plastic sleds. The big tree at the first turn gave me a concussion and really crunched my sled.

The “mountain” on the east side of the park had trails, small caves that cold air and bats came out of, rope swings, and rocks piled into forts for Army games. On the edge of an old quarry after heavy rains, we could find unusual rocks and items discarded by residents. We became amateur rock hounds and archeologists. There was never a shortage of rocks for skipping on the water. Wow! were we lucky to have this natural area to explore and remember.


CREATION OF THE UNITED NATIONS GARDEN

The United Nations is, “an organization to promote international co-operation and to create and maintain international order.” The organization was established in 1945 after World War II in order to prevent another such conflict.

The love of freedom and yearning for peace inspired some Nutleyites to create the first United Nations Garden in the U.S.A.  Mrs L.R. Zocca, Gertrude Guenzler, Donald R Hoch, Mrs Paul Witting and Henry Lachenauer presented their idea to the Home Garden Club of Nutley, which unanimously approved it. Carl Orechio, a club member and Nutley Commissioner, found the perfect site in Kingsland Park. The north end by the pond between Howe Ave. & Lakeside Dr. would allow visitors to easily access the garden.

The next step was design, and the club membership included Roy Blair, a Rutgers University trained landscaper, who formulated the layout that was followed without change.  Milton Anderson, another club member, had a world-wide knowledge of trees and shrubs. Anderson was the perfect choice to select numerous specimens that would represent various countries from around the world.

Funding ideas came from Ann Troy and Edgar Sergeant. The plan would mirror the one used in the 1920s to raise funds for trees in Memorial Park that honored WW1 veterans. Citizens could buy trees and shrubs that helped perpetuate the memories of loved ones. George Stoothoff was the super salesman who collected 112 memorials that would fund the entire garden.

The center monument contains a wonderful mosaic that represents the countries that comprise the United Nations. The above-mentioned members were assisted by Edward Flammer, Cornelius Schenck, Paul Urban, and Edward Woolf when the weeds and grass had to be tamed around the embryonic flower beds.

The formal dedication of the garden took place in October 1959, with Frank Jannuzl, Mayor Harry W Chenoweth and Carl Orechio making presentations. Alice Lester and Ade Welenowski brought the Girl & Boy Scouts to represent the youth of Nutley. Colors were presented by the Veteran’s Council.

The first tree planted was a Metasequoia, also known as a Dawn Redwood. Metasequoias are thought to be the direct ancestor of California redwoods. This oldest tree known was thought to be extinct until an expedition found some in China in 1948 and brought seeds back for propagation. The specimen planted in the U.N. garden is still thriving nearly six decades later.

The centerpiece dedication occurred in October 1961 and was followed by a stone monument and flag poles in 1962, donated by Edgar Sergeant.  Many trees and plaques were added over the next twenty years as the garden reached it pinnacle.

 In 2009, local Boy Scout Tyler Huey enlisted friends family, troops, and cub packs to restore the garden. Over the years, storms, vandalism, neglect and the passing of the founders have taken their toll, and the area is only a shell of the glory and ideas that founded it. Perhaps some local group or another Eagle Scout will find inspiration to restore Nutley’s United Nations Garden to its former grandeur.

Author's Note: The UN Garden section was based on the December 1961 Tendril newsletter and press release which documented the creation of this garden. Thanks to Tom Hanlon for sharing the Parks department files with me back in 1978.

Originally published in Nutley Neighbors, September, October and November 2017

Reprinted with permission from Nutley Neighbors, 2017; Best Version Media, A community magazine serving the residents of Nutley, N.J.

The content of this article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Nutley Historical Society.

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