72 The Old Parsonage
In the previous blog, we told the story of the ghosts in the old church parsonage, including some tales and a firsthand account of the apparition's visits. In this blog, we look at the history of the same building. It’s a story almost as old as the village of Blawenburg.
Blawenburg Village’s 200-year history began with the construction of the Georgetown-Franklin Turnpike that ultimately became County Route 518. Following the path of old Lenni Lenape Native American trails, it extended from Lambertville to Kendall Park. Prior to the turnpike’s construction, this section of Montgomery Township was a collection of farms owned by Dutch immigrants with names like Voorhees, Covenhoven, Nevius, and Blaw.
The predominate land owner among these farmers was the Covenhoven family. They owned all the land on both sides of the turnpike between Mountain View Road and what became Great Road and Route 601. The first building to be built on this improved road was the Blawenburg Tavern, circa 1818. (See Blog 15). 100 acres were sold to John Covenhoven’s great-granddaughter, Catherine, and son-in-law, William M Griggs, Esq., keeping the land in the Covenhoven family.
Wanted: A Parsonage
When this picture of the old parsonage was taken for a postcard circa 1906, seven pastors had lived in it since it was first occupied in 1836. Note the veranda on the front, which was added in 1870 and later removed.
In 1830, the area residents built the Second Reformed Church of Harlingen, and they reorganized it in 1832 to become the Reformed Dutch Church of Blawenburg. (Visit Blog 23 to learn more about the church's beginning.) The first pastor of the new church was Rev. Henry Heermance, who served from 1832 to 1836. The Dominee (pastor) wanted to have a parsonage built on at least 10 acres of land instead of the church paying the $50 per year rental fee for him to live elsewhere.
Rev. Heermance was a negotiator. In the end, the church agreed to build a parsonage on five acres across from the church on Griggs’ property. It took far longer than expected to finish the parsonage, and it was over budget. The church had incurred debts of $684.45 and had to borrow $450 more, raising the total cost of the parsonage to $2,016.07. By 1836, Rev. Heermance had only lived in the parsonage a few months when he received a call from Kinderhook Reformed Dutch Church in Kinderhook, NY. Rev. James Talmage accepted a call to the Blawenburg Church on October 24, 1836 and was the first pastor to live in the parsonage for his full term at the church.
A Village is Formed
The tavern, church, and parsonage formed the nucleus of the village. In the decade from the mid-1830s to the mid-1840s, most of the historic homes in the village were built between the parsonage and the crossroad to the west. A general store, post office, blacksmith/wheelwright, and homes changed the former fields into a compact village, which would stay intact until more modern homes were built after the turn of the twentieth century.
Over the years, the parsonage has undergone many changes to accommodate modern conveniences. In 1836, the church seeded the parsonage lawn, perhaps to enhance the elegance of the new parsonage or maybe to greet Rev. Heermance at last. Fifteen pastors came and went in the parsonage over the next 114 years. During that time, central heating (coal) was added to the parsonage, making the old fireplaces less necessary. In 1919, a water system was installed, likely moving the bathroom inside the house and adding water to the kitchen. These innovations helped make life a lot easier.
The addition to the back of the old parsonage likely was added when indoor plumbing was installed.
During a transition between pastors in 1922, the church needed more money to operate, so they divided the parsonage into two living areas. The pastor would live in one part of the house, and the church would rent the other side. Rev. H. H. Wernecke (1924-1926) was the first of five pastors to share their home. By 1950, the parsonage needed a lot of work, so the Consistory sold it and bought the house next door for the new parsonage. What seemed like the right thing to do at the time, the Consistory put the parsonage on the market for $16,000, but sold it to Henry Gordon for $12,750. Then they bought the new parsonage from G. Kenneth Whitenack. It was smaller, but likely in better shape than the original parsonage. Ten pastors have lived in the current parsonage.
One of the more interesting tenants in the old parsonage was Ralph Stillwell, a Watkins health products salesperson known around town as the Watkins Man. Stillwell lived in the apartment of the old parsonage in the 1940s during the time when Rev. Marion Pennings was pastor. J. R. Watkins made products for the body such as soaps and health remedies at its factory in Plainview, MN, beginning in 1868. Its marketing and distribution model was door-to-door, much like the Fuller Brush Company. Joseph Watkins referred to his salespeople as the “horse and buggy salesmen.” Everyone in Blawenburg and surrounding farms knew Ralph Stillwell.
These are examples of early Watkins’ products. You would not be able to market a cough syrup today with 11% alcohol, heroin, and chloroform in it!
Between 1950 and 1970, the old parsonage was changed back to a single residence and then underwent major improvements by the Rose family (1970s to early 2000s) and the Gaburo family (early 2000s to 2021). Although it probably had more tenants over its lifetime than any other building in Blawenburg, the building looks far better today than it did 50 years ago. The old parsonage is one of Blawenburg’s treasures that helped establish our historic village, which is listed on the National and State Registers of Historic Places.
The old parsonage in 2021.
1. Fifteen pastors and an unknown number of tenants and private families have lived in the parsonage over the years.
2. The value of the parsonage has increased almost 300-fold and is valued at about $850,000 today.
Brecknell, Ursula C., Blawenburg Nomination Form, National and State Register of Historic Places, 1988.
Cochran, David W. Blawenburg Reformed Church, 1832-2007, 175 Years of Faith and Hope, Blawenburg, Blawenburg Reformed Church, 2007.
Old parsonage—scan from old postcard
Old parsonage and church—scan from old postcard
Parsonage in 2021— https://www.zillow.com/homedetails/431-Route-518-Skillman-NJ-08558/39903150_zpid/
Copyright © 2021 by David Cochran. All rights reserved.