A Courtship with History


By Bonnie C. Sovinee

Take some time to explore the town of Somerville, the Somerset County seat. There are several walking tours available through the Somerset County Chamber of Commerce and the Heritage Trail Association. Lodging is easily accessible within a five mile radius. Places to eat abound.

Victorian Somerville is a pleasant stroll among the grand houses from our past which are well kept and only a block or two from Main Street. The tour is relatively self-explanatory, but you're certain to find someone in passing who will be happy to add a story or two of his own, and complete the journey into the genteel days gone by.

Walking Tours

In the center of town, a special tour has been written for the "Second Story Somerville" which explores the commercial district, its development, and architecture. Its easy to appreciate the intricate moldings and adornments from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A small pamphlet is available for your walking and touring pleasure.

A key element of Somerville is the Somerset County Courthouse, recently renovated to restore its original beauty while meeting current building codes. The task was formidable, but the result is fantastic. With notice, and a reservation, the Cultural & Heritage Commission will provide docents to guide you or your group through the hallowed chambers. Call 908-781-6304 for more information or to make a tour appointment. School groups are welcome except on Thursdays.

Down the Street is the Old Public Library and Somerville Borough Hall which has unusual castle-like architecture. It serves today as the symbol for Downtown Somerville. The structure sits on a triangular property populated by great oak trees under which concerts and activities often take place.

Paul Robeson Street is named in honor of the former Somerville resident who achieved international fame. A "Renaissance man", Robeson excelled as a scholar, received ovations as an opera star, and achieved athletic eminence as an All- American Football star. He was an actor, and civil rights activist as well. His father was pastor of a small white steepled church located on Robeson Street.

Another interesting walking tour surveys the "Historic Churches in Somerville". Several churches are decorated with valuable stained glass windows designed by the Tiffany Glass Company like those in the jurors' waiting room, adjacent to the County Courthouse. Originally the First Reformed Church built in 1857, this building was scheduled for demolition to make way for the new court administration building and court rooms. Fortunately, the building was saved, but not before the wrecking ball had struck one corner of the building. The different stone used to rebuild the building reminds us of the hundreds of people who protested the demise of such a treasure. To view the churches and their windows, contact The Heritage Trail Association.

A walk through Somerville provides antique lovers with plenty of treasures in a variety of antique and collectibles stores near the center of town.

Historical Drama

The Hall / Mills Murder Trial, the first "Trial of the Century" took place in the Somerset County Courthouse

Reporters camped out on the great lawn trying to scoop the competition and discover who actually was responsible for the murder of two lovers found in an orchard with love letters ripped and scattered among their bodies. The story is one of scandal and controversy, for the two lovers- he the parish minister and she a prominent citizen and member of the church choir- were both married to other people. Local figures and personalities captivated the nation, including the "Pig Woman" who was rolled into court on her bed to testify. Mysterious strangers were brought in and questioned, but the witnesses never did help resolve the guilt, nor absolve the innocence of the accused.

To this day there are two panes of glass in the great stained glass rotunda which bear a controversy of their own. Local legend implicates an overzealous photographer who wanted to get pictures of the "Pig Woman" and the trial proceedings through the building's roof by breaking the glass. It is ironic that, in order to remember the intrusive press, a judge named Diana decided to restore the panels with two plane blue panes rather than with glass matching the original design.

But the great beauty of Somerset beckons us to leave the town centers and explore the more majestic rural environs. One of the best ways to learn about Somerset is to purchase the self-driving tour of Somerset County. A multitude of legends and lore, complete with maps and directions is available from the Somerset County Chamber of Commerce (908-725-1552) and/or the Heritage Trail Association (732-356-8856).


While in Somerville be sure to stop at 166 W. Main Street for the US Bicycle Hall of Fame where the history of American bicycling and champions is exhibited. It is open daily from 10 am to 4pm, and donations are accepted. Timelines and souvenirs are available. Call 908-722-3620 for more information.Just down the hall at Ride-Wise you can acquire a bicycle map of Somerset County, and guide to area historic sites, bicycle centers, and learn the ease or difficulty of a bike route for only one dollar.

Nearby, on Dougherty Street is the Fireman's Museum which is open on weekends from 10 am to 12 p.m. for groups of six or more, and school groups by appointment. It contains a collection of historic fire fighting equipment and memorabilia.

Listed on the National Registry are the Old Dutch Parsonage and Wallace House. Both are located on Washington Place, one block away from Main Street. Call 908-725-1015 for more information. Signs will lead you to one of General George Washington's headquarters during the Revolutionary War. This site is a State owned Museum whose curator, Jim Kurzenberger, will be happy to tour you through the two adjacent buildings. Somerset is home to still another of Washington's Headquarters in Franklin Township/ Rocky Hill at the Rockingham Museum.

For more information about Somerville and Somerset County call the Somerset County Business Partnership at 908/218-4300. Or check out their website.

This story was first published: Autumn, 1997
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