Kenilworth’s history dates back to ‘New Orange’ in 1895

A local historian and author discusses the borough’s cherished past

One of the original Baron de Hirsch houses contructed in Kenilworth in 1898. This home was demolished in 2003. Left: The old and new street signs honoring the Via Vitale family, one of the oldest and largest families in Kenilworth’s long history.
One of the original Baron de Hirsch houses contructed in Kenilworth in 1898. This home was demolished in 2003. Left: The old and new street signs honoring the Via Vitale family, one of the oldest and largest families in Kenilworth’s long history.

KENILWORTH – While many move to Kenilworth because it is a small municipality with a population of less than 8,000, few really know how the borough came to be settled or the colorful stories surrounding this sleepy town.
One man, born and raised in Kenilworth, found out long ago that a single moment in time can result in uncovering the most remarkable things about his town.

The original plan for Kenilworth, designed by J. Wallace Higgins in 1895, actually involved a real estate venture calling for wide thoroughfares, industrial areas and connections with mass transit which was limited to trolley lines and a railroad.

This railroad eventually became the Rahway Valley Railroad, which was supposed to be augmented by an opera house and yacht club.

In its infancy this area was known as New Orange and included farmland located in parts of what is Union, Cranford and Kenilworth.

In 1904 after several partners involved in the venture died, those left formed Kenilworth Realty and from that point the area was referred to as “Kenilworth.” The stories of this fledgling community are rich with history and the life many immigrants of Jewish and Italian decent found when seeking a new life in this country.

No one knows this history better than Walter Boright, who from around the age of 12 would discover he had a passion for the years when his hometown was little more than dirt streets and a dream.

His interest peaked when his father, a former mayor of the borough and Union County freeholder, took him along to a meeting being held to plan the 50th anniversary of Kenilworth Public Library.

That evening was a pivotal moment for the youngster that would later in life end up writing multiple books about the history of Kenilworth. This evening still stands out for Boright, and his voice reflects the excitement he felt that evening so long ago when he listened to townspeople talking about the history of his hometown.

“I became enamored with how this committee had maps and charts and spoke so dramatically about the history of the borough. It really sparked my interest,” said Boright, explaining that it was a night he never forgot.

From that day forward, Boright said he began researching the borough, which only fueled his interest in the history of Kenilworth more.

Boright said that while the original plans for New Orange were for a community of 50,000 or more, that never did materialize. Kenilworth Realty, who took their name from a literary society to which they belonged, called the Kenilworth Club in honor of Sir Walter Scott’s novel, “Kenilworth.”

The novel, published in 1821, refers to the Kenilworth Castle in England, which in 1563 was a gift by Queen Elizabeth I to her suitor Robert Dudley.

In 1899 a housing boom began in earnest in Kenilworth and this drew many tradesmen to town. One in particular, James Arthur, vowed to build 100 homes in 100 days and managed to complete the task. Although hundreds of lots went up for sale, most did not sell and the town ended up taking them over. After that Hirsch Kenic started building homes on what is now 8th through 13th streets.

Back then, in the early 1900s, there were just a few residences where Kenilworth Boulevard is now located, with the town center located north of Monroe Avenue, and west of 14th Street. The area where the new A&P store is located was a hub for industry, specifically those dealing in textiles, leather, band saws and musical instruments.

Boright seems to relish each tidbit he hears when talking with residents who have lived in the borough a long time. He especially speaks respectfully about “the old-timers” who have added color and a homespun quality to his missives.
“They have so much information about how things were when they were young,” the historian said, adding that basic information about his hometown was further enhanced by the borough’s oldest residents who had so much to share.

One story in particular resulted in another book for Boright, who in 2002 went to Charles Vitale, then 80-years-old, who was a longtime family friend.

As natives of Kenilworth, both loved to discuss the borough in detail, and during one of these conversations, the two ended up commiserating about the badly weathered condition of the Boright sign around the corner from Vitale’s home on Lafayette Street and the Via Vitale street sign some blocks away.

“Both bore the names of our family members, the Boright sign in honor of my father, mayor of Kenilworth from 1956 to 1961, and the Vitale sign in honor of Charlie’s family which was one of the earliest and largest families to arrive in Kenilworth at the turn of the last century,” explained Boright.

Before long the two met with Vitale descendant Robert Woods, grandson of Sam Vitale, one of the nine original Vitale children to arrive in New Orange in the pre-1907 era, which was before Kenilworth was incorporated as a borough.

The three met intermittently throughout 2002 to further discuss what they could do to revitalize the historic signs that had fallen into disrepair. From these informal meetings sprang the Kenilworth Historic Street Signs Ad Hoc Committee, and the eventual repair of the historic signs.

The committee determined the replacement signs should not just bear the name of the street, but also information concerning the historical significance of the person’s name.

“After all, what value is there to name something to commemorate an individual or family if with the passage of time newer generations do not know the reason for the tribute,” Boright said.

The trio was steadfast in its resolve that the signs should be paid for with personal funds, not through fundraising or taxpayer dollars.

“Our families always gave to the community and we felt it was only fitting that we continue that legacy and give once more to the community,” Boright said of the committee’s decision.

The committee felt strongly that seven families from town should receive equal recognition with the placement of the historical street sign, rather than the standard sign. Descendants of the seven families, where possible, were located and advised of the project, and all agreed they would personally bear the cost.

As the committee continued its mission, in the back of Boright’s mind was an idea for his first book, “A History of Kenilworth as told through its streets and street signs.”

Later, Vitale would recall meeting nearly every morning with Boright for seven months at 7:45 a.m. to help him plan
what needed to be done to get this book rolling, including planning interviews, research, collecting old photographs and memorabilia.

There were countless visits to local, county and state libraries, historical societies and archives along with the task of obtaining census material dating back over 100 years. Boright confessed that he was taken back by what he learned because of how difficult life was back then.

“It’s hard to imagine how tough it was for people then,” said the historian, but noted as he poured through historical documents, he came across some lighter moments.

One concerned the board of education of the former McKinley School agonizing over the latest mandate from the state.
“Every public school was told they had to have two outhouses or two ‘water closets,’ one for boys and one for girls and the board was not happy about it,” said Boright, explaining there were nine pages of notes from that meeting elaborating on what to do in order to comply with the mandate.

Other events, such as the tax collector storming council chambers on Jan. 1, 1940 with the intent of assassinating the entire governing body were a sad testament to the fact that even in a small municipality an employee can succeed in shooting the borough clerk in cold blood for no reason and leave a black mark on the history of the town.

Other interesting things happened in Kenilworth in the early years, including famed aviator James Doolittle, who would later win acclaim for his raid on Tokyo in 1942, crashed his plane in Kenilworth on a foggy night in March 1929 while trying to attempt an emergency landing at a former airfield located near North 24th Street.

Vitale speaks fondly of his friend Boright in the Epilogue of this first book, noting that it takes “time, patience, determination and special skills” to write such a book.

“These skills would probably best be found in someone who was brought up in a little suburban town – a boy whose parental examples had taught him the benefits of public service and giving back to the community,” Vitale said of his friend Boright.

“No longer a boy, but a man, he has had years of public service in the arena of government and politics,” the longtime resident added, noting that he had observed this hometown boy cross the age span with the grace and ease of a grade school teacher stimulating one’s soul.

Since then Boright went on to author three more books, including one on houses, people, pictures and stories, the women of Kenilworth and the History of the Kenilworth library.

And although Boright has retired to the Jersey shore area, his heart remains where he grew up – in Kenilworth. On May 15 he will be coming back this way to make a presentation at the Oswald Nitscke House and Museum at South 21st street. The topic this time will focus on the “Early Industries of Kenilworth.”