A Brief History of Collingswood
Town History | Historic Collingswood Theatre
A Rich Past
The history and contributions of Collingswood weave a story that captures the true picture of life as it evolved east of the Delaware River.
The following passage is an excerpt from Collingswood Centennial 1888-1988 written by Peter Childs:
There are certain years which seem to be identified with a specific event. One century ago a raging late winter storm, which buffeted much of the nation, was a storm which was to become famous as “the blizzard of ‘88”.
Whether being locked into their homes by the gigantic snowdrifts, which reached the second floor of many homes, had anything to do with stirring thoughts of independence among the populace is uncertain, but two months later the residents of the western section of Haddon Township decided it was time to strike out on their own.
A century ago Grover Cleveland was completing his first term as President of the Union of thirty-eight states; John L. Sullivan reigned as the bare-knuckle heavyweight champion of the world; a few progressive cities had established telephone exchanges; Thomas Edison invented the motion picture camera; American Federation of Labor had just become the first successful national labor union; and Collingswood elected its first Borough Council.
The initial group of Town Fathers consisted of Chalkley Parker, Elmer E. Magill, E.E. Molineaux, Joseph T. Mathias, W. Quigley, Josiah Stokes, and R.T. Collings, with Parker elected president.
Of course, area history did not begin in 1888. The British Isles were rife with political and religious discord in the late 17th century, and thousands upon thousands of unhappy individuals from England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales sought a new place to live in the colonies Britain had founded in North America.
In 1681 a ship landed in what is now Salem, New Jersey. Among those aboard were Thomas Thackera, Mark Newbie, William Bates, George Goldsmith and Thomas Sharp, all names that would play a major roles in the development of the area. The group was met by Robert Zane, another name which is most prominent in the genesis of Collingswood.
The following spring some of the newcomers sailed into the mouth of Newton Creek where they explored and developed the area, which in future generations would become Collingswood. The name the new settlers decided upon was Newton.
Much of the history of the town can be traced through the Zane family. Esther Zane, granddaughter of the pioneer, married Richard Collins, and their daughter, Rebecca, married Jonathan Knight, thus bringing together three of the most notable names in Collingswood History.
For nearly a century the pioneers farmed the land where the peaceful Lenni-Lenape Indians had long existed. Many of the peaceful settlers were Quakers and a Meeting House was one of the first non-residential buildings erected. Late in the 18th century the War for Independence broke out and Newton, like most communities had its share of both Patriots and Tories. Many skirmishes and a few major battles were fought not far from the area bordered by Newton Creek and Cooper River. Amateur archeologists have uncovered many Revolutionary War artifacts as well as a wide collection of arrowheads and other implements used by the Indians.
The birth of America did little to change the way of life of Newtown Township. Most residents made their living through agriculture although a slowly forming group of millers, merchants, artisans and professional men began to appear. Much of the early trade and transportation was carried out along the two bodies of water, which bordered the township, but energetic workers began to create a series of roads to enable the residents to travel more extensively. By 1860, a tavern, the Half-Way House, stood on what today is the corner of Haddon and Woodlawn Avenues, on what was then the busy Haddonfield-Camden Turnpike. It was the only known tavern to exist within what now are the confines of Collingswood.
In 1861, the Civil War began. South Jersey in general was not a strong abolitionist area, but Camden County, with its Quaker influence, was more supportive than many of the neighboring areas. Numerous local men answered Father Abraham’s call and joined the Union armies. Many battles fought in that great struggle list the names of heroes from Newton Township.
The war ended in 1865 and that very year Haddon Township was created. It included the area now known as Collingswood. Even before the war there had been some development. The first major attempt was in 1859 when Isaiah Stone purchased a tract of land north of Browning Road and created a settlement, which for years was called Stonetown.
Soon after peace returned more homes were built along the Haddonfield-Camden Turnpike and in 1871, the busy Pennsylvania Railroad made the village a stop on the popular Atlantic City run. In 1882 J.Stokes Collings opened a store which also operated as the post office with Collings serving as postmaster. Elmer Magill probably deserves recognition as the first modern builder as he laid out the first street, Irvin Avenue, upon which he constructed a number of residences.
After Collingswood established its independence, the single stroke which did most to insure its growth came in 1893 when the executors of Edward C. Knight’s estate donated a large tract of land as a public park. An assortment of dignitaries, including General William Sewell, Major J. Leighton Westcott of Camden, and Judge John Clement of Haddonfield offered their oratory on the occasion of the formal dedication.
Quite naturally, the splendid sixty odd acres was an inducement for many families to move to Collingswood as the Park served as a picnic and recreation area for citizens throughout the Camden County area.
In 1896, the Borough switched to the mayor-council form of government with Henry R. Tatem being chosen as mayor. Other prominent citizens who later held that office were A.K. Roberts, C.H. Barnard, D.P. Fries, George Lippincott and Thomas Jack. In 1917 another change was made, this time to the commission form of government that still exists.
In the closing years of the 19th century it became evident that Collingswood was well on its way to becoming a thriving suburban town. Besides its beautiful park, it was easily accessible to Camden and Philadelphia. Two thriving railroads already ran through the community, trolley tracks ran down Atlantic Avenue as far as Lees, and municipal services were steadily improving. A growing patriotism and pride in the young town was most evident.
The dawn of the new century brought continuing development as the optimism engendered by the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt seeped down to the rising Borough in Camden County.
Although a progressive community, Collingswood, like most of its neighbors, struggled with the new inventions, which were sweeping the land. The automobile was a particular problem as its noise often frightened the horses and buggies, which still served as the major form of transportation. Reacting to the often-reckless speed of the new invention, the Borough requested that county detectives be placed on theWhite Horse Pike to strictly enforce the 10 miles per hour speed limit.
From the days of the first settlers, there always was a strong religious feeling in the town. By 1907 there were seven organized congregations with the First Methodist and Holy Trinity Episcopal both being chartered in 1886. Back in 1873, while still part of HaddonTownship, the citizens of the Collingswood section voted to exclude liquor, a decision, which never has been revoked.
While the religious influence was strong, there always were those who challenged authority. Just after the turn of the century there was a race track, which existed briefly near the Cooper River. A few years later a Country Club occupied the same general area but the belief that it promoted Sunday golf and perhaps provided alcoholic beverages to its members caused it to soon close its doors.
The vitality of the growing town did not go unnoticed by its ruling caste. Just about the time when the calendar announced a new century was at hand, the town fathers took out an ad in the newspapers which proclaimed that Collingswood was the fastest growing community east of the Mississippi River. While the solons were probably guilty of hyperbole, the growth was impressive. In 1900 the population was 1663; in 1910, 4975; and in 1920, 9000.
By 1908, when the Borough was twenty years of age, the residents proved they knew how to throw a party. On the first weekend of October that year, the community unleashed a gala. On Friday, Governor J. Franklin Fort delivered the principal address to the throng gathered in Knight Park. The next day was marked by a lavish parade, athletic meets, a children’s carnival, and an elaborate pyrotechnic display. On Sunday, the massed church choirs of the community sang at a service in the park. The next year the Haddonfield-Camden Turnpike was bought by the county and made into a toll-free road, which further encouraged the migration to Collingswood.
There also was a steady growth of municipal services. The police and fire companies became more professional and competent.
Education always was a priority. The Champion School in West Collingswood had its origins way back in 1821 and there were a number of private academies in operation throughout the 19th century. The Collingswood School, on the site of today’s Garfield School and which later served briefly as the high school, was expanded in 1889. The Zane and Sharp Schools were erected in 1905. The new high school on Collings Avenue, named after Edward C. Knight, had its first graduating class in 1910.
Although the citizens always were an industrious lot, there seemed to be time for recreation. Ice-skating on Newton Lake and Cooper River lured thousands from Collingswood and the surrounding communities. Almost every vacant lot was utilized as a baseball field and the first organized town team came into being before 1900.
The first football team to represent the high school took the field in 1909 and was a success from the beginning. Much of the early history of the school teams is known through the writings of Russell Clevenger, who was a tackle on the first three Collingswood teams. The town always seemed to produce talented athletes and before long many of them were playing on the first semi professional circuits, which operated early in the 20th century.
A bit of embarrassment occurred in 1911 when it was discovered that while Collingswood was chartered in 1888, there was no record of that event in the County Clerk’s Office in Camden. The state legislature gracefully solved that dilemma by merely passing an act validating the incorporation as of May 22, 1888, and all acts subsequent to that date.
Suddenly in 1917, the priorities changed. America entered the World War and the youth of the community volunteered for duty in large numbers. Four young men, William Tatem, Robert Shields, Elwood Young and Had Rolls, did not return. When organized following the Great War, the community legion post was named the Tatem-Shields Post. Shields, who was killed during the bitter battle at Belleau Wood, also is memorialized in the beautiful Collingswood High School Stadium which bears his name.
The homefront was active, too. Many organizations were formed to supply servicemen with food, clothing, and other amenities. The worldwide influenza epidemic, which wiped out millions, left a number of its somber calling cards in Collingswood.
The year after the bells rang in celebration of Armistice Day, the Board of Education hired a young graduate of the University of New Hampshire to serve as physical education teacher and athletic coach. From 1919 until his untimely death in 1948, Howard Irvine would make the Collingswood football program synonymous with success.
Literary figures have written tomes of praise to the 1920s. The decade has been called “The Golden Twenties”, “The Roaring Twenties” and the “Era of Wonderful Nonsense”. The belief seemed to be that war had been eradicated from the earth and it was time to have fun. It also was a time of unbelievable technological growth. Lindbergh soloed the Atlantic, automobiles crowded the insufficient roads, movies and spectator sports became big business and thousands of businessmen earned fortunes.
Collingswood shared in the growth. Haddon Avenue and its West Collingswood counterpart, Richey Avenue, welcomed new business establishments every year. Earl Lippincott and other builders developed new neighborhoods out of what had once been forests, ball fields, and open spaces. The Delaware River Bridge (now the Ben Franklin) opened and made possible more commercial intercourse between Collingswood and its big Pennsylvania neighbor. Borough policemen began recklessly scooting through town on their new-fangled motorcycles and, in general, the community exuded prosperity.
The biggest social experiment of the decade was national prohibition. Most of the townspeople avidly supported it, but there were a few violators. Old-time residents tell of drug stores, food stores and a few private clubs where prohibition booze was available. Raids were conducted on several occasions but solid evidence generally was not sufficient to bring indictments.
The Collingswood National Bank had opened its doors in 1905 and the Trust Company became a rival in the mid-1920’s spawned by the growing volume of business within the Borough. The new movie theater at Haddon and Lees brought the latest Hollywood epics to town, automobile agencies flourished and other stores were established, all of which made the street a beehive of activity.
Almost overnight the good times ended. In late 1929, the stock market crashed and the depression soon followed. Businesses failed, unemployment soared, teachers and other Borough employees were paid in scrip. The Trust Company closed, causing many residents to lose their life savings and the Borough, like most of the nation, was caught in an economic vise, which seemed to tighten day by day.
In 1933 Franklin D. Roosevelt, with his controversial New Deal, assumed the presidency. The same year a youthful YMCA director named Arthur E. Armitage became one of the Borough Commissioners. He soon was elected Mayor. When he left office in 1969, six different men had served in the White House and the world had gone through the greatest changes in recorded history.
Like the rest of the country, Collingswood was resilient. Slowly, ever so slowly, it began to recover. Although never really warming up to Roosevelt, the Commissioners were wise enough to accept some federal aid and the WPA helped enlarge the high school stadium and did some excellent work in making the swamps along Newton Creek and Cooper River attractive parkways.
The biggest local event to take place in the 1930’s was the Borough’s 50th birthday bash in 1938. Perhaps the still difficult times made the desire for pleasure a little greater but whatever the reason, it was a celebration to remember. It started on Saturday, October 1, with opening ceremonies and a parade down Haddon Avenue.
On Monday, a community night entertainment was held and the next two evenings were set aside for a pageant in the high school stadium where the history of the town was recreated. Thursday night was Mardi Gras where the merchants offered special sales and the work of town artists were displayed. Friday was a Junior Olympiad on the high school field and a night of history was offered in the auditorium.
There was a tree planting ceremony on Saturday, followed by a gigantic track meet, which featured internationally famous milers, Glen Cunningham and Gene Venske, competing against Collingswood High’s Frank Donohue. The week-long-celebration ended with a mass church service in the stadium.
The year 1938 also brought forth the most dramatic religious news in the Borough’s first half century. The Reverend Carl McIntire, after years of strife with the Presbyterian Church of the United States over theological matters, left the denomination and most of his congregation followed. McIntire established the Bible Presbyterian Church and remained as its pastor while simultaneously becoming a leader in the worldwide fundamentalist movement.
Concerns over the economy and all other matters were forgotten on December 7, 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Once again the youth of Collingswood answered the call and the community board in front of Zane School had to be steadily enlarged as more and more young men went into service.
In the early days of the war, when most of the news was grim, word came from the South Pacific that Commander Harold “Hut” Larsen had become one of that conflict’s first flying aces. A great player at Collingswood under Irvine, he had gone to Annapolis and had chosen to go into naval aviation. The town was thrilled that Larson had played a major role in curbing the seemingly inexorable advance of the Japanese.
The hometown responded with successful bond sales, the purchase of a bomber, and the establishment of blood banks. Like most towns, Collingswood went all-out.
The magnitude of the struggle could be told in the number of gold stars, which began to appear in house windows. Collingswood youth of that generation, sixty-five in all, gave their lives in raids over Ploesti oil fields, in naval engagements in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and on gruesome battlefields on three continents.
Finally, in August 1945, it was all over. The survivors came home, relaxed for a few months, and then went on to face the challenges of a world of many changes.
Most of the retail stores on Haddon Avenue entered a period of prosperity as the population eagerly sought to purchase merchandise that had been scarce or non-existent during the war. A progressive new group called the Collingswood Business Association offered creative tips on how to make the stores and shops more attractive and serviceable. Entertainment became popular with the veterans, many of whom had a few extra bucks from their discharge pay. Some of the more talented athletes picked up some unexpected cash when semi-professional football and baseball proved to be profitable.
By the mid 1950’s it was evident there was a new problem to be solved. The baby-boomers were reaching school age. The sudden rise in population could be attributed to the many marriages that had been delayed during the war years, resulting in many families having babies at about the same time.
This growth made it necessary for most of the elementary schools to add new rooms and in 1963 the new high school was completed on Collings Avenue. Even before the baby boom became an actuality, Mayor Armitage had observed that there was not much room for horizontal growth in the Borough and the only way to provide for an increasing population was the build upward. In 1948, the Park View Apartments were constructed, becoming one of the first high-rise developments in the area.
Before long it was evident the world was not going to stay the same. The creation of shopping malls placed new pressures on the business community. The nation became a more mobile one and the population less tied to any particular area.
In 1964 the State of New Jersey celebrated its tercentenary and once again Collingswood joined the party participants. One of the more lasting effects was a splendid history of Collingswood written by the able Ray Bancroft, the editor of The Retrospect, the local paper that has served Collingswood its entire existence.
The last gala was the Bicentennial celebration of 1976. The nation had gone through a turbulent period; the intense pride in the moonlanding was in marked contrast to the bitter divisiveness caused by Vietnam and Watergate. The two-hundredth birthday seemed an appropriate moment to heal some wounds.
Thirty-five other communities joined Collingswood to help create the biggest parade in Borough history. High School bands were joined by a variety of other groups and an enormous crowd observed the marchers on that warm September 13, 1976. There was a town fair, an antique car show, and many historical shows and displays. Collingswood played its role superbly in honoring the nation of which it is a part.
Historic Collingswood Theatre
823 Haddon Avenue is an 1928 Venetian style, 1,197-seat movie theatre, which was active until 1962, and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. The famed cellist, YoYo Ma, recorded the Grammy winning “Premiers - Concertos for Violoncello and Orchestra by Danielpour, Kirchner & Rouse” with the Philadelphia orchestra here in 1993. In an adaptive re-use, this historic building is now the showroom for Michael Bruce Florist and home to Simply Inviting and the Collingswood Book Trader.
The first floor façade is brick construction with painted cast stone. Ornate iron lanterns and terrra cotta panels with lutes and women in relief are above the entrances. The upper floor is red and tan glazed brick
in a diapering pattern. The iron balconies originally fronted French doors.
Terra Cotta ornaments throughout display butterfly tiles, urns, owl spring
boxes, floral panels, acanthus leaf brackets, Bacchanalian faces, and
spiraled end-columns and brackets. Wave cornice detail between end terra cotta panels and the center frieze bears “Collingswood.” A man and woman holding crown and lute in terra cotta relief make this unique building a contributing property individually listed on the National Register.
Inside you can seethe vestiges of architect David Supowitz’s details. Mercer tiles grace the storage room walls, original lighting crowns the arched ceilings, and gilded poster frames decorate the walls. A grand fountain still graces what is now a back room, but at that time was adjacent to the theater entrance. Though the theater was never air conditioned, heat relief came from air cooled by an evaporative “swamp cooler” system.
Supowitz was a prominent Philadelphia theatre architect who designed 24
cinema treasures, including the Hollywood Theatre in Atlantic City (1936)
and the Goldman Theatre in Philadelphia (1946). Only five of his theatres
remain open today. According to a February 1939 promotional postcard from the old Collingswood Theatre, new movies opened weekly. That month, “The Son of Frankenstein” starring Boris Karloff would debut, as would “Zaza” with Claudette Colbert.
The beautiful center frieze bearing the name “Collingswood” has become a Borough icon, appearing as the banner atop the Collingswood.com Web site.