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Historical Society Seeks Copies of Rare 19th-Century Caldwell Paper

Only 65 issues of the Caldwell Observer were published in the late 1870s.

Caldwell has had a local paper, The Progress, for 100 years and briefly had the Caldwell News in the 1890s through 1906. 

Less known is the Caldwell Observer which published 65 issues in the late 1870s. The Historical Society of West Caldwell is in the process of having 50 surviving copies microfilmed and digitized for the use of the public. Additional copies are being sought to borrow and photograph so the content can be added.

None of the libraries in the state, other states or the Library of Congress list copies of this newspaper in their collections, making this newspaper very rare.

The Observer was the work of one individual, Charles N. Drake. Late in 1877, Drake, an enterprising Civil War veteran started a weekly newspaper. He called it The Observer and intended it for residents of old Caldwell Township, the area that became today’s Caldwell, Cedar Grove, Verona, Essex Fells, North Caldwell, West Caldwell, Roseland and Fairfield.

In 1877, Drake’s newspaper was described in George P. Rowell’s newspaper directory as follows:

Operating out of a room over George Canfield’s wheel-wright shop, opposite the on Bloomfield Avenue, Drake’s first issue was published on Dec. 11, 1877. Drake sold subscriptions to his newspaper for $1 a year and a variety of businesses provided advertising revenue. Apparently neither subscriptions nor advertising were sufficient and the last issue was published on Feb. 19, 1879.

Reading these old pages provides a window into a time that was both very different from today, yet in some respects very much the same. The Passaic River, for example was overflowing in an area of Fairfield (then called Farmersville) on Nov. 26, 1878. (See photo gallery for Drake's report.)

Drake informed the community of all types of gatherings, such as church services, temperance meetings and rehearsals of the Caldwell Cornet Band. He also conveyed other information, as when he reported that Methodist churches of Farmersville and Pine Brook had printed rules forbidding people standing in the vestibule, spitting tobacco juice on the floor whispering or talking in the church or on the outside during services, disfiguring the church or eating fruits or nuts during the service. There were many advertisements. (See photo gallery for an example.)

Observer Editor and Publisher Charles N. Drake was born at Elizabeth in 1845, the youngest son of James S. and Eunice Drake; his father had been an owner and editor of the New Jersey Journal.

When Charles turned 10 years of age he was indentured to a Trenton marble-cutter. When he was 17, Charles ran away from his employer and tried to enlist for service in the Civil War. According to Cranford historian Steven Glazer, Drake was rejected from enrolling in New Jersey units because of his age, but enlisted as a Private in the 20th Pennsylvania Cavalry.

Drake served from 25 August 1864, until 19 June 1865. He probably took part in some of the major engagements towards the end of the war, including Five Forks and Sailor's Creek, and was also present at Appomattox for Lee's surrender to Grant. He may have participated in the Grand Review in Washington at the end of the war. Charles Drake was the youngest brother of Gen. J. Madison Drake, another New Jersey Civil War veteran who won the Medal of Honor.

In the summer of 1874, Drake started the Bucks County Record at Yardleyville, Pa., a paper described as “twenty-one by twenty-eight inches, of twenty columns.” The first issue was published Tuesday, July 21st, at subscriptions of one dollar in advance, but this venture closed after only a few weeks.

Drake’s efforts at Caldwell were somewhat more successful as he printed 65 issues. North Caldwell resident and history buff the late Dean Alison Baldwin collected 52 copies, including duplicates of two issues. Efforts to locate additional issues have, until now, been unsuccessful.

If you have a copy and would like to help the Historical Society of West Caldwell make this newspaper available to the public, please call 973-226-5252. Your copy need not leave your home, as the Society wants only to photograph it.

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