Few houses are time capsules of the entirety of American history. But the story of the Crane House & Historic YWCA located at 110 Orange Road in Montclair, a subtle and overlooked landmark of Montclair, is one of great depth. The history of this home covers the entire breadth of American history: from slavery to entrepreneurship and the Civil War to Jim Crow. The events that shaped our country are found within the walls of this old house: it’s 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 History of Israel Crane + His House
Israel Crane was an entrepreneur and businessman. He was born in 1774 into a moderately successful family of landowners but soon became a revered member of the small farming community in this region. The Cranes were a well-known family, and with a modest start, Israel Crane built his wealth. He founded a successful general store, owned textile mills, a distillery, a cider mill, 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 86-acre farmland and house were located on Old Road, which is Glenridge Avenue today. It was rumored 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 home stayed in the Crane family for over 100 years.
The Cranes had seven children, house servants, and at least three enslaved workers named Dine, Bill, and Joe. This aspect of Montclair’s history is less known or acknowledged, but there were enslaved people here in New Jersey, just as there were in other parts of the country. New Jersey had the “Gradual Emancipation Act of 1804,” but slavery was still legal in 1806 at the time of the Crane family. Dine worked as a housekeeper, and, it is believed, she immigrated from Jamaica. Documentation revealed that she manufactured a “lady’s complexion soap” sold in Crane’s popular general store. He shared the profits with her.
During the three decades she lived there, Fanny cared for the children, managed the house, and tended the garden. She had a vast knowledge of herbal remedies that she likely acquired from her father, who was a physician. She died in 1828.
Life During The Civil War
Israel gave the house to his son James in 1840. James was eager to modernize the home with Greek-Revival details, adding a bay window, flattening the gabled roof, and adding a curved staircase in the entryway.
The family employed two Irish workers around the start of the civil war in 1860. Mary Burns was 20, and Catherine Conroy was 19, but the specifics of their arrival to America have been lost to history. Many Irish immigrants fled during the 1845 potato famine for a better life in the states.
In 1856, the railroad came to Montclair, bringing about significant change. With access to goods, services, and travel, the town went from farmland to suburb overnight. Wealthy families moved into newly built mansions, bringing many jobs for maids, cooks, butlers, and chauffeurs. The trains into Montclair were just one moment in the history of the more significant movement of people called “The Great Migration.”
One of the family’s sons, James B. Crane, fought in the Civil War as a 1st Sargent. His discharge papers remain on display in the family’s formal dining room.
James’ wife, Phoebe Harrison Crane, lived in the home until 1902 when she passed. 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 handful of years as a rental property, the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) of Montclair-North Essex bought 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 a need for a YWCA that catered to the needs of Black women and girls. In the first half of the 20th Century, it was common to have segregated YWCAs, so she started the Y in her own home. It soon outgrew her 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, respectable place for job-hunting women to reside until they could find employment. It remained the only YWCA not affiliated with a white counterpart.
The Y supported, encouraged, and offered opportunities for many Black women and girls throughout its history. It was a place of recreation and education and a safe environment to stay. There were classes taught in knitting, photography, and secretary skills. Renowned Black poets, writers, and musicians visited and spoke 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, like redlining and even a local cross-burning by the KKK, the YWCA was a model for the future of integration.
Author Carrie Allen McCray wrote in her book Freedom’s Child, “When we were young, the colored YWCA was located in a wonderful old house known as the Crane house. We knew every nook and cranny of that old house, which wrapped itself around us like a comforting blanket.”
An Effort To Save The House And Move It
In the 1960s, the YWCA was bursting at the seams and needed a new solution to match 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 the grand effort to move the house from Glenridge Avenue to where it is located today. Members of the Trust campaigned for funds by telling the story of the white, mostly male voices of the 1700s and 1800s – a common approach to historic preservation at the time.
The Crane House was moved about one mile from 159 Glen Ridge Avenue to 110 Orange Road onto land donated by Mrs. Roy Tomlinson.
The Museum Today
Modern visitors to the Crane House can genuinely understand how it served its owners and guests from the late 18th century onward. Its history touches on slavery, immigration, war, and segregation. It serves as a collective site of the history of Montclair and is a must-visit for locals.
When guests visit today, the museum is positioned to tell this whole story. The rooms on the ground floor are decorated to share the different ways the house was used through time: the front parlor dates to Israel Crane’s business endeavors; the drawing-room highlights the life of his son’s family during the Civil War; the kitchen and living room show what life would have been like at a YWCA dormitory.
The upstairs rooms remain as they’ve been for many years, decorated in the style of the eldest Crane family. But this will be solved with new grants and efforts as the museum continues to improve its displays.
The historical kitchen serves as a set during Zoom field trips, but when it is open to visitors, it is a cozy and mesmerizing setting for reenactors to show off their open-flame cooking skills. The general store is the backdrop of the gift shop, where old pots and apothecary vials decorate the walls. It’s been this way for many years, but it’s just as memorable as many longtime Montclair residents remember it.
Via the website, “Today, the Crane House and Historic YWCA tells the stories of all the people who lived, worked, and played in the house… the Crane family members, the enslaved workers and servants, the women and girls of the YWCA, and the founders of the Montclair Historical Society.”
Stop by any Wednesday from March 2nd to June 29th for a tour. The museum offers drop-in weekday tours every Wednesday from 12:00PM to 3:00PM. 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. There are also special tour dates listed on the website. Private tours are available upon request from Thursdays-Sundays.
Special thanks to Jane M. Eliasof, the Executive Director of The Montclair History Center.