Wednesday, July 3, 2013

South River's Old School Baptist Church

South River's Old School Baptist Church
Written by NJ Historian

The Borough of South River, New Jersey is a 2.8 square mile town in Middlesex County. Once home to textile and brick industries, it is primarily a residential and commercial community today. As early as 1683, the area now known as South River was commonly referred to as South River landing. During these early years, many immigrants from Europe, particularly the Scottish, who had been recruited to inhabit the share of the East Jersey colony, began to land in the area around Perth Amboy. By 1720, the name was changed to Willetstown, after the settler Samuel Willett, the grandson of Sir Thomas Willett, the first English mayor of New York City. That name remained until 1784, when the name was changed to Washington and referred to as Washington Village, Washington Woods, and Little Washington. The name was considered at the suggestion of Abraham Barkelew, one of the early settlers of the town, in honor of George Washington. Washington Village developed into an important river port for the shipment of goods from central New Jersey to New York City. Sailboats were eventually replaced by schooners and later steamboats, as peach and apple orchards were developed throughout Middlesex County. By 1840, as many as six steamboats a day, laden with fruit, left Washington for New York.

In 1870, the village split from the Township of East Brunswick and officially changed its name to South River and in 1897, South River incorporated as a Borough. During the mid-nineteenth century, many burgeoning industries called South River home. The clay beds of South River and Sayreville allowed brick and clay industries on both sides to produce billions of bricks from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid twentieth century. The 1912 Industrial Directory of New Jersey lists the American Enameled Brick and Tile Company, American Clay Products, South River Brick Company, Whitehead Bros. Co., Yates Bros., and Pettit and Company as manufacturers of common brick and other clay products. Textile industries also flourished in the community and included Charles Hermann - underwear, Hermann, Aukam & Co. - handkerchiefs, Mark & Davison - pajamas, South River Embroidery Mfg. Co., The Sennhauser Embroidery Works, and Oscar Bohi, swiss embroideries, in addition to other numerous small family-owned operations. Because of the increasing industrial power of South River in the mid-nineteenth century and an influx of immigrants from Europe and Russia, the social makeup of South River began to shift and the population in 1912 consisted of 1,400 Polish, 800 Hungarians, 400 Russians, 200 Italians, and 20 Lithuanians. However, by the 1940s, many of the industries of South River had closed and the town began a transformation into a bedroom community with a Main Street commercial district.

Old School Baptist Church
In 1785, a small group of Baptists formed in what was then Washington Village. This group purchased property for a meeting place in 1799 from residents Thomas Robinson and Henry Obert. In 1805, a one-story meeting house was constructed. It was the first and only church in the immediate area until 1851.

Interior of the Old School Baptist Church while it served as a library in the 1950s, after renovations.
Source: South River Historical & Preservation Society
When first constructed, the orientation of the building faced the river and not Main Street, as it does today. It was a single story, three bay building with a clapboard facade and its entrance was centrally located, flanked by a window on each side. Like many early Baptist meeting houses in New Jersey, there would have been a single central worship space, benches, and possibly, but not necessarily, a stove in the center to provide for heat. The building lacked ornamentation, in the traditional Baptist style.

After a disagreement in the 1820s and 1830s over numerous issues such as Missionary Societies, Sunday Schools and Theological Seminaries, the Baptist Church split and one of the two sparring sects called themselves Old School, or 'Primitive' Baptists. Up till that time, all the Baptist churches, with the exception of a few general atonement Baptist churches, were identical in faith and practice. The congregation in Washington Village sided with the Old School Baptist beliefs. 

In the 1850s, the church building underwent a major expansion. A second floor was added to accommodate a balcony, or gallery on the east, north, and west sides of the building. The south side would become the front, where the pulpit was located. The orientation of the main entrance was also changed, as a two-story portico was constructed, supported by four twenty-foot columns facing Main Street. A double door was placed in the center of the gable end and two double-hung, forty-over-forty sash windows were installed to appear continuous and have no break as they spanned the first and second floors. The windows on the east, west, and south sides of the building were traditional six-over-six double-hung sashes.

South River War Memorial Free Public Library, circa 1930.
Source: South River Historical & Preservation Society
The meeting house was used until 1922 when the property, then totaling approximately one-fifth of an acre, was sold to the First Free Public Library for $5,000. Two years earlier, the congregation had begun selling off portions of the church property, which at that time totaled one acre. The Baptists were declining in membership and the sale of the unused lots added capital to their treasury during the last few years of their existence. 

The library was dedicated on January 12, 1923. In 1926, new wood floors were installed throughout the building and the windows, trim, and roofing was replaced in 1927. A small addition containing a restroom was also added. In the 1950s, wood throughout the building was replaced due to termite damage, including the floor, corner posts, foundation sills, and studs. Around this time, a ceiling was installed in the former central two-story worship space to conserve energy. The library relocated to a new building in 1979 and the Borough Clerk's office occupied the building. 

Due to its age and significance as an early example of a house of worship, the property was placed on the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places in 1991 and 1992, respectively. In the mid-1990s, the building was fully restored and original finishes on the interior and exterior were once again revealed after being hidden during the building's more recent incarnations as public space. After the restoration, the South River Historical & Preservation Society took charge of setting up displays on the first floor in a perimeter layout, allowing space for programming and meetings in the center, and employed the use of the second floor for office space and artifact and archival storage. The exhibits tell the story of South River, its people, businesses. and industries. Artifacts from a local doctor's office, military uniforms, bricks from local kilns, and machinery from some of the many textile mills fill the museum.

Jane Frazze's memorial urn at the Old Baptist School Cemetery.
Behind the church is what remains of the Old Baptist Church Cemetery. In 1941, approximately seventy-five stones were inventoried, but today, only fifty-three remain. Historians believe that many more graves exist on the property and possibly some of the adjoining property that was sold, but their stones have been lost over time due to deterioration and vandalism. The cemetery is filled with many local family names, but in the center is one large memorial urn, surrounded by a black wrought iron fence. It is the grave and memorial urn of Jane Frazee, wife of one of New Jersey's notable gravestone carvers, John Frazee. John Frazee was born in Rahway in 1790. He carved gravestones in Rahway from 1811-1814 and in New Brunswick from 1814-1818. In 1818, he opened a workshop in New York City, specializing in memorials and grave markers. He was well known for tasteful, simple, and well-executed memorials. Jane passed away on August 16, 1832. John sketched a memorial shortly after her death to commemorate his wife and his sketch was eventually realized. It remains a testament to both his wife and his accomplishments as a carver. He was later commissioned to carve busts of notable Americans and was asked to design the New York Customs House in 1834.

The influence of South River's early history and its industries can still be seen in the brick buildings lining Main Street and in street names such as Washington and Willet. The Old School Baptist Church will continue to tell the story of South River and its residents for many years thanks to hard-working volunteers who have become the timekeepers and storytellers of the past.

Additional photos of my trip to the South River Historical & Preservation Society on Pinterest

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

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