Friday, November 7, 2008

CAN FRANKLIN'S HUNGARIAN CHURCH (AND EDISON'S SCHOOLHOUSE) BE SAVED?

(from January 2007)

Ron Dupont

On Evans Street in Franklin stands a building built some 117 years ago as a school for the children of Thomas Edison's workers. It was moved a century ago and became a vital church for Hungarian miners. In spite of these connections with our area's rich industrial and ethnic heritage, it's slated to be torn down. But not if the Franklin Historical Society can help it.

Thomas Edison was one of the world's great inventive geniuses (no surprise there). Many folks know he lived in New Jersey and did some of his most important work here. But far fewer know that one of the most remarkable chapters of his career occurred right here in Sussex County, up on Sparta Mountain overlooking Ogdensburg.

In the 1880s, Edison worked on a method of pulverizing iron ore and magnetically separating the good stuff, iron, from the rock mixed with it. In 1887, he located the perfect spot for his enterprise: the mountain above Ogdensburg, at Ogden Mine. It had rail access, and lots of the iron ore he needed. In 1890, his first magnetic separating mill there went to work.

The site soon became known simply as "Edison." The New Jersey & Pennsylvania Concentrating Works (as the facility was known) there was a massive complex of ore houses, crushers, stock houses, mills, engine houses, stores, offices, pump houses, and some fifty dwellings for workers. At its peak, the plant employed nearly 400 men.

Those workers had children, and children need to be educated. Hence a school was built at Edison, too, a few hundred yards south of the giant concentrating works, on the west side of Edison Road.

The story of Edison's concentrating works is an epic one. I recommend getting your hands on a copy of Rodney Johnson's excellent, superbly illustrated 2004 history of the site, Thomas Edison's "Ogden Baby": The New Jersey & Pennsylvania Concentrating Works, which can be purchased at www.map-maker.net/, and at local bookstores.

Edison perfected the process of pulverizing boulders into dust, magnetically extracting the ore, and baking it into waterproof briquettes. But he couldn't compete financially with the new iron mines of the Mesabi Range in Minnesota, and by December 1900, the works were closed and being dismantled.

Many of the smaller buildings at the Edison works were sold off and moved by their new owners down the mountain to Ogdensburg and Franklin, where most still stand, used as houses and stores. Bigger ones were scrapped or allowed to go to ruin. One of the last standing was the Edison Schoolhouse. In 1908, that found a home, too.

In that year, Franklin's Hungarian population set out to establish a church of their own. The mines of Franklin and Ogdensburg had long attracted and employed a dizzying array of nationalities (more than twenty-one), but none more so than Hungarians. They represented twenty-seven percent of the mine workforce, outnumbering every other nationality, and native-born Americans, too. Hungarians were a third of the general population. In many a Franklin household, the operative phrase (like the old Strauss polka) was √Čljen a Magyar! (Long live the Hungarians!)

But miners back then had limited income and means, and for a long time the area's Hungarians made do attending local churches where English was used, or borrowing space in other churches for services. Hungarian is from an entirely different linguistic family (Finno-Ugric) than most other European languages. The Hungarians of Franklin clearly felt a strong desire to hold religious services in their own church, and in their familiar native tongue.

According to Rev. Herbert Justin Allsup's 1934 history, A Brief History of Church Life in Franklin, New Jersey, the Hungarians of Franklin received permission to use the Franklin Presbyterian Church for services in Hungarian in 1900, but this arrangement didn't last long. They had also used the Baptist church for services.

In 1908, a meeting of Hungarian churchgoers was held at the Franklin home of George Antalics. The Hungarian Reformed Church of Alpha, NJ, under Rev. Janos Ambrus, agreed to act as "mother church" for a Franklin congregation. The New Jersey Zinc Company, the Alpha and Omega of most things in Franklin and Ogdensburg, was asked for help establishing a church and parsonage, and agreed to donate a plot land on Evans Street.

For a building, George Antalics purchased the old Edison School and donated it to the congregation. The men of the congregation gathered after work to construct a foundation for the former school, and "practically rebuilt" the structure in the process of moving it from Edison down to Franklin. Retired New Jersey Parks & Forestry Regional Superintendent and Sandyston resident Lou Cherepy, whose family roots with Franklin and the church run deep, recalls his grandfather George Szabo helped disassemble the school and move it down the mountain with mules and wagons. In 1909, the "Franklin Furnace Hungarian Reformed Church," as it was officially known, opened, deed in hand, with the original school bell still up in its belfry.

The Rev. Janos Ambrus, of the Alpha Church, and Rev. Bela Chekes, of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, were the first pastors to serve the church, which was part of the Eastern Hungarian Classis in America of the Synod of Hungary. Though a Reformed church, it was open to Hungarians of all faiths, and became a kind of de-facto Hungarian community center. The First World War caused the severing of relations with the mother church in Hungary (Austria-Hungary was allied with Germany and Turkey), and likewise a loss of financial support. But the church persevered.

The next minister was the Rev. Laszlo Szabo. Cherepy recalls that Reverend Szabo was "by far the most famous of the Franklin Hungarian pastors, and was highly respected and honored in Hungary as both a servant of the church and its people and a great Hungarian poet." Reverend Szabo, notes Cherepy, wrote a poem, "A Magyar Templom," ("The Hungarian Church"), which summarized the importance of the church to the local community: "A Templom egy darab Magyar fold"—"This church is Hungarian soil."

But by the late 1960s, the Franklin Hungarian Church's congregation was literally dying off. The newer generation was less interested in services in their ancestral tongue, and migrated to other churches. The church was finally closed in 1972 and sold to a private homeowner who used the adjacent rectory as a private home. But the church itself has sat vacant since, becoming dilapidated.

According to Lou Cherepy, interest in preserving the old Hungarian Church was first sparked in 1998, when New Jersey Parks & Forestry officials were drawing up plans for a Wallkill Valley Heritage Trail (still a developing project). Though Parks & Forestry expressed interest in preserving the landmark, the property owner was not interested, and thus ended that effort.

More recent news that the one-time Edison Schoolhouse and Hungarian Church was now to be demolished reached members of the Franklin Historical Society, who launched a campaign to rescue the structure. They soon enlisted the leadership of local historian and author Bill Truran. An avid historian and preservationist with a can-do attitude, Truran (a professor at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken) has published several excellent photographic histories of the area in recent years.

Truran and the Franklin Historical Society have secured several grants, including $1,000 from the Franklin-Ogdensburg Mineralogical Society (FOMS), $2,500 from Wal-Mart, and $10,000 from the Kirby Foundation. They are also working on loan applications with SussexBank and the United States Department of Agriculture. In addition, they are working toward leasing a parcel of land from the Borough of Franklin. As planned, the Edison School/Hungarian Church would be moved a short distance to the site of the (lamentably demolished) Franklin Neighborhood House. There it would become "The Heritage Center for Social and Cultural Study."

In its new role, the landmark would serve as a museum preserving the myriad cultures that played a role in the region's rich mining and industrial history. Truran is emphatic about the importance of Franklin and Ogdensburg's industrial heritage: "The confluence of over twenty nationalities to this world-class endeavor over a century ago contributed to winning two world wars, and is a facet of history that has significant impact on the America that we know today."

The Heritage Center would also highlight the under-appreciated importance of Thomas Edison's role in Sussex County's history. "The connection to Thomas Edison," notes Truran, "who more than any other person made the modern world—is a link that, along with the immigrants' hardscrabble life, is a story worth telling the next generation: a tale of hard work, perseverance, and ultimate success with society-changing results."

Truran is optimistic that the Heritage Center is on track to become a reality. But it still needs funding and help. This is where you come in. To donate time or money to make this exciting and important project happen, contact Bill Truran at wtruran@stevens.edu, (973) 729-1471, or the Franklin Historical Society at 95 Main Street, P.O. Box 332, Franklin, NJ, 07416, (973) 209-1232.

Franklin's history has taken some serious hits in recent years, with the demolition first of the Neighborhood House, and more recently the old Franklin Hospital, both landmarks from the glory days of the mining era. With help and lots of hard work, the Edison School/Hungarian Church won't meet the same fate, but will survive to honor the region's rich history. Bill Truran sums it up: "By saving the structure and building the Heritage Center we can ensure a lasting presence for Franklin's rich past accomplishments."

(Ron Dupont can be reached at dupont@vernonstories.com).