History chest: A legacy of service to Rutherford, country

In the midst of World War I, a young woman from a prominent Rutherford family left her steady job with a highly respected bank and traveled overseas to help serve American military forces in Europe. She began service with the secretarial department of the Young Men’s Christian Association and quickly rose to a management post with the YMCA’s operations in Coblenz, Germany.

A long-time employee of Rutherford National Bank, the YMCA volunteer was Mae Brinkerhoff, daughter of Rutherford’s ninth mayor, Andrew Hopper Brinkerhoff. She went to London in July of 1918, having qualified for an overseas assignment. There she joined her cousin, Anna Keziah Alyea, the daughter of one of Rutherford’s earliest postmasters, Garrabrant R. Alyea. The two were employed on the headquarters staff of the YMCA’s regional headquarters in Germany; Anna was the auditor and Mae was her assistant as head bookkeeper.

The YMCA’s first six-month report on the progress of the Coblenz Area included the following accolade: “To the women first stationed in Coblenz must be given great credit for remarkable work in the early days.” Liberty and Victory “Huts” were “splendidly organized,” the report continued, referring to the refreshment facilities. In that region, American soldiers were offered their first opportunity for leave from duty, providing them with hotels, restaurants, cinema shows and Rhine River cruise trips. On Christmas Day 1918, the Coblenz YMCA group helped solders feel at home, serving them 10,000 cups of chocolate and 30,000 holiday cakes.

Mae Brinkerhoff is believed to have been the youngest of the Rutherford Brinkerhoff branch to attend a grand reunion of the family when it was held in Bergen County in 1885. Nearly 300 members of the Brinkerhoff  family, some from as far away as Columbus, Ohio, gathered  at what was called the “Old Homestead,” on the farm of Albert B. Christie in Ridgefield Park. The original farmstead, near Queen Anne Road, was purchased in 1685. Mae’s father, former Mayor Brinkerhoff, served on the reunion executive committee of the Bergen County Brinkerhoff Association.
  A historic image of 51 Donaldson Avenue, the long-time Rutherford home of the Brinkerhoff family. Built about 1890, the house has had little change to its exterior and is proposed to be included on Rutherford's Historic Sites Inventory. The photo of Mae Brinkerhoff, right, was taken at her June 1898 graduation from Rutherford's old Park School, which was closed in the mid-1930s and converted to its present use as Rutherford Borough Hall. (Photo: Historic Brinkerhoff house photo courtesy Meadowlands Museum. Photo of Mae Brinkerhoff from the Rutherford American, courtesy Rutherford Public Library)

Among those who expressed regrets they were unable to attend the Aug. 27, 1885, event, was David Brinkerhoff Ivison, whose mother, Sarah, was the daughter of David Brinkerhoff of Auburn, N.Y. David Ivison, who was born in Auburn in 1835, was the owner of Iviswold, a Romanesque Revival mansion now on the Felician University campus. The “Castle,” as it is commonly known, is on the National Register of Historic Places. “It is a pleasure to be even so remotely connected with so worthy a name and family,” Ivison stated in his letter.

Mae Brinkerhoff’s lineage can be traced through her grandfather, George Cornelius Brinkerhoff, to Hendrick Brinkerhoff, who owned land in Bergen Hill (now Jersey City) and a large farm on the Hackensack River in the late 17th century. About 140 acres of that farm land, which stretched through the meadows to Kingsland (Lyndhurst), was inherited by George Brinkerhoff. In a description of this Brinkerhoff farmstead in 1900, Richard Van Winkle described it as a “big stone and brick house on a large farm” off Polifly Road. George Brinkerhoff died in this farm house in 1879, a year before Mae Brinkerhoff was born there on May 12,1880.

Ultimately the farm passed on to Mae’s father, Andrew. In 1882, Andrew and his brother-in-law, Garrabrant R. Alyea, organized the Hillside Cemetery Association, respecting the wish of his father, George Brinkerhoff, and ultimately giving the Rutherford area its much venerated cemetery. In the late 19th and 20th centuries, Rutherford’s Memorial Day ceremonies would conclude at Hillside Cemetery to honor both Union and Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War.

One of the important events for Rutherford came with the development of Lincoln Park during the administration of Andrew H. Brinkerhoff, who served as mayor from 1903 to 1908.The Town Improvement Association, which was an offshoot of the Woman’s Club, effectively established Lincoln Park. In 1905, the woman’s group persuaded Mayor Brinkerhoff and the Council to accept the triangular-shape parcel as a borough park. Mayor Brinkerhoff had long been public spirited, having helped organize Fire Engine Company #2 in 1886.

When she graduated from the old Park School in June of 1898, Mae Brinkerhoff wrote a prize-winning essay on the sinking of the USS Maine just months before the disaster on Feb. 15. Her moving essay might have been influenced solely by the tragic loss of 260 American crewmen, but it could have been the fact that Brinkerhoff family members were engaged in the fighting during the Spanish-American War. She had a proud heritage of family involvement in American wars. An ancestor was a colonel in the American Revolution. A Brinkerhoff fought in the War of 1812, and family patriarch, Jacob Brinkerhoff, had a brother, Lucas, who suffered as a British captive at the dreaded Sugar House prison in New York.

During the period Andrew Brinkerhoff organized Hillside Cemetery, and in the time of his two terms as Rutherford mayor, right up to the time of Mae Brinkerhoff’s service in the YMCA; the Brinkerhoff family residence was a handsome Victorian house on Donaldson Avenue. Andrew Brinkerhoff died in this house on March 3,1909, and the funeral services for his widow Jennie were held there in 1917. Built in 1890, the house at 51 Donaldson was the household where the couple raised five children. Besides Mae, they included a second daughter, Keziah, and three sons: George C. (named for his grandfather) who was a store clerk in Jersey City; Harry A., an architect and builder; and James H., who was a bank clerk in New York.

After her sister married and her three brothers moved out, Mae Brinkerhoff stayed on in the Donaldson Avenue house, distinctive for its unique hipped roof and front bay tower. To defray costs of upkeep, she took in boarders, two of whom were on the board of directors of Mae's long-time employer, Rutherford National Bank. Both Maxwell W. Becton and his partner, Fairleigh S. Dickinson, were boarders there before Mae joined the YMCA during World War I. The co-founders of Becton Dickinson Company, then in East Rutherford, subsequently settled into separate mansions on Ridge Road. Becton and Dickinson had been one another's best man at weddings in 1913 and 1916, respectively.

"It was more than a friendship in the ordinary sense," Mae Brinkerhoff, quoted in B-D Company archival records, said of her special tenants. "They were as close as Damon and Pythias," she remarked, referring to the classic Greek ideal of friendship. Mae later sold the Donaldson house to Roy L. Reed, a New York rubber merchant, and then moved to the Addison Avenue home of her niece, Elsie Van Houven. She died, unmarried, on March 26, 1960, a short time after retiring from the bank.