Oswald J. Nitschke, to whom the historic home at 49 South 21 Street (formerly at 513 Boulevard) belonged, is described in Honeyman’s History of Union County as someone who, as a young German immigrant, won his way to success in a strange country and who gained the sincere respect and esteem of those who knew him. Nitschke’s notable contributions to the early development of Kenilworth are reflected in newspaper accounts describing the former councilman and first foreign-born Mayor of Kenilworth as one of the biggest boosters for the borough who led in moves to improve the community as a place for homes. His wisdom, vision, direction and notable achievements paved the way for the thriving community that exists today, thereby contributing to his stature as a prominent figure of local historic significance.
Nitschke, who started in business as a contracting builder, moved to Kenilworth in 1899, at the height of the area’s first major building boom. Soon thereafter he became involved with the development of the community, assuming leadership positions with the Kenilworth Realty Company, the Kenilworth Building and Loan Association and the Kenilworth Board of Trade and Municipal Progress. He also was a member of Pioneer Camp, No. 2, Woodmen of the World, a volunteer fireman and president of the local Board of Education for two terms. He purchased the Nitschke House, one of Kenilworth’s original farmhouses, in 1905 and resided there with his wife Anna and their two sons, Hugo and Oswald, Jr.
In addition to aiding in the early development of Kenilworth and in shaping its appearance through the construction of homes, Nitschke was heavily involved in the community’s government. He was among the first individuals to advocate for the incorporation of Kenilworth in 1907 and subsequently was elected to the borough’s first Council. During the more than seven years in which Nitschke served as councilman, he headed various Council committees and presided as Council president. Nitschke was elected mayor in 1919, a post that he held for a record five terms within the period 1920-1933 (including three elected terms: 1920-1921; 1928-1929; 1932-1933). His popularity as a candidate and as an active member of the Democratic Party was evidenced by his inclusion in Who’s Who of New Jersey and by his landslide victory in the 1931 mayoral election, which he won with the biggest majority ever received by any candidate in Kenilworth.
Among Nitschke’s many significant achievements, he gave the borough its first major artery and opened up a vast tract for development by extending its unique 120-foot-wide Boulevard (reportedly the widest road in New Jersey aside from state and federal highways) westward through the County Park System to Cranford. Nitschke also brought about vast advancements in the developing community’s infrastructure, including major road improvements and the installation of street lights, lateral sewers and a means of bringing an adequate potable water supply to the community via an independent water plant.
A strong advocate for order, economy and efficiency, Nitschke initiated and implemented parliamentary procedures and other guidelines that, to this day, continue to dictate the way the borough is governed and council meetings are conducted. An ardent proponent of “an educated citizenship,” Nitschke began the practice in the borough of allowing residents to actively participate in Council meetings. He additionally is known for setting a legal precedent in the state for tied elections when he refused to abdicate his mayoral seat following the disputed local election of 1921. He also performed a major service to Union County by assisting in the highly publicized 1921 capture of the Union County Bandits.
Nitschke was involved in all major changes to Kenilworth that were characteristic of the suburbanization of New Jersey, including real estate development through subdivision and building, the incorporation of Kenilworth as a borough, and transportation improvements. His lifelong commitment to community service is perhaps best reflected in his message to the Council on January 1, 1920:
“It is to be remembered that the Mayor and Council must at all times feel the pulse of the people…together we must study their needs and as far as possible, unselfishly administer the public affairs. Nothing short of this policy will do. You must not shirk responsibility, you must not fail in the discharge of duty, you must be real servants if effective work is to be done to improve the welfare of our citizens…Let high ideals be assimilated into the body politic, then will come a new dawn for a better government.”