The Village of Ridgewood wasn’t organized as a separate municipality until 1876. By then, the settlement we call Ridgewood was almost two centuries old. The land that Ridgewood occupies was originally a hunting and fishing ground of the Lenni Lenape Indians that became a part of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam founded in 1624. Forty years later, the British captured New Amsterdam and renamed it New York.
After New Amsterdam became British, King Charles 2nd gave New Jersey to Sir Carteret and Lord Berkeley, two of his most loyal supporters. In 1674, Lord Berkeley needed money to finish his mansion in London, and sold his half of the colony to two Quakers. New Jersey was then divided into the Province of East Jersey owned by Sir Carteret and the Quaker Province of West Jersey. In 1687, the East Jersey Proprietors granted several hundred acres in Bergen County to Isaac Kingsland. Johannes Van Emburgh bought some of this land in 1698. The area was then known as Hoachas (now Ho Ho Kus) and as Paramus by 1725.
After the Revolution, the settlement had grown to about 20 families and was known as Godwinville, after a war hero. However, Godwinville was never a separate municipality. The entire northwest corner of Bergen County was a large municipality known as Franklin Township formed in 1771 from a section of Saddle River Township. Within Franklin Township, there were numerous unincorporated settlements such as Godwinville.
In 1848, the Patterson and Ramapo Railroad was completed providing Godwinville with easy access to New York City. In 1853, Samuel Dayton bought the Van Emburgh estate and with the idea of establishing a suburb. Cornelia Dayton renamed Godwinville “Ridgewood” to attract buyers from the city. The population exploded from several hundred in 1850 to over 1,200 by the time of the centennial. Ridgewood built its own school but was still a part of Franklin Township. The population doubled again by the turn of the century.
On March 30, 1876, Ridgewood finally became a separate Township. Actually, Ridgewood was fifteen years ahead of the rest of the state. It wasn’t until the early 1890s that New Jersey adopted legislation requiring each municipality to establish a Board of Education and fund all public schools with a municipal-wide property tax. In just a few months in 1894, numerous settlements with schools incorporated as separate municipalities. Twenty-eight municipalities were incorporated in Bergen County alone. Part of Ridgewood Township went to the new Borough of Midland Park and another part went to the new Borough of Glen Rock. At the same time, Ridgewood changed its municipal form of government from a Township to a Village. However, to this day the school system is still officially known as the “Ridgewood Township Board of Education”.
Almost all of the 1894 municipalities were incorporated as Boroughs, the most common plan of municipal government in New Jersey. In a Borough, the governing body consists of six Council Members and a directly elected Mayor who acts as the chief executive.
Ridgewood was one of the few municipalities that incorporated as a “Village.” In this rare form of local government, the public elected five trustees who selected one of their members as Village President to preside over the meetings. There was no Mayor. The Village plan proved unsuccessful because it lacked clearly defined management responsibilities.
During this period, the Trustees organized the village departments and planned a civic center just west of the train station. However, the civic center was defeated in 1909 and the Village built a municipal building and firehouse at Hudson and Broad streets. This remained as the municipal complex until 1955 when the Village purchased the Elk lodge built in 1928 on North Maple Avenue and converted it into the current Village Hall.
In 1911, Ridgewood reorganized for a second time adopting the Commissioner plan of municipal government, but retaining the name “Village”. The municipality was divided into three departments – Public Safety, Finance and Public Works. The voters elected three Commissioners who each had full executive authority over one of the departments. The Commissioners also selected one of their members as Mayor to preside over the meetings, but the Mayor had no executive power other than as a Commissioner of one of the departments. At the time, the Commissioner form was considered as a reform, but today few municipalities retain this plan. Each department tends to become a fiefdom and is too dependent on the management skills of its Commissioner.
In 1970, Ridgewood recognized the need to professionalize municipal management and adopted the more modern Faulkner Act Council-Manager plan. Under this form, the public elects five Council Members who act as a Board of Directors. Their principle responsibility is to hire and oversee a professional Village Manager who has full executive power for all departments. The Council also selects one of its members as Mayor who presides over the meetings but has no executive authority.