A new century! America was just recovering from the Spanish-American War when everyone “Remembered the Main”. William McKinley was President of the United States and patriotism ran high.
While the style of living in 1900 was far different from today, the needs and wants of the people were remarkably similar. Citizens then, just like now, displayed their love of family, love of home, and love of church. It was a time when people were active through fraternal organizations, religious groups, or literary societies.
In Somerset County, Somerville was a very contemporary community. Main Street was an avenue of commerce, lined with stores, services, and entertainment. The municipality was still part of Bridgewater Township, as the incorporation of the borough was still 10 years in the future. Since the Civil War, the town had sprouted around the courthouse. Somerville was a stagecoach stop and, in 1900, the town boasted three newspapers, a thriving railroad station, a major shopping district and lots of entertainment. People traveled from neighboring hamlets and villages on the trolleys, and the train service linked Somerville to New York, Trenton, Philadelphia, and all points.
St. John’s was experiencing record growth, renewal, and prosperity, too. In 1900, St. John’s Report to the Diocese noted 139 “families and parts of families” with 16 baptisms and 12 confirmations.
St. John’s new church was consecrated on December 12, 1901 by Bishop John Scarborough, and it was debt free!
In 1902, The Rev. Charles Fiske was called as rector. He was known as a tireless worker and a prolific writer, his spiritual nature was evidenced by the church’s growth during his rectorship. The church flourished under his leadership, with three services at 8 am, 10:30 am, and 4 pm with Church School at 2:30 pm.
During Fiske’s tenure, parishioner Henry Atwater Smith, who was serving as senior warden, died at the young age of 43. His father, J. Harper Smith (who had contributed to the construction of the church a decade earlier) offered to build the rectory in his memory. The property adjacent to the church was purchased for $8,250. Trumbauer, greatly admired for his design of the church, was hired as the architect for the rectory, built for $18,000.
Fiske left St. John’s in 1908 and later became Bishop of the Diocese of Central New York. His successor, the Rev. C.C. Silvester, wrote of Fiske, “His Rectorship was conspicuous in the developing of the spiritual life of the parish. There were larger confirmation classes, increased services, and lately, with Granville Smith as organist, a very high class of music.”
At this time, there was growth and new buildings everywhere! Somerville School Building #1 on High Street was built in 1904. The majestic, white-marble Somerset County Courthouse opened its doors in 1907. On May 4, 1909 a special election approved incorporation, and Somerville became a borough.
The Somerville area experienced a great influx of immigration during the early 1900s, primarily workers in the mills. The Somerset County population doubled between 1900 and 1930 especially in Somerville, Bound Brook, Manville and Raritan. Movies arrived in Somerville with the opening of the Bijou Theatre at 65 West Main Street in 1911, followed by the Regent Theater which offered vaudeville and more sophisticated films. Johns-Manville, a leader in employment and industry, opened in 1912. In 1913, New Jersey’s own Woodrow Wilson was sitting in the White House.
The United States entered World War I in 1917, causing Americans to experience wartime shortages of fuel and other necessities. But the local economy was booming. As part of the war effort, both Johns-Manville and Calco, two major employers, went non-stop, operating 24 hours a day.
Silvester led St. John’s through 1918, at which point The Rev. Charles Thacker Pfeiffer was called. His arrival was announced in the local newspaper, complete with a photo, revealing he was born in Philadelphia and graduated from General Theological Seminary int he class of 1901.
The 1920’s saw many generous gifts and, once again, Mr. & Mrs. J. Harper Smith demonstrated their commitment to the local Episcopal Church when the Parish House was bestowed to St. John’s by Mrs. Smith in memory of her husband; the consecration was held in September 1924.
The year 1924 saw another important milestone in the life of St. John’s. It was that year that the Rev. Ernest Pugh was called to St. John’s as rector, a post he would hold for 20 years. Some of our parishioners today remember that he was affectionately known by the moniker “Fa’ Pugh.”
There was much happening in Somerville, in the country, and in the world-at- large during the years of Fa’ Pugh’s leadership. The eyes of the world turned to Somerset County for the sensational six-week Hall-Mills murder trial in 1926. By 1930, the population of Somerset County was 65,000. In 1936, the world watched as Bruno Hauptmann was convicted in nearby Flemington of kidnapping and killing the Lindbergh baby. War raged in Europe in 1939 and in 1941 the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor ushered the way for the United States to enter WWII.
At St. John’s, the parishioners rolled up their sleeves and did their part for the war effort while Fa’Pugh provided spiritual guidance throughout the dark days of World War II.