27 April 2019

Mt. Zion AME Church

For a great part of its history, going back to colonial times, New Jersey was a slave state. Africans labored on the farms, worked at the ports, and were employed as domestics. So important was slave labor to the economy that New Jersey was the last of the northern states to abolish slavery in 1804 - and then in a piecemeal way that left many blacks with the status of indentured servants.

Mt. Zion AME Church October 2018

Hillsborough Township did not escape the scourge of slavery. But to find evidence of Hillsborough's black history today sometimes requires looking beyond the city limits. On Hollow Road in the Skillman section of Montgomery Township stands the Mt. Zion African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. Engraved on the front right cornerstone of the church is the marking "Nov. 19, 1899", representing the date that the church building was moved from its original location in Hillsborough and placed on a new foundation in Montgomery.

Historic maps dated, clockwise from top left, 1850, 1851, 1860, and 1873,
each showing the location of the Mt Zion AME Church
Because we know that freed slaves and their descendants lived in the Sourland Mountain region of Hillsborough going back to the 18th century it is not surprising to see the Mt. Zion AME Church shown as "African Church" on area maps as early as 1850. The church, originally located on Zion-Wertsville/Long Hill Road near the intersection of Spring Hill Road, became part of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination in 1866.

October 2018
Not much is known about the church or its congregation before it moved to Skillman in 1899. In the first decades of the 20th century, the church was known as the Skillman AME Church. The "ladies of the church" regularly organized fish pounds, oyster suppers, and strawberry festivals - but by far the most popular event was the annual Camp Meeting. Held each year over four consecutive Sundays from mid-July to mid-August at Brophy's Grove near the church, the Camp Meeting was a festival featuring religious speakers, gospel music, and of course, their famous chicken dinners served from noon to five each day.

Research project created by Hillsborough High School history students
on display in the church October 2018
The Mt. Zion AME Church continued to serve the African-American community until disbanding in 2005. Today the church building is owned by the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum. As of 2019, rehabilitation and restoration of the building has already begun, and there are plans to include a museum of African American history on the site.

October 2018

20 April 2019

Easter Sunrise Service at Duke's Park, 1926 - 1969

In the winter of 1926, twenty-one-year-old Hillsborough resident Evelyn Funkhouser had an idea to bring the youth of Somerset County together to celebrate Easter. As president of the County Young People's Inter-Sunday School Council, she was well-placed to achieve her goal.

 [Doris Duke Photograph Collection,
David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.]

Miss Funkhouser's plan was for an early morning sunrise service open to all of the various Protestant denominations of the county which would include music and an inspirational speaker. The early start - six o'clock that first year and typically five-thirty in subsequent years - meant that the festivities would not interfere with Easter services at the area churches. She quickly received the endorsement of local pastors, and more importantly of the managers of the desired locale - Duke's Park.

26 March 1930 Home News

Duke's Park, the sprawling Hillsborough, NJ estate of tobacco tycoon James B. Duke was an inspired choice, especially considering that after Duke's death in October 1925, the future of the park - which he began to assemble in 1893 and opened to the public around 1902 - was uncertain. The estate offered a near-perfect venue for such an event - the lawn in front of the abandoned foundation to the never-completed Duke mansion.

"The Foundation" Duke Farms, May 2012
The speaker that first year was Rev. Frank Hunger, pastor of the Spring Street Presbyterian Church in New York and a Marine Corps veteran of the first World War. After that first year, Boy Scouts of Raritan were enlisted to help with directing automobiles through the entrances off of Duke's Parkway and River Road. By 1932, the sunrise service was regularly drawing crowds of over 1,000 attracted by the beautiful scenery, the music - typically cornet ensembles, local church choirs, and soloists - and the inspirational messages delivered by speakers from New York, Philadelphia, and all around New Jersey.

28 March 1932 Courier News
After the first decade - as responsibility for the event passed from the Young People's Council to the Somerset County Christian Associations - with attendance still regularly reaching 1,000 people, visiting "the foundations" on Easter morning became an eagerly anticipated ritual for the believers of Somerset County.

 [Doris Duke Photograph Collection,
David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.]
The service was canceled at the height of World War II in 1944, and then again in 1947 and 1948 because of extreme weather. After that, the event continued yearly for another two decades until the final service in 1969.