Each year, residents of New Jersey’s historic Mount Tabor open their doors to visitors for a glimpse of the living past. The open-house takes place on a Saturday afternoon in late September but after the event, when private residences are not open to the public, a visit to this community remains inviting, especially at this time of year when the trees are glowing.
Like its larger and better known Victorian counterpart, Ocean Grove on the Jersey shore, Mount Tabor was founded as a Methodist Camp Meeting Ground in 1869 during the post-Civil War religious revival movement. Summer worshippers flocked to the idyllic retreat 35 miles west of midtown Manhattan to pray and socialize amid the cooling woodlands and abundant lakes. The hilltop settlement took its name from the Biblical mountain believed by Christians to be the site of Christ’s Transfiguration.
The faithful initially occupied canvas tents but the more affluent soon erected cottages to make their 2-week stays more comfortable, retaining a tent as a front porch, or open invitation. Visiting one family after another was the social glue of the community; no one was ever turned away, no matter the time of day. Gradually, the tents’ decorative ties, edgings, and fringes were translated into wood with increasingly elaborate stickwork and gingerbread ornamentation around rooflines, windows, doors, and especially porches.
Cottages grew into more substantial houses (always in multiples of the standard 16’ x 25’ tent lot size) as the faithful dwindled from thousands to hundreds and many elected to stay past summer. Mount Tabor became a year-round community in 1909 when the installation of deep laid water pipes prevented winter freezing. It flourished during the Depression when people relocated from larger, more costly homes elsewhere, but fell into neglect in the 1970s and ‘80s. In recent years, thanks to efforts of the Mount Tabor Historical Society, a growing historical awareness has led to the restoration of an increasing number of Mount Tabor’s approximately 300 buildings.
From the beginning and continuing to this day, residents have owned their homes but leased their land at a nominal fee from the Camp Meeting Association; the system that predated New York’s first residential co-op by nearly a decade. Very low taxes, a defining cultural heritage and strong community bonds account for Mount Tabor’s loyal population. Many residents have never lived anywhere else.
The small town was stripped of municipal status in 1980 and incorporated within neighboring Parsippany Township following a New Jersey Supreme Court decision over the separation of church and state. Mount Tabor is now a fully integrated secular community, although residents recall that as recently as forty years ago, the arrival of an Irish Catholic family caused widespread concern.
Early revival meetings took place outdoors protected by a large tent with sides that could be rolled up or down, as needed. The tent was an octagon, the shape associated with renewal and eternal life (and also because the devil was believed to lurk in square corners). Following the same development pattern as residences at the encampment, the preaching tent was soon replaced by a more permanent wooden structure. The current Tabernacle is the second on the site. It was built as an elongated octagon in 1885 to accommodate 1,200 people and equipped with four sets of double doors that opened to overflow crowds in the field beyond.
According to the celebrated musician John Sebastian, the wood frame Tabernacle “plays like a vintage guitar” due to its warmth and superior acoustics. Somewhat surprisingly for its sleepy location, the Tabernacle has staged folk-rock concerts for a long list of world-class performers, including Arlo Guthrie, Richie Havens, Kenny Rankin, Graham Parker, Donovan, Yo Yo Ma, and most recently Art Garfunkel (on September 7, 2013), among many others. Seasonal performance schedules are regularly updated.
Mount Tabor can be reached by car or conveniently by train on the Morristown line of New Jersey Transit; from Denville Station it is literally a two-minute walk to settlement’s front gate. The historic site can be visited year round but keep in mind that there are no stores or restaurants inside so bring your own supplies or stop at the market next to the station before going up the hill. Depending on the season, you also might want to visit Mount Tabor’s arrestingly beautiful golf course, one of the first in New Jersey. But be forewarned: the 9-hole course is reserved for the exclusive use of members.