“Good ideas are common – what’s uncommon are people who’ll work hard enough to bring them about.” – Ashleigh Ellwood Brilliant               

1923 offered a rare opportunity to the residents of Brookside in Mendham Township. This was a community still in transition from its industrial water-powered past and family farms to a bedroom community. Benjamin Natkins, a local entrepreneur, had been buying up the center of Brookside to eradicate its industrial past and create a residential village. He continued until the Great Depression ended his plan, as it did so many others.

It was in the early 1920’s that the local school board decided to replace the old Brookside two-room schoolhouse with a new and then “state of the art” facility. This new building would merge several smaller township schoolhouses into one. The school board wanted the new school building finished and ready for the start of the 1923 school year. The plan was to demolish the old building after the end of the 1922 school year, unless it could be moved. Fred Kiser, a teacher at the old Brookside school, watched construction of the new building from his classroom window and he had an idea.

FREDERICK G. KISER AND A RARE OPPORTUNITY

Fred Kiser, a Brookside native, was thirty-five in 1923. In addition to being the local teacher, he was a substantial property owner and gentleman farmer. He owned a 3.8-acre field across Cherry Lane from the school. He envisioned moving the old school building to his property which was directly across the street. His first thought was to use it as housing for his seasonal farmhands.

Fred’s lot was bounded to the north by the East Main Street location of the Brookside Post Office (from which the community derived its name), the Brookside Engine Company which occupied the former Ward Carriage and Blacksmith Shop, and the Union Chapel. To the south, the property was framed by the former “Rockabye Baby” railroad right-of-way. The railroad ceased operation in 1913 and the tracks removed and sold as scrap metal for the profit of the owner, Frank B. Allen.

Brookside School

Schoolhouse before the move, where the present Municipal Building is located

tMr. Kiser bid $455 and purchased the old schoolhouse. He had it moved to the northeast corner of his property. It is unknown how the building was moved but it is thought that either the railings from the bridge were removed to accommodate the width of the building or a temporary bridge was constructed across Harmony Brook. Such a move would have been “big news” in downtown Brookside and occasioned much excitement by his neighbors. The school cupola either collapsed or was removed during the move.

He and his friends probably discussed the move and what he planned to do with the building. After much thought, Mr. Kiser had a new vision. With friends and neighbors, Fred developed the idea of a community center for adults and children. However, the Community would need to buy into this plan.

On August 16th, 1923, a meeting was held at the Connett Home on Washington Valley Road to discuss the acquisition of the Kiser property. There were seven people including Benjamin Natkins, John J. Burling, and Fred Kiser. Mr. Kiser agreed to sell his 3.8 acres and the former schoolhouse still being erected on a new foundation for $4,000. Then, Mr. Natkins agreed to donate two hundred dollars with the other six pledging one hundred dollars each. Benjamin Natkins was appointed as chairman responsible for raising the remaining funds.

Later that month on August 29th, the first meeting was held in the relocated schoolhouse. This was a community meeting of about sixty residents. They opened the meeting by singing “America the Beautiful” (The Star Spangled Banner was not the national anthem until 1930), along with other music. Enthusiasm prevailed. A committee of seventeen men and women, including Mr. Kiser, was formed to organize the planning for the new club.

Community Club of Brookside

THE CLUB

The Club was established for the benefit of all Township residents with the building to be used for suppers, socials, and indoor entertainment, and the grounds to be used as a playground and for events such as fairs and outdoor festivals. All residents sixteen and older would be able to vote on all Club issues, while children under sixteen would have full use of the Club property. Bylaws were to be adopted at a November meeting.

The November 1923 meeting was well attended. The Club was to be run by a Board of Governors to supervise and maintain its viability. The members were the Presidents and one other member of the Women’s Club, The Ladies Aid, Parent Teachers Association, and The Fire Department (Brookside Engine CO. #1), the Pastor and one member of the Board of Trustees of the Church, and the Superintendent and one teacher or officer of the Sunday School.

In addition, other organizations might be added by a two-thirds affirmative vote of the Governors. A key responsibility for the Governors was to host annual fund-raising events. Officers to be elected were a president, a vice president, a treasurer, and a secretary. The Officers were responsible for the day-to-day operation of the Club.

An annual meeting of all members was to be held each November for election of the Governors and the Officers, along with transacting Club business. The makeup of the Governors and the Officers would change over the years to suit the times and the needs of the Club. 

An example from 1930:

President – Honorary Mr. Watkins
President – Mr. Stanley Sailor
Vice President – Mr. George Tise
Treasurer – Miss. Mary Pruden
Secretary – Mrs. S. Sailor

Board of Governors
Mr. Frank Tiger – term expires 1930.
Mrs. George Combs – Term expires 1930.
Mr. Eli Hulbert – Terms expires 1930.
Mr. c. Paugh – Term expires 1931.
Mr. A. Hammerslough – Term expires 1931.
Mrs. Georgia Schenk – Term expires 1931.
Mr. George Houghland – Term expires 1932.
Mr. George Combs – Term expires 1932.
Mrs. Eli Hulbert – Term expires 1932.

Ex-officio Members
Mrs. Frank Tiger – President of the Women’s Club
Mrs. George Bockoven – President of the Ladies Aid Society
Mrs. D. Van Doran – Superintendent of the Sunday School
Mrs. Charles Pruden – President of the P.T.A.
Mr. Durward Hulbert – Chief of the Fire Company
Mr. Robert Major – Boys Club Leader
Mr. George Fisher, Jr. – Brookside A. C.

In 1923 the old schoolhouse was the largest community meeting space in Mendham Township. This old building was much narrower than today. As a schoolhouse it had two main rooms, along with separate entrances for each room. Later, to enlarge the Club, the two rooms were combined and a wing with a fireplace was added. The new main entrance was to the side facing the ball fields. The cupola was reconstructed by Ernie Maw, Sr. in 1943, replacing an earlier long absent cupola. An emergency siren was added to the cupola during WW II. At the rear, a kitchen and bathrooms were added in the late1950’s. Later, to meet ADA requirements, a porch and accessible entrance were added to the southside of the building.

Many groups were formed to use the Club facilities and grounds. This included the original Boy Scout Troop 1, which was organized by the national organization. It was made up of the youth of the Mendham Township and Borough including Ernie Maw, Jr. They were featured in the pictures of the official Boy Scout Handbook. The adults formed a rod and gun club in 1930, importing small game to hunt.

As time passed, the Club building served the emerging needs of the community. When the Union Chapel burned in 1942, the Community Club was used for church services until a new Church was built at the end of the Second World War.

On a terrible, wintry night in February of 1959, Jane MacNeil, who had attended first grade there, recalls watching from the Shield’s home as the Community Club burned. In the frigid weather, the Brookside Engine Company members arrived promptly from across the street and used 10 handlines to quickly extinguish the fire. The interior was badly damaged, especially the stage. During reconstruction, a kitchen was added in place of the stage.

The Club operated with the Kiser 3.8-acre lot and the school building for almost thirty years. In 1952, 24.3 acres from the John J. Burling Estate were given to the Club. In 1965, the Club acquired an additional 13.7 acres from the Kiser family.

Grain House

Included in the Burling gift was a second building on the property. The old grain storage house which was a remaining vestige of the “Rockabye Baby” Railroad. Prior to Club ownership, John T. Cunningham, noted New Jersey historian, was raised in the Grain House during the Depression. His family survived by burning the wood ties of the abandoned railroad. Later, when the Club acquired it in 1952, it became a rental property. One of their first tenants was Maxi Prince, who cut an interesting figure in his feathered cowboy hat, while driving an ancient, immense Cadillac.

Brookside Grain House

In the 1950’s, the Club returned to its roots by housing the first grade while a new elementary school was under construction. The fields continued to be a center of various sports teams for both young and old. In 1952, the Club sponsored the Little League with Mendham Borough and Chester. With the Church across the street and later occupying the building, no sports were permitted on Sundays. Of course, “theory meets reality” and the Club files include complaint letters as late as the 1980’s decrying ball games on Sundays.

Brookside Baseball Team

The Club sponsors a July 4th parade. The first parade is said to have been held when the members of the Brookside Engine Company purchased dress uniforms. These are “special events” since they are sponsored by the Club, but funded by the residents, who also construct floats, march in the parade, and compete in friendly competitions for “blue ribbons.” Community groups, youth teams, fire companies, and first aid squads march with similar organizations from neighboring towns to the beat of hired bands. In 2023 the Club will hold a parade to celebrate its 100th anniversary and July 4th.

In years past the Brookside Engine Company sponsored a circus on Community Club grounds. Although this was discontinued, in the 1970s the Company began hosting a very popular family clambake. This tradition continues today.

Brookside Parade 200 Years Progress

BOARD OF GOVERNORS, OFFICERS, & CLUB VIABILITY

In early 1948 the Club Officers and Governors were concerned about maintaining the property. They decided to offer the Club to the Township. Their one proviso was that the Town must continue the civic purpose of the Club. The Township Committee was excited by the offer. At this time, they operated the government out of rooms above the Brookside Engine Company which was still occupying the old Ward building. The Committee envisioned turning the Club building into a townhall. For nine months they negotiated without success. Ultimately, the Township Committee rejected the Club’s offer, due to the limitations to changes that they wanted to make. The Club’s independence was retained. However, understanding the maintenance of the ball fields was a drain on Club resources, the Township eventually accepted the responsibility for ball field maintenance – a good example of a public/private partnership.

Over the first seventy years, there were a series of Club presidents and Boards who successfully ran the Club. However, in the mid-nineties, a long serving Carmelo Gaito, who was the Club president, and her board began looking for new people to take over the operation. In this interim period, out of concern for the viability of the Club, it was decided to put the Club property under the protection of the State Green Acres program so that no future Board could sell off parts of the property. The application was accepted, but there was a wrinkle. The State was confused – the documentation referred to the property as being in Mendham Borough, (which of course was the wrong community). This mistake was corrected. The Club property was protected.

However, the leadership issue remained. After a fruitless search for new volunteers, they let the groups who regularly used the Club, including the Women’s Club, know that they should look for a new place to meet. Once again, the Club officers were convinced that the Club should be turned over to the Township Government. Many local residents disagreed. Betty Mae Conable, who was a key member of the Women’s Club, was very concerned that the Club would be acquired by the Township. She talked to her daughter, Lynda Menton, who was also the Captain of the Mendham Township First Aid Squad.

Fortunately, the founders had foreseen that problems might arise. Their solution was to have a Governing Board to decide key issues of the Club. Therefore, the Governors would have to vote to give the Club to the Township. The Township Committee was excited about the Community Club becoming a municipal property. The feelings of the residents remained mixed. The Church representatives sided with the Township. However, The Brookside Engine Co. #1 wanted the Club to remain independent.

The President of the Brookside Engine Co. #1 met with the Township Mayor to explain why the club should remain private. At the suggestion of the Engine Co. President, the other Governors agreed to add the Mendham Township First Aid Squad as a new Governor.

Howard Helms, Secretary of The Club, invited the Governors to a meeting at the Community Club. The Board of Governors included the Brookside Community Church, Mendham Township Fire Department, Mendham Township First Aid Squad, Brookside Women’s Club, Women’s Fellowship (previously the Ladies Aid), and Home and School Association (previously the P.T.A.) A vote was taken. By four to two the Club remained private.

A new leadership team took over with Denis Menton as President and Bill Moran as a financial advisor. Denis and Lynda with Jessie Smith formed a new core group of local residents who successfully kept the Club private and profitable into the 21st century which included navigating the challenges of COVID-19.

Having adapted to changing times, while remaining a vital community resource, IN THIS YEAR, 2023, THE CLUB IS ONE HUNDRED YEARS OLD.

Sam Tolley April 1, 2023
Pat Zimmerman – Editor

Sources:
Brookside Community Club Meeting Minutes
Brookside Community Club 50th Anniversary Record
personal interviews
newspaper articles
Wikipedia