By Peter Zablocki
The Denville downtown that we love so much today began to take shape in the early 1930s. The buildup and population growth were consistent with the Great Depression. Many people started converting their summer bungalows into full-year homes because they could no longer afford to live in the big city apartments. The result was a growth of Denville’s population, which went from a mere 610 people twenty years before to nearly 6,000 by 1931. In its early days, Denville contained only a few stores, and those that existed primarily sold food. There was the Dickerson’s store on Diamond Spring Road, a small shop kept by Mrs. Vanderhoof in the basement of a house on Main Street, and the Peer’s General Store on the Morris Canal. Apart from a small business that manufactured vanilla extract on Diamond Spring Road, there were no industries in the town prior to the 1920s. With the growing population of year-round citizens, the need for a dedicated Denville Chamber of Commerce to organize and coordinate business efforts in downtown Denville became a forgone conclusion.
By the time the expansion efforts began in the early 1930s, Denville’s “downtown” was defined by four buildings. One was the United States Post Office building on Main Street, today occupied by the shoe repair shop. Further down Main Street, where it intersected with Bloomfield Avenue, stood Denville’s biggest attraction, the Wayside Inn Hotel and Restaurant. Opposite of the Post Office, where the Denville clock tower now stands, was the Hinchman home, and directly across it, where Starbucks currently stands, was the Dickerson home—these were two of the biggest and wealthiest homes in Denville. Apart from its first business, the Cornell Tea Room—the restaurant side of the Denville Seafood building today—Broadway was still mostly empty in the late 1920s. Its newest addition was the United Smoke Shop in the building now occupied by the Denville Diner. C.E. Lysaght’s Meat and Poultry Shop—with an eventual liquor store department—was the only other recently added store on Main Street where the Second Half currently operates.
The real expansion began with the inauguration of the Denville Chamber of Commerce, which signed its charter in late August 1931. The new organization wasted no time and quickly set out to plan and organize the business blueprint for downtown Denville. In September of that year, the agenda for its first meeting called for giving Denville a bank, a theatre, manufacturing enterprises, a municipal building, and new storefronts in and around Broadway. Seeing the business potential of the ever-growing population, spurred on by the city-folk making Denville their year-round residence, local business owners and builders took the Chamber’s invitation to expand the downtown area.
With the newfound confidence in the future success of a downtown business center, the rush for getting a space in and around Broadway and Main Street was on. First came the row of five stores down Main Street expanded by the Lysaght family of the Lysaght’s Market—today’s building that houses the Denville Eye Care, The Second Half, etc. Then came the Arthur Crane Company of Indian Lake fame, which built two additional three-storefront buildings for rent on Broadway. The Denville Holding Company constructed more storefronts next to the famed Wayside Inn Hotel and directly across from today’s Mara’s Cafe. William Green, a pharmacist from Summit, built two additional stores on Broadway and the B.A. Stanley Realty Company began construction on a couple of storefronts and a movie theatre in 1936, which would become the central fulcrum of the new downtown area.
By 1940, those away from Denville for five or so years would never have recognized the new and bustling downtown. The triangular block arrangement with wide streets and plenty of parking to access the many new stores encouraged customers to visit often and merchants to open even more stores. A 1942 advertisement by the Denville Chamber of Commerce proclaimed Denville to be a progressive town where “the quality of its community is reflected in the size and character of its business district, where progressive and attractive shops are an asset to the community and reflect its taste.”
By early 1940s, where once stood a few buildings with a handful of stores was now a proper Denville business district. On Broadway, there was the Gardner’s Gift Shop, Armbruster’s Department Store for women and men’s wear, Flormann’s Home Furnishings and Hardware Store, Fads and Fashions women’s shop, WM. Gerard Drug Co. pharmacy, Denville Camera Shop, Fred Crane Realtor, Anna’s Hairdressing, United Cigar Store, Bush’s Farm Market, Denville’s 5 & 10 Store, Starlight Delicatessen, and the famed Fireside Tavern. It seemed like a new business sprung up each month – which was perhaps not an exaggeration. Main Street housed R. O’Neill’s Greeting Cards, Brennan Shoes, C.E. Lysaght’s Meats, Poultry, and Liquors, Orchid Beauty Salon, the National Food Store, and the Denville Garage. All while Diamond Spring Road was home to the Denville Herald newspaper building and Powell’s Food Market.
From the 1950s and beyond, storefronts would change, but a proper downtown business center was already set up for success. “Buy Local” was the message in 1942, and “Buy Local” remains the message in 2022. As stated by the representative of the newly created Denville Chamber of Commerce in the early 1930s, “your money stays at home when it’s spent in Denville. It keeps turning up in local pay envelopes, in local taxes paid, and in the contribution funds of local causes and charities.” Some things never change, “Denville Strong” then, and “Denville Strong” now.
Peter Zablocki is a local historian, author, and educator. He can be reached at peterzablocki.com.