A visit to The Crane House + historic YWCA in Montclair
The history of the Crane House & Historic YWCA located at 110 Orange Road in Montclair, is a subtle and overlooked Montclair landmark, and one of great depth. The story of this house spans the span of American history: from slavery to entrepreneurship and from the Civil War to the Jim Crow era. The events that shaped our country can be found within the walls of this old house: it is both a family home and a museum of the region’s past. Read on to learn more about the Crane House & Historic YWCA in Montclair.
The story of Israel Crane + his house
Israel Crane was an entrepreneur and businessman. He was born in 1774 into a moderately prosperous landowning family, but soon became a revered member of the small farming community in that area. The Cranes were a well-known family, and with a humble beginning, Israel Crane built his wealth. He founded a successful general store, owned textile mills, a distillery, a cider house, and even had a rock quarry in Newark.
Israel Crane built the house we know today in 1796 for his new wife, Fanny Pierson Crane. He was 21 years old. At the time, the farmland and the 86-acre house were located on Old Road, which is now Glenridge Avenue. Rumor has it that locals were shocked and amused by the young man and wondered how he could afford such a house at such a young age. But Israel’s success grew to match the house, and the Federalist-style house remained in the Crane family for over 100 years.
The Cranes had seven children, servants, and at least three slave laborers named Dine, Bill, and Joe. This aspect of Montclair’s history is less known or recognized, but there were slaves here in New Jersey, just as there were in other parts of the country.
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New Jersey had the “Gradual Emancipation Act of 1804”, but slavery was still legal in 1806 during the Crane family era. Dine worked as a housekeeper and, it seems, she immigrated from Jamaica. The documentation revealed that she made a “women’s complexion soap” sold at Crane’s popular general store. He shared the profits with her.
During the three decades she lived there, Fanny looked after the children, ran the house and tended the garden. She had a vast knowledge of herbal remedies which she probably acquired from her father, who was a doctor. She died in 1828.
Life during the Civil War
Israel gave the house to his son James in 1840. James was eager to update the house with Greek Revival detailing, adding a bay window, flattening the gable roof, and adding a curved staircase in the entryway.
The family employed two Irish laborers at the start of the Civil War in 1860. Mary Burns was 20 and Catherine Conroy 19, but details of their arrival in America have been lost to history. Many Irish immigrants fled during the Potato Famine of 1845 for a better life in the United States.
In 1856, the railroad came to Montclair, bringing significant changes. With access to goods, services and travel, the city went from farmland to suburbia overnight. Wealthy families moved into newly built mansions, bringing many jobs for maids, cooks, butlers, and chauffeurs. The trains to Montclair were just one moment in the history of the most important movement of people called “The Great Migration”.
One of the family’s sons, James B. Crane, fought in the Civil War as 1st Sargent. His discharge papers remain on display in the official family dining room.
James’ wife, Phoebe Harrison Crane, lived in the house until her death in 1902. According to the 1900 census, she resided with her three unmarried daughters, who were in their 40s and 50s.
YWCA: A Place of Refuge for Women of Color
After a few years as a rental property, the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) of Montclair-North Essex purchased the Israel Crane House. The YWCA was founded by Alice Hooe Foster, the first black woman to graduate from Montclair High School, in 1912 when she saw the need for a YWCA that met the needs of black women and girls. In the first half of the 20th century, it was common to have separate YWCAs, so she started the Y in her own home. It soon outgrew his living room.
In 1920, a group of women purchased the Crane House, where the space served as offices, dormitories and a social center for black women for 45 years. It was a safe and respectable place for women looking for work until they could find a job. It remained the only YWCA not affiliated with a white counterpart.
The Y has supported, encouraged and provided opportunities for many Black women and girls throughout its history. It was a place of recreation and education and a safe environment in which to stay. There were courses in knitting, photography and secretarial work. Renowned black poets, writers and musicians have visited and spoken at the YWCA.
In 1953, the organization “reverse integrated” the space and allowed white women and girls to join as members. While there were still challenges around Montclair and its neighboring towns, such as redlining and even local cross-burning by the KKK, the YWCA was a model for the future of integration.
Author Carrie Allen McCray wrote in her book The child of freedom“When we were young, the YWCA of Color was located in a beautiful old house known as the Crane house. We knew every nook and cranny of this old house, which wrapped around us like a comforting blanket.
An effort to save the house + move it
In the 1960s, the Women’s Y was packed and needed a new solution to meet its needs. The organization decided to demolish the house and use the property to build a new facility. Historically inclined citizens came together to form the Montclair Heritage Trust, which later became the Montclair Historical Society. The Trust made great effort to move the house from Glenridge Avenue to where it stands today. Members of the Trust campaigned for funds by telling the story of the white, predominantly male voices of the 1700s and 1800s – a common approach to historic preservation at the time.
The Crane House was moved approximately one mile from 159 Glen Ridge Avenue to 110 Orange Road to land donated by Mrs. Roy Tomlinson.
The museum today
Modern visitors to the Crane House can truly understand how it served its owners and guests from the late 18th century. Its history touches on slavery, immigration, war and segregation. It serves as a collective site of Montclair history and is a must visit for locals.
When visitors visit today, the museum is well placed to tell all of this history. The ground floor rooms are decorated to share the different ways the house has been used over time: the pre-living room dates from Israel Crane’s commercial endeavors; the living room highlights the life of her son’s family during the Civil War; the kitchen and living room show what life would have been like in a YWCA dormitory.
The upstairs bedrooms remained as they had been for many years, decorated in the style of the eldest of the Crane family. But that will be solved with new grants and efforts as the museum continues to improve its exhibits.
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The historic kitchen serves as the backdrop on Zoom field trips, but when open to visitors, it’s a comfortable and fascinating setting for re-enactors to show off their open-fire cooking skills. The general store serves as a backdrop to the gift shop, where old jars and apothecary bottles decorate the walls. It’s been that way for many years, but it’s just as memorable as many long-time Montclair residents remember.
Via the website, “Today the Crane House and the historic YWCA tell the stories of all the people who lived, worked and played in the house…members of the Crane family, slave laborers and servants, women and daughters of the YWCA, and founders of the Montclair Historical Society.
Stop by every Wednesday from March 2 to June 29 for a visit. The museum offers guided tours on weekdays every Wednesday from 12:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. Tickets are $12 for adults, $10 for seniors and students, $8 for children under 18, and free for children under 2. MHC members are free. The Many Voices tour is available as an audio tour. Special tour dates are also listed on the website. Private tours are available on request from Thursday to Sunday.