There's no organization quite like the YMCA.
Seventeen years after the first Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) opened in the U.S., a notice in the Somerville Unionist-Gazette in 1868 announced a public meeting to start a local Y. After the Civil War, YMCAs sprung up across the country to offer housing, spiritual and social support to young men who left their rural homes in search of work. The newspaper notice said a local Y was needed to give young working men something more than “staying home, wandering the streets or resorting to places of questionable repute.” At the time, there was not enough support to begin a YMCA. However, five years later, a different group of men gathered on Aug. 18, 1873, and this time, succeeded in creating the Young Men’s Christian Association of Somerville. Initially, the Y struggled to grow throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th century, but its leaders, who believed that shaping the values of young men would shape the values of the nation, persevered.
The YMCA of Somerville began as a religious organization first located at 99 W. Main Street. Its founders were: A. Van Doren Honeyman, an attorney and publisher of the Messenger-Gazette, who was also the Y’s first president; Dumont Frelinghuysen, Rev. A.R. Shaw, H.P. Mason and F.K. Van Liew. Membership numbered about 100. The group was proud to be one of few Ys of its time to admit women as associate members.
As the Y expanded its mission, it relocated around 1875 to Association Hall at 15-17 W. Main Street, where it had space to offer monthly socials, recreation and education. In 1895, the Y moved to a 15-room house so it could offer rooms to young working men for a few dollars a night, and provide classes, lectures and even job referrals. By 1900, however, the YMCA of Somerville could not afford the rental home and had to relinquish it. The organization began to falter.
In 1914, leaders from the state YMCA were asked to revitalize the organization. After a rousing speech at a Somerville church on Nov. 23, 1914 on the need to mold young men into the next generation of leaders, a group of clergymen, elected officials, school officials and other local leaders voted to form the Somerset County Young Men’s Christian Association. The group appointed committee members from Somerville, Bedminster, Bound Brook, Raritan, North Plainfield, South Branch, Belle Mead, Rocky Hill, Basking Ridge and Bernardsville.
Between World War I and World War II, the new Y flourished as the surrounding area experienced tremendous industrial and residential growth. As the Y nationally expanded its focus in 1926 to serving families, the county YMCA’s programs also expanded. Services ranged from providing health and recreational programs to camping experiences for children to classes aimed at helping new immigrants gain citizenship.
Following World War II, a fundraising campaign to construct a new YMCA didn’t succeed. But, with camp as a cornerstone of YMCA programming, the Y in 1942 used the money it had raised to buy Camp Yomenca residential camp near Dingman’s Ferry, PA. Six years later, in 1948, the sale of Yomenca resulted in a rift that divided the county YMCA into two autonomous organizations, Somerset Hills YMCA and Somerset Valley YMCA.
Somerset Hills YMCA serving northern Somerset County, was headquartered in Bernardsville and Somerset Valley YMCA, serving communities to the south, was in Somerville. Neither Y had a permanent home. Somerset Hills YMCA had moved from Dodd Realty into a shared a building with the American Red Cross, then relocated into the donated Mill Street Firehouse. Somerset Valley YMCA operated out of rented facilities in churches, clubs and schools.
With an estimated 11,000 boys and girls in its service area in need of a place for crafts, hobbies, swimming lessons, and exercise, according to a newspaper account in 1958, Somerset Valley YMCA launched a capital campaign to raise money for a new building with a swimming pool. By 1960, the new Y was standing at the corner of North Bridge and Green Streets where it is located today.
The Somerset Hills area was growing too, and local leaders wanted to offer more for children and families. On 17 acres of land it acquired, the Y began to build the Engelhard Pool in 1967, which opened in 1973 for swim lessons and a swim team. A capital campaign was later initiated to build an adult fitness center, a gymnastics facility, a gymnasium and a child care center on the same site.
Both Ys thrived into the 21st century. Somerset Valley YMCA acquired the Bridgewater municipal pool in 1985, which became Bridgewater YMCA and, in 1999, built Hillsborough YMCA, which expanded its footprint in the county. While in the early 2000s, Somerset Hills YMCA expanded to meet growing community needs.
In 2014, with vacancies in key leadership positions at Somerset Valley YMCA and a trend toward shared services sweeping through many YMCA associations, the two Ys entered into a management agreement and began to explore opportunities that would allow them to better serve Somerset County communities into the future. In October 2014, the Board of Directors of both Ys voted unanimously to merge. The reunited association became effective on January 1, 2015. With strength in leadership focused on fiscal responsibility and a culture of philanthropy, the association continued to thrive and grow with expanded programs and services that best serve all residents of Somerset County. The association rapidly gained status as a leading YMCA in the state of New Jersey.
In 2017, Plainfield Area YMCA expressed an interest in exploring partnership opportunities with Somerset County YMCA. Since 1877, Plainfield Area YMCA had been dedicated to serving the Plainfield community through housing, wellness, recreational and child care programs among other services. However, as a result of years of financial challenges, deferred maintenance and an aging facility that was no longer meeting programmatic needs, Plainfield Area YMCA made the courageous decision to sell the facility and engaged Somerset County YMCA to continue vital Y programs in the community. The Plainfield Area YMCA facility was sold in 2018. With the collective support of both Board of Directors, Somerset County YMCA launched programs in Plainfield beginning with after school child care in December of 2018. In February 2019, Somerset County YMCA received a charter from Y-USA for Plainfield YMCA, and opened a new home for the branch at 504 Madison Avenue in Plainfield.
Somerset County and Plainfield YMCA now serves nearly 30,000 members in Basking Ridge, Bedminster, Bernardsville, Bound Brook, Branchburg, Bridgewater, Far Hills, Franklin, Green Brook, Hillsborough, Manville, Millington, Montgomery, Peapack-Gladstone, Plainfield, Raritan, Somerville, Warren and Watchung. From its early days supporting and guiding young men spiritually, intellectually and physically to today’s mission to strengthen the foundations of community through youth development, healthy living and social responsibility, the Y has grown and expanded for more than 140 years to meet the unique needs of the communities it serves.
As a cause-driven organization, Somerset County and Plainfield YMCA provides direct financial assistance to support local individuals who struggle financially, physically and emotionally to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to learn, grow and thrive. Additionally, the Y offers subsidized mission-based programs and services that meet ever-changing community needs.
Somerset County and Plainfield YMCA is here for the community.