04 November 2016

The South Branch Reformed Church

Around 1830 the inhabitants of Branchville, now known as South Branch, decided they needed a church of their own. Nothing much came of the idea until 1842, when a committee was formed to discuss the plausibility of raising enough money to build a church in the quiet Hillsborough hamlet on the south branch of the Raritan River. It was found that there were enough funds to erect a church building, but probably not enough to support a minister.


Members of the South Branch Dutch Reformed Church
 at the 50th anniversary celebration, 29 May 1900.

On December 17, 1849, townsfolk, many descendants of the original Dutch settlers of the village, met at the schoolhouse across the river in Branchburg - just north of the present one-room school -  to take up the matter once again. They soon had fifty-eight families committed to uniting and forming a congregation connected with the Dutch Reformed denomination.


Postcard circa 1908 showing the original smaller cupola
Things moved more quickly now, with the Classis of New Brunswick approving the church organization in April, and the membership meeting again at the schoolhouse on May 14, 1850 to officially be designated as "The Dutch Reformed Church of Branchville". They immediately began planning the construction of the church. The site was donated by the Amerman brothers, and a contract was made with William A. Voorhies of Griggstown for $3,174.


Illustration from the cover of a 1967 community cookbook.

The building was modeled after the recently completely church in Whitehouse. It is in the classical Grecian style, with fluted columns at the entrance that are set within the porch area - a feature of churches of this type in New Jersey. In her book, Hillsborough: An Architectural History, architectural historian Ursula Brecknell gives us this interesting serendipitous tidbit.

Although rules existed for determining classic relationships of pediment to columns and again to the angle of pitch of pediment, they were largely ignored by 19th-century architects for numerous reasons; accordingly the matter of obtaining aesthetic relationships depended primarily on the skills of the carpenter for the "felt line". One of the graces of the South Branch Church is its success at this point in having a pleasing ratio.


This photo accompanied the 1976 Historic Register nomination form.
Reportedly future president Chester A. Arthur attended a service here in 1854 when he was a young New York lawyer - just twenty-five years old at the time and already famous for winning a case that ended segregation on that city's streetcars. But the most famous member was future operatic soprano Anna Case who attended services and sang in the choir from the 1890s to around 1906. Much later she gifted her family's home - directly south of the church - to be used as the second parsonage.

Anna Case singing in the choir as depicted in a 1913 illustration.

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