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  • Adrianna Donat

A SONG OF FIRE AND ICE IN MAPLEWOOD By Adrianna Donat

Woolley turns 100


Woolley's model T coal truck - 1925.

Donald Maxton remembers the entertainment value of living near Woolley Fuel in the 1950s and '60s.

“Coal was shipped to Woolley’s via the Rahway Valley Railroad, usually in the late afternoon, and stored in huge silos,” Maxton says. “When I was a toddler, my mom took me to watch the train when she heard the locomotive blast its horn at the Rutgers Street grade crossing. Kids would gather in DeHart Park and wave to the train crew as they passed by.”

Woolley started its life as Woolley Coal and Ice in 1924, transitioned to Woolley Fuel, and is now known as Woolley Home Solutions. It is one of the oldest continuously operating businesses in Maplewood. From its iconic coal silos and delivery vehicles to its products’ daily presence, Woolley is a name four generations have known.


One hundred years ago, brothers Norman and Herb Woolley purchased the lot at 12 Burnett Avenue with financial help from their father, Nephi.

“Our family has been at the helm of this business since its inception, adapting and growing through each generation,” says Norman Woolley Jr., who took the company reins from his father.

Norman Jr.’s son, Norman E. Woolley, currently runs the day-to-day operations at Woolley.

From its humble beginnings, Woolley Fuel has evolved through various energy eras, initially serving the community with coal and ice, transitioning to oil, and now finding ways to serve customers with renewable fuel technologies.


The Beginning

In Woolley’s early days, area residents depended on ice for refrigeration and coal for cooking and heating. The company’s deliveries kept residents’ homes livable.


“We started with horse-drawn wagons for distribution, a nod to my grandfather’s love for horses,” says Norman E. “The horses were given rest days after hauling heavy loads up steep streets like Clinton and Curtiss.”


The sourcing and distribution of coal and ice were critical components of Woolley’s operations. Coal arrived by train from the Lehigh Valley and was categorized into sizes from potato-sized stove coal to finer grains like rice coal used in automatic coal feeders. The ice, sourced from Canada, was transported in large blocks, stored in sawdust and insulated with blankets to prolong its usability. “Most customers wanted regular deliveries. The ice was very heavy, with most wagons weighing over seven tons,” says Norman Jr.



L-R: Nephi Woolley with his son Norman W. Woolley Sr.

Woolley’s facility played an oversized role in the DeHart Park neighborhood. Joe Zellers, who grew up there in the 1940s, says,

“For us neighborhood boys, one of the most anticipated events involving Woolley’s was the arrival of the old steam freight train bringing loaded coal cars and then departing with the empties. [It was a] big event! Pennies [were] laid carefully on the tracks as soon as we heard that train whistle blowing from Rutgers Street. The train moved very, very slowly so the whole event entertained us for almost three hours.”

The neighborhood kids also tried to get up to the shed house on the top of the coal silos. Zellers says, “Imagine the bragging rights we could own telling all our friends that we managed to evade detection somehow and find a way to get all the way to the top of those giant coal towers at Woolley’s!”


This coal silo functioned from 1924-1968. Trucks were filled with coal that was dumped out. Later a conveyor was added.

When Zellers and his friends attempted the summit one summer evening they were startled by a huge flock of pigeons roosting on the top of the silos. “They all burst into flight at once, which in turn scared the dickens out of us, so much so that we scrambled out of the wooden shed and made our way down that rickety ladder three times faster than we had climbed up,” says Zellers, who is now an avid birder.


They narrowly evaded a security guard and spent the next few days worrying they might be found out. “The coal silos tower has been gone a very long time now,” says Zellers. “For all I know I am the only one who knows about the boys who conquered the top.”


Further afield, Woolley literally put itself on the map when a heavy horse-drawn wagon broke down as it turned off Vauxhall in Union. The wagon was too heavy to tow and remained in place for long enough that locals began to refer to the new pathway as “Woolley Wagon Way.” The wagon is no longer there, but the name “Woolley Avenue” remains.

This coal bin plate reminded customers to have Woolley refill their bin.

1940s

The transition from horses to the now well-known yellow and black trucks in the 1940s marked a significant technological leap for Woolley. Significant shifts in consumer technology and preferences began to reshape Woolley’s business model. “In the early 1940s, we sold our last block of ice as modern refrigeration became commonplace in homes,” says Norman Jr.


The U.S. Government issued customers fuel oil rations starting in 1942 and ending in August 1945 with the end of the war.

Much like ice, coal deliveries were a part of everyday life for Maplewood residents. Maxton’s family purchased coal from Woolley’s. “In the 1950s and even 1960s, many Maplewood houses were heated by coal,” Maxton says. “My family bought coal by the ton or half-ton from Woolley, who delivered it through a chute. I liked to watch the coal noisily slide down to a bin in our basement. Often my mom and dad had ‘discussions’ about who was going to clean up the ashes and dump them in the garbage.”


The transition from coal to oil was another pivotal moment for the company. “We sold our very last load of coal in 1968,” says Norman Jr. “Fuel oil was a big improvement on home heating. It meant people could go away for days without worrying about feeding the furnace.”


Now



Norman W. Woolley Sr. on the left and Norman W. Woolley Jr. on the right at the company's 50th anniversary in 1974.

The introduction of biofuels made from renewable sources such as soybeans marked another era of transformation for the company. This initiative aligns closely with Maplewood Township’s goals for sustainability, leading to a partnership that provides the township’s jitneys with biofuel, thus significantly reducing local emissions.


The company has also attracted customers such as singer Neil Young, who stopped by to fill his tour bus tank with biofuel. “It was a unique experience for us, having someone like Neil Young choose our fuel. Everyone here got front-row seats at his concert afterward,” says a smiling Norman E.


Woolley’s has evolved by adding services such as air conditioning, indoor air quality systems and plumbing. The company changed its name in 2015 from Woolley Fuel to Woolley Home Solutions to better represent its offerings.


Looking ahead, Woolley’s is committed to exploring and adopting more sustainable and efficient energy sources.

“We’re constantly keeping an eye on the future, dedicating resources to learn about and implement technologies like heat pumps and natural gas,” Norman Jr. says.

Woolley’s also attempts to identify the appropriate solution for its customers with heat-size calculations for homes or businesses before installing a new heating or cooling system.

As Woolley Home Solutions celebrates its centennial, the potential for a fifth-generation Woolley to take the reins remains a topic of familial and community interest. “My daughter is currently majoring in business. We’ll see where she lands,” says Norman E.


Woolley's celebrated 100 years in business with a party on May 1. Maplewood town officials and Woolley staff helped Norman E. cut the ribbon.

From horse-drawn wagons to pioneering biofuels, this family-owned business remains a part of Maplewood’s heritage, poised to continue its legacy well into the future.


Adrianna Donat is a freelance copywriter who got down in the dirt for this story, finally learning how the coal chute in her Maplewood home worked.

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