03 June 2019

The South Branch General Stores (circa 1840 - 1975)

In the first half of the 19th-century, most of the Hillsborough Township village of Branchville - now known as South Branch - was owned by the Amerman family. They owned the mill and nearly every property on both sides of River Road north of the Quick farm and south of the covered bridge. When Gilbert and John Amerman donated the land for the Reformed Church in 1850 they had already been operating a general store south of the church property for some time.

19th-century photo of Bowman's original store,
as reprinted in the South Branch Reformed Church 150th anniversary book

James Bowman along with his wife and son, James Jr., emigrated from Scotland to Hillsborough in the late 1830s. Bowman was a tailor and soon set up shop in Branchville north of the Amerman property directly across from the bridge approach. It wasn't long before the Bowmans branched out into general merchandise, and by 1860 tiny Branchville had two general stores on River Road, the only avenue.

Detail from the 1860 map of Philadelphia and Trenton vicinity,
showing the location of the two general stores.

James Jr. began as a clerk and soon took over the store from his father who continued to provide services as a tailor. Meanwhile, the Amerman's gave up their store, Branchville changed its name to South Branch, and the village acquired a post office located in Bowman's store.

Amerman's store after it was relocated to the site of Bowman's store,
from a postcard circa 1907.
The decades passed to a new century and James Jr. passed the store and post office to his son Dewitt. In the early morning of March 22, 1903, a mysterious fire destroyed the store, swept to some adjoining buildings, and threatened the entire village. With a bucket-brigade and some providential rain, the village was spared - but the store and post office valued at $20,000 - almost $600,000 today - was a complete loss. Within weeks the 200 resilient residents of South Branch came up with a plan to get their store and post office back. They used wheeled planks to move the disused by sturdily built Amerman store up River Road from south of the church onto the Bowman property.

Borsmann's store and post office circa 1931

After Dewitt Bowman left the retail business in 1918 the store had a succession of owners. Marvin Sheets, who had previously run a store at Three Bridges, had the place from 1918 to around 1930. It then passed to Herman Borsmann who turned the place into more of a grocery store before retiring around 1940. It was about this time that the fourth class Post Office was discontinued for a diminished volume of mail. At the time the Post Office was reinstated in 1947 the establishment was known as the Abercrombie General Store.

2 December 1964 Courier News

The next owner of note was Robert Thomson who operated a small lending library out of the building until the US Postal Service prohibited it. He sold the store to James Amey in 1965 but stayed on as postmaster until 1967. In 1970 South Branch residents began to be concerned that the long-planned Raritan Confluence Reservoir - which would put most of the village under water - was imminent. Seeking protection for their many significant historic buildings - including the general store - the villagers requested a historic designation for their hamlet. The village was placed on the state and national historic registers in 1972.

James Amey and Mrs. MacArthur
29 July 1973 Home News

Many Hillsborough residents today fondly recall Amey's Store of the late 60s and early 70s. But by 1975, Amey had sold his store to the state of New Jersey in anticipation of the reservoir. He couldn't have realized at that time that a few years later local opposition to the reservoir would be successful in killing the plan. Unfortunately, the vacant, heavily vandalized store had become an eyesore in the community - the mayor called it "a pile of junk" -  and the historic designation, unwittingly, made it difficult for the state to raze it. However, after several attempts to sell the store at auction, it was finally demolished on April 29, 1981.

1981 demolition

1 comment:

  1. Growing up in South Branch we were at the store almost every day! We enjoyed the Fountain counter with Mr Thompson serving us. We pumped gas at the store and had a post office box for mail.....Great small town memories, Thanks for posting.