A True Bloomfield Native Reminisces

From a Newspaper Interview with Mrs. Estelle Gilson
conducted in April, 1983


Mrs. Estelle Gilson, 1998


The quote accompanying the picture of Estelle "Baldie" Baldwin in the Red and Grey, the Bloomfield High School yearbook, reads "None but herself can be her parallel."

That description of Estelle Baldwin, now Mrs. Kenneth G. Gilson of Glen Ridge, is just as applicable today as then, when this charming lady recalls the Bloomfield of her childhood and young adult years. Her ancestors, the Baldwins, came from England and settled on land grants in what is now Bloomfield in the later part of the 1600s. They, as generations after them up to her father, were commercial farmers in a large area of the southeast part of town.

When Estelle Baldwin was born on Franklin Street in the earlier part of this century, Bloomfield was still largely a community of farms and stately Victorian homes. As she herself notes, "As you look back, there was so much vacant land." What is presently Newark Street down to near Harrison Street was an apple orchard, where she and her playmates spent many happy hours. Across the street from her house was a park where the children would go fishing in the ponds. In the winter, she recalls, there always seemed to be snow, and they would ride in a horse and sleigh to visit other gifts. Other transportation she fondly remembered is a donkey and cart that was purchased by a Bloomfield woman on a suffragette march to Washington D.C.

When older, Mrs. Gibson had a Flexible Flyer large enough to hold four adults (she still has it!) and she and her friends used to sled down from the site of her present home on Ridgewood Avenue to Broad Street. At that time, there were no houses or cross streets in the area, just open land. Winter was also the time for ice skating on the old Morris Canal, where barges, laden mostly with coal, were towed by mules in warmer weather. A favorite summer pastime was going to Montgomery Street to watch the boats going to the canal lock located there. Her grandmother's family, the Garrabrants, had given property for the canal's construction through Bloomfield. Recalling those days, Mrs. Gilson smiles wistfully as she says, "One of the things about Bloomfield that you look back with great pleasure is the fact that everybody knew everybody else."

Growing up, Mrs. Gilson attended Bloomfield schools. She went to junior high in what is now the school administration building, and then on to the present senior high school. The only library in town at that time was the Jarvie Memorial Library, located in a Presbyterian church which is now the Bloomfield College theater.

Her graduating class, or which she was yearbook treasurer, numbered 27, and one of her classmates, Dorothy Phelps, lived in a large home at the intersection of Franklin and Broad. In those days, Broad Street was mostly private property and "full of farms." Mrs. Gilson had a much further walk to school than her classmate Dorothy. She lived a mile away, and she walked it four times everyday, as there were no lunchroom facilities for students then. She also walked to Meadow Street East Orange, for violin lessons. Everyone walked in those days, Mrs. Gilson remembers, or took the trolley that ran through Bloomfield to Orange on Glenwood Avenue. What buses there were to Newark were all privately owned by individuals, and she remembers getting downtown in 20 minutes when she later worked briefly for a law firm.

She married Kenneth G. Gilson in August 1922, and settled in a new home on Watsessing Avenue, opposite the Westinghouse property. Bloomfield then was still mostly a rural town, but two years later its demise as a fanning community began when they started taxing property as building lots and putting streets in, including Baldwin Place, which cut through her family property. As Mrs. Gilson notes, "The 1920' s were the turning point in Bloomfield." To meet taxes, farmers had to sell off parcels of land gradually, and a contract, financially disadvantageous to the farmers, was made with a builder. The farmers all agreed to be given a small sum for their properties, but they were not to be paid in full until a house was built. For some, this meant an indefinite wait for their money and financial hardship, as the builder was not required to build within a certain time period.-With houses replacing farmland, Bloomfield became a residential town as people were lured to work in the companies established and growing in the town: Oakes Mills, American Book Co., Westinghouse, General Electric and a large hat factory that stood on the corner of Glenwood Avenue and Thornton Street. In reflecting on the changes that took place so quickly - the farms, and stately homes disappearing to be replaced by tract houses, apartments and business, Mrs. Gilson says, "We didn't appreciate what we had until it was taken away, but that's the passage of time. You can't go back."

Mrs. Gilson now lives in Glen Ridge with her husband, only four miles away, as she laughingly says, "from where I was hatched." The Gilsons have one son, Kenneth G., Jr., and two grandchildren, who live in Montclair. She still attends the church of her childhood, the First Baptist Church of Bloomfield, and recalls the "Little Red Schoolhouse," the old Sunday school portion of the original church destroyed by fire around 1936. To replace it, the church acquired the adjacent Women's Christian Temperance Hall property on Washington Streets. Mrs. Gilson frequently visits Bloomfield to see old friends and old sites still standing such as the Cockefair farm house. She and her husband have traveled extensively throughout the world, but there is only one place that could ever be home to her - the four miles within Bloomfield and Glen Ridge where she has lived all her life.

As the article above mentioned, the Morris Canal was a favorite among local children for ice skating and sledding. This photo dates from circa 1907 and shows the Baldwin Street bridge over the Canal (near the JFK Pky), the location of Estelle (Baldwin) Gilson's family's land and the scene of her childhood days.


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