Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The surprise on the hill: Mt. Tabor's Camp Meeting past

Road tripping can take various forms, depending on what you want to find and what kind of hassles you hope to avoid. On a recent trip, we decided to avoid major highways as much as possible, preferring to take our chances on the one- and two-lane roads in Morris County. We figured that what we'd lose in speed, we'd gain in sightings.

The temperature, however, wasn't helping. A several days-long cold snap had frozen most of the lakes and waterways we passed, leaving them bereft of ducks. This obviously wasn't going to be a big birding day.

After a bit, we found ourselves on State Route 53, driving alongside a big hill in Parsippany. We were about to pass without stopping, until Ivan noticed a red county historical marker and an archway that spelled out "Mount Tabor" over an entrance road. Okay, this needs to be checked out. We found the first available road up the hill, passing a Methodist church and a host of tiny brightly-colored Victorian-style cottages. While the streets were too narrow to accommodate parking, we found a more open, town square-type area where there was space next to what appeared to be a public structure, also impeccably painted.

How did I not know about this place, which was clearly a well-tended blast from the past?

The street names gave me a clue of what we'd stumbled upon: Asbury, Pitman, Wesley. Just when I thought I had a decent handle on the Methodist Camp Meeting communities around the state, here's another one. The best known, of course, is Ocean Grove, but we'd already found evidence of gatherings at National Park and Pitman Grove on previous jaunts. Starting in the 1860s, these camps were established in then-idyllic areas to provide worshippers with a peaceful, pleasant setting in which to get closer to their maker during a week or two each summer.

Mount Tabor was founded in 1869, about the same time as Ocean Grove, and three octagonal buildings were erected as worship space around the centrally-located Trinity Park. Nearby Tabor Lake and wooded glens offered places to stroll and enjoy nature with friends and family, far from the cities where most of the attendees lived.

As Ocean Grove summer residents still do, Mount Tabor attendees originally erected tents on small lots rented from the local Camp Meeting Association. Over time, though, the more moneyed members of the summer community started building cottages on the 16 by 32 foot lots, ensuring that their time in the countryside was as comfortable as possible. One of the CMA trustees later built a hotel to accommodate those who lacked cottages but still didn't want to live in tents. Eventually, over 200 structures were built for summer residents.

Like other camp meetings over the years, Mount Tabor's grew dramatically and eventually diminished to a smaller community of permanent residents. Cottage owners entered into 99-year and then perpetual leases for the land beneath their homes, with the current rent ranging from two to four dollars a year depending on the size of the lot. During the Great Depression, more people began to winterize their houses for year-round use, as many chose to leave their year-round dwellings for their smaller, more economical Tabor cottages. Streets were paved in the 1940s, and a new Methodist church was built with the help of members and non-members alike. Notably, the congregants decided to place their new house of worship away from the center of the community as a gesture to welcome worshippers from outside Tabor.

Today, that church is the only official representation of Methodism on Mount Tabor, as the community is largely secular and now part of surrounding Parsippany-Troy Hills. The Camp Meeting Association still exists as a homeowners association, with offices in the building that also houses the fire department and post office. That said, residents are as close-knit as ever, celebrating their heritage with the traditional Children's Day and annual house tours in addition to other activities. The local historical society is working to have Mount Tabor listed on the National and State Registers of Historic Places, further raising its stature among those districts worthy of note and preservation.

As you walk around Mount Tabor, you can't help but think that this is the kind of community that developers strive for and fail to create when they build developments on old farmland or clear-cut woods. There's a sense of closeness and belonging that has to be nurtured over time, based on a mutual desire for something good. You can't just manufacture that from whole cloth.

1 comment:

  1. I just came across your post while searching for places to take a day trip with my mother. Three generations of my family used to vacation in Ocean Grove for two weeks every summer when I was a lot younger. Nowadays, we visit the Grove off and on, and still enjoy it. My Mom and I will have to pay a visit Mount Tabor.


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