Nestled quietly along the bustling intersection of Elizabeth Avenue and West Grand in Rahway, NJ, is a small parcel of parkland rich in history, a tapestry woven into the fabric of our parks. This four-acre haven, a fundamental property in the formation of the Rahway River Parkway, was once an integral part of the Wheatena Corporation’s grounds, marking the early days of the company’s relocation to Rahway and the establishment of the famed “Wheatenaville.”
Our organization, Friends of Rahway River Parkway, has been at the forefront of preserving and celebrating the legacy of this parkway and sharing the Wheatena impact in our Olmsted legacy talks. Early last century, Arthur R. Wendell, the new owner of the Wheatena Company, made a significant business decision to separate Wheatena from Health Foods. This move led to the creation of a new entity, The Wheatena Corporation, which found its home in Rahway after moving from Akron, Ohio. Beyond the business’s success, Arthur R. Wendell also played a pivotal role as an original Union County Park Commission member, a commission created on November 19, 1921.
In its beginning, the Union County Park Commission embarked on a transformative journey by enlisting the renowned Olmsted Brothers as their landscape architects. Even before securing their expertise, the Commission acquired its initial parcel of parkland at no cost. On January 18, 1922, the Wheatena Corporation of Rahway generously gifted four acres of meticulously developed parkland stretching along 2,300 feet of the Rahway Riverfront. In return, the Union County Park Commission committed to perpetuating the land in park condition. This generous act began the Rahway River Parkway, a visionary project meticulously designed by the Olmsted Brother Firm of Massachusetts.
The gift of Wheatena-inspired parkland sparked a community-wide movement, with numerous Union County residents contributing land and services during the Park Commission’s formative years. By the first 25 years of the commission, these collective donations surpassed all expectations, with over 500 acres valued at $839,675 enriching the Commission’s holdings. The funds allowed for creation of the Union County Park system, including the centrally located Rahway River Parkway.
Over a century later, this visionary project has evolved into a system of parks connected by woodlands that run along the Rahway River, comprising 15 parks and parklands across multiple Union County towns and cities. Although apartment buildings have replaced the Wheatena building, and the surrounding area is filled with private homes and small businesses, the small park remains a poignant reminder.
While lacking the space for a playground or elaborate walkways and pathways, it is home to beautiful cherry blossom trees and a connecting passage from downtown Rahway to the riverside trail that leads to the Rahway River Park. It might appear inconspicuous to passersby and current residents. Still, this small park played an essential role in propelling the development of the Rahway River Parkway and, ultimately, the Union County Park System.
Our organization, Friends of Rahway River Parkway, consistently highlights this historical connection in our Olmsted Legacy in Union County talks. The generous donation of the Wheatena Corporation played a key role in forming the Rahway River Parkway, contributing to the legacy of Union County’s remarkable park system. As stewards of this heritage, Friends of Rahway River Parkway strives to educate and inspire the community about the significance of these historical ties, ensuring that the rich tapestry of our parks continues to thrive and be appreciated by generations to come.
Kathy Cevallos is the president of Friends of Rahway River Parkway.