August 21, 2019

Nonprofits with Similar Missions To Share a Home in the Sourlands

ROARING ROCKS: This area of the Somerset County Sourland Mountain Preserve is overseen by the Sourland Conservancy, which is dedicated to protecting, promoting, and preserving the unique character of the Sourland Mountain Region. (Photo courtesy of the Sourland Conservancy)

By Wendy Greenberg

The Sourland Conservancy and the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum, two non-profits with the shared mission of preservation, have purchased a property that will help them protect and preserve both the ecology and the history of the Sourland region.

The two organizations are now co-owners of a property at 191 Hollow Road in Skillman that overlooks the Rock Brook and preserved woodlands next to the current museum, within the Mt. Zion AME Church, which houses artifacts. The conservancy and the museum are jointly raising funds for new program space and offices.

The Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum (SSAAM) tells the story of the unique culture, experiences, and contributions of the African American community of the Sourland Mountain Region of central New Jersey. The Sourland Conservancy protects, promotes, and preserves the unique character of the Sourland Mountain Region.

The Delaware & Raritan Greenway Trust brought together several partners in the new venture, and secured a contract to purchase the land. The trust was formed in 1989 to preserve land in New Jersey. At the July 29 closing for the purchase of the Hollow Road property and adjacent streams and woodlands, one parcel was purchased by Sourland Conservancy, and another — 6.6 acres along Rock Brook Greenway — was purchased by Montgomery Township as permanent open space. This land is an important link between the AME Church and the new Sourland Conservancy/SSAAM property, and the township’s Bessie Grover Park, according to Montgomery Township Mayor Sadaf Jaffer. The township plans to expand Bessie Grover Park.

The eight-acre Whidden property is where Georgia Whidden raised her children as they played in the woods and stream. “Our family is delighted that we’ve been able to help with the preservation of both this beautiful property along Rock Brook, and the Hollow Road AME Church,” said Whidden.

Both the Sourland Conservancy and SSAAM have received grants to restore the historic church, which has been entered into the New Jersey Register of Historic Places. Restoration work has been partially funded by grants from the Somerset County Historic Preservation Grant Program, NJ Center for the Humanities, and the NJ Historic Trust/1772 Foundation Grant. Many individual donors have contributed toward this project as well.

The next steps toward creation of the SC/SSAAM campus are demolition of dilapidated structures on the property and fundraising for the next phase, which includes engineering and architectural work, said Caroline Katmann, executive director of the Sourland Conservancy.

“It’s exciting to build something that never existed before,” said Katmann, who noted that the Conservancy is outgrowing its office space. “We share a unique desire to preserve the history of the region and help visitors learn about the African American history and unique ecology.”

The historic-oriented Stoutsburg Cemetery Association and the Sourland Conservancy have worked together since 2014 to tell the story of the African American presence in the Sourlands and Hopewell Valley. A connection was made five years ago when the museum gave a presentation at the Conservancy, Katmann said, and a separate board was formed.

Although the museum currently is not open regular hours to the public, it was born out of decades of research by two of its advisory board members, Beverly Mills and Elaine Buck, who published a book on the Soutsburg Cemetery, If These Stones Could Talk.  “There are many conservation groups in the area, and there are also several historic societies,” said John Buck, SSAAM board president. “The partnership of SSAAM and the Sourland Conservancy is a unique combination of both fields.”

The Sourlands history is traced to settling by the Lenape, followed by Dutch farmers in the 1600s, bringing some of the area’s first black slaves, according to the conservancy’s documented history. By the 19th century, mills, lumber, quarries, agriculture, and pottery production developed the area, eventually attracting artists, writers, a signer of the Declaration of Independence (John Hart), and Charles Lindbergh.

In the 1880s improved roads made the land attractive to developers and home buyers, and residents of Hillsborough, Hopewell, and East Amwell shared concerns about unsustainable development. Recruiting members, working with local governments, and speaking at hearings on unsound environmental activities, the group grew. The publication of New Jersey’s Sourland Mountain by T.J. Luce, a retired Princeton professor and Sourland Planning Council trustee, helped spread the word. In 2012 an executive director was hired, and in 2013, the name was changed to reflect that the group was not a government planning body, establishing the Sourland Conservancy.

For more information about the project fundraising, contact Katmann at