21 March 2017

Ruth St. Denis, Purposely Under-dressed

When the Bridgewater Township farm girl who grew up to become the First Lady of American Dance was facing bankruptcy in 1910, the newspapers quipped that she certainly didn't spend it all on costumes! For Ruth St. Denis the skimpy outfits she wore in a series of "Oriental Dances" beginning in 1906 were not just an artistic decision, but a life choice - as she described the next year in a column that ran in newspapers across the country.

Ruth St,. Denis in costume for a dance she performed just once in 1912

"I am going to live to be 100 years old, and I make this statement in all sincerity and truth. The reason why I'm going to live to be 100 is because I refuse to accept the mandates of fashion which, in its utter indifference to comfort and health, demands that women garb themselves in clothes, which per se, promote ill health. I will not wear corsets, the use of which interfere with the natural functions of the body, and act as a barrier to the proper working of the respiratory organs and defeat the purpose for which God intended the pores of our skin. I will continue to be under-dressed, instead of over-dressed, and thereby eliminate the dangers of sudden changes in temperature. I will wear loose fitting shoes that do not tend to interfere with the circulation of the blood in the lower limbs. I will take long breaths, filling every cell in my lungs. I will eat such food as is calculated to make muscle and blood. I will deny myself high spiced cooking, and I will follow a diet that made the ancient Egyptians the long lived people they were. In fact, I will get back to nature."

Ruth St,. Denis in costume for a dance she performed just once in 1912

She went on to compare modern women's ailments with healthy aspects of "ancient days", and then concluded:

"The highest menace to woman's health is tight lacing, tight shoes, tight clothes, too many clothes, and wearing six or seven thicknesses of garments around their chest, and going out in the cold in low shoes, thin silk hose, their necks and shoulders bare, and everything else to invite ill health. 
"They take no exercise, do not believe in a constant current of fresh air in their sleeping apartments and have the steam radiators going at full tilt all the time. In my declaration of independence as regards dress I will carefully avoid all things, and so conduct my life as to make the most out of it so far as health is concerned, and there is absolutely no reason why I cannot live to be 100 as well as my sisters who thrived in the days of ancient Sparta and ancient Egypt."

Ruth St. Denis died in 1968 at the age of 89.

15 March 2017

Kate Claxton - Roots in Somerville, and in the Arts

For the thirty year period between 1875 and 1905 there was probably no actress in America more famous than Somerville, New Jersey's Kate Eliza Cone - known to the world as Kate Claxton. She was born in the nascent boro in the summer of 1848 in the Greek Revival style house still standing at the corner of Altamont Place and Middaugh Street.

Birthplace of Kate Elizabeth Cone, from the 1857 map of Somerville, NJ

Her grandfather, Spencer Houghton Cone, also dabbled in the theater, but is best known as New York City's preeminent Baptist preacher of the early 1800s. He presided at the 1843 wedding of his son Spencer Wallace Cone to Josephine Martinez - a union which produced Kate and her four sisters and one brother.

Spencer Wallace Cone was a journalist and a writer of prose and poetry. Although ten years his junior, it is said that Cone's work was an influence on Edgar Allan Poe. In 1861, at the outset of the Civil War,  he was put in charge of the 61st NY Militia with the rank of Colonel. The regiment saw action in many of the major battles of the war.

Detail form 1882 map of Somerville - Kate Claxton birthplace at west end of Cliff St.

Despite his artistic leanings, Cone was not eager for his daughter to become an actress. The one positive outcome of her disastrous 1865 marriage to New York businessman Isadore Lyon was that it emancipated her from her parents' control, and allowed her to pursue her dreams of the stage - first in Chicago in 1869, and then in New York.

The circa 1837 Greek Revival House at the corner of Altamoint and Middaugh Sts.
After that  - she found a role, survived a fire (or two), got divorced, got married, got divorced, and used a keen business sense to secure one of the longest and most productive careers in the history of theater.

09 March 2017

Raritan Prep AC Football Club

They formed in the late 1920s as the Raritan Prep Juniors, an independent club football team willing to take on any squad "from 100 to 150 pounds for games to be played on Saturdays and Sundays, at home or away."
1931 undefeated championship team, photo from my collection
The gridders later changed their name to the Raritan Prep AC Football Club. Uniforms in a distinctive red with white trim, as well as equipment, were provided by Raritan real estate broker William F. Greene. He also gave the boys, most of whom were recent graduates, and star athletes, of Somerville High School, the use of a field which he owned in the still undeveloped western end of town, between today's Weiss Terrace and Meehan Avenue. This became known as Greene's Field.

December 1, 1931 Courier News

The team was dominant right from the start. Their Somerset County Championship in 1928 capped off three consecutive undefeated seasons. Their winning streak was finally broken on October 20, 1929 by a visiting team from Irvington who arrived in Raritan with enough players to field two complete teams.

January 12, 1932 Courier News

For the 1930 season, the Raritan Preps acquired a mascot, as described by the Courier News in a November 18, 1930 blurb:

A black police pup, suitable dressed in a coat of red with the letter R and P in white, took a prominent part in the game on Sunday with the Somerset Indians and started its football career by helping the local team win by a score of 18 to 0.
Their most impressive season was undoubtedly the fall 1931 campaign. They capped off another Somerset County title by utterly destroying the Brooks AC squad of Bound Brook with 2,000 spectators in attendance at the game which was a benefit for St. Ann's Church. The final score of 7 to 6 doesn't accurately describe how the Preps pushed the Brooks around the field, only allowing them the one score which came on a fumble recovery at the 15 yard line. The Brooks only completed 2 passes and had 2 first downs the entire game, compared to the Preps 12 and 12!

September 6, 1933 Courier News

The Raritan Eleven scored 85 points over ten games that season, compared to just 12 for their opponents. The only other team to score 6 against them was Paramount AC in week one. In between, they notched shutouts against Millington AC, Oxford AC, Somerset Indians, Irvington Pheasants, Manville Yellow Jackets, Bound Brook Beavers, Somerville AC, and the Flemington Giants.

The Preps played another season in 1932, but at the beginning of what would have been the 1933 season, the team announced that they were disbanding due to "lack of material and interest of the players".

Past members of the team held many reunions over the decades, and were supportive of local school athletes. The last surviving member of the great squad, founding member Nicholas Esposito, passed away in 2007 at the age of 98.

23 February 2017

OOOOOH! 8844 Part 2

At the end of 1995, the Hillsborough Township Committee officially endorsed a proposal to eliminate the postal designations of Somerville, Belle Mead, Neshanic Station, Skillman, and Flemington - and their corresponding ZIP codes - within the municipality, to be replaced by one centrally located US Post Office, and one unifying address - Hillsborough.

Advertisement from the 28 March 1996 Courier News

To gain final approval, 85% of township homeowners, landlords, and business owners would have to return a single-question survey indicating if they were in support of, or opposed to, the plan. Of those, more than 50% would have to support the plan for it to move forward. After some initial grumbling about who would pay to mail the surveys - the township or the post office - surveys finally went out near the end of the winter.

17 April 1996 Courier News
Responses were slow to come back. As of April 24, 1996, Hillsborough was still 1,500 votes short of the number needed to reach 85%. The good news was that because 78% of the returned surveys were "Yes" votes, even if every one of the outstanding 1,500 surveys came back with a "No" the plan could not be defeated. The town was given 28 more days to collect the necessary surveys.

On June 3, 1996 The Courier News reported that a sufficient number surveys had been returned and counted and that more than 75% of 8,638 were in favor of the Hillsborough post office. With Hillsborough residents wondering where this post office would be built, Deputy Mayor Brett Radi was quoted as saying, "I don't know if there are any feasible municipal sites".

13 December 2000 Courier News

After much consideration the familiar site on Amwell Road was announced on September 8, 1998. With construction nearing completion in September 2000, the USPS web site inadvertently leaked the long awaited new Hillsborough ZIP code. Visitors to the site found that when they searched for Hillsborough, NJ, the site returned 08844 as the ZIP.

The grand opening was held on Friday, December 1, 2000. 

I usually refrain from personal commentary in these types of posts, but I have to ask, looking at the photo above, what kind of a montage would you like to give the current Hillsborough postmaster?

16 February 2017

OOOOOH! 8844

According to Snell's History of Hunterdon and Somerset Counties (1881) there were thirty-four post offices in Somerset County in 1879. Nine were in Hillsborough - ten if you count Clover Hill. The others were located at Blackwell's Mills, Frankfort (Flaggtown), Hillsborough, Millstone, Montgomery (the hamlet on Montgomery Road), Neshanic, Roycefield, South Branch, and Weston.

From the 1873 map

Having more than a quarter of all the post offices in Somerset County located in one township was convenient for residents, but certainly didn't help Hillsborough's identity problem. Look through any old local newspaper from the 19th or early 20th centuries and you will realize that no one lived in Hillsborough (until it came to tax time!). People regarded themselves as inhabitants of their local hamlets.

As the town progressed through the 1800s and into the 1900s, the post offices were closed, or incorporated into other jurisdictions - Weston to Manville, Millstone to Millstone. At the same time, the larger housing developments which began to spring up after 1955 belonged to no village in particular. One of the last post offices to close, at the end of the 1970s, was the one which operated out of Amey's General Store in South Branch. This left only the Flagtown Post Office which had been relocated to its current location decades earlier.

As development continued apace through the 1970s and 80s, Hillsborough residents not living in Flagtown were assigned addresses and Zip Codes corresponding to post offices in neighboring municipalities - Somerville, Belle Mead, Neshanic Station, Skillman, or Flemington. For many residents this was just fine, for others the 1980s were now worse, postally speaking, than the 1880s! At least those old post offices were IN Hillsborough.

The Courier News 18 June 1995
The 80s became the 90s and Hillsborough residents continued seeking solutions. One proposal that didn't gain a lot of traction was for the municipality to be divided into four postal zones each with an address containing the word "Hillsborough".  There had to be a better idea than that.

The Courier News 19 September 1995

By the summer of 1995 the township committee was still undecided about which course to pursue. Township Committeewoman Helen "Chickie" Haines told the Courier News that having one post office "would unite the community".
"I think it would be terrific. I think it will give us a sense of community. Besides that I think it's neat to have a centrally located post office of a proper size for this community."
Committeeman George Ostergren wasn't so sure, telling the Courier News, "I haven't seen any gung-ho activity in Hillsborough Township for the change."

Once the US Postal Service was on board with the idea of a centrally located Hilsborough post office, a USPS district manager explained that the people of Hillsborough would also need to hop on. At least 85% of residents would need to return a mailed survey - and at least 50% of those would have to be in favor of the post office. And, of course, the township committee would have to endorse the plan.

Courier News 16 December 1995

To help gauge public opinion, the township committee commissioned a two-day telephone poll conducted over the weekend of December 16th and 17th 1995. Although there were only 135 responses, 111 were in favor of the plan, and the township committee dutifully gave their endorsement at their December 19th meeting.

All that was left was for the USPS to send out their survey, and wait for the mail to come in.

We will continue with that part of the story next week.

14 February 2017

Anna Case and Her Dogs

The career of soprano Anna Case is filled with many distinctions. The South Branch, New Jersey blacksmith's daughter was the first singer to appear at the Metropolitan Opera without European training, she sang live over the radio in some of the first transmissions to reach a wide audience, and she was featured in the first program of motion picture "talkies" - singing a song that she wrote herself.

7 February 1915 New York Times
But Anna Case wasn't the only member of her family with an historic first. Her prize winning dog Boris was the first Russian Wolfhound to appear on stage with the Metropolitan. He was led onto the stage by Italian baritone Antonio Scotti for a scene in The Huguenots during a December 1914 performance. The New York Herald described Boris as "a picturesque dog, even when suffering from stage fright, as he was last night."

Portrait by artist Michel Jacobs as reproduced in the
February 1925 Edison Phonograph Monthly magazine.

It is fair to say that the diva loved her dogs, and especially loved Boris. She was photographed numerous times with both Boris (official name Ranco o' Valley Farm) and his son Nickolai. She even chose to have her portrait done by artist Michel Jacobs posing with Boris.

With Boris at The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, February 1915

She also loved showing her dogs, entering them many times over the years at the Westminster Kennel Club annual show, and others on Long Island.

25 March 1923 Asheville, NC Citizen-Times

Anna Case kept her dogs as close as possible. They stayed with her in her New York apartment when she was in town, and joined her at her summer residences whether at the Jersey Shore, or on Long Island. When she was on tour, the dogs went to stay with her mother in South Branch.

With Boris in New York, October 1916

With Boris and Nickolai on Long Island, August 1921

Summer 1930

Dogs remained an important part of the life of Anna Case after her marriage to communications industry mogul Clarence H. Mackay in 1931, She continued to show dogs, and the couple were photographed often with their pooches. 

With Brownie at the Westbury Dog Show September 1936.

The Mackays with Bang Stone Peggy and Duke, May 1937

Anna and Brownie

25 January 2017

Montgomery - Blackpoint Road Covered Bridge

The evening of July 19, 1921 was a tough one for Somerset County, NJ bridges. Fierce thunderstorms and ensuing floods of the Raritan and Millstone Rivers destroyed at least five bridges. It was almost six.

Barely escaping, but much damaged, was the old covered bridge which spanned the Neshanic River on Montgomery-Blackpoint Road in the Montgomery section of Hillsborough Township. 

Montgomery-Blackpoint Rd. Covered Bridge, from a very wrinkled photograph.

Yes, Hillsborough once had a second covered bridge - and for a brief time on that July evening, we had a third! The raging torrent that was the Neshanic River through Hunterdon and Somerset Counties ripped the small covered bridge at the Rainbow Hill Road crossing from it's moorings and sent it careening two miles downstream to the Montgomery Bridge.

As was reported two days later in The Courier News:

There the wreckage jammed up against the piers and sides of the bridge, which is considerably damaged and warped by the pressure from the Hunterdon County structure.

The Montgomery bridge, built in 1832, was repaired and put back into service for seven more years. a contract worth $24,000 was awarded on June 15, 1928 for removal and replacement of the bridge.

South Branch Covered Bridge circa 1907

The South Branch Covered Bridge survived the 1921 floods, but even after undergoing extensive renovation in 1924, couldn't be saved and was removed and replaced in 1929.

29 December 2016

Clover Hill Reformed Church

The organizing of the 18th and 19th century churches in Hillsborough Township, NJ followed a familiar pattern. Villagers who found it inconvenient to travel to nearby towns resolved to have a church of their own. They applied to church elders in New Brunswick or elsewhere to be recognized by the wider church. After the church was formally organized, leaders would commence raising funds to construct a building - in the meantime meeting at any convenient space.

Aerial view from Bing Maps
The residents of Clover Hill had different ideas. They began working on an edifice before receiving permission from the Dutch Reformed Church, which was granted on September 4, 1834 while the church was nearing completion. One month later on October 5, 1834 the Clover Hill Dutch Reformed Church was officially dedicated. Yes, the church was built on spec!

National Register application photo, 1977

Perhaps it was this independent streak which led the membership to secede from the Dutch Reformed denomination in 1840 and join with the Presbyterian Church - an affiliation which would last for twenty-two years. Abrahm Messler reports in his Forty Years at Raritan (1873) that ten years after rejoining the Dutch Reformed Church, the church was "enlarged and refitted" and boasted 75 families.

The rear of the church and the cemetery, 2007 By Jerrye & Roy Klotz, MD (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The church is the centerpiece of the Clover Hill Historic District, entered on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. The district encompasses properties in Hillsborough, Raritan, and East Amwell Townships. Here is the description of the church from the National Register nomination form:

Dutch Reformed Church, 1834. This is a two-story structure of wood frame construction, The foundation is of random-coursed rubble construction. There are three lancet windows on each side of the building and two round topped windows on the front (one on either side of the main entry-way). All of these windows are two stories tall. There are also two short round-topped windows directly above the main entry-way. The siding is of narrow width clapboard with the exception of the center section of he front of the building. This section is sided with a "fish scale" type of clapboard. The cupola presently found on top of the belfry replaced the steeple that was blown down in the 1880s. The roof is a simple gable type with asphalt shingles. The four corners of the main section of the building have short spires typical of the Gothic Revival style of architecture.

22 December 2016

Choose and Cut Your Memories - 2016 Update

Here's a 2016 update to a post I first wrote in 2008 about our annual trip to Shadow Hill Farm.

One of the nice things about having the Christmas tree in the family room - in the corner between the fireplace and the T.V. - instead of the living room where we used to put it, is that we are able to enjoy it more. And not just during the commercials!

As I have been sitting here looking at the tree, it occurs to me that in the last several years, we've never had a bad one. I can't remember one scrawny, needle dropping, flimsy-limbed fir in at least the last ten years. [almost 20 years now!]

The reason must be that we always choose and cut our tree at Shadow Hill Farm on Grandview Road in Skillman. I can only think of maybe two years since the mid 90s when we purchased a tree elsewhere - and in at least one of those years I believe it was because the farm didn't open!

The setting - at the top a hill at the edge of the Sourlands - is gorgeous and serene, the proprietors are friendly and helpful, and the trees are top-notch!

But, of course, as I sit here and look at the tree - all trimmed out, and tricked out, with ornaments and lights - I don't really see the Christmas tree at all.









16 December 2016

Mt. Zion United Methodist Church

Religious life in 18th century Somerset County was dominated by Dutch Reformed and Presbyterian denominations. By the early 19th century, the Methodist faith was beginning to make inroads into the area - first with itinerant preachers, then through established churches.

Detail from the Somerset County 1850 Map showing the area of Rock Mill(s)
and the location of the original Mt. Zion Chapel

At first, the sparsely populated Sourland Mountain region in Hillsborough Township's southwest corner would seem an unlikely place to build a church in the first half of the 19th century. Originally populated by freed slaves and people that wished to remove themselves from society, and later by those looking to take advantage of water power for sawmills, gristmills, and especially earthenware production, there was enough enthusiasm by 1843 that a small plot of land was acquired and the first wood frame church was built.

Circa 1908 postcard view of the second Mt. Zion United Methodist Church.

Despite oftentimes having to share a minister with the Methodist churches in Neshanic Station and Centreville, the congregation grew - perhaps numbering as many as 200 by the time the original church was destroyed by fire in 1880. A new 30 by 60 foot building of random coursed stone was immediately built as a replacement, but the end of pottery manufacture on the mountain saw membership shrink and the church fall on hard times - such hard times that the church shut its doors between 1907 and 1916.

A more recent view of the Mt. Zion Church after the 1975 fire and reconstruction.
The interior of the church was restored after a 1975 fire, and you can view photos and learn more about the history of the church at their web site here.