AT REST AND AT PLAY by Adrianna Donat
The haunting history of Founders’ Park.
On the edge of South Orange Village, tucked between new construction and the railroad tracks, a small and surprising park is coming back to life.
Founders’ Park is only two acres, but it has an oversized impact on the Academy Heights neighborhood. Locals are eager to gather there, play, watch movies, see theater in the park, and bask in native flora and fauna.
And maybe even peek around for signs of our dearly departed town founders.
Founders’ Park was built on the cemetery established by Samuel Brown and the Tillou family before the Civil War. It was the most favored space to bury residents from both South Orange and Maplewood and there are between 400 and 500 people interred within its borders.
Many people with familiar names are buried here. Their names are memorialized on a monument created for parkgoers to see. Says President of the Founders’ Park Conservancy, Chris Black, “When the park was built here more than 50 years ago, the bodies were left in place, and are still here.”
It may sound spooky, but the park is full of life today.
As you watch kids romping in the grass you can appreciate the park’s history by checking names of town founders engraved on the stone pillar in the park’s center.
A quick look turns up local luminaries like Marcus De Lafayette Ball and Cornelia Durand Ball, owners of the South Orange Hotel in Village Plaza. Their family ran the hotel for decades.
You’ll also see the name of Abijah Tillou, for many years one of the wealthiest and best known men in our area. He lived to be 93, and until the end would terrify neighbors by racing his hand-built sleds down the hill from his home on Ridgewood Road into town. Tillou deeded the land for the cemetery to the original congregation of the First Presbyterian Church, where he was a lifelong member. He would later be buried here.
Joseph Wildey, also at rest in Founders’ Park, established and edited the now defunct South Orange Bulletin, the town’s very own local weekly newspaper from 1870-1906.
There are many Civil War veterans underground. One is Richard Wheeler, who, in 1862 at 28, left his pregnant wife and son to join the Union Army. His battery fought in Virginia, and he returned in 1864 to his wife, son, and a one-year-old daughter he’d never seen. He served as the postmaster in South Orange until his death.
As you look around it’s easy to spot more familiar names: Meeker, Durand and Beach, to name a few.
In 1890 Morrow Memorial Church moved its building, which had been the old Jefferson Village Baptist Church, to a new site on Lenox Place in Maplewood. Graves left behind on Claremont Avenue and Ridgewood Road were moved to be part of the cemetery that is now Founders’ Park.
Eventually, the Presbyterian Church transferred ownership of the property to the South Orange Cemetery Association (a corporation of four men). Members of this group maintained the area until the last of their deaths around 1915. Following this, the cemetery languished for decades. The Village of South Orange suspended further interments in 1926.
In 1923 a spark from a nearby railroad car caused a fire that resulted in $20,000 worth of damage to the cemetery and a nearby nursery. Over time, various civic minded residents tried to clean and refurbish the area, but it needed more attention than it received.
For years South Orange Village debated taking over what had become a chronic eyesore. Finally, in the 1960s, the Trustees decided on a positive plan of action to rehabilitate the space with the help of federal funds.
They applied for and received permission from the State of New Jersey to convert the area into a memorial park with amenities for seniors and a play area for children. Tombstones were “relocated underground” to make space for the living and the elegant stone monument was built and inscribed. The park opened in 1971.
Over time interest and use again waned. Once more the area fell into disrepair. Then, in 2018, a group of ten Academy Heights neighbors created the Founders’ Park Conservancy. The Conservancy’s mission is to make the park a useful, beautiful space. With a little help from South Orange’s Department of Public Works, they are doing just that.
We have a very small budget to fund the repair and upkeep of Founders’ Park,” says Founders’ Park Conservancy Board Member Cat Fisher, “so we depend on donations.” Some of these donations are cash (see foundersparkconservancy.org/get-involved), some are gifts of time and effort making the park a better place, and some are fun and creative donations to beautify the area.
“We accept bulb donations in the spring and fall,” says Fisher, who is also the owner of both Sadie’s and Kitchen A La Mode. “Our goal is to fill the park with native plants, and at this point all of the irises in the park are native and have come from donations.”
Founders’ Park’s many native species attract summer delights and pollinators.
“I love coming here at 8 p.m. in the summer,” says Fisher. “There are so many fireflies, it’s like a magical fairy wonderland.”
But fireflies and monuments aren’t the only thing Founders’ Park has to offer. The Conservancy is putting together programming such as Zumba and yoga classes, there is shuffleboard in the back of the park, and on occasion, summer evening music is provided by JESPY House. And as we move further into fall, there is a Pumpkin Night for kids and adults alike planned for October 28. More activities will be available once construction on nearby buildings is complete in 2024. To find out more about park programming, search “Founders Park Conservancy” on Facebook.
Regardless of the season, the echoes of Founders’ Park’s past continue to reverberate through its shadows while inviting the community to enjoy its beauty. Its eerie history erases the boundary between the dead and living. So this Halloween, make sure you take an enchanting, spooky tour while you take in local history.
Adrianna Ahern Donat is happy to witch you a happy Halloween and gratefully acknowledges the help of Maplewood historian Susan Newberry in the writing of this piece.