17 December 2019

Villa Teresa - Schweizer's Rest Farm - South Branch Hotel (1923 - 1976)

Hillsborough Township's South Branch Hotel, located on River Road just east of the village from which it took its name, has a unique history as first a private residence, then a commercial establishment, and most recently as a private residence once again. The purpose of this article is to primarily examine the middle of the three eras which ran from approximately 1923 to 1976.

The South Branch Hotel, 2008

Architectural historian Ursula Brecknell, in her 1981 report on the building, suggests that the mansard roof and other architectural details of the three-storied home discredit the oft-reported 1860s construction date. However, the Second Empire stylings of the house, including the belvidere, are consistent with the Captain Davey mansion, another Hillsborough home from that period. Moreover, members of the Veghte family have consistently stated that the home was built in the 1860s by Henry Veghte as the centerpiece of a farm that was once almost 400 acres. 

1873 map of Hillsborough

Future New Jersey State Senator William J. Keys bought the house and farm in 1884. He bred racehorses there, renaming the property Ellis Stock Farm after his wife's family. At this time the house was known as Ellisdale Manor.

Ellisdale Manor circa 1891
It is possible that at some point near the turn of the century the property was divided, as the Ellis Stock Farm continued to operate even after New York businessman James Buchanan "Diamond Jim" Brady purchased 117 acres including the house as a summer retreat for his girlfriend, broadway actress Edna McCauley, in 1903. Brady spent a fortune redecorating the house in a "country chic" style - including gaming rooms inside and recreation for his theater and business friends outside.

16 December 1908 Courier News
Diamond Jim Brady might have stayed longer in Hillsborough if Edna didn't run off to Europe with his best friend Jesse Lewisohn in the summer of 1908. By the end of the year, he had sold the farm to capitalist Meshech Frost. Frost was a distant cousin of Robert Frost, giving rise to speculation that the famous poet had visited Hillsborough during his cousin's stewardship of the property between 1908 and 1921 - although detailed chronologies of  Robert Frost's life show this to be unlikely.

17 August 1923 Courier News
Between 1921 and 1923 the property, now known as Fern Manor, was owned by New Yorker A.D. Shortt. The property was next sold to the Hospital of St. Elizabeth of Hungary and operated by the Sisters of St. Francis as a convalescent home. During this time the home was known as Villa Teresa.

The Villa Teresa Rest Home in the 1920s
The nuns who ran the facility also opened the property in the summer for picnic outings by area Catholic School students - thus beginning the site's five-decade association with religious groups.

1946 ad from the Courier News

Siegfried Schweizer came to the United States as a refugee from Nazi Germany in 1937. At the time he purchased Villa Teresa in 1943 the property had been reduced to just 10.15 acres. He and his wife ran it as a boarding house/rest farm, and also had a summer camp for children. They particularly catered to other Jewish refugees from Europe during the post-war period.

Advertising Postcard for Schweizer's Rest Farm

It was in July 1947, during the Schweizer's residence on the property, that one of the most shameful episodes of anti-semitism in Somerset County history occurred when as many as nine Somerville High School boys made what was described as several "automobile raids" on Schweizer's Rest Farm in order to taunt a group of young Talmudic scholars - refugees from Czechoslovakia. The band threw firecrackers at the 40 youths, pulled their beards, and shouted "Heil Hitler". The scholars - all orphans between 15 and 20 years old whose parents had been slain by Nazis - were no doubt reminded of their five years of terror in Europe. The disgusting episode made national news that summer and prompted State Police to place a guard at the camp.

25 July 1947 New Brunswick Home News

The Schweizers bought another property in South Brunswick in 1951 and sold the rest farm in 1952 to David Weiss. The Weiss family were also refugees from Eastern Europe who spent the war years in England before coming to the United States in 1947. The property, now reduced to just over 8 acres, was renamed the South Branch Hotel. 

According to a 1958 profile in the Courier News, most of the patrons of the "strictly kosher" hotel were "Jewish people from New York and Philadelphia, who desire to spend their weekends and holidays with people of their own faith and belief."

The South Branch Hotel, July 1958

It was during that year that Mrs. Weiss renovated the hotel - including updating the guestrooms and adding a large dining room. In the summer of 1972, the hotel became the home base for the US Olympic Cycling team

11 October 1976 Courier News

The hotel was quietly sold in 1976 and for the next 20 years had a succession of owners. The house was used briefly in 1997 by an auction company as a venue for estate sales.

Between 1998 and 2018 the historic home was once again a residence with just a single owner for those two decades. As of December 2019, the house is for sale.

23 November 2019

The Weston Hotel, Elmcrest Inn, et. al. (1914-1994)

It can't be insignificant that the only image of a Hillsborough Township building included in Snell's 1881 History of Hunterdon and Somerset Counties is that of the residence of Captain Frederick Davey.

The Captain Frederick Davey residence,
from Snell's History of Hunterdon and Somerset Counties (1881) -
notice the train on the left.
Frederick Davey, born in England in 1828, came to America with his older brother Henry probably before 1850. They first settled in Jersey City where they made their living as merchant seamen, eventually becoming captains and owners of their own vessels. Before the age of steamships, they plied the ports of the eastern seaboard in three-masted schooners. In 1856 Frederick married Rebecca Creby and the couple had three sons and two daughters. After 1860 they moved to Hillsborough, bought a farm in the Weston section, and built what later became known as the Captain Davey Mansion.

A portion of the 1873 Map of Hillsborough
The large three-storied house with a mansard roof and adorned with a square belvedere was located on what is today Manville's South Main Street at the intersection with Kyle Street. In the 1870 US Census, Frederick Davey is listed as a "Farmer", while Henry - living with the family - is listed as a "Sea Captain". After Henry's death in 1873, Frederick commissioned a schooner that would bear his brother's name. The Henry Davey, launched from the Taylor & Mathis shipyard at Cooper's Point, was at that time the "finest and largest schooner ever built on the Delaware." The Henry Davey was accidentally rammed and sunk by a steamship in 1882, after which Frederick Davey became a successful steamship agent. At the time of his death in February 1900, the old sea captain had, according to the New York Tribune, "accumulated a fortune."

1914 Ad in the New Brunswick Home News
Rebecca Davey sold the property and moved to Elizabeth that same year. The house next shows up in the historic record when it is purchased about 1914 by developer John J. Becker. He rechristened the house as the Weston Hotel, likely adding the wrap-around porch and making other improvements for railroad passengers - the Weston Station on the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad was just a short walk from the hotel - as well as tourists traveling by auto or horse carriage.

1915 ad from the New Brunswick Home News

In 1915 Becker built Elm Crest Park on the grounds of the hotel. The park included a magnificent pavilion described as having "one of the finest dance floors in New Jersey." An ad touted the park as "particularly well adapted for outings, picnics, clambakes, dances, and other affairs of this sort."

The Weston Hotel circa 1940 when it was the home of the Nebozinsky family.
Image from the Manville History Web site.

As primarily a real estate developer, John J. Becker was soon onto his next project and offered the hotel at auction in 1920. Sometime after that, it was purchased by Louis Nebozinsky and family who ran the hotel and lived there. They built a public meeting place known as Liberty Hall which for decades was used by community groups for large functions and private parties. In 1931 they offered to sell the property to the young boro of Manville to erect a municipal building. About a month later the hotel was raided by the State Police and Mr. and Mrs. Nebozinsky were arrested after alcohol was found - this was during the era of prohibition. 

1960s Elmcrest Inn ads
In the 1960s and 70s, the establishment was known as the Elmcrest Inn - featuring first go-go dancers and name entertainment for listening and dancing...

The Elmcrest Inn circa 1969
...and then re-launching as a Country & Western venue in the 1970s.

1970s Elmcrest Inn ads
When James Wirzman owned the business in the 1980s it was known as Wirzman's Inn. He continued the country music entertainment while also promoting the venue's banquet facilities, and again featuring go-go dancers in the Rooster's Coop Lounge - until they were "swept away" in 1982.

1980s Wirzman's Inn ads
In 1985 the place was bought by brothers Rich and Ed Komoroski who turned it into a tropical-themed nightclub called Coconuts. As a commentary on what anyone in 1985 thought of the once grand and historic Captain Davey Mansion, it might be mentioned that the brothers were hoping to remake the exterior of the building as a giant tropical "hut".

The interior of Coconuts, circa 1985
After a "touchy situation" in 1986 involving male dancers during a "Ladies' Night" event, the brothers decided to switch to a non-alcoholic establishment.

Harmony Hill, February 1989

In 1989 there were new owners and a new name - Harmony Hill. They changed the place from a bar/nightclub to a straight-up restaurant and banquet facility. They hired an experienced head chef - an immigrant from Poland who specialized in food from his native country.

17 April 1994 Home News
Almost before the first pot of pierogies was plated the business had morphed once again. Now it was a teen club called The Red Zone. Complaints about noise and unruly behavior of the patrons - including possible gang activity - roiled neighbors in the nearby residential community. The controversy boiled over in 1993 with the Manville Board of Health passing a noise ordinance and the Town Council contemplating banning teen clubs altogether.

25 September 1994 Courier News
Residents were relieved when The Red Zone closed in June 1993 and was demolished in 1994 to make way for a CVS.

18 November 2019

The Neshanic Hotel (circa 1838 - 1930)

The earliest mention of a public building in Hillsborough Township, New Jersey, is that of the Neshanic Dutch Reformed Church which began construction in 1759 on Amwell Road. The second listed building is the inn directly across the street. Commonly known today as the Neshanic Hotel, the roadside hostelry probably looked much different before 1838.

The Neshanic Hotel circa 1908
It was in that year that the New Brunswick, Millstone and Flemington Stage - with intermediate stops at Flaggtown, Shannock (Neshanic), Clover Hill, and Reaville - was first established. Although likely enlarged mid-century, we can comfortably date the inn at Neshanic - in its current form - to that time.

1850 Map Detail

It was also around this time that the inn property was acquired by John M. Stevens (1787-1879). We know from Snell's History of Hunterdon and Somerset Counties (1881) that township committee meetings and voting took place at Stevens' Hotel in the 1840s.

The "three-way stop" heading east on Amwell Road, circa 1900

We can also conclude that it was Stevens who enlarged the building to its current size and gave it the well-known appearance of a large three-story home. At one time there was even a square belvedere reached by a ladder in the center of the roof. Stevens also likely built the large stables that once stood to the east of the hotel - so necessary for an inn on a major post road. 

Advertisement from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 1888
The first floor of the hotel originally had four common rooms, each with its own fireplace. Upstairs were six guest rooms, The third floor was left as attic space and probably was intended as an excuse for the half-window detail as seen from the outside.

"Titman's Hotel" circa 1912
After Stevens' death in 1879, the hotel passed to his daughter Margaret and her husband Wesley H. Horner. Since the railroad lines built in the 1860s and 1870s bypassed the little village of Neshanic the hotel was unable to transition from post road traffic to railway passengers. Without the business of weary travelers, the Horners attempted to reinvent the hotel as a vacation destination. Perhaps they are the owners who added the two-story porch to the front of the building. Newspaper ads touted. "no malaria, no mosquitos, bass fishing, boating, fresh milk, eggs, and vegetables: lawn, shade, veranda; stabling, good drives."

Accommodations listing from a traveler's guidebook, 1912

The hotel passed out of the Stevens family after the death of Wesley Horner in 1899. It was then purchased by future Neshanic Station entrepreneur Andrew Holcombe, who owned the property for about a decade before selling it to Baltus Titman in May 1909. Titman continued to advertise the hotel for holiday excursions - and according to a railway traveler's 1912 guidebook, it was the most expensive hotel in the area! Titman passed away in 1915 and the hotel was operated by his son Chauncey for another 15 years.

Photograph for the Village of Neshanic National Register application, 1979
In the 1920s Titman's Hotel was regularly the site of township committee meetings and was also used to house crews building utilities and infrastructure in Hillsborough. Laborers building the Tuscarora oil pipeline stayed at the hotel, as did the men who built the improved road between Neshanic and Clover Hill. In fact, shortly after Chauncey Titman dies in 1929, his widow Minnie married State Highway inspector John Connor.

After the March 1916 fire.
The couple decided to close the hotel in 1930. In recent decades the hotel was transformed into rental apartments and has been vacant since a March 2016 fire.

30 October 2019

Blawenburg School

On May 8, 1961, with the addition to the Hillsborough Consolidated School less than 5 years old, Sunnymead School less than two years old, and two new buildings - Triangle and Woodfern - under construction, the Hillsborough Township Board of Education was still so short of space that they voted to ask the County Superintendent of Schools permission to use substandard classrooms in older buildings around the district - and elsewhere.

The 1925 Blawenburg School, photographed in 2019

One of the school buildings Hillsborough students were transported to in September of 1961 was Blawenburg School in Montgomery Township. This two-room school on Route 518 near the intersection of Great Road was built in 1925 to replace an earlier two-room school a couple of lots to the east. It was built in a similar style to other Hillsborough and Montgomery schools of the period and served its function until 1966 when it was taken over for school board offices. The building was later sold and is currently being used as a warehouse for the home furniture and gifts retailer Homestead Princeton.

The original 1853 Blawenburg School. postcard circa 1906

The school it replaced was a little two-room village schoolhouse on a two-tenths on an acre lot next to the Blawenburg Dutch Reformed Church. It was built in 1853 as a replacement for an earlier school on Burnt Hill Road. The school is actually two stories, with the upper floor being reserved in the 19th-century as a community lecture hall.

1860 map of the village of Blawenburg

The main part of the school is of brick construction which was later covered by stucco, and eventually other types of siding. There is also a one-story front entryway clad in board and batten. After 1925 the church reacquired the lot and the school and added the addition on the west side in the next year. In 1950 another addition was constructed at the rear of the school. They used the school for church and community activities up until 1960.

the 1853 Blawenburg School, photographed in 1984

Between 1974 and 1998 the 1853 Blawenburg School was home to Rock Brook School - a private school for children with special needs. In 1999, the Blawenburg Reformed Church rechristened the building as Blawenburg Village School and have been running a pre-school for children ages 2 1/2 to 6.

The 1853 Blawenburg School photographed in 2019

25 October 2019

Raritan Valley Bus Line (1930 - 1939)

In November of 1928, Hillsborough farmer William Favier applied to the Somerville Council for permission to operate a bus line from Neshanic to Manville passing through the borough. The ability to pick up and discharge passengers in Somerset's county seat would be crucial for the viability of the line. Over the next year, as he waited for final approval from the New Jersey Public Utilities Commission, Favier picked up additional "municipal consents" from Hillsborough, Branchburg, Readington, Raritan, and East Amwell Townships, as well as Raritan and Manville Boroughs, and decided to expand the bus route all the way to the border of Flemington Borough.

6 January 1930 Courier News
When the final State approval finally arrived, it was not without some restrictions. In an effort to avoid stealing business from other public transport companies, Favier agreed to not pick up passengers who were only traveling between Ringoes and Flemington, and likewise to not pick up passengers who were only traveling between Manville, Somerville, and Raritan.

1930s Postcard showing typical 1930s bus in Somerville.
Contrarily, the Central Railroad of New Jersey, which operated the South Branch Railroad between Somerville and Flemington, offered no objection at all to the proposed bus route as by 1929 they were already contemplating curtailing passenger service on this moderately used branch road.

The Courier News described the route as follows:

"Leaving Manville, at the railroad station, thence on River Street to the Borough of Somerville, then on South Street, then on Doughty Avenue to Raritan, then Frelinghuysen Avenue to Thompson Street, then on Canal Street, South Branch Road to South Branch, then continuing over this road to Neshanic, then to Centerville, then continuing on the county road to the boundary line of Flemington and Raritan Townships, returning by the same route."

On the day the service on the Raritan Valley Bus Line finally began, January 6, 1930  - with just one bus running - The Courier News printed the schedule:

"Westbound buses will leave Manville at 7 and 10:30 a.m. and 2 and 5:35 p.m. The last run will be only to Ringoes. On Saturday night, a special run will be made, leaving Somerville at 11 o'clock and reaching Ringoes at 12:10 a.m. 
Eastbound runs will leave Flemington Boundary at 9 a.m., 12:30 and 4 p.m. A special run is arranged to leave Neshanic at 6:15 a.m., reaching Manville at 7 o'clock, this being for the benefit of factory workers and store clerks. A special Saturday night run leaves at 6:51 o'clock, reaching Somerville at 8:01 o'clock." 

The one-way trip from Manville to the border of Flemington took about 100 minutes!

In short order, Favier, encouraged by the CNJ railroad, obtained permission to operate within the borough of Flemington. By April, rail commuters were protesting the railroad's plan to cut service from five trains per day in each direction to just one commuter train eastbound in the morning and westbound in the evening. When it was suggested that rail riders take the bus instead, they pointed out that the bus traveled 30 miles in 100 minutes, while the train connected the two boroughs with a much straighter 16-mile route, with significant savings of time. Not reported at the time was the fact that Favier was promised a subsidy by the railroad for operating the bus service which allowed them to downsize their own costly operations.

25 August 1930 Courier News

Despite the fact that the railroad didn't always make its subsidy payments, Favier continued on - 
adding a second bus before the first year was out. In 1935 he purchased a franchise to operate another bus line between Somerville and Flemington on the newly constructed Route 29 (now Route 202) but stated that he couldn't do it profitably without another subsidy.

Neshanic Hotel Garage
At the close of 1938, after starting a farm equipment supply business in Somerville with his sons, Favier abruptly discontinued the Raritan Valley Bus Line. At the start of 1939, he stated that bus service would soon return, and it briefly did - but operated by the Royal Blue company of Whitehouse. In June 1939, the Board of Public Utilities revoked Favier's franchise and that was the end of bus service through our community.

Interestingly, there still exists one odd remnant of the Raritan Valley Bus Line in Hillsborough. To the right of the Neshanic Hotel, you will see a two-door garage dating from around 1930. The garage was built by the owner of the hotel, Mrs. Minnie Titman Connor, at the request of William Favier who agreed to rent the space to keep his two busses overnight. In 1931 Mrs. Connor sued William Favier because he never, in fact, used the garage or paid any rent. She was awarded $225!

11 October 2019

Hillsborough's Poor Farm (1837 - 1947)

How will a community care for its poor? This is a question Hillsborough Township has contemplated since before the municipality was Hillsborough Township. Meeting minutes of the Westering Precinct of Somerset County - the name for the combined future townships of Hillsborough and Montgomery - regularly include notations of funds to be raised for indigent residents. 

The Hillsborough Township Poor Farm, circa 1947

On at least a couple of occasions after Hillsborough and Montgomery split in 1771, attempts were made to establish permanent housing for the poor both locally and at the county level. Apparently, these attempts did not receive any support, as the Overseers of the Poor were directed in 1824 to purchase a poor farm jointly with Montgomery. Some sources say that this was the Van Pelt Farm on the southbound side of Great Road/Belle Mead-Blawenburg Road/Rt. 601 before the intersection with Grandview Road.

A portion of the minutes of the April 1824 Hillsborough Township Committee Meeting
 directing the Overseers of the Poor to purchase a farm jointly with Montgomery Township.
The enterprise lasted until 1836 when the Poor Farm was folded and the property sold. The next year, the township purchased a 120-acre tract on Amwell Road west of Neshanic known as the Indian Farm from J.S. Young and wife for $5,000 - about $130,000 today. The original farmhouse on the property was used to house the inmates (the term for those persons without income or any means of support who were committed to the farm) until about 1858 when a new, large, two-story house was erected.

"Poor House", "Alms House", "Township Farm" -
all the names over the years for Hillsborough's Poor Farm.
Maps are - clockwise from upper left - 1850, 1860, 1873, and 1945.

The last custodian of the Poor Farm, Mrs. Florence Brown, was interviewed in her later years and was able to describe the building's original layout. A center hall with staircase to the second floor separated the custodians' quarters on the west - front and rear living rooms with bedrooms above - and inmates' quarters on the east - front common living room with three bedrooms in the rear along with a bathroom and the kitchen, and six bedrooms and a bath above on the second floor.

The 1840 annual report of the "Poor-House Establishment"
 made by the Overseers of the Poor to the Hillsborough Township Committee.
In 1840, the Poor Farm living quarters was the original Indian Farm farmhouse.
Inmates - men, women, and sometimes children - lived and worked on the farm. They grew some of what they needed to eat and sold enough produce to have funds to acquire other staples and household goods. Still, when the custodian's salary was figured in, it was unlikely that the farm would break even.

The Farm in 1978

The Courier News reprinted the original resolutions for the "conduct of the paupers" from April 1837:
"No. 1 - Any pauper that brings spiritous liquors about the place to be punished therefore. No. 2 - Any pauper that comes drunk or gets intoxicated on the premises to be punished therefor. No. 3 - Any pauper that refuses to do labor that the steward thinks him capable of performing or abuses the steward while he is in conduct of his duties, to be punished therefor. Punishment to consist in not allowing any food until the steward is satisfied that he will comply with the rules."
A separate smaller building on the property known as the "tramp house" was used for those unsavory wayfarers merely "passing through" town. Here they could be locked up overnight and sent off in the morning with a good breakfast to fuel their passage beyond the city limits.

The Farmhouse in 2008
The Browns were the final custodians of the Poor Farm between about 1926 and 1947. Under their management, the farm established a large dairy herd with all modern facilities, as well as a modern poultry operation. In the 20th century, the number of poor working on the farm varied - from a high of 16 during the Depression down to just two men when Hillsborough voters approved the discontinuance of the farm by a vote of 354 to 272 on November 6, 1946. The property was sold at auction on January 18, 1947.

27 September 2019

William Bradley's Ardmaer Farms

In February of 1903, as tobacco tycoon James B. Duke was gearing up for the construction projects that would transform his Hillsborough, NJ estate into the wonderland known as Duke's Park, older brother Benjamin thought he might like to have his own estate on the Raritan River. He purchased two farms on the other side of the river in Bridgewater Township west of the town of Raritan totaling several hundred acres. Over the next few years, he added to his holdings by purchasing an additional eight farms further west.

13 February 1903 Home News

While the Duke brothers were accumulating real estate in New Jersey, fifty-two-year-old contractor William Bradley was digging things up in New York - literally. For years the Bradley Contracting Company held the lucrative city snow removal contract. Favored by Tammany Hall, Bradley employed an army of up to 5,000 men armed with shovels during the winter months. Undoubtedly many of those same men helped Bradley fulfill the tunnel digging contracts he was awarded during the initial construction and expansion of the subway lines in Manhattan and Brooklyn. 

26 February 1903 New York Times

Like many middle-aged millionaires of the early twentieth century (and even today) Bradley spent freely on his hobbies - the biggest being racehorses. In 1907 he also purchased a large tract - 360 acres - west of Raritan and set out to build a world-class breeding operation for trotters and pacers. When Benjamin Duke finally decided not to build on his acreage Bradley was able to acquire that also. By 1910, with the purchase of the large Long and Garretson tracts, Bradley had an estate - Ardmaer Farms - as large as J.B. Duke's Duke Farms! 

Relative Sizes of Duke and Bradley Estates.

He spent considerable sums bringing the finest studs and broodmares to the farm in those early years. Much like his neighbor across the river, Bradley was continually building - enormous barns, stables, roads, and a one-mile track. The mysterious death of two of his best horses early on did not deter Bradley - he just bought more. He even purchased an enormous Tally Ho Coach and Four to drive guests from the Raritan Station out to his farm and had one of the first privately-owned automobile fire engines in the vicinity.

A Tally Ho Coach and Four circa 1908

In 1915 European nations ravaged by war sent to the United States for horses. Hundreds of thousands of horses from America's heartland were shipped across the Atlantic to France and Italy. With its fine and commodious facilities, Ardmaer Farms became a way station for thousands of horses bound for the battlefield. They arrived by train 300, 500, even 800 at a time. Once at the farm horses were inspected for fitness and given the nourishment needed for the arduous ocean crossing.

30 March 1911 Home News

When Bradley died in 1924 it was reported that the self-made millionaire who started with a pair of horses and a wagon as a teenager in the 1870s had - through some bad business dealings and failure to collect the money owed on some large contracts  - allowed his net worth to fall to less than $500.

26 February 1930 Home News

After the sale of Ardmaer farms to settle the estate - an auction that brought in $125,000 - the Bradley property continued to operate as a farm for the rest of the decade. In 1930 new owners sold all of the livestock and equipment and within a year streets were laid out for the residential development known as Bradley Gardens.