High Maintenance

Mount Tabor

by Patricia Herold

The tall iron arch at the foot of the high hill signals something special. Still drivers speeding or snaking by, intent on making their way between Morris Plains, Parsippany and Denville, rarely make the turn. Overshadowed by traffic on Route 53, overpowered by adjacent housing tracts, industrial parks, and strip malls, the arch’s invitation is bold, but easy to ignore. It announces a name in bright letters: Mount Tabor. But for many passersby what lies beyond remains a mystery.

Richardson History House

As it turns out, there’s a reward for the curious. Above that gate, perched on a hillside, a tiny treasure hides in plain sight. Mount Tabor, named for a biblical mountain near the Sea of Galilee, is an architectural adventure—full of Victorian cottages sporting period paints and gingerbread, with a colorful history to match. It’s as if a sliver of vintage Cape May somehow landed in busy, suburban Morris County. Though only about 350 families strong, the community, which began as a Methodist summer tent camp just after the Civil War, is long on personality and welcoming spirit.

“It’s like driving into another world,” says Michelle La Conto Munn, a native mid-westerner who has lived in Mount Tabor for twenty years and leads its historical society. But once you’ve arrived, she advises, park the car: “It’s meant to be walked through, not driven through.”

This is a world where people sit on porches so close they can shake hands with the neighbor next door; walk to the library for a book; pick up daily mail at the post office (no home delivery) and live in houses decked out in crazy quilt combinations of salmon, mint, raspberry, olive, purple, teal, and ochre.

Cottages on Trinity Park

“You have to go to the post office, which means you have to get to know your neighbors,” says George Philhower, a third generation resident and head of the annual At The Tabernacle Concert Series. “You can’t be a hermit.”

Established in 1869 as part of the Newark Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, Mount Tabor began as a summer worship retreat for the faithful, many of whom arrived from points East, such as the Oranges, Bloomfield, Jersey City and Newark. They camped in “the mountains” on tented wooden platforms—measuring 16 by 25 feet. The location was remote, made up of farms and countryside: the town of Denville didn’t exist. It would be decades before any kind of development encroached. The common ground was religious: campers communed with brethren, inhaled fresh air, opened their hearts, listened to inspirational speeches from religious orators and raised a banner, declaring “Jesus Reigns.”

Tented platforms are set up for the annual House Tour.

But by 1889, secularization of the community seemed in sight. “Few prominent clergy men have preached here, and the crowds that have attended have come more with the idea of a picnic in mind than with any care for their spiritual welfare,” was how The New York Times described the Mount Tabor Methodist encampment that year.

On single tent-sized house survives at 31 Fletcher Place.

Today, Mount Tabor is a secular year-round community, though street and building names (St. John’s, Trinity Place, the Bethel and the Tabernacle) hark back to holy origins. Over the years, residents built summer cottages where tents once stood. As a result, the historic district’s layout is cheek by jowl, recalling the crowded togetherness of early revival gatherings. Many historic homes’ dimensions are multiples of those 16 x 25 foot “tent lots.” Only one single tent-sized house still survives: 37 Fletcher Place, Mt. Tabor’s smallest, which, at just over 500 square feet, adheres to the original tent lot dimensions, except for a modest first floor addition. Other historic homes are still miniature; one measures barely more than 1,000 square feet. Most are larger; summer residents combined houses and lots to create bigger homes and yards. (Munn’s home is a combination of two cottages, both dating to 1875 and combined in 1888.)

Despite its history and concentration of Victorian buildings, not until 2015 did the Mount Tabor historic district land on the New Jersey and National Register of Historic Places.

A walking tour could begin with a train ride. Trains have been running to the Mount Tabor platform (first the Delaware Lackawanna and Western) since 1881 and still do. According to the blog Transitism, the station is one of the least used in New Jersey, with roughly 34 “passenger boardings” each day. For those who prefer to go by car, parking at the New Jersey Transit lot is restricted during the week, but free and open to the public on Saturdays and Sundays (parking in Mount Tabor itself is limited). It’s a short walk from the tracks across busy Route 53 to what townspeople call “The Hill.” Enter through the welcoming iron arch, flanked by glacial puddingstone columns and walls.

A hike up a grassy tree shaded knoll leads to quiet Simpson Avenue, which cuts across town. Just below, a gazebo invites you to sit and take in the hilltop view to the west. Above stands a colorful cluster of barn-sized town buildings - the Old Firehouse with its bell (which announced fires until a siren replaced it in 1923), original Tabernacle (1869), and octagonal Tabernacle (1885), decked out in board and batten siding in bold green and red paint. Both Tabernacles (the earlier one relocated in 1885 to make room for the newer larger one) served as gathering spots for the faithful, framing preachers’ stands.

Today, the Tabernacle houses community events as well as a music world fixture: the long-running At The Tabernacle Concert Series. Promoters of the folk/rock series tout the venue’s exceptional acoustics with an appreciative quote from the legendary John Sebastian: “This building plays like a fine guitar.” The building once held as many as 1,200 worshipers, but At The Tabernacle caps occupancy at 350.

The Tabernacle sits at the entrance to Trinity Park, overlooking the firehouse.

On the high side of the Tabernacle lies the heart of the historic district: pretty, pedestrian-only Trinity Park, approached by narrow walking paths from all sides. A grass circle lined with gingerbread cottages, it’s a world in miniature. Yet thousands of worshippers are said to have gathered here on benches and leaning over upstairs and downstairs porch rails to listen to camp meeting services. The Lilliputian octagonal public library, also known as the Ebenezer Pavilion, was once an open air prayer space. Enclosed for use as a community library in 1901, it now ranks as the smallest branch of the Parsippany Troy Hills library system.

Mount Tabor Library on Trinity Park

The Richardson family were summer residents, occupying the downhill third of a triple cottage constructed on original tent lots in 1873. Owned continuously by successive generations of that same family, their home was bequeathed to the Historical Society in 2007 by descendant Evelyn Blackford Clark, who had lived there since 1948. The Society restored it as a “Camp Meeting Cottage Museum,” filling it with Victorian furniture, a Chinese lantern—popular in the day and used to decorate and illuminate tents—photos, Camp Meeting posters and memorabilia. Once linoleum and sheet rock were removed, original features emerged, including stenciled interior paint motifs, pine floors and bead board. The double front doors leading to the porch and opening to “The Circle” mimic flaps of the tent that preceded the cottage. Open the second Sunday of each month from 12 - 4 p.m. or by appointment, the house also contains a shop stocked with books and Mount Tabor mementos and gifts.

Nearby stands the Bethel, once the “Children’s Pavilion,” another octagonal structure that began as an open prayer space. The site of daily 4 to 5 p.m. children’s services during Camp Meeting days, it remains a community gathering place, which Mount Tabor families can reserve for special events (since most homes are small, residents sometimes turn to larger common spaces for family reunions).

Trinity Park

Walking uphill from “The Circle” takes you past a cast iron fountain (a replica of the 1875 original) then up the “Golden Stairs” (thought to refer to their heavenward orientation) to a higher elevation and St. James Park, home to a colossal stone water tower. Beyond, crossing St. John’s Avenue to Ridgewood Avenue, long views open up over the Mount Tabor Country Club golf course. The clubhouse, built in 1911, was once a center for community athletic activities.

Be sure to wander on your way back down. Nearly every block near the town’s central axis sports a proudly restored Victorian or two, along with a fixer upper, mid-century interloper or slightly crumbling relic. While wandering, be assured: Mount Tabor prides itself on a neighborly atmosphere. “You wave to your neighbor when you drive by and they wave back,” says Jeff Dickerson, whose family pre-dates the name “Mount Tabor,” having sold its hillside farm to the Camp Meeting Association more than a century ago. “Everybody gets excited about the architecture and the history,” he adds. “But for me it’s about the neighbors.” The nineteenth century grocery business his forebears established lives on: the family owns the shopping center opposite the town’s entrance, and operates a supermarket there. After nearly 123 years in business at Mount Tabor’s base, selling groceries to Taborites, a neighborly atmosphere prevails. “We know our customers by name,” Dickerson says.

Many families live in Mount Tabor for generations. Betsy Pauli, whose family moved to town in the early 1940s, has not one but three daughters living in Mount Tabor; one right next door, in a house that used to belong to her grandparents. That side of the community is on display at the annual House Tour every September (this year on September 24th) and during Mount Tabor Children’s Day, a summer reunion for all ages, when the community crowns a young king and queen and brings everyone together for a parade, games, and music, honoring a tradition going back nearly 150 years.

In a nod to the past, those who choose to live in Mount Tabor encounter an unusual twist. While the camp meetings are history, aspects of Mount Tabor life are still run by the Camp Meeting Association or “CMA” which functions as a homeowners association, caring for the historic common buildings and parks and administering many aspects of the community. Though the town, once a municipality in its own right, became part of Parsippany Troy Hills in 1980, the CMA continues to own Mount Tabor ‘s property, leasing the land to homeowners, who pay annual fees.

“Either you love it or you don’t,” observes Bonnie Zeh, a longtime resident whose parents moved to town in the fifties, when she was six months old. “And I don’t know how you can’t love it.”

Nearby accommodations and attractions

  • Millstone Scenic Byway
  • , Millstone

  • Jacobus Vanderveer House
  • The Jacobus Vanderveer house is the only surviving building associated with the Pluckemin encampment.

    1 River Rd W, Bedminster 07921, 908/212-7000 x611

  • Drakesville Historic District
  • Just off the old, now-vanished, Ledgewood Circle, a stone's throw from the mall, the Drakesville Historic Park pays tribute to Morris County's pedigree of innovative pioneers.

    , ,

  • Hutcheson Memorial Forest
  • , Franklin Twp. ,

  • The Raptor Trust
  • The Raptor Trust is one of the premier wild bird rehabilitation centers in the United States.

    1452 White Bridge Road, Millington 07946, 908/647-2353



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18 Apr 2018, 09:49
Benedict never made my skin crawl the way Commie Frankie does.
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Dusty Thorn
25 Mar 2018, 12:07
Greetings, I grew up in Mt. Tabor. My family moved there in 1950 when I was 2yrs old. I lived there until leaving for college and returned for short time in late 70's while helping my mother move back to Nova Scotia, her birthplace, after my father passed away. Reading all of your comments brought me back and reminded me what truly a special place 'Tabor' was. I thought I would be the only one to remember Bloody Guts. Also, Children's Day, the Baseball field and Basketball court(I remember when it was a dirt court..Ha!), summers at the Lake, playing horseshoes are the Playground behind the Philhower's house, Holloween and Mischief Night. I also remember the skating pond across from Connie's store and the original Dickerson's corner store. Our house was right across from the 4ht fairway on the golf course and remembering hunting for golf balls and selling them to the golfers making decent money for the time. There were plenty of kids around in 'those' days and a plethora of things do for everyone.
I found an article written by two reporters for a New Jersey magazine who were traveling around Joyzee looking for places of interest to report about. They just happened on Mt. Tabor and curious, spent time investigating the neighborhood. They were a little shocked at what they discovered. I remember in their article they wrote about Tabor and how it should be used as a template for designing modern neighborhoods. I would totally agree.
Mary Emily Cameron
20 Jul 2017, 17:11
My parents moved to Butler Pass just before I was born in 1948. I still think of Mt. Tabor as where I gfrew up (only until I was 9) - the Hallowe'en bon fires, "Bloody Guts" for sledding on the golf course, walks to get the mail, Mr. McCurty getting the trash, (always with a "Hi:") to take to the dump, "Bill" grading the dirt roads and then "rescuing" me from the tar on my shoes as we stomped out the bubbles the hot summers brought to the roads. It was the very best place to grow up - with people I will never forget - Weyants, Simpsons, Lincolns, Arnolds, Anthonys, Coverts. My days sitting on the floor of the library were an introduction to reading - a gift that can never be repaid. In hindsight I am indebted to Mrs. Stickle teaching first grade. In 1954 she was a "pickle," and many years later, with a PhD behind my name, she was my best teacher. There was skating on the pond the fire deoartment created acro,ss from Connie's ." Ice cream was 10 cents a scoop. The memories go on and on and on.
Kathy Fallon
22 Apr 2017, 08:01
Mt. Tabor was a fabulous place to live ~ although, we were not there very long, I still think about it often!
Elizabeth Denny
20 Aug 2016, 23:13
Hello, I used to live in Mt. Tabor when I was 1 until about 14 years old! I remember Mischief Night, Halloween with a bon fire and free powdered donuts and apple cider, being a caddy for my dad on the golf course, sledding down the course durning the winters, walking to school in the deep snow with my snow pants on, and Children's Day. I might have a few pictures of our family on Children's Day. In fact, my twin sister and I won first prize one year! As I an now 66 years old-I no longer need these pictures as my memory has extremely vivid and fond memories of my youth there. You would be welcome to them to add them to any display you might have of "the olden days." Please let me know if you are interested and where to send them. My maiden name is Giffin. My parents were John and Margaret Giffin.

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