Historic 1680 Speer Homestead

From “The Castle Genie,”
Newsletter of The Passaic County Historical Society
Genealogy Club
Vol. 9, No. 2

The Speer Homestead, located on 612 Upper Mountain Avenue, is the first house built in Little Falls/Montclair*. Originally built in 1680 by the Speer Family, this unique Dutch Farm house is situated on nearly an acre of terraced property with many original features preserved.

John SPEER (originally from what is now Bloomfield) chose this beautiful site on the side of the mountain and became the first settler of Speertown. Here in 1680, with the help of some friends, he erected his house–facing south–following closely to the construction of the Dutch houses with which he was familiar and a type very similar to the English half timbered house.

Its beams were hewn at Davis’s sawmill along Toney’s Brook (named after Anthony OLIFF) from trees that were cut down when the farmland was cleared. Native fieldstone was laid between the upright beams of the house. Plaster, which had to be imported, was expensive, so clay strengthened with straw that was taken from a nearby stream was used for mortar. Only the outside of the stones were covered with plaster to prevent the clay from being washed away. Over the course of centuries, the clay has hardened into a cement-like mass.

Originally, the Speer Homestead was just two rooms connected by a hallway on the first floor of the house (an addition was added circa 1780). Above these two rooms was a loft lighted by a window on each end where perhaps Mrs. Speer did her spinning and Mr. Speer did odd jobs when there was no farm work to be done.

The heart and center of the home was the kitchen with its’ fireplace. The fire in the hearth was always kept lit because if it went out, it had to be rekindled by the laborious use of flint, steel, tinder, shredded birch bark, and pine shavings. Here the family spent their rare moments of leisure, perhaps reading aloud from the big brass-clasped Dutch Bible, watching the roast turn on the spit, or trying to see pictures of their fathers’ Holland in the flames along the backlog.

When his house was complete, John Speer gave a housewarming party for the friends who helped him build it. Neighbors from miles around were in attendance, and there was plenty to eat and drink. For days before, Mrs. Speer had been preparing good things to eat in the Dutch oven by the large fireplace while her husband had secured a few bottles of schnapps as a special treat and bargained with the Lenni-Lenape Indians for oysters and game.

The Homestead remained in the possession of the SPEER family for over 250 years. About 1720 or 1730, John SPEER sold the house and nearly forty acres of farm and woodland to Reyneer SPEER (a descendant of Hendrick Jansen SPEER who left Holland in 1659 aboard the ship Faith with his wife and two children). John SPEER left the house to his son Reyneer (who was on the first township committee in 1868), who left it to his son, John R. SPEER. John R. SPEER left it to his daughter, Leah SPEER who willed it to Peter G. SPEER. In 1932, the SPEER homestead was sold, and it passed into other hands.

Reportedly, the years have passed gracefully over the old house, and relatively little has been lost to modernization or improper restoration. The stone foundation walls are two and one-half feet thick. The wide floor boards, a combination of oak, chestnut, and walnut, appear in surprisingly good condition, considering the number of feet that must have trod them over the years. Many of the hinges and latches on the wideboard doors are the original handmade hardware. Over the “cooking fireplace” rests a 16-inch chestnut beam, hand hewn, of course, as are all the beams in the old part of the house. The initials “J.R.S.” are carved into a door in the second floor, most likely carved by one of the two John R. Speers–one born in 1790 and the other in 1839. The Speer initials remain today suspended in time, protected by a small, clear plastic plate placed there by Mrs. Russo, the current owner.

*The Speer Homestead is legally in Little Falls although it receives its mail through the Upper Montclair Post Office. It is literally three houses off the Upper Montclair border and when town lines were drawn, this house as well as others on the block were given the option of keeping their Upper Montclair address or changing it to a Little Falls address. Taxes as paid to Little Falls, and children attend Little Falls Schools.

(Note: My special thanks to Cara Greene and Tina Dobsa of Coldwell Banker who provided the beautiful photographs and background material for the Speer Homestead.)

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