Move to West Orange, Thomas M. Dowd Death (1895-1902)

During the success of their undertaking business, Thomas and Sarah purchased property in 1895 at the corner of Park and Center, Orange. They built a home there at #5 Park Avenue, probably employing Sarah's brothers, who were by now established home builders in Orange. A cousin later recalls reading a six page description of the house, instructions to the builder handwritten by Sarah. They moved into the new home about 1896.

One colorful memory of Thomas M. Dowd survives, as told to a grandson by some of the older residents in Orange:

"Every guy that I ever knew, the old people I mean, would say, 'Ah...he [my grandfather], was one tough son of a gun...a bald head and big red moustache... Oh he was tough, he'd come in...was always well dressed, [he was the undertaker you know]. Every once in a while some guy would forget who he [grandpa] was and would get himself slaughtered... boom boom boom ...[grandpa would] break his head.[Laugh] He was a hard drinking tough nut."

*the term "nut" used here does not mean crazy person. The term is "tough nut" as in "tough nut to crack" - a tough man, in other words.

In 1897, after almost fifteen years in business, the partnership Dowd and Brennan was dissolved. Thomas Dowd continued on his own only for another year, opening a funeral home at #292 Park Ave. Thomas Brennan went on to build a successful funeral parlor on Day Street with his son. It is not clear what was the cause of the Dowd and Brennan break up. Trouble may have started as early as the summer of 1895 when Thomas Dowd deeded back his share of the Day Street parlor to his partner Brennan. It also appears that by 1897 Thomas Dowd was struggling with alcoholism.

Despite his "toughness" and his work as an undertaker, the deaths of his three babies may have overwhelmed him. Another story told in the family describes how Thomas took a horse and carriage to Long Island, New York to pick up a body. The family in Long Island was concerned about his long ride back to Orange in the bitter cold. They gave him a bottle of whiskey to keep himself warm - "and he was never without a bottle again". As her husband's health declined, Sarah seems to have taken control of things.

Their business now finished and her husband's health failing, Sarah left her new home on Park and moved the family to West Orange. The property on the corner of Watchung and Alden had been left to Thomas after the death of his father in 1894. The property faced north and extended back one hundred feet along Alden to Wigwam brook. It was bordered on the west side by the second property originally owned by Thomas Dowd Sr. and at his death in 1894 deeded to Rose Harff. Edward Dowd later purchased the lot from his sister and had resided there with his wife and three daughters since 1897.

There were two houses on Thomas and Sarah's lot and a barn in the back. Sarah used the first house for the family home. In the second house exactly on the corner at #281 Watchung., she rented out the top floors and remodeled the bottom floor as a grocery store. She took a mortgage out on the property to raise money for the remodeling and purchase of provisions. Sarah's brother William, a master builder in Orange, did the remodeling work. The store had a long counter along the right side [to include more detailed description, to include advertisements for the store in local newspapers]. The store was opened for business in 1899.

Sarah held onto the Park Avenue property, possibly renting it out over several years before selling it in August 1908 for $6,500 [$78,000] for a $4,400 [$54,000] profit over the 1895 purchase price. The difference was probably the value of the home they had built on the property.

The move to West Orange must have been exciting to the children. West Orange in 1899 was still a rural area with winding, picturesque country roads. Two mountain ranges ran northeast to southwest through the town providing excellent scenes, rabbit and fox hunting and other great adventures. Famous in West Orange was Llewelyn Park, a sanctuary of lakes, flower gardens, landscaped paths, trees and the beautiful homes of its wealthy residents. West Orange was most famous as the home of Thomas Edison's laboratory. Following the success of his lightbulb and phonograph inventions in the Newark and Menlo Park laboratories, Edison had moved to his twenty-nine room, Llewelyn Park mansion in the 1880s. He built his famous West Orange laboratory, covering several blocks, one of the largest laboratories in the world. Here Edison earned half of his 1,093 patents including the Kinetograph, motion picture machine. The huge complex of manufacturing factories, laboratories film studio and offices covering an eight block area on the corner of Lakeside and Alden was directly across the street from the Dowd store. Marie Dowd would recall years later seeing Mr. Edison drive by each morning in his "little car" on his way to work.

By all accounts, Sarah McCloskey was a strong, resourceful woman. It is generally believed in the family that it was Sarah, not her husband, who took a second mortgage out on her property and started the family business. It is not clear why she chose to go into the grocery business. She had some retail experience working in a hat shop the few years before her marriage and may have felt that a grocery store was something she and her children could manage together. She counted on her sons to help run the store and to support the family. She leaned especially on her son John and in her will many years later acknowledged his extra hard work in the early years of the business.

The 1900 US census records the Dowd household on Watchung Avenue:

1900 US Census - West Orange, New Jersey

Name relationship Age Occupation Birthplace
Thomas M. Dowd head 40 Grocer New Jersey
Sarah L. Dowd wife 40 New Jersey
Eddie J. Dowd son 18 Carpenter New Jersey
John F. Dowd son 16 Driver - Grocery New Jersey
Thomas A. Dowd son 13 at school New Jersey
Marie T. Dowd dtr 11 at school New Jersey
Charles A. Dowd son 10 at school New Jersey

*ages reported by the family are not always accurate (i.e. Thomas and Sarah should be forty-three)


Thomas, the head of the household is listed as a grocer. Sarah, his wife is listed but without any occupation. Eighteen year old Edward is listed as a carpenter. John F. Dowd is listed as a sixteen year old driver of groceries while thirteen year old Tom, eleven year old Marie and ten year old Charlie are listed as "at school". Sarah Dowd may have had expectations for her son's continued education, but her husband's poor health required that the boys help with the family business. As a result, education only went as far as the sixth grade, except for Marie, who went on to take courses at a Drake's business school.

Also recorded in the 1900 census are the two families Sarah rented rooms to. The first was a young insurance salesman, his wife and baby daughter; the second was an Irish widow with her seven children and grandchildren.

Edward J. Dowd, his wife and three young daughters Amelia, Ann and Catherine are recorded in the next house. They had also mortgaged their property and were renting rooms out to two families from the West Indies. They may have needed the rental income because Edward was not working regularly. The census reports Edward's occupation as "hat finisher" but that he had not worked for eight months in the year. Edward would be dead of cancer in less than two years, so perhaps he was already ill and needed the time off work. However, his death certificate reports that he was seriously ill only the four months before his death. At the time of the 1900 census, Edward's wife Eliza was pregnant and several months later, in February 1901, Edward Thomas Dowd was born. Edward and Eliza chose Thomas M. Dowd, their neighbor, as the Godfather.

There are stories in the family that at some point Thomas M. Dowd was at odds with one of his brothers. One story suggests that Henry Dowd, who had earlier stood as Thomas' best man did not get along with Thomas. As the story goes, the relationship had deteriorated so badly that if the Henry passed Thomas on the street, he would turn and not acknowledge his older brother. Henry had asked Thomas to stand as the Godfather of his son Henry Jr. born in 1893 so if there was a problem, it would have occurred after that year. Another version of the story suggests that it was Edward Dowd who did not get along with Thomas. In this story the brothers, "who lived beside each other" built a fence between their yards - "not just a fence, but a spiked fence". Whatever problem he had with his brother, it had been settled by 1901 when Edward asked Thomas to be the Godfather of his baby son.

While Sarah and the boys ran the store, Thomas M. Dowd continued his decline in health suffering the effects of liver cirrhosis. Marie Dowd recalled to her niece that as a girl, she was in the kitchen with her mother and Aunt Tess McCloskey. Thomas came in and asked Sarah for money, which she gave to him. When he left the room, Aunt Tess scolded her, "Why did you give him money, you know he is just going to buy a drink". Sarah didn't respond, probably very aware and resigned to Thomas' problem. Thomas most serious illness began in about January 1902, nine months before his death.

Meanwhile at #271 Watchung, Edward Dowd lay dying of liver cancer. He died on May 4th 1902, five days before his forty-third birthday. Thomas M. died five months later on October 17, 1902. As he lay ill, Thomas must have felt some remorse for the way alcohol had consumed him. He called his five children in and made them promise to him never to drink themselves. A story told in the family is that Thomas died while the children were out at a dance, perhaps at one of John and Marie's Columbus Hall performances. The children arrived home to find that he had died in their mother's arms. Thomas was just forty-six. He was buried at the family plot in Holy Seplechure cemetery.

This generation of Dowds would not be known for longevity. Thomas' older brother, the Rev. John F. Dowd had died of pneumonia in 1892 at the age of thirty-eight. His sister Rose Harff passed away in 1901 at the age of fifty-one. Thomas and Edward both died in 1902 in their forties. Henry Dowd died in 1906 of diabetes, just forty-four years old. Only Catherine Dowd would live to her sixties. She died of stomach cancer in 1917 at the age of sixty-five.

It is interesting to note the undertaker used by each of the family. Of course because of the split up, Sarah did not use Thomas Brennan as an undertaker to bury her husband. Instead, she used the old Murphy Funeral parlor back in New York City. None of the others used Brennan except for Edward, indicating that Edward may have sided with Brennan in the split up or at least bore no ill feeling towards him.

Thomas M.'s fight with alcoholism and pre-mature death had a profound effect on his children. As adults, Tom Jr. drank only occasionally, but the other children kept the promise they had made to their father and did not drink at all.



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