PHOTO: “homestead” of the William and Mary Conners, later Jack and Sis Black’s house.
One doesn’t have to live in Highlands or even the Bayshore very long before hearing a story about Conners Hotel, or the Brothers Black, or the swimming pool where many romances blossomed and old friends met. Or even the snack bar at the pool where Sis Black did the honors at the counter and Edna Black flipped the hamburgers and dropped the French fries into the hot oil. Everyone remembers Billy and Sal’s lobster dinners in the hotel dining room…a delicacy still presented at Wind ‘n Sea on Shrewsbury Avenue where the owners have their own great memories of summers at Conners.
It’s gone now, the pool, the hotel, the family homestead, even the bungalows and beach. The family built condos and apartments on part of what was once a piece of the heartland that stretched from the Shrewsbury River to the red clay hills, and sold the rest to Sea Streak, the relaxing, enjoyable commuter boat trip from the Bayshore to New York, for its docks and parking. Shore Drive takes the place of the railroad tracks that brought so many visitors from Jersey City, Union City, Hoboken, New York, Staten Island and Brooklyn.
But there’s so much more to know about the patriarch and matriarch of this Highlands landmark, William H and Mary Conners.
This was the site William fell in love with in the late 19th century when he came here from his native Pennsylvania. He purchased the 10 acre or so tract next to the O’Neil property and filled in the land himself, drawing buckets of soil from the red clay hills to fill in the swamp land that ran to the water. He hauled all that clay by horse drawn wagon, using a trip lever to create buildable ground. Once he established new land, William then leased out portions of it, bringing folks from the city to enjoy the shores of the Shrewsbury in their tents. When that venture secured enough money, William then set out to build the hotel, which he named the Cedar Grove House, keeping the tents for the regulars who wanted to come back every summer. Hardworking and energetic, William and Mary worked the land themselves, growing vegetables for the table, and becoming more popular and sought after as the years went on.
By the 1920s, the couple added bungalows to their summer offerings, and the place blossomed. They also built their own home, the “big white house” that later in the 20th century became the home to son Jack and his wife Sis, and their four children.
William died in 1938, but not without leaving a legacy to his daughter, Marie. She was married to Herman “Blackie” Black, and the charm and growth of Conners continued. The Blacks renamed the hotel Conners, and from an early age taught their four sons the benefits of hard work and the necessity to give back to the community. Each of the sons, Bill, Jack, Herman, better known as Duke, and Bobby, knew and did every facet of running the business their grandparents had started. They moved with the times as well, adding the pool; the bungalows gave way to spanking new condos, the carriage house which at one time had been home to the nearly two dozen gardeners, groundskeepers, plumbers, band members and other employees who lived on the grounds, became a memory as the Carriage House Apartments were built. Still, the Conners Charm continued.
The restaurant at the hotel became a series of dining rooms, as the popularity of Bill and Sal in the kitchen drew crowds every night. In the early years, the family was happy when the dining room capable of holding 60 diners had 19 or 20 on a Friday night; by the 1980s, the added rooms could accommodate 225 diners at one time, and the overflow didn’t seem to mind a bit sitting on the hotel’s front porch, cocktail in hand, waiting to be seated.
Generations enjoyed the Cedar Grove turned Conners Hotel over the centuries. The four brothers Black have all passed on, as have all their wives except Edna, Duke’s wife, the last matriarch of the third generation connected with the hotel. There are numerous great-great grandchildren with unforgettable memories of their special times at Conners, a plethora of great-great-great grandchildren who hear the stories of their ancestors, and now a sixth generation being born and welcomed into a family that has been as much a part of the growth, love, and uniqueness of Highlands as the river and Twin Lights themselves.