RIDGEWOOD – Henrietta Hawes was 50 years old when American women were given the right to vote. By that time, she was already the first woman to serve on Ridgewood’s Board of Education, the first corresponding secretary for the Village Improvement Association and the first chairman of the Bergen County of Social Agencies.
She was also the first licensed female plumber of New Jersey.
Despite the prejudices ingrained in a society that devalued women and minorities, Hawes took on strong leadership roles, particularly during a transitional time in history when women were branching out of their traditional roles and finding a new voice.
She had a couple privileges that worked in her favor. For starters, she came from a wealthy, white family. Born in Oswego, N.Y., on Sept. 11, 1870, Hawes’ father, Theodore Houston, was a railroad executive and one of the builders of the West Shore railroad.
Hawes first visited Ridgewood when she was seven, as her grandparents – the Brinsmaid’s – lived in a house known as The Academy, which was located on Van Dien and Ridgewood Avenue.
She graduated from the all-women’s school, Vassar College in 1891 (which became coeducational in 1969), and would be the oldest surviving graduate of her class, which at that time was a class of 35 students. After a tour around Europe, Hawes moved to Ridgewood and married John Hawes in Christ Church on Nov. 10, 1897. They raised four kids, Charlotte, Elizabeth, Mary and John.
Throughout her 98 years of life – 68 of them spent in Ridgewood – Hawes dedicated a majority of her civic work to schools. She served on the Board of Education from 1919-1939 and was president during her final year. In 1915 she was one of two women who served on the committee that was responsible for the construction of a new high school to be put on the referendum.
As a result, Hawes Elementary School was not only named after her in 1966, but during the same year, Houston Street, which runs adjacent to the school, was also named after her, honoring her maiden name.
“Probably no one person had a more consistently beneficial effect on village patterns and society; indeed, few even had the opportunity to exert influence over so long a spell,” said a 1969 edition of The Sunday News.
At age 23, Hawes chaired on the committee to fund the new village hall, which became known as the Opera House. The Opera House was home to Ridgewood’s first fire alarm and served many functions – a movie house, meeting room, space for live entertainment and the YMCA. Hazardous because it was predominately constructed of wood, the Opera House was eventually torn down in 1932 to make way for the train station.
Hawes also served as the Bergen County Director of the Emergency Relief Administration from 1921-1939 – a majority of that time during the Great Depression. Her friend and writer for the Ridgewood Herald News, Helen Brainard Smith, insisted that Hawes was very vocal about not liking that job very much. During the same time, she also helped found the Bergen County Tuberculosis and Health Association.
“It didn’t take me minutes to realize that this young woman was a personality, straightforward and jolly,” recalled Brainard Smith, in a 1965 Ridgewood Herald News story.
In 1923 Hawes developed a lot of land known as Oakcroft, which offered affordable, cottage-like houses for families trying to move into Ridgewood. The area had six homes that were separated by gardens and trees. Marjorie Sewell-Cautley, of Paterson, served as the landscaper, which made her the first American woman landscape architect to take on a city project.
But, despite all of the barriers that she broke, Hawes cited her children as her greatest accomplishment.
In a Sept. 15, 1960 article, the Ridgewood Herald News covered Hawes’ 90th birthday.
“I guess I’m most noted for my children,” Hawes modestly told the reporter. Her daughter Charlotte published numerous successful cookbooks, Elizabeth was a designer, John was an executive with Bankers Trust and Mary was an executive secretary for the University of Berkeley.
A few weeks before the article was published, Hawes gave up driving at the age of 89. She reminisced on the first car she drove, which was a 1902 Rambler.
“It was the first demonstration cars that came to Ridgewood,” she said in the article. “And I just had to have one.”
Known for her resilience and strong will, Hawes said she was only sick once in her life, when she had typhoid fever at age 13. “Her only regret about the incident was the fact that the curly hair she grew after the illness didn’t last.”
Henrietta Hawes passed away on March 19, 1969 at the age of 98. She left behind a legacy of many firsts, which paved the way for residents of all ages and genders to learn and succeed.
By Alexandra Hoey, The Ridgewood News. September 2, 2016.