The Woodruff House in Hillside
From Original Land Grant:
To Historical Museum
The Woodruff House, located at what is now 111 Conant Street in Hillside, has a unique background. It is on two lots on land originally included in the Elizabethtown Land Grants of 1664. It is the last parcel of property awarded to John Woodruff (1604-1670) and remained in the Woodruff family continuously until the Hillside Historical Society took title with a ten year mortgage in 1978.
John Woodruff was one of the group who came to Elizabethtown from Long Island after leaving England. He apparently received a total of 292 acres. It is generally considered to have stretched from the vicinity of the present Cross Avenue in Elizabeth to the area of Hillside’s municipal swimming pool on Central Avenue. However, some of the original Woodruff property may have extended to the present Route 1 in Elizabeth. There is a Woodruff Lane in that area. The present Mary Street and part of Madison Avenue in Elizabeth are supposed to have been part of the old Road to Woodruff’s Farms.
John Woodruff’s son John (1637-1691) presumably received most of the benefit of the land holding. The Woodruff House in Hillside was built about 1735, possibly by a Timothy Woodruff (1683-1766), a son of a third John Woodruff. The house faced what was then a part of the Road to Jewell’s Mills (Salem Dam), just beyond a bend in the road, an old Indian trail. Later this road became Salem Avenue and was extended to the north, with the bend becoming Conant Street in the 1870’s.
A map of Elizabethtown showing streets and property owners shortly after the American Revolution shows the name of Jacob Woodruff as the owner of a house just after the bend in the road. Perhaps Jacob built it, as he was already a middle aged man at the time of the Revolution. It’s more likely that his father, Timothy, built it or reconstructed it from an earlier lean-to. OId records indicate that Jacob and his brothers, Timothy and Thomas were immediate volunteers for military service and served in the Second Regiment of Heard’s Brigade in the battles of Elizabethtown, Long Island and Morristown. Little is known about Jacob and his wife and children. Jacob died on May 15, 1790, less than three years after his wife passed away. Records show little about the several children.
After Jacob’s death in 1790 his brother Timothy (1715-1798) may have taken title to the house and surrounding land on Conant Street. Probably then it went to Timothy’s son, Enos (1749-1821) and then to another Timothy (1779-1853) and on to his son, Charles (1814-1898). The latter is shown on the title search for the Hillside Historical Society. Succeeding generations were Charles Bruen Woodruff (1842-1883) and his son, Charles T. Woodruff (1866-1939).
Charles T. served as president of the Union County Agricultural Board and became a member of the Hillside Township Committee and later was Tax Collector. His family’s store built in 1900 became something of a little community center for the neighborhood. Charles T. and his wife, Theresa Coyne Woodruff, had four sons, Charles G.,George C., Ezra F. and T. Winslow Woodruff. It was from “Wins” Woodruff, the last surviving brother, that the Hillside Historical Society purchased the property in 1978.
The house was placed on the State and National Registers of Historical Places in 1978, not long before the society took title. The name “Jacob Woodruff House” originally used by the historical society to identify it was dropped because the National Register listing designated as simply the “Woodruff House.”
Several architects and experts have examined the building and disagree on which is the oldest section of the 12 room house. Although some strong evidence favors the middle section as the oldest, the society has generally gone along with a majority opinion that the western part is the oldest. The west side has been described as built on brick and other exterior field stone, laid more carefully on the west side than the middle area. Overall, the building was found to be relatively unchanged in its basic original construction.
The single piece chairrail in the western part has been cited by architects. Fireplaces on the western side supposedly were not used for cooking purposes because they are small. The historical society has accepted assertions that this western part was built about 1735.
The society considers the middle part to have been added in 1790 or slightly earlier. This part has intrigued architects and others who wondered what would happen if a layer of plaster were removed from the ceiling. It was a delight for the society in its restoration to discover “atmosphere” with the heavy beams exposed after 100 years.
Architectural comment also has been made that many beams might have been reused from an earlier building and that some lath appeared to have been machine cut except for a small area with rough cut log with the bark still on. Evidence was also cited of an old cistern alongside the foundation and over what is now the 1890’s kitchen.The society has never followed up on a suggestion for an archaeological exploration.
When Dr. Donald P. Lokuta of Kean University prepared measured drawings of the historic house, he found indications that an archway between rooms on the west side had been cut back or widened, and that a stairway to the cellar in the middle area had been closed off along with a stairway to the second floor.
About the same time, around 1870, the stairway on the west side was widened. A front entrance to the cellar on the west side was closed, apparently about the same time. In the early 1920’s a portico was built over the small porch on the west side.
What seems to have been a lean-to or a shed-like building was converted into a new kitchen on the east side, probably also in the early 1870’s. It is now known as the 1890’s kitchen.
About 1900 the Woodruff Family decided to build a new home next door. The story is told that when some lumber was left over from the construction of the new house, Mrs. Woodruff suggested building a small store in the front of the old house so she could sell apples and other fruits from the Woodruff orchards.
Apparently the venture did not last long, and the store was then rented out in turn to several neighbors who tried to sell groceries and other items. Finally, in 1910, Gilbert Eaton, who was well known as a vendor of groceries and fruits and vegetables throughout the area from his horse-drawn wagon, rented the house and store. While he continued to deliver house to house, his wife, Sarah Baxter Eaton, ran the store. Many people in Hillside and North Elizabeth have fond recollections of the store and the Eaton Family, as they or their parents went to the store for staples or candy.
There were few centers of community activity in those days in a very sparsely settled area, by then known as Saybrook. So the little Eaton store became a beehive of arguments and discussion on how a separate community might be created, in other words, independence from the Township of Union which had been formed in 1808 from old Elizabethtown. Residents of the area felt that they needed a government closer to them in order to obtain relief from muddy streets, having street lights and a few other modern conveniences.
Thus the Eaton store was one of several locations where the movement for a separate Hillside gained strength. The creation of a new township took place in 1913 by referendum following state legislation permitting a vote.
The Eatons raised three children, Gilberta Eaton Scannell, the late Jane Eaton Schorr and David B. Eaton. They moved from the house and store in 1927 and continued store operations for few years elsewhere. Mrs. Schorr in later years served as a leader and project director for the Hillside Historical Society’s restoration of the house and store, having’a vivid memory of just how everything had been there as she and her sister and brother grew up at the Woodruff House.
Until about 1940 the store was rented out for short periods of time for grocery uses as well as for candy making and as an art studio. Then for many years T. Winslow Woodruff used the store for storage of carpentry tools and other equipment. In 1978 the store counter was found folded up and stored in the garage along with several original features of the store’s days of activity, and they have been restored to use again.
The house itself was converted in 1927 into a two family dwelling. Tenants used the west side and generally the Woodruff sons used the rest of the building. For the first time indoor plumbing was installed in 1927 with the “borning” room converted into two bathrooms. Gas space heaters were used at fire places to provide heat until the historical society installed a central heating system in 1981 as part of the restoration.
Over the years the original land grant of more than 300 years ago was divided and sub-divided as portions passed on to sons and daughters in the Woodruff family, and as many parcels were sold for development in the last few years little remained of the property in the direct Woodruff line. Woodruff Place as an example was cut through in the back, with a “new” Woodruff cider mill becoming a two family dwelling there. Gone were the barn and several chicken coops and the old apple orchards. The historical society has built a new post and beam barn for farm exhibitions and demonstrations.
The direct line of Woodruffs has disappeared, but their heritage as a simple farming family is now preserved as a part of the heritage of an area. The house is the oldest house in Hillside but it is new in so many ways, reconstructed and restored and rehabilitated so that it can serve as a vehicle of learning of a living history.