By Steve Sears
The quiet, the stillness, the desolation, the emptiness on a cold, day-after-a-snowstorm morning is so apropos here.
The corner of Mount Olive Road and Flanders-Drakestown Road, heading down to the Flanders section of Mount Olive, is a part of the Mount Olive Village Historic District. It is here where Mount Olive had its beginnings.
What stands here now, separated by a tiny cemetery, parking lot and an empty plot of land once home to a Presbyterian Church, are a tiny, one-room schoolhouse known as the Mount Olive Academy, and the Mount Olive Baptist Church.
At one time, children attended classes here, church services were celebrated. The school is now long closed, the church abandoned in 1970 as the congregation moved to a newer facility up the road, both buildings having been shuttered (especially due to age of the buildings) to new generations.
You can stand here and take it all in, try to envision the past, and wonder what’s to be done with the structures. The answer? Something positive.
Kathy Murphy, Vice-President of the Mount Olive Historical Society, says while pointing, “This is part of it, the cemetery up here. This is where the Presbyterian Church was,” she says, indicating a snow- covered plot of land next to a parking lot, an empty cement set of stairs ascending slightly the empty spot. “It burned down. Now, here’s the schoolhouse, and then the old Baptist Church.” The latter sits at the corner, down a slight hill. It is the third building on the site, the first being a log cabin, the second a wood frame building at the beginning of the 19th century. The third structure was built beginning in 1853. Murphy believes it is the eighth Baptist church in New Jersey.
“This whole area makes up the Mount Olive Village,” she says.
Murphy and others have secured both structures and are working on prepping both to be reopened to the public.
Murphy talks about the cemetery adjacent to the church, which was originally called Schooley’s Mountain Church. “The earliest stone here is Elizabeth Cozad.” On this cold morning, Cozad’s stone is snow-covered. “She died in her 80s in 1812. She lived here during the (American) Revolution, and her father had established the (iron) mines and everything. It goes back, and of course there’s more than half a dozen Civil War, and at least three or four Revolutionary War (soldiers buried here) that we know of – and there may be more. And, of course, there’s a bunch of headstones missing.”
The whole corner, per Murphy, was all part of the absolute earliest settlement in the area. “All the little village clusters were after this.”
Exiting your car and trying to walk either towards the schoolhouse or church, you sense the hardship that folks had in inclement weather in earlier days. Young kids trudging to school maybe had fun among the flakes on the way to their studies, while congregants carefully stepped in ankle-deep snow, on their way to perform their Sunday constitution of studying God’s Word.
Back then, the churches and mines prevailed, and all the founding families of the area are buried here.
The Baptist Church remained for a period after the congregation moved, using it for their youth group for a period before leaving the building entirely. The building had no bathroom but just an outhouse, and parking was in a not-so-spacious gravel lot.
When Murphy moved to Mount Olive, as a volunteer she was able to get grants for the town. She then was hired part-time and transitioned to full-time, a job she loved. And there was the history aspect, which she loved and majored in during college.
While in the township’s employ, the Baptist Church (labeled “Meeting House” on the front of the building) roof was discovered to have a leak. Murphy, then-Mount Olive Township Clerk, Lisa Lashway, Mount Olive Historical Society President Thea Dunkel, and high school History teacher Noreen Risko (she and her group instrumental in getting a roof put on the schoolhouse in 1980), sought a way to buy the building for the town. A deal was worked out, a purchase price was secured from Morris County, and the group now owned the few acres that belonged to the Baptist Church across from Town Hall, the old church itself, and the schoolhouse. “You have to be creative; you have to make it work,” says Murphy when asked what her feelings were when the buildings were acquired. “We had done some research and we knew that this was important for the town.” Also, when the church was abandoned, the building reverted back to a clause in the original deed from the 1700s that said if the church fails to use it as church property, it goes back to the family.” Murphy then looks at the cemetery downhill. “Colonel (Peter) Salmon (Captain of the Western Battalion of Morris County, New Jersey) is buried here in the cemetery, and there is a family association that still meets, and it was going to revert to them! We had to have – I can’t tell you how many people had to sign off on that!”
The town gave its okay, and the powers-that-were at the church were approached and approved of the idea, and the county at via its Preservation Trust expanded past open space and included historic preservation. “The timing was right,” says Murphy. “2004 was when we acquired it. We did an application to the Preservation Trust to purchase the property as open space, which we got the money for, but then right after that we went back to the Preservation trust for the historical component, and what you needed to do was start getting it on the National Register (of Historic Places).” The first step was the exterior, where the steeple was falling off, that was rotted, and a new roof. Certain criteria have to be followed to remain on the National Register. “It has been a real learning experience for us, too,” says Murphy.
The district was added to the National Register of Historic Places in the summer of 2015.
The ultimate goal with both properties is to open both to the public; unveil a window to the past. It is hoped that the church can be opened to the public next year (2020). It will be used to see what it was like to have a church experience therein, but also to be used for small meeting and conferences. “It would make a lovely wedding chapel,” says Murphy. “We want the community to appreciate it. We want the public to be able to use it. And at the same time, it would be nice to raise enough funds to cover the operating costs.”
“We’ve done some terrific things.”
One very interesting tidbit was the uncovering of a painted canvas ceiling in the church, which Historian Dunkel had researched and discovered was done back in 1870. Because the roof leak had damaged artwork, rather than rip the ceiling down, in 1890 a then-installed tin ceiling covered up the canvas…to an extent. “They covered up the painted ceiling, which had lavenders and blues,” says Murphy, a touch of pain in her voice. “Yellows and everything – real color. No realized that it had this paining until the tin ceiling got the bad roof leak, and you can see where the tin was damaged, little bits of fabric were hanging out there.” The tin ceiling has now been removed, and the worst damage revealed is over the choir loft.
It will remain in its current condition for now. There is beauty there, even in its poor condition.
As for the 1837 one room schoolhouse, Murphy has a few of the old desks now inside the building. In the future there will be “History of Mount Olive” displays, but obviously returning it to is 19th century classroom setting would be ultimate. “We can get kids to try and sit down and experience it.”
The stained glass windows in the church have been removed (“They were from the 1940s, they didn’t match the church, and they weren’t in the best shape anyway,” says Murphy), and have been returned to the original glass windows that appeared in a 1930s newspaper article about the church that showed a picture of the side of the building. “There were shutters at that time, covering the windows. But one of the shutters was broken and you could see the frame of the window inside. From that, they were able to determine how many panes of glass were in it.” The roof on the school must be replaced. “When the old Presbyterian Church (originally built in 1857) – which at the time was turned over to a private resident – burned to the ground ten years ago, the heat curled up some of the roofing tiles. We want to get a new roof on there.”
“Historical” to Murphy means the following. “Once you get people in, I think they’ll make a little more of a connection. That’s why we want to see buildings like this preserved, otherwise every town just becomes this nameless blur of strip malls and chain stores. People don’t have that connection to their community unless there’s something unique about it. I hope this helps provide more of that.”