Research shines new light on old legends

Published 10:33 am Wednesday, April 25, 2018

To The Leader

First Presbyterian Church Pastor, Rev. Mike Umbenhaur and members, Karen Colburn and Kathleen Hardey visited the Stark Foundation’s Eunice R. Benckenstein Library & Archive last week. They are researching information for tours of the historic building.

Frances Ann Lutcher commissioned the Church and its furnishings as a memorial to her husband, Henry Jacob Lutcher’s family. Lutcher was the founder of the Lutcher & Moore Lumber Company, which arrived in Orange in 1877. The congregation dedicated the new Church on January 28, 1912.

Over the years, we pass stories down. Like the children’s game of telephone, those stories often gain new details and variations on the original facts. The First Presbyterian docents are revisiting the story of Frances Ann’s gift, and with access to long-stored Lutcher family materials, are rediscovering parts of the story.

“A docent asked me to look over the tour outline,” said Library & Archive manager, Jenniffer Hudson Connors “Instead of checking their facts, we invited them over to research their history using primary sources and other archival materials.”

They are the first (beyond Foundation employees) to use the new archive for research.

“Many of the Lutcher family papers are housed here in the Archive,” explained Hudson Connors. “Henry and Frances were the parents of Miriam Lutcher Stark. Miriam married W. H. Stark in 1881, their son H.J. Lutcher Stark and his wife Nelda established the Stark Foundation in 1961. The Foundation committed to saving the family’s old business records and personal papers by building the state-of-the-art Library & Archive, which we dedicated earlier this year.”

“One of the more than 2,000 boxes of records we moved here was marked “Presbyterian Church,” remembered Hudson Connors. We shared the contents of that box with the Church members. “In it were old Sunday programs, newspaper clippings, and several Sunday school attendance records. Among the saved stack of old newspapers we found a special insert to the 1910 Orange Leader.”

Karen Colburn examined a photo of the Church in the Leader’s Holiday edition dated December 23, 1910. She noticed the streets looked paved, and wondered if that would have been the case at that time. Upon further examination and discussion, the three decided it was not a photograph, but rather an artist’s rendering of the building. Green Avenue was indeed a dirt road at that time.

Kathleen Hardey read aloud from the article:

“…the magnificent Lutcher Memorial Church, which has just recently been completed at a cost of $300,000…for ages to come it will stand as a memorial to the name of Lutcher, a name closely linked with the progress and prosperity of Orange.”

The cost of the Church has long been a closely held secret, perhaps one that Frances Ann took to the grave with her. Or so we all thought. The legend tells us that Frances Ann destroyed the receipts and kept the cost to herself, not wanting to flaunt her wealth. We know that the Lumber baron Henry Jacob Lutcher credited his wife with contributing to the family business’s success. It looks from this article that the astute business woman, Frances Ann, shared the cost with the reporter to show the progress and prosperity of the growing community of Orange!

Drew Whatley, the Library & Archive’s Educator for Public History and Coordinator of the Stark Reading Contest, also made a recent discovery concerning the Church’s history. Frances Ann’s daughter, Miriam, taught Sunday School at the Church for many decades. Inside her bible, Miriam wrote her class’s motto: “Ps. 82-3 Defend the poor and fatherless do justice to the afflicted and needy.”

We’ve long known Miriam established a reading contest to encourage literacy and public speaking in 1904. Whatley has been researching old school yearbooks looking for names of early contest winners. He recently came upon a letter in the Archive that pointed him in a different direction. The reading contest actually began with Miriam’s Sunday School class, not the public schools. Colburn promised to check the minutes of the Church meetings to see if someone recorded the names there.

Rev. Umbenhaur commented, “My limited knowledge of the history of First Presbyterian Church was just expanded today. It was more than just fact-checking, but also affirmation that God is active in Orange and has been for a long time.”

“This was a great way to inaugurate the new Benckenstein Library & Archive,” said Trina Nelson Thomas, Director of the Stark Foundation’s Art & History Venues. “I learn something new every time I am up there. I didn’t know the relationship between Miriam Lutcher Stark’s Sunday School class and the first Reading and Declamation Contest.  What a great story!”