Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Saving the Grave: Strangers Work to Preserve Swackhammer

Saving the Grave: Strangers Work to Preserve Swackhammer
Written by NJ Historian

Abandoned and virtually forgotten for over one hundred years, the Swack Church ruins and Swackhammer Cemetery in Lebanon Township, New Jersey is receiving renewal thanks to a number of volunteers, proving that history is not only what has happened in the past, but in fact can be made in the present. With no budget, a group of volunteers, almost complete strangers, have come together to achieve a common goal, creating a renewed interest in this cemetery and church neglected by time. This page in the history of the Swack Church and Cemetery honors those who are buried there, some marked, some unknown, and creates a new type of meeting place, much like the church provided a meeting place over a hundred years ago.

The Old "Swake Church'' at Mount Bethel was founded in 1844 by Reverend Lambert Swackhamer. The church was named after Jacob Swackhammer, the mason who built it. Jacob was born on September 16, 1793 in German Valley, Morris County, New Jersey and was known locally as "Stuttering Jake." 

Lambert Swackhamer was born on April 21, 1805, in Middle Valley, Morris County, New Jersey. Shortly after his birth, his parents, Stephen and Jane (Bowman) Swackhamer, moved to Hartwick, New York. Lambert married three times and over the course of his life would have twenty-five children; his first marriage was to Janet MacNaughton on June 19, 1828. On September 9, 1831, young Lambert graduated from Hartwick Seminary as a licensed preacher. After his graduation, he became the pastor of a Lutheran Church in Manheim, New York. 

Two years later, in 1833, Lambert withdrew from the New York Synod over doctrinal differences. He was ordained at Dansville by the Harwick Synod on September 24, 1833. Four years later, he withdrew from the synod over differing views on slavery. Unsatisfied with the local synods, he formed the Franckean Synod with John D. Lawyer, Phillip Wieting, William Ottman, and their respective congregations. The Franckean Synod condemned slavery. Eventually, a New York chancery court found the synod to be "un-Lutheran" and Swackhamer regained membership in the Hartwick Synod.

In 1842, Lambert moved to South Carolina due to ill health, but returned to Hartwick a year later. By 1844, he moved his family to what is now Long Valley, New Jersey. This move enabled Lambert to establish the Mount Bethel Evangelical Lutheran Church and employed local mason Jacob Swackhammer to construct it. Reverend Swackhamer's tenure at the Swack Church lasted until 1850, when he accepted the ministry of the Lutheran Church at Berne, near Albany, New York. He remained in Albany until his death on November 2, 1857.

Overview of the site as fallen trees are being removed.
The Swack Church is a stone building that was covered by stucco. The building's roof may have been raised, as evidenced by a piece of wood sandwiched between stone in what appears to have been a roof line. Raising the height of the roof in houses of worship was not uncommon, as churches did that to accommodate a balcony. This is rather conjecture, as the building has not been studied by a professional historic architect. As with most early churches, there would have been no chimney constructed and no evidence points to one existing. Commonly, a pile of charcoal was burned in the center of the room on a dirt floor, in an area of about eight square feet. A stack through the center of the roof would have allowed smoke to escape. In the winter, members of the congregation brought foot warmers to aid in keeping them warm.

A log cabin was built about two or three hundred yards east of the church for Swackhamer and his family. After Swackhamer's departure in 1850, Moore Castner, who originally donated the land for the church, assumed possession of it. The church was sold to the Albright Methodist congregation, who could not afford the structure. On May 14, 1867, the church was reorganized as a Lutheran church and on August 23, 1868, Moore Castner gave a warranty deed in exchange for $500 to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of New Jersey. The Spruce Run Lutheran church, which used it as an outpost until 1896. After 1896, no other congregation operated the church and it was abandoned.

Other stone churches nearby in Hunterdon and Morris Counties resemble the Swack Church's vernacular architectural style and materials. The Bethlehem Baptist Church in Pattenburg, Hunterdon County, was built in 1858 and abandoned by 1906. This church's exterior is also stucco over stone and has similar dimensions, although this building was taller, as evidenced by the window frames over the doors. There appears to have been a balcony in this church. Three of the exterior walls are also standing, giving the visitor an idea of what Swack may have looked like before large portions of its walls collapsed. A much larger stone over stucco church is the Mt. Lebanon Methodist Church in Lebanon. This church was built in 1844, the same year as Swack. This church building is much grander in scale and includes a tower. It was remodeled in 1878 by the local Grange and still stands today.

Broken headstones waiting to be reunited with their burial plot.
In nearby Long Valley, Morris County, is the ruins of the Old Stone Union Church. This church, built in 1774, is considerably older, and also was abandoned by its congregation in 1832 as its members split and formed two separate churches with 500 feet of the original. By 1890, the stone church had fallen into decay and its roof was beginning to collapse. This church building is purely stone and stucco was never applied to it, due to its early construction date. Recently, grants have enabled the ruins to be stabilized and offer a view of what the preserved ruins at Swack Church could look like. 

Swackhammer Cemetery
The Swackhammer Cemetery has at least thirty-three known burials, although up to seventy-five bodies may lay on this sacred ground. The first recorded and verifiable burial is believed to be that of Mahlon Castner, who died on April 17, 1818, at the age of twelve years, six months, and two days. Mahlon's parents, Moore and Susan, are buried in the church yard, with the largest, and most expensive stone, dating to 1875.

According to Biography of a Church and a Preacher by John Dickson Neel, shortly after the Civil War a female ex-slave was buried at Swackhammer. It was recorded that two field stones marked her grave rather than a formal marker, indicating that former slaves were still viewed as second-class citizens. This is in stark contrast to Ambo, a former slave who died in 1847 and is buried in Rahway Cemetery in Rahway, New Jersey. Her stone is carved and indicates her name, death date, and tells a brief story of her life.

Two signed stones have been found among the broken and battered stones of the graveyard. The stone of Susan A Lance, who died January 1, 1855, is signed by Josiah E. Lynn, a gravestone carver from Washington, New Jersey. This carver is associated with another stone in the cemetery, although the identify of the individual buried there is unclear because the top half of the stone is missing. Lynn was listed in the 1860 and 1866 business directories for New Jersey and carved Susan Lance's stone in 1855, which gives historians a clue as to the date range of when this particular stone may have been erected.

Remains of a broken gravestone carved by Josiah E. Lynn.
The cemetery was active until 1915, when Nathan Castner was buried, according to Biography of a Church and a Preacher. For reasons unknown, the burial site was not marked.

Since the last burial in 1915, the church and cemetery were not maintained. Members volunteering at the site say they have found reference to a cleanup in the 1930s, but aside from that, the cemetery and church became a forgotten and neglected relic of the past. In 2013, that all changed when Jeff Chiu, who has fourteen ancestors buried at the property, teamed up with the Friends of Old Swack Church, Metro Trails, GraveMatters, members of the Union Forge Heritage Association and Association for Gravestone Studies, and other unaffiliated volunteers. These volunteers have been working on weekends through March to remove brush, fallen trees, and discover and secure displaced gravestones. Lebanon Township is uncertain who owns the land now and has claimed that they have spent years trying to sort out deeds, but have come up empty-handed. While not officially endorsing the cemetery cleanup due to legal reasons, Lebanon Township is allowing efforts to continue on the property, uninhibited, as family members and history enthusiasts gather to try to piece together what remains of this sacred and historic site in the hills of Hunterdon County.

Additional photos of my trip to the Swack Church and Swackhammer Cemetery on Pinterest

Swack Church Podcast (right click and choose "save target/link as" to save to your hard drive)

For More Information:


So there's this building that looks similar to the one in the background its in Hancock's Bridge NJ me and some friends found it when we were younger but never knew what it was

My great great grandfather was Joseph Dunmore who was married to Julia Augusta Swakhammer, her father was Reverend J Lambert Swakhammer.

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