Freeman St circa 1870
The Valley was the hat-making capital of the world between 1870 and World War I. Companies were attracted to the area because of its easy rail access, the Rahway River which was needed for the felting process, and the many Hemlock trees, which provided tannic acid for the tanning process. In 1900 there were 35 hat companies in the Valley, including The Stetson Hat Company and F. Berg & Company. Unfortunately, over the years the hat makers began to relocate and by the Great Depression there were none left in the Valley. Throughout the mid-1900s other industries moved in and out as a slow decline descended on the Valley. The biggest employer, Monroe Calculating Company, whose Art Deco building sits at the corner of South Jefferson and Mitchell Streets, closed in the 1950s and over the following three decades much of the industrial base left, creating unemployment and abandonment.
Today, many of these vacant historic buildings and public spaces are getting new lives. In 2001, hundreds of people gathered in the Orange High School cafeteria to create a 21st Century vision for the Valley. The plan they came up with included redevelopment of vacant factories around the Highland Ave NJ Transit train station, a vibrant Arts District, and a range of new housing. This Valley Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative won a Smart Growth Award from NJ Future in 2005. Since then, HANDS has spun off a separate nonprofit, Valley Arts
, which coordinates arts programming and supports artists and art entrepreneurs in the Valley Arts District