Education

East Brunswick: The History of Dunham's Corner Road

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EB Department of Public Works on Dunham's Corner Road... Credits: East Brunswick Centennial documents, EBPL
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The Grange on Dunham's Corner Road Credits: Newspapers.com
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Union Chapel on Dunham's Corner Road Credits: Newspapers.com
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One of East Brunswick's first "developments" near Dunham's corner Road in 1952 - welcome to suburbia! Credits: Newspapers.com
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Playhouse 22's "Barn" on Dunham's Corner Road. Credits: EBTV
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1964 Middlesex County Fair Credits: Newspapers.com
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EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ During its early years, East Brunswick was not so much one big community, but rather a pocket of corners throughout town, each a small community of its own. These included Tanner’s Corner, Patrick’s Corner, Hall’s Corner, and of course, Dunham’s Corner. Many of our township’s current residents are completely unaware of the rich history behind this stretch of road and what it served to the community during the township’s early years. Granted, very little of the historical aspect of Dunham’s Corner presently remain, but there is still a rich history to tell. On this first edition of TAP’s “History of” series, I will be delving into history of the Dunham’s Corner section of the township and how it became what it is today.

            Dunham’s Corner is named for Jehu Dunham, an American Revolutionary War veteran, whose family was very active in the area that is now a part of East Brunswick. He was born on September 21, 1761, in the village of Washington, now South River borough. On January 1, 1777, at just 15 years old, he joined the New Jersey Militia in Cranbury. During this time, he want on surveillance missions to New Brunswick, which at the time was still being occupied by British troops. By the spring of 1778, he was ordered into Woodbridge and fought at the Battle of Springfield. That same year, he was discharged, but eventually rejoined, and served until 1782. Dunham passed away on April 6, 1842, and was buried in a small cemetery on the former T. Obert Farm, now Summerhill Meadows. Fortunately, his grave is still present on the property and can be viewed (if you’re willing to walk through all the overgrown weeds).

            The community of Dunham’s Corner goes as far back as the 1870s. At that time, like most areas in the township, it was a mostly agricultural community. Many of the farmers in the area would grow their food, which would be delivered and sold at the many stores in New Brunswick. Many also had their own private blacksmith shops, as well as their own cows for dairy farming. Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of Dunham’s Corner early years was that a giant oak tree served as a post office, right in the center of the roadway (this was before there were automobiles). Residents of the area would walk over and pick up their mail in a wooden box that was nailed up onto the tree. They had their own set of keys to unlock their postbox. When Election Day came, many came in droves and would walk over to the many polling places in the area and cast their ballots in derby hats. These polling places included Jack Hall’s Hotel on Rues Lane, Kohlhepp’s Hotel in Milltown, and the Spotswood School.

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            Dunham’s Corner had its own schoolhouse. The first school in this area was a one-room schoolhouse located where Pinehill Court currently stands. This small schoolhouse served the many young residents of the community, who, regardless of the weather, would always have to walk to school. In those days, there were no such thing as snow days. Children expected to come to school, even if it meant walking through rain, sleet, or snow, usually for miles. As is today, the school day ran for about six and a half hours, which was from 9 am- 3:30 pm. However, because many of the students were the children of farmers, some of them would take extensive time off to help out on their farms during harvesting season. This was pretty much the way it was for most communities in the township back then, before education became mandatory. Eventually, the school was moved over to a different structure that stood about 100 feet from where the subsequent school would be built, and the old schoolhouse became the town hall. Over time, after a couple of additions were made to the schoolhouse, as well as a more stable attendance rate, it became apparent that a new school needed to be built. The Board of Education called upon Alexander Merchant, a known architect in the area who designed many of the county’s structures during the early 20th Century. After having designed both Wade and Weber Schools, it made sense that this school would be designed in a similar style, specifically Weber School (now the site of St. Mary’s Christian Academy). To build the school cost about $29,743 ($411,337 at today’s cost). McGinnis School (named for the late Board of Education member, Peter McGinnis and now the site of Torah Links of Middlesex County) was formally dedicated on June 9, 1926, and the previous schoolhouse was bought by Roman Clark and moved over to Old Bridge Turnpike.

            By the 1920s, Dunham’s Corner started to become a place of social activity. In 1925, the Dunham’s Corner Union Chapel was constructed. This brick structure was lined with eleven stain-glass windows, all donated by friends of the organization. It became not only a place of prayer, but a place of many social affairs, including the annual Strawberry Festival, and later on, the site of YMCA’s Teen Coffee Houses. It was also an occasional meeting place for the Milltown Grange, which coincidentally was founded in the old Dunham’s Corner schoolhouse. In 1936, the 31 year-old organization finally got its own building. Construction for the building started on October 21, 1935, and was formally dedicated on March 30, 1936, now the East Brunswick Grange. The building cost $3,200 to build. Its large auditorium could seat 300 people, and was convenient for their many events, including the annual Flower and Garden Show, first held back in 1930 at the Junior Mechanics Hall in Milltown. The success of this event led to an annual tradition that still continues to this day. In 1937, the Grange held the first ever Middlesex County Fair. The fair was a celebration of all the agricultural work in the county. There were no games or rides, just exhibits of the farming community. The fair was held on Friday and Saturday, September 24th and 25th. It was a major success, with over 1,000 people attending opening day alone. The success of that fair prompted the Grange to make it an annual tradition, except between 1942 and 1948, when the government urged people not to hold county fairs as a way to conserve for the war effort. The fair finally returned in 1949, this time, being financed by the Middlesex County Fair Association. The fair remained on the Dunham’s Corner Road site until 1965, when it moved to its present-day site on Cranbury Road.

            After the Second World War, the township began to experience some major changes, and Dunham’s Corner was no exception. In 1948, a new township garage was built, replacing an old wooden structure that previously stood there. The former town hall/schoolhouse eventually became the headquarters of the Public Works Department. Pretty soon, residential developments started to take over. One of the first developments built in this area was the Fairview Knolls neighborhood in the early 1950s, built on the site of the old Warnsdorfer farm. With all these new developments coming, Dunham’s Corner, along with the rest of East Brunswick, was slowly beginning to lose its agricultural character. In 1962, the Nativity Evangelical Lutheran Church was built on the corner of Dunham’s and Ryders Lane. As the population in the township continued to grow larger, it meant new schools needed to be built. On May 19, 1968, Warnsdorfer Elementary School was dedicated in honor of the family of the same name, who were very active in the township, and had a big presence in the Dunham’s Corner area. For the next decade, McGinnis would continue serve as a school for the kindergarteners. A year later, after a decline in membership, the East Brunswick Grange Hall, along with the Union Chapel, were sold to the Raritan Valley YMCA, where they would remain for the next 36 years. On May 5, 1973, the East Brunswick Independent Fire Company dedicated a new firehouse next to the YMCA. In 1978, McGinnis School closed and for the next eleven years, became offices for the Board of Education. That same year, the Public Works Department was moved over to its present site on Harts Lane. In 1981, after spending 22 years as a traveling group of local performers, the East Brunswick Community Players found a permanent home on the site of the former public works department, thus becoming Playhouse 22. Along with a new building, the stage area was housed in the former town hall/schoolhouse, with the garage being used for storage. By this time, there were only a handful of farms left in the area. Near the end of the 20th Century, what was left of the old Warnsforfer farm became an extension for New Dover Road. In 2006, both the Raritan Valley YMCA and Playhouse 22 found new permanent homes, and all the structures that encompassed the pre-existing sites were demolished and had residential developments built in their place. Finally, in 2014, after spending 25 years as an abandoned building, the old McGinnis School was finally demolished, leaving very little left of the old Dunham’s Corner community.

            From being an agricultural community, to a suburban development, Dunham’s Corner shares a rich history in this township. Despite it being a faint resemblance to what it once was, Dunham’s Corner still has some history spread around. Clark’s Farm, which has been an active farm since 1908, still remains a popular place to buy fresh corn in the township. Along the farm is a remainder of the old concrete road. One may say that driving on that particular stretch of road is like stepping back in time to a more rural East Brunswick. There are still a few historic homes on the road, such as the house behind Warnsdorfer School that dates back to 1870, as well as the old Bowne house, which is as old as the township itself (1860). However, they are only but small remnants of what is left of the old Dunham’s Corner. One can hope that these do not fall to progress, and that this township can at least have something that reminds us of what the township once was, so long ago.

...Ethan Reiss

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