Postscript to Flemington’s First Bank, parts one & two
It was a challenge to decide what to include in my previous article and what to leave out. I now find I left out quite a lot and am compelled to add a part three to the bank’s history.
Once his building was finished, Hopewell needed to fill it with tenants, if for no other reason than to help him pay the cost of construction. The Hunterdon County National Bank was, of course, the primary tenant. It is likely that at least in the beginning, annual meetings of the stockholders took place at Hopewell’s building, no doubt on the spacious third floor. Let’s take a look at who occupied the building beside the bank, starting with
The Third Floor:
The third floor served as an assembly room for various organizations, including the Masons, for whom the building was named. This area was described in the 1938 history of the bank by Alan Painter, who wrote:
The spacious and high-ceilinged third floor, with its balcony across the front, was the first public auditorium of its kind in Flemington. There, in Hopewell Hall, the principal social functions of the community were held until the Opera House was erected. In later years the large hall was divided by a partition and rented to fraternal orders.
The Hunterdon Gazette, in an article dated June 2, 1866, described it thus:
The third story is designed for a public hall, and it is well adapted for the purpose, having suitable dressing rooms, &c. It is estimated that it will hold 800 persons.
One of the interesting meetings taking place there was announced in the Republican on May 15, 1868:
Public Meeting. Farmers and those interested on behalf of the farming interests of Hunterdon Co., are invited to a meeting at Masonic Hall, in Flemington, to co-operate in the movement now taking in other counties on the line of the New Jersey Central Railroad, for raising garden vegetable, berries, etc., for the New York market, and sending milk to said market, and establishing in each county, a farmers’ exchange, and to consider all matters pertaining to the farming interests of the county, and to effect system and organization in advancing said interests. It is earnestly requested that this meeting be generally attended, as it promises to be of great interest.
The notice was signed by John C. Hopewell, and many others. This was not surprising given Hopewell’s active participation in the Hunterdon Agricultural Society.
In the fall of 1870 “the Republican County Convention met in Masonic Hall to elect candidates for the upcoming election.”1
The Second Floor:
The Gazette description of the second floor:
The second story of the building is fitted up for offices and as a lodge room for Darcy Lodge, A. F. A. M. . . .The building cost about $30,000. Flemington has reason to be proud of the Masonic Hall.2
Darcy Lodge A.F.A.M. was a Masonic lodge, hence Hopewell’s naming the building “Masonic Hall.” One must assume he was a member, given how firm he was that the building take that name. Alan Painter wrote:
On the second floor were offices, occupied mostly by lawyers. Among tenants were attorneys who distinguished themselves at the Hunterdon County bar, including John L. Connet, Richard S. Kuhl, Edward P. Conkling and Harry L. Stout. Former Judge Adam O. Robbins has maintained his offices there for more than 40 years.
The First Floor:
From the Painter article:
In the center space on the first floor from the time the building was erected until the close of the century was the Flemington Post Office.
Some of the space under the stairway, in the post office lobby, was used by the Adams Express Company, for which Wilson B. Moore was agent.
In June 1866, the editor of the Lambertville Beacon came to check out the new building. He was duly impressed. In addition to the space reserved for the bank, he wrote:
Messrs. G. W. Able & Co. occupy the balance of the first floor as a store, for which it is well arranged.
That company was previously known as Hill, Abel & Arnwine and later on as Hill, Abel & Co. On January 3, 1866, the Gazette included this notice:
Notice is hereby given that the business formerly conducted under the name and firm of Hill, Abel, & Arnwine, will, on and after Jan’y 1st 1866, be continued under the name of G. W. Abel & Co. and we would say that we then open a new set of books, and earnestly request all those indebted to us to make as early settlement as possible, as we intend (as before stated) to occupy the two stores in the new brick building, as soon as completed, [my emphasis] and it will take some of the “ready” to stock it with goods, and we hope our friends will respond to the call, and thereby enable us to offer one of the largest and best stock of goods ever before offered in Flemington, which we intend to do, and hope our friends will bear us in mind. [Signed] Wm. Hill, G. W. Abel, Charles Arnwine.
Hopewell’s new building made a big impression on Flemington residents and merchants, as shown in this ad from March 28, 1866, in which the building was called “the Big Brick.”
GEO. W. ABEL & CO.—As the time is fast approaching when this firm will occupy their store, in the “Big Brick,” it may be well to remind the public that it is their intention to fill their new rooms with an entirely fresh stock of goods of all descriptions.
George W. Abel sold silks and other fabrics. Considering what women’s dresses were like in the 1860s—very voluminous—it’s no wonder there would be a store devoted to supplying the material needed to make them. But in addition, the company sold bedding, crockery, carpets and groceries, as described in a large ad in the Gazette of Feb. 14, 1866. This kind of miscellaneous assortment of goods was pretty typical of Flemington merchants of the time.
By late April, the firm had completed its move into the new building. Their ad for May 16th was headed with “The New Brick,” repeated four times, in large lettering.
The following August, George W. Abel & Co. was robbed.
Burglary, on Friday night last [Aug. 17, 1866]. The store of George W. Abel & Co., in Flemington was entered and robbed of silks to the amount of about $500. They entered the store by boring a hole in the panel of a back shutter, large enough to admit a person’s hand to withdraw the bolt and open the window. Four clerks slept up-stairs but did not hear anything. A reward of $50 for the apprehension of the culprits was offered by the firm. (Hunterdon Republican, Aug 24, 1866.)
Another tenant in the Masonic Hall, located in the basement, was the restaurant of John L. Van Fleet. In the same issue as the burglary story, the Republican took notice of the new restaurant:
They have one of the largest and most complete saloons to be found in the State of New Jersey, and respectfully invites all their friends, and the public to give them a call. OYSTERS in every style, served up at all hours. The best quality of Lager, Ale, Porter, etc.
Alan Painter wrote in 1938 that there was
a basement store at one time occupied by John Stockton’s restaurant and pool parlor. Now used for storage, this space was the setting for enjoyment of many an oyster or terrapin stew and many a serving of Stockton’s home-made ice cream.
The building at a later time in the north store on the first floor housed another restauranteur whose reputation for oyster stews and ice cream still is a fond subject of recollection by older residents. His name was William Dilts.
Oyster stew and ice cream were two foods that seem to have gone together, much like pizza and ice cream do now.
With lots of customers visiting his building, it is not surprising to learn that in May 1870, Hopewell got himself named one of the town’s street commissioners.
The Hunterdon Republican kept tabs on Hopewell’s tenants over the years.
March 16, 1866: William K. Sherwood announces that he is again in Flemington, and has opened his Photograph Rooms, in the Hunterdon Co. National Bank Building. Thankful for the many favors tendered to him in the past, he would solicit a continuance of the patronage of the public. The price of Pictures will be reduced to suit the times.
Oct 11, 1867, Store Opening. Mrs. William S. Van Zandt will open a Millinery, Dress and Cloak Fitting and making Establishment, in connection with the store of HILL, ABEL & Co., over the new sales rooms (soon to be occupied by them), one door north of Masonic Hall, [but in the same building] and will be prepared to fill all orders in the most satisfactory manner. New styles of cloak and sack patterns always on hand. Mrs. Van Zandt has secured the services of a first class modiste and will execute all work in the most tasty and fashionable manner.
August 14, 1868: New store, just opened. William J. Rockafellow has just opened a new grocery in the Masonic Hall Building in Flemington. He says he is going to sell cheap.
March 31, 1870: The Post Office in Flemington has been removed to Masonic Hall, in the room recently occupied by William J. Rockafellow as a grocery. This is a more central location than the old one, and the room is much larger, affording better facilities for the constantly increasing patronage of the office.
Alan Painter wrote that “After the post office moved to another building, its space was taken over by H.S.O. Van Doren for his dry goods business, which he continued until the remodeling of 1920.” In 1870, Wm H. Gale advertised his new “fashionable Shaving and Hair Dressing Saloon,” located in the basement of the Masonic Hall. This item from his advertisement in the Republican was especially notable: “He is happy to say that he will use a clean towel to every customer. Bay Rum on the face – free of charge.3 But, despite the clean towels and free bay rum, Gale’s business failed. Only two months later, the Republican noted that Gale had given up his shop and returned to his previous employer, Robert Ramsey.
In March 1871, the Republican reported that “Elias Vosseller has removed his Book and Music Store to the middle store in the new building recently erected by Mr. Hopewell. Here he has a fine large room and can transact his increasing business with more comfort to his customers and himself.”
Later that month it noted that Lemuel Fisher had moved his jewelry store into the Hopewell building, “next door to Mr. Higgins’ drug store.” In June 1817, there was held a “Ladies’ Fair” in the Hall, at which William S. Wright of Wertsville, showed us the handsomest and largest strawberries we ever saw” which he presented at the Fair.
In a previous article, I discussed the state of politics in Hunterdon in the years leading up to the beginning of the Civil War. Once war was declared, however, the situation changed. The American Party lost its support and Republican Abraham Lincoln became president. Many former members of the party left and joined with the Republicans, and that includes John C. Hopewell. However, unlike his many other civic activities, he took only a minor leadership role in party politics.
At a meeting held in Flemington on July 21, 1865, Hopewell was named, along with Edw. R. Bullock, Charles Bartles, and John Quick, to attend the Union State Convention at Trenton. At the Hunterdon County Republican convention in 1868, Hopewell was nominated for the office of County Executive, but he did not win. In 1871 he was serving on the party’s executive committee, and in 1873 he was a member at large of the committee. And that seems to have been the end of Hopewell’s political involvement.
So, yes, he was an active Republican, but nothing compared to his community involvement.
Flemington was not an incorporated town during the mid-19th century. An effort to incorporate it failed. Instead, on March 14, 1870, the state legislature created a board of commissioners to run the town. It was to have seven members elected annually. John C. Hopewell was a member of the first board, but not thereafter.
In 1876, he and Atkinson J. Holcombe were named to a committee to organize that year’s Fourth of July celebration. That was also a one-time commitment. He was far more committed to the Hunterdon Co. Agricultural Society, the Hunterdon Co. National Bank, and the Flemington Railroad Co. He served on the board of directors for all three organizations for many years. He seems to have taken this last position quite seriously. In December 1884, he gave all the employees of the Flemington Railroad Co. a turkey for Christmas.
John C. Hopewell died on April 29, 1888, age 73, three years after the death of his wife. He was given an extensive and highly complementary obituary in the Hunterdon Republican. He and his wife were buried in the Prospect Hill Cemetery just outside of the village limits, a cemetery that he had helped to create.
An 1875 Addition
The Hunterdon Republican reported in its issue for Nov. 4, 1875, that
John C. Hopewell has commenced the erection of a new brick building next to the Bank. It will be two stories high and will be occupied by Joseph V. Smith as a tobacco store and by the Hunterdon Democrat.
The photograph on the right was taken about 1918, judging from the automobile parked in front. The Democrat’s new building is on the right.
It just so happens that 1875 was the year that ownership of the Democrat changed hands. It’s new owner and editor was Robert J. Killgore.
Robert James Killgore (1820-1898) came to Flemington from Kentucky, of all places. In 1843, he married Alice Vansyckel (1822-1875) of Bethlehem township, daughter of Aaron Vansyckel, Jr. and Mary Bird. Aaron Vansyckel was a business partner of Charles Bartles, Esq., and jointly with him bought and sold a huge number of Hunterdon properties.
The photograph of the building was probably taken in the late 19th century. It was included with the 1938 history of the bank, published by the Democrat.
Killgore took up farming, first in Bethlehem Township, then in Raritan, and in 1869 was elected County Surrogate. He served one term, retiring in 1874. (Also in 1874, the storekeeper George W. Abel, who was Hopewell’s early tenant, won election as County Clerk.) The Hunterdon Republican of Nov. 19, 1874 noted that “The retiring officers, Moses K. Everitt as Clerk and Robert J. Killgore as Surrogate, have performed their duties with honor and if the present incumbents do equally as well, no fault will be found with them.”
Hanging out at the Democrat: A photograph published by the Democrat on June 5, 1930 with a caption identifying the men: F.A. Rice, Brewer Runkle, Doc Smith (sitting), A.C. Hulsizer and, leaning against the tree, unknown.
Shortly after retiring, Killgore acquired the Hunterdon County Democrat. One cannot help but think that Killgore had struck up a friendship with Republican businessman, John C. Hopewell. Killgore certainly turned over a new leaf for the newspaper, making it much less partisan than it had been under the editorship of Adam Bellis.
The 1920 Remodel
In 1920, the bank went in for a major remodel, as described by Alan Painter in his article of 1938:
Following Mr. Hopewell’s death in 1888, title to the building passed to Andrew T. Connet, who died in 1913, and then to William D. Bloom, one-time county clerk. The bank acquired the building about 1918 and two years later started construction of new banking rooms, using the north and center stores.
This alteration, which remained in use until the recent  remodeling was started, was completed in 1921. The bank opened in its new quarters on Monday morning, March 7.
The remodel included the stone front on the first floor. Prior to the remodel, the bank had occupied the southern section of the first floor, what is seen as the right side of the building. After 1920, it was relocated to the left side. The editor of the Democrat at the time had this to say about it:
“At 9 o’clock on Monday morning the Hunterdon County National Bank, which has for scores of years been our nearest neighbor on the north, opened up for business in its new room on the north side of the block it has always occupied. Whether the bank officials got afraid of the old Democrat force in these days of hold-ups, or whether they really needed more room, is known only by themselves, but they have exercised good judgment in their location, and in the remodeling of their new home. The removal was made on Saturday.”
The Hunterdon County Democrat moved out of its Victorian building long ago, to a much bigger facility on Route 31, north of the Borough. Today the old building next to the bank has lost its second floor, and the space is now occupied by none other than the Flemington Borough Police.
It is a shame there is no longer a newspaper office right on Flemington’s Main Street.
Back to Ford’s Theatre
An article published on July 3, 2012 in the Hunterdon County Democrat was written as a follow-up to an article about the Borough of Flemington’s purchase in 2001 of the bank building and the small building attached with the intention of converting the space to municipal purposes. The 2012 story noted that the Borough had since changed its mind and planned to offer the buildings for sale.
The article’s headline was “Is Flemington-owned bank building a clone of Ford’s Theater?” That was the common assumption for many years, but it is not true since the bank building pre-dated the renovation of Ford’s Theatre.
One way this misconception got started was someone’s noticing that John C. Hopewell was president of the bank “from 1883 to 1884.” For starters, that is wrong—Hopewell was president from 1883 until his death in 1888. The only reason he wasn’t president earlier was that Charles Bartles held the position until his death in 1883.
The reporter assumed that the building was constructed when Hopewell was president, “about twenty years after the assassination” of President Lincoln. That would make the conclusion that it was patterned after Ford’s Theatre not far-fetched. But that was not true at all. I can only assume the reporter did not have access to the newspapers of the 1860s.
Instead, the author was relying on an earlier history of the bank, published in 1955, and also on the assessment of “the 1979 publication “Sites of Historic Interest,” which was part of the Hunterdon County Master Plan.” What he missed was the bank’s own history by Alan Painter (see below).
The reporter at least had the wisdom to consult architect Chris Pickell on the building’s architecture, probably because it was Pickell who informed the town how expensive the retrofit would be. At the time, Pickell also thought the building was patterned after Ford’s Theatre, but he has since changed his mind, given the time frame.
Photo of Ford’s Theatre found on Wikipedia.
And yet, there is still room for doubt. The building originated as a Baptist Church and was purchased by John T. Ford in 1861, after the congregation had moved. He immediately began renovations, which included that straight gable front added to the peaked roof, which can be seen in this early photograph.
John C. Hopewell was a Philadelphia resident before settling in Flemington. He could easily have visited Washington, D.C. during the years the Baptists occupied the future theatre and gotten an idea for a future building. There is definitely a similarity if one ignores that straight gable. Hopewell’s building is more attractive to me, with its arched windows.
The Bank’s 1938 History
The article by Alan Painter that I have been referring to is probably the most notable early history of the Hunterdon Co. National Bank. It was published while the country was struggling to recover from the Great Depression. It is as if the history was published as a way to inspire confidence in the bank’s sound-worthiness.
The headline in the paper was “The Story of The Hunterdon County National Bank of Flemington,” and a subhead: “History of ‘The Old Bank’ Reveals Steady Leadership With Present Resources of More Than $4,000,000. Development of Hunterdon County National Bank Reflects Ideals of Pioneers Who Founded Institution in 1854.”
The bank followed up with its own version, publishing a booklet containing the text of Painter’s article along with several additional photographs. Its subtitle was “An Historical Sketch of the Institution and the Pioneers Whose Ideals Long Ago Placed ‘The Old Bank’ in a Position of Leadership in the Section It Has Served 85 Years.”
The inside cover of the booklet featured the bank officers for that year: George K. Large, president, E. W. Sutton, vice-president, Wm J. Kinnamon, cashier, H. H. Rittenhouse and C. W. Fouts, assistant cashiers. Directors were A. B. C. Bodine, Judiah Higgins, Wm J. Kinnamon, George K. Large, Edwin K. Large, D. H. Moreau, George N. Robinson, John Schenk and E. W. Sutton. Some very familiar names there, and given Mr. Large’s interest in local history, it is not surprising he would arrange to have one written for the bank. It provides far more detail than I can include here.4
One thing this booklet points out that I have neglected—the HCNB is technically not Flemington’s first bank, as there were two earlier banks that attempted to organize but failed—one, “The Tradesmen’s Bank” with Charles T. Cromwell as president, and the other the “Bank of North America,” L. I. Merriam, president. Despite their ambitions, they never went into operation.
In searching for information about the bank online, I discovered that the Hunterdon County National Bank did not stop printing currency until 1935. The bank itself lasted 128 years, from 1855 to 1983, when it was merged with First Fidelity Bank in 1983.
As for the building’s future, thankfully its façade will be preserved in the major renovation that is already underway. Unfortunately, that spacious third floor will not be renovated but converted into residential space.5
- Hunterdon Republican, Oct. 20, 1870. ↩
- Hunterdon Gazette, June 20, 1866. ↩
- Hunterdon Republican, June 23, 1870. ↩
- For those who are curious, please ask the Librarian at the Hunterdon Co. Historical Society for a copy. It has also been made into a .pdf. ↩
- See https://jerseydigs.com/efforts-to-revitalize-downtown-flemington-move-forward/. ↩
June 20, 2021 @ 11:36 am
With reference to your comment, ” A recent blog post from “LitHub” showed me the powerful effect of reversing the order of names of a couple. ”
It is my opinion that it is a moral issue, Marfy.
A matter of equity/fairness.
June 21, 2021 @ 11:08 am
Richard was responding to a comment I made in the newsletter I sent out connected with publication of this article.
June 22, 2021 @ 5:49 am
Here is a comment sent to me by Flemington architect Chris Pickell, on whether the bank building was based on the design of Ford’s Theatre:
Whether for use as a church, theater, or social hall; the interior of both the DC & local building were required to be one large room. As form does indeed (generally) follow function, per the common technology available at the time, both buildings were designed with large and tall wooden trusses, oriented with their peak high above the street. The prevailing Italiante style at the time emphasized a bold horizontal cornice, while rooflines were obscured. To hide or minimize the stylistically un-desirable peaked gable roof, the designer of the Ford’s building conversion decided to apply a continuous cornice, which is just a ‘false front’ at the corners; this forms the predominate visual feature, the center gable becomes an accent.
The Hopewell Building is/was less ‘high-style’, less pretentious, and more practical – no ‘false-fronts’ to hide the gable end roofline. They are each in their own way typical of the very standard current Italiante fashion, I do think that the influence of Ford’s Theater in Flemington is mostly its notoriety, which came about shortly after Hopewell Hall was completed.
The photos of Ford’s just after the assassination show that the cornice was incomplete at that time, suggesting that the new owner was in the process of adding it as a stylistic upgrade, likely related to a desire to make the building look not like a church. The sanctuary conversion to a theater was probably worked on first, as that made money, while the exterior upgrade proceeded at a slower pace. So I do think it was Ford who added the cornice to a building which more closely resembled our Hopewell Hall.
But Hopewell (or his designer) clearly got his ideas somewhere, and in your photo the theater looks like a huge & prominent building in a context of its smaller neighbors, so perhaps he did see it (and its roofline) prior to the theater conversion. Which begs the question – was Hopewell a Baptist?