Two towns and a great white shark made history!
About a century ago, Cliffwood Beach, a section of Aberdeen, boasted a bustling boardwalk, played host to social activities such as baby pageants and was home to a swimming pool. There, visitors could compete with famous athletes such as Johnny Weissmuller, an Olympic swimmer who later became known for his role in "Tarzan" films, said Edward Fitzgerald, township historian.
It was around the same time that neighboring Matawan began to burgeon as a manufacturing hub for products such as ceramic tiles, while trains passed through the area to bring goods to other destinations, said Helen Henderson, a former president of the Matawan Historical Society who has written books on the Matawan-Aberdeen area.
"Today those factories are no longer manufacturing sites and, most of them, the buildings are no longer standing," said Henderson of Keyport.
Today, Matawan and Aberdeen are two different municipalities with two different forms of government, but they share a common past, both originating from Middletown Township, said Fitzgerald, 46, of Aberdeen.
The founding of the Matawan-Aberdeen area took place in the 1680s, when 24 Scottish Presbyterians settled in what is now known as the Freneau section of Aberdeen, according to "Matawan and Aberdeen: Of Town and Field," a book published in 2003 by Henderson and the Matawan Historical Society.
Like many Monmouth County communities, both municipalities have a strong agricultural background, Henderson said.
Established as Matawan Township in 1857, Aberdeen was part of an area that is now Matawan borough. In 1896, Matawan borough and Matawan township split, Fitzgerald said.
In November 1977, the voters of Matawan Township voted to changed the municipality's name to Aberdeen, creating a community identity separate from Matawan.
Aberdeen was, and still is, home to various neighborhoods that developed their own unique characteristics, Fitzgerald said.
The Oak Shades section, along Lower Main Street, began developing in the 1860s and at the turn of the 20th century saw an influx of Italian immigrants, whose descendents still are in the area. Developer William J. Levitt could be considered the father of the Strathmore section, Fitzgerald said.
"It was set up as a planned development, a community that would stand on its own," Fitzgerald said of the neighborhood, which included what are now Strathmore Elementary School and the Strathmore Bath and Tennis Club on Lloyd Road.
A notable event in Matawan's history was the shark attacks of July 12, 1916, at Matawan Creek.
While swimming with a group of boys in the Matawan Creek, just west of where it intersects with the train trestle, 11-year-old Lester Stillwell of Matawan was mauled and killed by a great white shark, according to Dr. Richard Fernicola, an expert on the attacks.
When news of the attack spread, a group of men including W. Stanley Fisher, 25, of Matawan hurried to the creek. While Fisher was in the creek searching for Stillwell, he was attacked by a shark and nearly dismembered, according to newspaper reports at the time. The shark tore Fisher's right leg almost off his body. He died later at the hospital. Stillwell's body washed up near the train trestle two days later, Fernicola said during an interview last summer as the borough remembered the 90th anniversary.
A Matawan landmark is the Burrowes Mansion, which is listed on both the state and national Registers of Historic Places. The Main Street structure was built around 1723. It was later owned by John Burrowes, a businessman who had come to be known as the "Corn King." His son, John Burrowes Jr., was a major with George Washington's Revolutionary War army. On May 27, 1778, the younger Burrowes returned home from Massachusetts to visit his wife, Margaret Forman, who was living in the mansion with the elder Burrowes and family. In a skirmish, a company of British loyalists pursued junior through the house, firing muskets into the attic. He escaped through a window.
"Over the years, it has had many lives," Henderson said, adding that ownership changed several times. The house is now a museum.
The Burrowes Mansion is one of the few artifacts left that serve as a reminder what life was like centuries ago, she said.
Today Matawan, like other communities near major urban areas, has become a busy municipality home to many commuters, she said.
"Instead of a village with a farming development, it is now a suburban bedroom community," Henderson said.