The Twentieth Century
 Part 1





Woodbridge Township of the 1900s reflected many of the socioeconomic trends, crises, and transformations of the wider world. The economic life of the Township shifted from agriculture to industry. The excesses of the "Roaring Twenties" were brought down by the Great Depression, followed by a postwar boom later blunted by deindustrialization. Immigrants fled the upheavals of Europe and elsewhere, many settling in Woodbridge in search of work and new lives. The First World War weakened the old European aristocracies and the Second World War fought rising fascism. Capitalism and communism competed during the Cold War and social norms over race and gender would be challenged. To greater or lesser degrees, all these changes would be echoed in the communities comprising Woodbridge Township.

  First World War

When Thomas H. Morris, Jr. first conceived of a soldiers' and sailors' monument for the triangular plot where Main Street meets Rahway Avenue in 1904, he was thinking of the last major war the United States had been involved in, its own Civil War. Little could he imagine the global conflicts Woodbridge and the nation would see before the century's close. His efforts met with meagre success, raising only $11.28. The cause was revived in 1910, however, by the Kingwood Athletic Association, whose ladies' tag sale collected $160 that October and a further $395.36 from a fair that December. But it was enough to inspire individuals and groups to make contributions until an adequate sum of $2,817.76 was raised to cover creation of the monument by Thomas Jardine & Son ($2,350); coping, curbing, and walkway by John C. Fowler ($395.36); printing programs ($18.50), grading, seed, and fertilizer ($28.60); and general sundry expenses ($25.30).

The monument was dedicated on May 30, 1916. Though the figure atop it was a Union soldier, it was dedicated to all those who served the U.S. military in times of war. Less than a year later, the U.S. entered the First World War, April 3, 1917, which had been ongoing since 1914. Other conflicts have since been added up to the present day.

In anticipation of the war, Woodbridge was among many communities to organize civilian Home Defense Leagues. Started March 21, 1917, members wore uniforms, carried guns, and spent spare hours drilling in preparation for military service. Once war was declared, the Township joined other communities by instituting food rationing and blackouts, since the glow of lights could aid German U-boats prowling off the eastern seaboard. The Woodbridge Comfort Committee held block dances and carnivals to raise money to send cigarettes to local boys “over there.”

"Augie"

Among the Woodbridge men who served in the U.S. armed forces during World War I was August Furman Greiner, fondly remembered by many as “Augie.” He served with the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe. Following the war, he went on to become Mayor of Woodbridge from 1934 to 1951 and the owner of Greiner Funeral Home.

General Hospital No. 3

Seeing the large numbers of war casualties in Europe before American involvement, the U.S. Army could anticipate the need for stateside hospitals to treat and rehabilitate their own returning wounded. In 1917 an accomplished orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Fred H. Albee, was appointed the program’s civilian director. Originally from Alna, Maine, he and his wife, Louella Berry Albee, had settled in Colonia, and in 1916 both spent time at a hospital outside Paris, gaining valuable experience. His search for land was solved when his neighbor, Charles D. Freeman, offered his estate on Dover Road in Colonia for the new hospital. Construction began in February 1918 and grew to 110 buildings over 200 acres. There were 2,000 beds, a swimming pool, central heating plant, five kitchens and mess halls, laundry, fire department, and a telephone network. Medical services included orthopedics, general surgery, neurology, anesthesia, and artificial limb manufacturing.

Construction cost $3.5-million and it was believed at the time to be the most complete hospital in the country. In the 15 months of its operation, more than 6,000 men were treated and a majority able to return to active civilian life. As the need subsided with the war's end, orders to close the hospital came in October 1919. Dr. Albee worked in peacetime on the treatment of injured workers. He lobbied for creation of the New Jersey Commission for Rehabilitation and served as its Chairman for 23 years. During the 1930s, he made frequent trips to South America to further the use of orthopedic and rehabilitation techniques. He passed away February 15, 1945.

Memorial Town Hall

When the war ended on November 11, 1918, the Township Committee paid for celebrations “in honor of peace.” Woodbridge honored their veterans in 1924 by dedicating a new Memorial Town Hall to their memory. A $1,000 fund was raised to purchase bronze tablets inscribed with the names of those who served. These were mounted by the chamber entrance. The top floor was used by the American Legion. In 1994, the building was demolished and replaced by the present complex. 

The Roaring Twenties


The end of the First World War was met with a youthful exuberance that eschewed tradition for the new, novel, and modern. The 1920s were a period for many Americans of economic prosperity and consumerism. Motion pictures, automobiles, airplanes, telephones, and electric appliances became increasingly commonplace. A new generation came of age embracing jazz while flappers challenged the social norms of their parents. This often hedonistic postwar decade became known as "The Roaring Twenties."

Innovations and Growth

In the summer of 1925, Woodbridge customers of the New York Telephone Company received instructions on how to use a new type of telephone then being installed. The still-common crank type was being replaced by models with a "dial" with which one could directly call another party without the need of a switchboard operator.

The Township noted other modernizations during the period as well. Back in March of 1920, the police department bought a motorized truck that was later used as a "paddy wagon." Officers were given a $100 allowance to buy uniforms in 1921. They also benefitted that same year from a new State law providing a pension.

On June 14, 1924, the Township celebrated the 255th anniversary of its charter and the opening of its new Town Hall (see above) with events and a parade that attracted some 30,000 people, said to be the largest celebration in Township history—even rivaling that at the end of the Second World War. The old town hall, which adjoined the firehouse, was sold to the fire department for $15.

In September of 1925, an addition to the High School opened, housing an auditorium, chemistry lab, gymnasium, and cafeteria.

The World's Fastest Half-Mile Race Track

On July 6, 1928, around 15,000 auto racing fans packed into the grandstands of a new wood plank race track built in Woodbridge Township. Lean, powerful cars sped around the oval in their warm-up laps. Then the rain started, building into a 20 minute deluge that soaked spectators and made the track too slippery. The race was postponed to later in the week.

Despite the inauspicious start, the Woodbridge Speedway would earn a reputation as among the premiere auto race tracks in the nation. Between 1928 and 1938, it attracted many of the country's top racers. It was built by speedway developer Wilbert Baine while Ralph A. Hankinson served as general manager and Joe Heller as promoter.

Cars averaged as much as 100 miles-per-hour on the wood track, negotiating curves banked at 38 degrees. It was regarded as the world's fastest half-mile track. Manufacturers and drivers used the track to test super-charged engines and other parts. Without mufflers, the noise was ear-splitting. The relentless roar of the engines, driven as fast as possible, could be heard as far as the corner of Main Street and Amboy Avenue!

The top price for Speedway tickets in 1930 was $1.75 enabling a fan to view the races from one of the wooden chairs in the grandstand. And for $1.50 a racing aficionado could mingle with the race crews in the center of the oval or sit in the bleachers. Official programs cost 15 cents.

In May 1930 the notorious speed demon Barney Oldfield was a featured driver, and in 1931 Fred Frame drove a Duesenberg at the track and drove the same car at the Indianapolis Speedway later that year. 

Races were so popular, the Pennsylvania Railroad ran special trains during the later years of the Speedway's operation. Trains left from Penn Station in New York City, with stops in Newark and Elizabeth, and also from the Hudson Terminal. Spectators were let off at Edgar Station in the Edgar Hill section of Woodbridge, within walking distance of the stands. The special round trip fare from Penn Station was $1.05 and 90 cents from Hudson Terminal. As a boy, the late Robert J. McEwen charged patrons who drove to the Speedway fifty cents to park in his backyard while he watched races for free from his rooftop!

Accidents, of course, also occurred. The photo at right shows the Ambler Special, driven by Harry Isinger of Philadelphia, following a collision with Joe Russo in 1932. Fortunately, both survived. Others, however, were not so lucky. Among those to lose their lives at Woodbridge Speedway were Johnny Rohrer (1929), Bob Robinson (1930), Bernie Katz (1931), and Fred Farmer (1932).

In 1933, the wood track had deteriorated and was replaced by an oiled dirt track. As popular as it was, however, the Woodbridge Speedway could not survive the Great Depression and shut down in 1938. Today, it is the site of Woodbridge High School. 

Cloverleaf

In 1929, Woodbridge Township became known for another bit of automotive history—the world's first "cloverleaf interchange." With the growth of automobile ownership came the need for highways. Named for the resemblance to a four-leaf clover when viewed from above, the cloverleaf allows two highways to cross without the need for any traffic to be stopped by traffic lights. The concept was first patented in the U.S. by Arthur Hale, a civil engineer in Maryland, on February 29, 1916. The Woodbridge Cloverleaf was built at the intersection of the Route 25 and Amboy Avenue (Route 4). Today, these are now U.S. 1/9 and Route 35, and the cloverleaf replaced with what's known as a partial cloverleaf interchange.

The Great Depression


The Wall Street Crash

The Great Depression was the consequence of numerous factors, especially high consumer debt, ill-regulated markets that permitted overoptimistic loans by banks and investors, and the lack of high-growth new industries. This perfect storm created a downward economic spiral of reduced spending, falling confidence, and lowered production. Industries such as construction, shipping, mining, logging, and agriculture suffered most. Lack of consumer confidence hurt the manufactures of durable goods like automobiles and appliances. But the events most-associated with the start was the Wall Street crashes of October 24, 1929, called "Black Thursday"—the day of the largest sell-off of shares in U.S. history—and October 29, 1929, called "Black Tuesday"—when investors traded some 16 million shares on the New York Stock Exchange in a single day (right). The country had seen economic downturns before, but nothing like this. It was a clear sign that the U.S. had also fallen into a worldwide economic depression beginning with a similar crash at the London Stock Exchange the month before. The result would high unemployment, shifts in the political landscape, and, mass-migration of families in search of relief from often crushing poverty. This was particularly the case for farmers, who had also lost their livelihoods to an ecological disaster in the Midwest that threatened the nation's food supplies.

Dust Bowl

On May 12, 1934, The Asbury Park Evening Press featured a photo of an obscured New York skyline under the headline, “Clouds Of Dust From West Cast Pall Over Seaboard.” Some 3-million tons of what had been topsoil from as far away as Montana had been blown by the jet stream to the northeast, giving New Jersey a taste of the conditions plaguing the nation's heartland, now called "the Dust Bowl." Over-farming and livestock grazing had removed much of the native grasses, the roots of which had held the soil together during previous dry spells. Without it, the prairie winds gathered the land up into massive clouds, devastating farms and towns alike, sending already beleaguered families into desperate migrations. 

The Great Depression in Woodbridge

Communities large and small throughout the nation were impacted by the Great Depression, and Woodbridge was no different. Around a year after the Wall Street Crash, the Township Committee realized they had to act. Committeeman Grausam declared, "There must be something done, otherwise God only knows what's going to happen this winter. A meeting on the unemployment situation in Middlesex County had been called for November 10, 1930 in New Brunswick and the Committee was urged to convene a citizen's committee drawn from all civic, social, and industrial sectors of the Township to survey the conditions. "There are some homes in this town where no rent has been paid for five or six months," Grausam continued, giving some sense of how dire things were becoming. "Children have no clothes to wear or food to eat. There must be something done. It may be necessary to dig down in our pockets just as we did during the war before this thing is over." The mayor was authorized to appoint a committee, which considered what relief programs might look like, including asking for contributions from the employed to be handed over to an organization such as the Red Cross.

A Relief Fund for the Unemployed was established, with donations from civic and charitable groups, fraternal organizations, Township employees, and industrial groups. Charity stage shows, balls, football games, and other events were held. By December of 1930, however, $645 had been raised. A benefit show raised another $600 and the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad added another $634.75 just before Christmas. A Woodbridge vs. Perth Amboy charity high school football game netted $383. While it helped, however, there were just too few employed residents making too little money to to afford donations to stem the growing tide of want in the Township. The holiday season of 1930 was hard for many families, despite the efforts of charitable organizations to hand out Christmas baskets to the needy. Some were too proud to accept charity even then.

The economic backbone of the Township had been clay mining and the brick, ceramics, and terra cotta manufacturers that supported. With few new construction projects, demand  dropped, causing several to shut down. Those that hung on in Woodbridge and surrounding towns hired fewer workers on curtailed schedules and employees were luck to get one or two days of work. The unemployed were asked to register in various sections of the Township to help manage relief efforts.

One of the harshest blows came a year later, when a federal bank examiner concluded their weeklong review of the stability of the First National Bank and Trust Company. They had gone into receivership, shutting their doors just an hour after opening on November 30, 1931. Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) deposit insurance would not be established until June 16, 1933.

While it was often hard for people to support themselves and their own families, there were many acts of charity for the common good. Municipal employees and teachers donated back nearly a month's salary to the Township to be put towards helping the needy. Banker Frank Van Syckle bought $120,000 worth of Township bonds for the Perth Amboy National Bank, of which he was president, to help Woodbridge teachers avoid a holiday season without pay. The Perth Amboy Trust Company paid half the money Christmas Club depositors had with the failed First National Bank and Trust Company, in return for being reimbursed later when their assets were liquidated. Township budgets were tightened as much as possible to ease the tax burden on residents, though this didn't help as people simply did not have money to pay even reduced taxes. The Township enacted local programs employing men to work cleaning up the various parks in return for food starting July 25, 1932, preceding similar federal programs began later under the Federal Emergency Relief Administration of 1933 and Works Progress Administration in 1935.

According to a report issues in February 1933, 7,203 Woodbridge residents were on relief programs, nearly half of the around 15,000 total population in the Township at the time. Township governments continued being cut to the bare minimum to keep things functioning. Improvements were put off. The Township issues "baby bonds"—meaning a bond with a par value of $1,000 or less—in denominations of $5, $10, $20, and $25. These were issued as part of payments the Township owed employees and contractors. Local retail shops began accepting them from customers as if they were cash and some of their wholesalers accepted them as well. They could also be used for payment of taxes and assessment. The Township found had announced more than a $1-million in delinquent taxes. A few unscrupulous people took advantage of the situation. When someone was in need of hard cash, they would agree to swap bonds for money, but at a "discount" for their trouble, providing a tidy profit when they cashed the bonds in later.

N.R.A. Day

On June 16, 1933, Congress passed the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) authorizing President Franklin D. Roosevelt to regulate industry for fair wages and prices that would stimulate economic recovery. It also established a national public works program known as the Public Works Administration (PWA). The National Recovery Administration (NRA) was to eliminate "cut throat competition" by bringing industry, labor, and government together to create codes of "fair practices" and set prices. Participating businesses displayed the blue eagle logo on NRA posters in factories and shops. While the program was popular with workers, businesses resented being regulated. The constitutionality of the program was challenged up to the U.S. Supreme Court in A.L.A. Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States in 1935, which ruled against the government.

While it lasted, however, the National Recovery Administration was celebrated by Woodbridge Township. On October 18, 1933, a Township-wide holiday was declared. Businesses and schools closed at noon for a long parade. The Woodbridge Leader newspaper sponsored a float for "Miss NRA," Catherine Campion and her attendants, Peggy and Ann Concannon.

Recovery

Just as many factors came together to create the conditions that had lead to the Great Depression, so too many factors were at play in the slow recovery. At its simplest, it was a combination of robust federal response with the New Deal and local programs such as those in Woodbridge. Things began to look up in the Township around 1936. By October, teachers and municipal employees would start receiving half their pay in cash and half in baby bonds instead of in all bonds. By December, they would be paid in all cash once more. An ambitious program to refinance the Township's debt was undertaken that required some 20 months of negotiations with bankers to accomplish. By 1940, government contracts for military spending were adding to the overall recovery. While this was certainly good news for those who returned to gainful employment after so many years of hardships, it was also a hint of dark days to come of a different kind.

  Second World War


Defense Council

With vast oceans on each side and friendly neighbors north and south, the battles of the First World War had appeared to mostly be "over there." Despite German submarines off the coasts and their attempted alliance with Mexico, the war wasn't something most Americans expected to reach their doorsteps. Such confidence would be shaken in the next war when, on December 7, 1941, news of Japan's  attack on Pearl Harbor cracked over the airwaves. Though Hawaii was a long way from places like Woodbridge, it was still a reminder that despite our previous neutrality, invasion by fascists in Europe and Asia could not be ruled out. German submarines again prowled the waters off the Jersey shore, while those of Imperial  Japan threatened the west coast. Once the U.S. declared war against the Axis powers, the home front would also need protection from potential spies and saboteurs. As home to several industries, Woodbridge would be among them.

Like communities throughout the country, in the days after the Japanese attack, Woodbridge Township put itself on a heightened war footing. Mayor August Greiner, Police Chief George E. Keating, and Township Attorney Leon E. McElroy began work assembling and empowering a Defense Council to coordinate response plans for police, fire, medical, communications, and evacuation should the worse happen. Rationing boards were established, air raid wardens appointed, War Bond drives held, blood drives organized, and scrap drives collected raw materials. The Woodbridge Chapter of the American Red Cross started knitting campaigns to keep those overseas in socks and other much-needed clothing. They furnished a sun room at Camp Kilmer and supplied an anti-aircraft unit stationed on Strawberry Hill with everything from ping-pong tables to radios. School children in domestic sciences class filled "kit bags" with soap, tobacco, playing cards, toiletries, chewing gum, razor blades, sewing kits, and other necessary and comfort items for use by servicemen embarking overseas. The Township itself sent some 3,500 men and women into service.

S.S. Woodbridge Victory

Raising troops and supplies was one thing, getting them across the oceans to the various theaters of the war around the world was another. In 1936, the U.S. Merchant Marine Act had already called for subsidizing the construction of 50 commercial merchant vessels which could be used in wartime by the U.S. Navy as auxiliaries, crewed by U.S. Merchant Mariners. In 1940, already at war, England ordered 60 freighters from American shipyards to replace war losses and bolster their merchant fleet. The class of ship developed to meet the demand was simple, large, reliable, and able to be constructed quickly. Once the U.S. entered the war, yards began turning out transport and tanker ships based on this design concept. The first, the S.S. Patrick Henry, was named after the Revolutionary War patriot who concluded a 1775 speech with the famed "give me liberty or give me death." When he christened the ship on September 27, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed such ships would help bring liberty to Europe. The name stuck and they were popularly known as the Liberty Ships. The concept was a vessel type that could be built rapidly in large numbers using pre-fabricated parts and assembly-line-like work in round-the-clock shifts. Eighteen American shipyards built 2,710 Liberty Ships between 1941 and 1945, an average of three ships every two days. Though shipbuilding was a traditionally male occupation, with so many men in the armed forces, many women filled in.

In 1942, the newly-formed United States War Shipping Administration commissioned the design of a new class of cargo vessels called Victory Ships. These were based on the same concept of fast construction of the earlier Liberty class. Though slightly larger, the main difference was more powerful steam turbine engines. German submarines had taken a terrible toll on Allied supply ships and such engines would allow the Liberty Ships to participate in the high speed convoys that made them harder targets for the enemy. Six shipyards around the country would produce 531 Victory Ships by war's end. There were plans for 615, but the war was over before the remaining were built. 

The first vessel was S.S. United Victory. The next 34 were named after allied countries, then the 218 after them for American cities, and the 150 after those for educational institutions, with the remainder given miscellaneous names. Attack transports were named after United States counties, without "Victory" in their name, with the exception of U.S.S. Marvin H. McIntyre, which was named after President Roosevelt's late personal secretary.

Among those named for American cities was the S.S. Woodbridge Victory, in honor of the Township. The name had been sponsored by Mary Ellen Conway, daughter of the War Shipping Administration's New York District manager, Capt. Granville Conway (1898–1969).

The keel was laid on February 10, 1945 at the Bethlehem Fairfield Shipyard in Baltimore, Maryland. Reflecting the speed at which the ships were being built, it was completed March 29, 1945 when it was christened by Mary Ellen Conway (right).

The S.S. Woodbridge Victory was delivered April 24, 1945 and on April 26, sailed from Baltimore, Maryland, to Mobile, Alabama, on a six day "shake-down" cruise. The purpose was to put through the paces of various maneuvers to test the ship and drills to train the crew in what might be necessary if attacked. The Township had presented a plaque giving a brief history of its namesake and made a donation of books for the crew to entertain themselves with in the ship's library. A Navy Armed Guard unit of 24 men was onboard, commanded by Lt. Robert T. Smith, to man the deck guns.

The S.S. Woodbridge Victory was commanded by Master of Vessel C. E. Shivers (right). On May 17, 1945, the ship sailed from Mobile, Alabama, to Rosia Bay, Gibraltar, arriving May 29th. From there, it sailed to Chanak and Istanbul in Turkey, arriving June 3rd, before reaching its destination of Odessa, Russia (now in Ukraine) on June 5th. It's cargo was listed as part of the "Lend Lease," a program under which the United States supplied the United Kingdom (and British Commonwealth), Free France, the Republic of China, and later the Soviet Union, and other Allied nations with food, oil, and materiel between 1941 and 1945.

The S.S. Woodbridge Victory left Odessa on June 23, 1945, ordered to head for New York, by way of Constanta, Romania, Istanbul, Turkey, and Oran, Algeria. On July 7, 1945, however, a day out of New York, the ship received orders to change course for Galveston, Texas, where it arrived on July 12th.

There, it was converted into a troop ship. The Nazis in Germany had surrendered on May 8, 1945 (V-E Day) and the war in the Pacific would end with Imperial Japan's surrender on September 2, 1945 (V-J Day). Many such vessels were being converted to bring home U.S. servicemen and women. The ship remained in use under different names and nations until being scrapped in October of 1972

Death of the President

On April 12, 1945, Woodbridge Township joined the nation in their shock and sadness over the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Independent-Leader newspaper headline read "President Is Dead" in a four-inch-high font. The accompanying article entreated Township residents to "meet this disaster in our national life with the fortitude and courage which the times demand. We are on the brink of a great military victory in the war in which Franklin Roosevelt has given his life. The ideals to which he dedicated himself are still to be firmly established." They asked that the people support his successor, Harry S. Truman, in finishing the enormous job at hand. "Let us not waver in this allegiance during this moment in history when it is receiving its most severe test. Let us continue at home and on the war fronts, to march on together."

War Ends!

On May 7, 1945, the Independent-Leader again broke out their four-inch headline type, but this time for a happier headline: "Germany Folds Up." Nazi Germany had agreed to an unconditional surrender, bringing the war in Europe to an end. Known as "V-E Day" for "Victory in Europe," the news was met in Woodbridge with great joy, but any celebration was muted by the fact the war still raged on against Imperial Japan in the Pacific Theater. Many met the likelihood of a coming invasion of the Japanese home islands with dread. This would, of course, be avoided with the dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, resulting in Japan's unconditional surrender on August 14, 1945. "V-J Day" marked the true end of the Second World War. The news announced at 7:01 p.m. unleashed a wave of celebrations throughout the Township and the nation. Church bells rang out, fire alarms sounded, car horns honked, flags waved, as people gathered in the streets shouting, crying, laughing, and singing. As a precaution against things getting out of hand, Police Chief George E. Keating received orders from the State to shut down the liquor stores at 9:00 p.m., allowing them to reopen at noon the next day.

A celebration to welcome home the Township's servicemen and women was set for October 29, 1945. It was a drab, chilly day, but nothing could dampen the spirits of the some 30,000 people who lined the streets to watch a parade of over 4,000 participants.  A memorial was dedicated, honoring those from the Township who had lost their lives, both in the first and second World Wars—eleven in World War I and 138 in World War II. 

Following the celebrations came the work of transitioning back to a peacetime economy and society. Mayor Greiner announced a postwar program intended to assist the returning servicemen and women in picking up  lives the war put on hold. The sudden flood of people in search of homes and jobs needed to be handled carefully so as to avoid another depression. The Township recommitted to the 12-year policy to continue liquidating the municipal debt, reducing spending, and holding down taxes. In January 1947, an army barracks was converted into temporary housing for returning veterans and their families. Additionally, the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944—better known as "The GI Bill," had established federal government assistance for returning servicemen and women with low-cost mortgages, low-interest loans to start a business or farm, one year of unemployment compensation, and dedicated payments of tuition and living expenses to attend high school, college, or vocational school. These benefits were available to all veterans who had been on active duty during the war years for at least 90 days and had been honorably discharged.

Thanks to such social safety nets, the combination of increased demand for consumer goods, and veterans looking for jobs resulted for many Americans in a period of economic prosperity and the emergence of a robust middle class. Known as "the long boom," the period would last until the recession of 1973-1975.