A century ago, word got around of plans to open a saloon north of Watchung Avenue, in what would later be called Upper Montclair. A couple of dozen men decided to form a social organization. With sports and games, they would try to keep young men and boys away from spirits, and the Commonwealth Club was born.
Times change, and there are some who might sense a little irony breezing through the club’s recent renaissance, coinciding with the construction of a new bar on the porch. That might prompt a bemused smile from all but the most Puritanical souls among the thousands of men, women and children who have been part of our extended family over the years.
People come together to play and talk and associate at our club in a way that many
find unique in their life experiences. But if you ask the question — Who are we? — there is no simple answer.
Our club began in a church, the original Union Congregational Church, that we wound up purchasing. Three years later, in 1907, we completed construction of an addition. The church proper became our ballroom, and the addition is the club we still enjoy today.
The club nearly went broke at a time just before the First World War. In fact, a staggering $10,000 debt-load cost us our baseball and cricket field, turf on which the Commonwealth Gardens Apartments now stand alongside Valley Road. On that diamond, our baseball teams played well-attended, organized baseball games. With crowds perched in a magnificent grandstand, our guys even took on the New York Giants one day.
Our history is replete with marvelous initiatives and events conceived and carried out by members and their families. It’s fitting to recall some of them:
1. With a few generous brush-strokes during his 1914-17 Club presidency, our own Benjamin Moore – yes, the paint guy — wiped out our mortgage, made sure we owned the place free and clear forever and created an environment where membership soared to 350 — still the high-water mark today.
2. In 1967, the club got an artificial heart-transplant of sorts. Hundreds of hours of work came to fruition with the installation of automatic pin-setters. That ended 62 years of manual placement by local youths.
3. For sheer longevity, no one comes close to Henry Jackson, the club’s outstanding steward for 50 years until his retirement in 1972. He remains a club legend today. Possibly the first African-American to live north of Watchung Avenue, he skillfully completed the everyday — and extraordinary — tasks at hand.
4. The high notes would also have to include the spectacular circus we staged in 1912 — one of a slew of creative, competitive, artful, entertaining, delicious and fun-filled moments in the Commonwealth’s lifetime.
Surely the low tone sounded on December 9, 1984, when fire — touched off by a carelessly discarded cigarette — gutted the original church portion of the club and severely damaged the clubhouse addition. While a string of sad memories clings to that horrific early Sunday morning, one signal event prevails. With no place to hold that year’s Christmas party, a thoughtful club member and his wife opened their home to some 150 of the club’s grieving family.
In the ensuing days and months and years, the Commonwealth family contributed time, skills, insight, effort, money, wit, materials and tools, just like it had from Day One. We dug out of the ashes and remade ourselves.
Even so, economic undercurrents remained strong, and after the fire, not only were we a smaller ship; our crew was lighter, too. In one analysis, it was an age of rising costs and stagnating wage-growth, where parents increasingly turned to dual-wage-earning: In so many cases, either both worked outside the home, or at least one worked two jobs. From another viewpoint, we stopped associating formally like earlier generations had. There just weren’t enough hours in the day for such things.
By 1998, the club’s roster had dwindled to fewer than 70 members. Whispers, though faint, spoke of disbanding. Yet that old Commonwealth spirit prevailed, embraced by a new generation. We talked, planned, leafleted, barbecued, cajoled, collared, spent, invited, renovated, encouraged and somehow managed to produce yet another renaissance.
The club today has nearly 300 dues-paying members from all walks of life, and continues to grow every year. If you’d like to become a member, we encourage you to contact us for a tour, email us or stop by one of our many events. We hold an annual Open House every September to give prospective members a taste of the good food, beer and company the Club has to offer.