At what was once the Norris Street School, the Mantua Township Historical Commission Museum and Library houses artifacts – many of which were donated – that offer visitors glimpses of the town’s past.
“What happens when somebody first walks in and we greet them here, we ask them right away, ‘do you know where you are? What is the significance of this structure?’” said commission Chairman Jeff Gellenthin, who instructs visitors on the history of the museum, its structure and property.
“You get the background that this property was donated by the Turners, Martin Turner specifically, in 1804,” Gellenthin noted.
Photos of what the school once looked like are prominent, and a section of brick from the original schoolhouse has since been repurposed into a wall inside the museum.
The first thing people will see when they enter is a large bell that reads “Mantua Academy, Mantua, NJ, 1874.” Mantua Academy is one of many names that Norris Street School took on throughout the years. And like everything in the building, the bell has a story behind it.
“The bell’s history is its own little character,” Gellenthin explained. “It actually wasn’t in our possession for a long time, to the point that we don’t know when it left Mantua Township. But we know when it came back. The story has it that a man who collected bells actually acquired it from an auction. He didn’t really divulge how and when that worked.”
“I believe he bought it (the bell) at an auction in Pennsylvania,” said commission Vice Chairman Herb Hood. “He took it back and kind of cleaned it up, and when he saw the writing on the bell, he eventually got around to calling us and basically told the township, ‘Hey I got your bell if you want it back.’”
According to Gellenthin, a fundraiser helped return the bell to its home in 1994, and before it was placed at the museum and library, it sat in the municipal building’s lobby.
The museum also has information about important Mantua families in binders that were collected by the late Dolores Allen, a member of the commission who collected all the information by hand.
Outside of the building is Union Graveyard, called that because Mantua Boulevard, one of the streets the building’s property sits on, was once called Union Street, though it had nothing to do with the Union side of the Civil War. The tombstones have since been renovated to come as close to their original look as possible.
The museum and library is open to the public on the first and third Saturday of the month, from 10 a.m. to noon. Members of the commission are volunteers at the facility.