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Butler History

Native Americans inhabited what is now Northern New Jersey long before the first white settlers came. There is no written history, as these early inhabitants had no written language. The earliest inhabitants were members of the Ramapo Lenape Nation. Living in the Ramapo mountains, they stayed much to themselves. The first white settlers were Dutch, moving west from the Pompton Plains area in search of farmland in the area they named Bloomingdale, in honor of the Dutch village Bloemendaal.

The discovery of iron ore in 1734 Drew many more settlers to the area to work in the mines, many of whom were English or German. Population growth was stimulated by the revolutionary war, which heightened the demand for iron ore. After the war Hessian mercenaries sent by King George III to put down the rebellion, were left behind and settled in the area where so many other Germans have made their homes.

The area now known as Butler was originally called “West Bloomingdale” and was sparsely populated. Although the discovery of richer ore deposits in states to the west led to the eventual abandonment of the mines. Available water power attracted manufacturers to the area. In 1857, The Pequannock Valley Paper Company moved from Bergen County and, in 1868, The Newbrough Hard Rubber Company built a factory, both based along the Pequannock river. These contributed to the economic growth of the region.

In 1871, New Jersey Midland Railroad laid track through Butler from Paterson, making an important transportation connection for both passengers and freight. The northern terminus for the New York Susquehanna and Western Railway‘s passenger service was located at Butler until 1966. The railroad still carries freight through Butler and now reaches beyond Sparta Junction to Warwick, New York.

The growing community was given the name “Butler” in 1881 after Richard Butler, who had taken ownership of the hard rubber company. A post was established and a larger railroad station was built. This station has been the borough museum since 1976.

The hard rubber company eventually merged with other businesses and became The American Hard Rubber Company in 1898. The Pequonnock Soft Rubber Company, a pioneer in the process of reclaiming rubber, build a factory along Main Street. The borough continued to grow as other factories and supporting businesses were established. The population in 1920 was 2265 people. By 1950 it was 4063 and in 2016, the population expanded to 7799 people.

On March 13, 1901, the legislature of the State of New Jersey authorized the establishment of the Borough of Butler. The organizational meeting was held on April 1, 1901. William Kiel was chosen as the borough’s first mayor.

Butler is governed under the borough form of New Jersey municipal government. Consisting of a mayor and a borough council comprised of six members, with all positions elected at large on a Partisan basis as part of the November general election. A mayor is elected directly by the voters to a four-year term of office. The council members serve three-year terms on a staggered basis, with two seats coming up for election each year in a three-year cycle. The borough form of government used by Butler, is the most common system used in the state. It is a weak mayor strong counsel government. Council members act as the legislative body with the mayor presiding at meetings and voting only in the event of a tie.

The mayor can veto an ordinance subject to an override for a 2/3 majority vote of the council. The mayor makes committee and Liaison assignments for council members, and most appointments are made by the mayor with the advice and consent of the council.

Butler is located in New Jersey‘s 11th congressional district. Currently represented by Rodney Frelinghuysen. New Jersey is represented in the United States sent it sent it by Democrats Cory Booker (Newark, 2021) and Robert Menendez (Paramus, 2019) The borough is part of New Jersey’s 26th State Legislative district. Currently the district is represented in the United States Senate by Joseph Pinocchio (R, Markville) and in the general assembly by Betty Lou DeCroce (R, Parsippany-Troy Hills) and J Weber (R, Morris Plains).


It was the wee hours of February 26th, 1957 in the small town of Butler New Jersey. Most of the towns people were snuggled in a warm dry bed after a cold blustery day of intermittent rain.  Temperatures were in the low 40s and a Northwesterly wind had been blowing throughout the day and now into the darkness of night, bringing a cold winter chill down the dark streets of town.  

Over at the Pequanoc Rubber Mill the second shift had just gotten off of work and the third shift was settling in for the long night ahead. Nothing was reported out of the ordinary as the shift foremen briefly met to go over the night's events.   Unknown to the towns people, the   peacefulness was about to be broken and history was about to be made.

​The time was 12:10 a.m. when suddenly a small fire broke out in the Mills number 7 dryer. The dryer, a 40-foot-long reclaimed rubber dryer located on the third floor of the mills three story building, had in the past a number of small fires but they had always been quickly knocked down by sprinklers and a steam extinguishing system. This time it would be different.

Three workmen from the immediate area, seeing the fire ignite in the long dryer, quickly grabbed a nearby firehose and started to direct the stream of water at the ever-growing fire. At 12:16 p.m., seeing the fire had now gotten out of control, one of the men on the hose line broke away and quickly ran to the nearest fire alarm box and sounded the buildings fire alarm. Hearing the alarm, the employees located throughout the building began to evacuate the building.

​The fire had gotten up to the ceiling and was igniting years' worth of dust and lint accumulated around the sprinkler heads and was now quickly spreading.  Additional handlines were put into action by company employees, yet inside the dark choking smoke the fire continued to rage and grow.

The night operator in the boiler house seeing the fire in the early stages, started the plants 1,000 G.P.M. steam driven turbine fire pump to assist in the extinguishment of the fire. At one point, workers thought they had the fire under control, some of them heading back to their work stations.

​Then without warning, the fire exploded in size forcing the men fighting the fire back and that would be the turning point. With flames flaring up all around them, the workers knew that this was the beginning of the end for the Pequanoc Soft Rubber Mill Company.

​Hearing a shout for “water”, a worker ran down to the indicator post valve to make sure it was open all the way. Unknown to him, the valve was a left-handed valve and he inadvertently turned the water off instead of on stopping the flow of water to the firehoses being used to extinguish the fire.

He then left the valve unattended and returned back to his fellow workers who had been battling the fire but now were in full retreat as the fire was quickly over taking them, the fire hoses in their hands no longer flowing water and now totally useless.

​A workman sitting at the local coffee shop located directly across from the mill sipping his cup of hot coffee when suddenly he saw the orange glow of flames high above shooting out the Mills upper windows. 

Leaving his coffee behind, he hurried to the nearest fire box down the street where he quickly pulled the lever. At 12:26 a.m., fire sirens began to blow throughout the town. Firefighters hearing the blast of the sirens quickly jumped into action, leaving their warm beds and loved ones behind rushed to the fire house. The Butler fire department was on the way.

​Over his shoulder, the worker who had called in the alarm could now see the fire growing in size as large angry flames started to blow out of the building's top floor windows.

​In just a few minutes the Butler fire department arrived on the scene and immediately hooked up to the nearest fire hydrant and larger hose lines were put into service. At the same time, workers from the mill operated a large hose line from an adjacent rooftop aiming it at the raging fire.  Additional numerous fire sprinkler systems were operating inside the Mill and personal on the scene started to think the fire was again under control.  Those thoughts were short lived however when at 12:40 a.m., just 14 minutes after the original alarm was sounded a large high pressure steam pipe burst due to the intense heat of the fire.

​The shut off valves, located directly within the area of the fire, made it impossible for firefighters to turn them off. The steam driven fire pump suppression system was now useless as water poured freely out of the broken pipe. The decision was made to shut down the now useless fire suppression system.  The fire was quickly spreading throughout the large mill, fed by dry wooden floor planks and an abundance of rubber that had arrived just the day before.

Additional buildings, part of the mill complex, began to burn and the Butler fire chief ordered Mutual Aid companies to respond. Fire companies from Bloomingdale, Kinnelon, Riverdale, West Milford and Pompton Lakes were all called to respond but as the fire grew in intensity and additional attached buildings started to burn, fire companies from farther away were summoned to help fight the raging inferno. companies from as far away as Lincoln Park, Wayne, Paterson and Clifton were called to assist in fighting the growing inferno.

The fire, with plenty of fuel available to it, was now consuming building after building. Firefighters fought valiantly trying to save the steam run power plant, their efforts in vain as the extreme heat forced them to retreat and the plant was severely damaged. Flames were now shooting 1,000 feet into the air. Police departments from as far away as Clifton were getting calls to their switchboards, people reporting seeing the glow of the fire high up in the night sky. Firefighters on adjoining roof tops battling the fire were forced to abandon their positions as intense heat from the fire continued to grow hotter and hotter consuming more and more of the Mill Complex.

​Finally, after 6 long days, with firefighters battling the fire in shifts around the clock, the fire was officially declared out on the morning of March 3rd.

​The fire at the Pequanoc Rubber Mill ended up consuming the entire soft rubber mill complex consisting of 27 adjoining buildings of different heights and sizes. Both the front and rear walls of the largest building were the fire originated, collapsed, the rear wall falling onto the railroad tracks located behind the building blocking freight cars from passing and the front wall collapsing onto the street in front, taking down local phone lines as well as area electric lines.

​When all was said and done, a total of 55 fire companies responded to the Butler Rubber Mill fire.          

Three firefighters battling the inferno suffered non-life-threatening injuries and six additional firefighters were treated for smoke inhalation. Luckly, there were no lives lost. The final cost of the fire was estimated to be 5 million dollars.  The Butler Rubber Mill fire went down in history as being the second largest Industrial fire in the entire nation that year.  Within days of the fire being extinguished, Pequanoc Rubber Mill officials notified the Butler Mayor and Council in a letter that they would not be rebuilding the Mill. This came as a devastating blow to the borough residents who had worked at the rubber mill and who were holding onto hope that the Mill would be rebuilt and their jobs would return. The company, already in the process of building a second rubber processing plant in Tallapoosa Georgia, decided to move the entire operation down to Georgia and down size, leaving the economy of the town of Butler in shambles.

​In just a matter of hours, 400 workers from the Pequanoc Rubber Recycling Mill found themselves out of a job. An additional1,000 workers from the American Hard Rubber Company, located directly next door to the soft rubber company, were told to not come in to work due to the lack of electricity caused by the damage to the electric generating power plant that supplied both buildings with electricity.

​ In the wee hours of the morning with the backdrop of the fire still raging behind him, Mayor William Dean spoke briefly to the press.  “It’s the worst thing in the history of Butler, it’s ruined the town” he said, visibly shaken.  As the last trailing's of smoke finally cleared, the cold hard facts became apparent.  In just a few short hours, 95% of the entire town's workforce was out of work.

The Mill that so many of the towns' people worked for lay in ruins. The small town of Butler would never be the same again...

Everyone Loves Butler's Wooden Fireman!

The Legend of Butler's Wooden Fireman

By Tom Fox, For The Butler MuseumFebruary 2021

Many years ago, as a youth, I was one of the lucky ones to get a summer job through the State of New Jerseys at risk troubled youth program. Times were tough and in truth I got lucky. The job that I was assigned to do was to paint the insides of the Butler firehouse as well as the Butler police station. Every morning for the entire summer I rode my bike from Riverdale to Butler, rain or shine entering the park and looking up at the Wooden Fireman that stood so proud and strong high up on the front balcony overlooking the park and The Borough of Butler. It was always a moving moment for me.

Recently I was asked to write an article on the Wooden Fireman and I proudly accepted that mission. Here is what I found:

The Legend of Butlers Wooden Fireman

Back in the 1800s, Main Street in Butler was a busy place. People from all throughout the area would enter the town to shop there. To make the stores easily recognizable, the proprietors would set out a familiar looking sign or object so that visitors knew who sold what and where. The barber hung out his candy cane striped pole while the pharmacy of the time, selling medicines and tonics, hung a sign with the familiar symbol of a Mortar and Pestle, the tools used for crushing and mixing of various ingredients.

Stores that sold cigars often used a statue of a wooden Indian, carved by local skillet craftsmen. One of those such skilled craftsmen was a local man named John Campbell but instead of carving a large Indian figure, He was hired to carve a wooden statue of a fireman that would sit upon the Fireman’s Insurance Company Building located at 10 Park Ave., overlooking the city of Newark. When finished, the wooden fireman stood at an impressive 8 feet tall, his command horn held in his left hand, his right pointing directions to his men…was an impressive sight.

Locals seeing the Fireman sitting high up on the building often affectionately referred to him as “The Iron Fireman”, unaware that he was actually made of wood. For 40 years the “Iron Fireman” stood on top of the building, watching life go by. No matter what was happening, he saw it all.

He stood watch in the sun and cold, in the heat and the hail. When fair winds blew upon him as well as when fowl winds pelted him, he stood strong throughout it all. Then suddenly, in the spring of 1909, the statue was removed and the old Fireman’s Insurance building was torn down to make way for a new skyscraper. For the next year, the Wooden Fireman was stored at a secondhand lumber yard. Although down and out of sight, the Wooden fireman was not forgotten as over the past 40 years he had become a beloved famous figure to many people, especially to the firemen in Northern New Jersey.

In the little town of Butler, located 30 miles to the North of Newark, two volunteer firefighters, John Williams and John Spellman discussed ways to rescue the wooden fireman from the lumber yard. When asked what they planned to do with the large statue, the answer was “put it on top of the balcony of the firehouse, overlooking the park and grand stand of course.” A plan was made and the two men set off in a wagon to retrieve the statue.

John and John were excited after arriving at the lumber yard and the Iron Fireman was quickly loaded onto their flatbed wagon. Soon they thought, the statue would be stationed at its new home in Butler…or so they thought. Unknown to the two Butler Firemen, other fire departments also wanted the statute, The Bloomfield fire Department being one. When the members of the Bloomfield Fire Department heard that the statue was being moved to Butler and that it would be passing through their town, a plan was hastily put together to ambush and steal the statue from the Butler duo and take it back to their fire department. As the two men rumbled along the country road that glorious day, passing through Bloomfield and heading back to Butler, it seemed that all things were good.

Suddenly numerous men emerged from the woods and a shout went out “Highwaymen!” A struggle pursued and fists flew. Suddenly the Butler firefighters realized that it was not them that the robbers were after but it was the “Chief”; the wooden statue. A tug of war ensued as the two groups struggled and then suddenly, the Chief’s left leg was broken off. Seeing this, the Bloomfield men retreated and the two Butler firefighters quickly left the area.

After the two men with the statue arrived safely back in Butler, they took the broken statue to a friend, August Mayer to look at it. Mayer was known to both men as a “Jack of all Trades” and if anyone could fix the statute, he could!

After looking at the leg and seeing the extent of the damage, Mayer told the two Johns that it could not be fixed, it needed to replaced and he would do it and make it look like new. Plans were quickly made for a grand ceremony and everyone would come out to see the unveiling of The Chief just before the big event.

August invited John and John to see his finished work. “Beautiful”, they said. New fresh paint and a new leg. But something did not look right. “His feet, look at his feet!”, exclaimed Williams. It was then that August realized that he had modeled the new foot after the right foot and now the Chief had two right feet!

Both Johns laughed at the error as August stood in embarrassment. “Don’t worry”, one of the Johns called out, I have an idea.

The big day arrived and people from all throughout the area came out to witness the dedication. The band played, speeches were made and everyone applauded. The citizens of Butler greatly cheered when John Williams started to present the wooden fireman. “Friends, you may have heard that our Chief has two right legs. This is true and it makes him even more special. This may be the only time that you will ever hear that two rights makes a wrong”.

After thinking about it, the crowd started to smile and laugh and clap and carry on. It was at that moment that the people of Butler accepted The Chief, their chief, into their Community.

In 1983, a new firehouse was built just around the corner on Carey Ave. The firefighters knew that the Chief could not remain in the outdoors much longer and a decision was made to add a special place for him in the new firehouse on Carey Avenue. Today you can drive past the new fire house and see “The Chief” standing tall high up in a special front window watching the comings and goings of the people below, much like he did watching the people of Newark many years ago...


What Do Butler, N.J. and The Statue of Liberty Have In Common?
by Joel Messeros, Feb 22

Lady Liberty has been stationed on Bedloe’s Island, faithfully standing sentry to all who see her since 1886.

What most do not know however, is that at one time, her arrival in New York Harbor was in jeopardy of not occurring at all as she was almost awarded to another American city. As it turned out, if it were not for Joe Pulitzer, New York World publisher, Lady Liberty would not have taken her place against the Manhattan skyline at all.

The idea of a colossal statue to be presented by the people of France to the American people commemorating the one hundredth anniversary of the declaration of independence was born in 1865 at a dinner party hosted by the French scholar and biographer Eduard day.

Among the guests in attendance was a 31-year-old Parisian sculptor named Frederick Auguste Bartholdi. Bartholdi accepted the challenge even though there was no financing.

“They were confident that the French people would contribute the funds for the statue”, explained The Butler Museum Curator, Alan Bird, adding, “The American people would provide a site and the pedestal required to hold her.”

It all sounded good in theory, but the idea took years to pick up momentum and it wasn’t until six years later that the plan was taken to the next level.

In May of 1871 Bartholdi sailed for America to win support for the project. Immediately upon arriving in New York Harbor Bartholdi could see where his statue would stand, against the magnificent backdrop of the greatest city in America.

After arriving, the Frenchman traveled across the country sharing his vision for a magnificent lady towering over the harbor. Among those with an interest in the project was a New York industrialist named Richard Butler.

Bartholdi continued to campaign for his sculpture and was finally invited to speak to a group of American businessmen and financiers on January 2, at the Century Club in New York City. Bartholdi was convincing and by the end of the evening the American Committee on the Statue of Liberty was formed.

According to Bird, the Century Club meeting was likely engineered by Richard Butler himself. “Butler had lived in New York City but was president of the American Hard Rubber Company in the New Jersey Hills of West Bloomingdale”, he mused. “As a matter of fact, he traveled out to the factory so often on the New York Susquehanna and Western Railroad that the stop in West Bloomingdale, now home to The Butler Museum, was informally and unofficially named Butler.”

Of course, Butler would go on to become the namesake of Butler, N.J.

Butler willingly assumed the position of staff secretary to the Statue of Liberty committee, a significant office. In this role, he became the American on whom Auguste Bartholdi depended on the most in times of trouble. As Bartholdi toiled in his Parris studio it was Butler who saw to every detail of Lady Liberty’s eventual arrival in New York Harbor and cemented a relationship with Bartholdi that would last for the rest of his life.

As secretary of the American committee of the Statue of Liberty Richard Butler played a critical role in the campaign to raise the funds to erect the pedestal for Lady liberty on Bedloe’s Island. Money also rolled in from wealthy donors and from the sale of miniature statues.

Cost overruns occurred in the late 19th century much the same as they do today and construction costs eventually exceeded expectations, forcing the committee to warn that failure to complete the pedestal might lead the French government to agree to erect the statue in some other American city. That simply could not be permitted to happen. The committee turned to an unlikely hero!

Joe Pulitzer, Publisher of The New York World, came to the rescue! He offered to print in his newspaper the names of every single person who became a donor in the Statue of Liberty Fund no matter how small a donation that they made. And it worked!

He was able to raise an astounding $100,000, enough to finish the pedestal. It was enough to convince the French that New York City was a worthy destination for Lady Liberty. There were no remaining barriers for Bartholdi and in 1886, The Statue of Liberty was completed and ready for dedication.

It was October 28, 1886 and at long last, Bartholdi peered through the crown of the Statue of Liberty. Bartholdi had asked that his friend and confidant, Richard Butler, president of The American Hard Rubber Company in Butler, N.J. be present in the crown when he pulled the cord to drop away the tricolor banner that hid part of the statues face, 300 feet above the stormy fog and the shredded waters off of Jersey City.

“To think that the namesake of our town, had such a pivotal role in bringing the Statue of Liberty to America is quite amazing”, Bird said, adding, “It is just one more example of something so iconic having roots right here in our small part of the World, Butler.”

From their vantage point above it all Bartholdi and Butler watched as boats edged close to the island in anticipation of the long-awaited ceremonies. Naval vessels were aligned in formation at Center Harbor. It had all the makings of the classic American celebration.

Although only military bands were permitted on Bedloe’s Island for the dedication ceremony, The Butler Silver Cornet band, most of whom were Richard Butler’s employees at the rubber mill, played for the crowd from a boat anchored just off the island.

Richard Butler died on November 12, 1902. Upon his death a life-sized bronze bust was designed and cast by Auguste Bartholdi and presented to Mary Butler in honor of his friend. Although efforts to locate the original bust have been unsuccessful, copies made from Bartholdi’s original mold are on display in the Borough of Butler Council Chambers and in the museum at the Statue of Liberty.

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