Connett Family by Abby Baker
When the Connett family donated land, at the corner of Scotland Road and Taylor Place, to the Village of South Orange, their 1895 gift established a permanent place for the South Orange library. First the village library and now the home of EIES, the Connett building is a lasting legacy of generosity. However, the building is not the only reminder of the family. The Connett family is remembered in South Orange by Connett Place, which intersects with Scotland Road. Later generations of the Connett family included members of the Underhill and Speir families, also remembered by local street names. Finally, founding and supporting the South Orange library relied on the philanthropy of many memorable citizens whose names appear on Village maps.
Eugene V. (1836-1905) and Sophia Rutan Connett (1838-1912) established their family home on Scotland Avenue in South Orange, close to the family business, a hat factory in Orange. The Connett parents and their four sons became involved in South Orange well before they donated land. Eugene V. Connett served as Village President. The New York Times reports that Mrs. Connett was involved in fundraising efforts for Church of the Holy Communion and subscription dances to support local music. And, according to social notes in the New York Times, Mrs. Connett supported the library.
The library in South Orange was a membership library, when it was organized in 1864. The one-room library was organized by resident William Beebe. Over the next several years, the library outgrew its space and moved to a site on South Orange Avenue.
Before the late 1800s, many libraries were open only to dues-paying members. (Some libraries of this type remain. One example is the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, where my father does research.)
The free public library movement, which was spreading across the nation, would soon arrive in South Orange.
In 1886, Andrew Carnegie gave the first donation of what would total $40 million, all to establish libraries. Carnegie paid for community library buildings, asking that each town raise funds for books and budget for staff. Carnegie donated $50,000 to nearby East Orange. Connett’s gift to South Orange followed this model. According to the account posted on the Village website, Connett offered the land where the Connett building now stands, on the condition that other residents raise $7500 for the building. A New York Times report of the gift notes that Henry A. Page, namesake of Page Terrace, donated $1000 at the same time.
The library fund had other money put aside for building costs. A large article in The New York Times reports that an 1888 benefit “fete champetre” held at Orange Lawn Tennis Club was “a brilliant success.” The fair was staffed by the Misses Page, Miss Redmond, Mrs. Milligan, and Mrs. Sanford. Those family names are familiar, too, from local streets. Mrs. James Pulsford hosted an 1894 production of Tom Cobb as a library benefit. Mrs. Thomas Conway, as in Conway Court, similarly hosted “The Lifeless Man” in the same year.
At the same time her husband donated land, Mrs. Connett raised money for the library effort. She hosted a “musicale” for the library’s benefit in January, 1895. By November of that year, The New York Times reported that ground was broken for the new building. In 1896, South Orange’s new library opened its doors.
Local residents continued to support the new public library. The New York Times reported that both Mr. and Mrs. F. LeBaron Mayhew, as in Mayhew Court, donated $1000 for the purchase of children’s books, one donation in 1891 and another in 1903. An early director of the new library, Harriet Powles Loutrel, also donated throughout her life.
Eugene V. Connett, described in his obituary as “a leader in the hat trade in the country” died in 1905 at age 69. After his death, the family moved to Turrell Avenue. Sophia Connett died in 1906, after which the library building was named for the family. Still, the Connett family expanded, as one son married Kathryn Underhill, whose father headed the South Orange Board of Education, and is the namesake of the Columbia High School football field. A Spier daughter joined the Connett family, another family name that appears on a South Orange street map.
South Orange also grew and by the 1920s, the library was supported by public funds. It remains a center of the community, supported by the Village budget and by individual gifts. Connett Place is a quiet street of family homes next to Village Hall, where a plaque bears Eugene Connett’s name. And Connett Place is directly across the street from the building that bears the family name.
It’s impossible to know for certain why the Connett family chose to put their considerable resources into a public library for their hometown. Son Eugene V. Connett IV wrote six books and founded Derrydale Press. His brother, William Connett, earned an undergraduate and graduate degree from Princeton. Less is known of sisters Marion Connett Jewett and Helen Connette L’Hommedieu, though they seem to have attended Miss Beard’s School in Orange. The Connett family was dedicated to education and, in the case of the younger Eugene Connett, to the written word.