The Caldwell Common, a quadrangular piece of land has long been known as such or is sometimes referred to as the “Caldwell Green.” The parcel was owned by the First Presbyterian Church at Caldwell and was the site for many community celebrations and memorials. Caldwell Borough’s first school was built on the Common in 1785 and was maintained by the church for a number of years.
Caldwell historian Benjamin Robert Norwood related that “after the Revolution it was customary for a municipality to obtain a piece of light or heavy artillery from the War Department and place the obsolete weapon in the most conspicuous place in town.”
In that era Caldwell citizens proudly followed the advice of President Thomas Jefferson who had advocated observing July Fourth as Independence Day and suggested celebrating by firing guns, singing patriotic songs and reading the Declaration of Independence. Norwood describes the Caldwell people of the 1820’s as “Jeffersonian:” democratic in principle as well as in politics. As a result, instead of placing the town’s bronze cannon which they had obtained on a pedestal, the Caldwell men stored the cannon in a barn and dragged it out each Independence Day to celebrate the Fourth of July.
In 1824, nine years after the conclusion of the War of 1812, Caldwell native General William Gould (1757-1847) and the Caldwell militia unit he commanded, had the honor of entertaining the Marquis de Lafayette, and escorting him along the route that Gen. George Washington's army had traveled through Caldwell to Morristown from West Point, NY. Colonel John Pine Decatur (1786-1832), a brother of Admiral Stephen Decatur (1779-1820) who had defeated pirates of Morocco and Algiers in the Mediterranean a few years earlier, was one of many distinguished men who accompanied Lafayette when they crossed over the river from Passaic County into Essex County. General Gould was there with his Caldwell militia company assembled in an honor guard. Lafayette and his companions were escorted to Caldwell village where they enjoyed a banquet at the Crane Tavern.
During Lafayette’s visit the Caldwell militia fired a salute with the old cannon. The resulting explosion destroyed the cannon. Colonel John Decatur, impressed with the reception the party received replaced the cannon. He presented the militiamen with a bronze gun that his brother, Admiral Stephen Decatur had captured from an Algerian fort a few years earlier. It was believed to be the only memento of that short war in the Mediterranean possessed by any municipality in the state and had an important role in town celebrations.
The Caldwell Common was a site of other celebrations. On the 4th of July, 1848 President James K. Polk proclaimed ratification of a peace treaty between the Mexican provisional government and the United States, ending the Mexican war. A number of Caldwell men had served in this conflict and a great celebration was held on the Caldwell Common.
During the Civil War the Common’s Decatur cannon was removed and held prisoner at Trenton due to fears that it might be given to the Confederates. After the Civil War ended and the cannon was returned to Caldwell, the practice of firing salutes with it on the 4th of July was resumed. The last time Caldwell's Algerian cannon was used was July 4th, 1875.
This celebration of the ninety-ninth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence was, true to local tradition, held in on the vacant lot at Central and Bloomfield Avenues instead of the Common. Norwood recalled, “As usual the old gun was dragged from its hiding place and once more pressed into service. George Baldwin served as the gunner.
“After each shot it was Baldwin's duty to swab out the gun with a damp cloth at the end of a stick. This was done to put out any sparks which might remain and cause a premature explosion. After the firing was about half completed Baldwin failed to reach and extinguish every spark; a premature explosion was the result. Baldwin’s hand and arm holding the rammer was torn off.
“The tragedy spoiled the day for the patriotic merry-makers; some of them expressed the hope that the old gun would never be fired again. Their wish was gratified. The gun disappeared for many years after. It was finally located in a barn in Fairfield by Rev. Horace Quillan, then pastor of the Caldwell Baptist Church. The gun was brought back to Caldwell and was mounted upon a granite base in Caldwell Common where it has been since kept.”[as of 1927]
The old Decatur cannon occupied a place of honor on the Caldwell Common until it disappeared for the second time, stolen in the 1960’s. It remains missing and was replaced by a substitute. Despite rumors of its wherabouts, the cannon has not been recovered. Hopefully it was merely hidden and not melted for scrap. Return of the cannon would be cause for celebration!
For most of its existence the Common was a few feet higher than Bloomfield Avenue, rounded and uneven, with a steep slope down towards Westville Avenue. In April 1890 the Common was graded by a local landscape gardener, Samuel B. Bond (1832-1925) making the western side slope more gradual.
“After it was graded the Common became a popular site for boys’ sandlot ball games.” Caldwell history chronicler Lynn G. Lockwood (1878-1963) recalled, “A regular visitor to the Common each summer was the “Tin Type Man”, whose studio on wheels was welcomed by most of the young people. He sold about a dozen one-half by one inch tintype portraits for a quarter, developed and delivered “while you wait.”
The preference for preserving the Common as a park had been expressed as early as 1874.
At the Annual meeting of the First Presbyterian Church held on January 1st, 1891 a recommendation of the Trustees, “that the tract of land known as the Common be presented to the village of Caldwell to be kept as a public park” was discussed before being referred to a special congregational meeting. Weeks later “On motion of R. C. Ryerson it was, Resolved, That we direct and command the Trustees and their successors forever, to prohibit and prevent, at any and all times, the erection of any building of any kind or description whatever upon said property.” The resolution was approved.
However, the title to the “Commons” was and the responsibility of preserving it as a public park was vested in the board of Park Trustees appointed from the membership of the Church Trustees, and not in the village of Caldwell.
On May 4th 1911 the Trustees gave their consent to erect on the Common a “suitable flag staff and monument to the memory of the soldiers from Caldwell who were killed in the Civil War.” The flag staff was erected and a granite block for mounting for the cannon with appropriate bronze tablets was set up. The memorial was dedicated on July 22, 1911 with an impressive parade, flag-raising, unveiling of the cannon and speeches. The orator was General Daniel E. Sickles who earned fame at the battle of Gettysburg. In 1918 a boulder plaque was erected to honor the memory of Mayor Edward Everett Peck (1859-1918), a local physician who had led Caldwell during the First World War.