Union Revisited: A look at Union’s past

Photos Courtesy of David Alan Johnson Headley’s Cider Mill at 1291 Stuyvesant Ave., where the Union Leader office now stands.
Photos Courtesy of David Alan Johnson
Headley’s Cider Mill at 1291 Stuyvesant Ave., where the Union Leader office now stands.

UNION, NJ — David Alan Johnson’s study is straight out of a Victorian novel. In one corner sits Horace, a large ceramic owl who, Johnson says, is the representation of Minerva — the mythical goddess of wisdom. Its large round eyes watch from its perch, looking down at the endless maze of books and stacks of papers. An ornate desk sits in the middle of the room, an antique wooden secretary off to one side, a wall of framed dust jackets on another. There are vintage record albums, a set of Alfred Hitchcock films, and hundreds of books on shelves and in cabinets. In the adjoining living room, a china cabinet is filled, not with china and porcelain, but with books.

Johnson, who was born and raised in Union and has lived here most of his life — with a dozen years living in London during the ’70s and ’80s — sounds about as British as David Niven, the dashing British movie actor with whom he shares a striking resemblance. Johnson is tall and elegant in his blazer and blue turtleneck, and his almost Poirot-like moustache makes this distinguished author and historian the picture of urbane gentility.
Johnson is the author of “Images of America: Union Revisited,” a book that
gives readers a sense of nostalgia as they travel back through time to the Union of
the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, when the town was mostly rural and O’Mara’s Farm sold fresh fruit to local kids on their way home from school.

The book comes more than a dozen years after the publication of “Images of America: Union” — which explores the history of Union dating back to when it was settled as Connecticut Farms in the 18th century — and is chock full of more than 150 vintage photographs of Union that span almost 90 years.

The book celebrates Union’s past and, according to Johnson, has really struck a chord with Union natives. “This book really rings a bell. It hits a nerve with a lot of people,” said Johnson.

Johnson says that the town has changed dramatically since the 1950s, and he still recalls the farm once located across the street from his current home — the very same house where he grew up. “I used to sleigh down that hill,” said Johnson, pointing to the intersection surrounded by houses that replaced the farm long ago. “That was once a self-sufficient farm.”

There was Headley’s Cider Mill, which sold homemade cider that tasted like real apples, along with fresh sausages, the old Woolworth’s, Whitney’s and Nawrocki’s Pharmacy. Union High School, which Johnson attended, and which was once a local landmark, is no longer at its former location on Caldwell Avenue. Neighbors knew each other’s names and waved hello from their front stoops.

Johnson says that one of the biggest changes to the area has been the closing of businesses and loss of industry. “There were factories on Commerce Avenue,” said Johnson. “They are all gone now. A lot of businesses have gone and have been replaced by houses. All the industry in Union is gone and it will never come back.”

The book includes a “then and now” aspect, with vintage and contemporary photographs of specific structures and locations highlighting how things have changed since days of old.
Johnson has authored a dozen books — all historical works — that range from topics such as the founding of the Far West, the Civil War, and World War II. He is currently working on his next work.

Johnson says that his main purpose in writing the book is to illustrate the changes that Union has seen and to share Union’s past. “I want to show my readers what was here that isn’t here anymore,” said Johnson.

“Images of America: Union Revisited” illustrates Union’s past and the many changes that Union has seen, and while one can never live there again, it might be a really nice place to visit.

Other works by Johnson include “Yanks in the RAF,” “Decided on the Battlefield: Grant, Sherman, Lincoln, and the Election of 1864” and “Righteous Deception: German Officers Against Hitler.”

“Images of America: Union Revisited” is available at area bookstores, independent and online retailers, or through Arcadia Publishing.