Jan 29, 2018

USA Presidents in New Jersey

By Lori Draz

In February, while romantics turn to thoughts of Cupid, historic hounds spend a little time thinking of the Presidents.

While Virginia and Ohio may have produced the most presidents, New Jersey and specifically, the Jersey Shore has been a favorite spot of many presidents. Being that we are minutes from Long Branch, we are tempted to think that only seven presidents (Seven Presidents Park) may have New Jersey ties, but that is not the whole story. George Washington did sleep here, and fight here, most notably during the battle of Monmouth. Just minutes south in neighboring Ocean County, two presidents, Grover Cleveland and William McKinley enjoyed the shores of Point Pleasant Beach. Perhaps the president who lived in New Jersey the longest was Richard Nixon. While most think of his connection to California (he was born there, and is buried there on the grounds of his Presidential Library) he also had several New Jersey addresses. His first residence was a summer home in Mantoloking, where he vacationed during his vice presidency. Nixon also summered in Long Beach Island and there is a story that says Nixon visited a Burger King in Stafford Township, and spent over an hour signing autographs. Nixon returned to New Jersey after resigning from the presidency. He lived in Saddle River for nearly 10 years and he was in New Jersey when he suffered the stroke that ultimately claimed his life.

But let’s start our tour of presidential places back in Long Branch, at Seven Presidents Park. While this is one of the Monmouth County Park System’s most popular parks, its roots date back to 1869 when President Ulysses S. Grant declared Long Branch as the Nation’s Summer Capital. At the park, you’ll see seven memorials, dedicated to each of the presidents the park is named for: Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, Chester A. Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, and Woodrow Wilson, all of whom spent time in the area’s resorts. Next, take a short ride to the campus of Monmouth University.

Here you will see one of the most spectacular mansions anywhere – the grand Wilson Hall. The spectacular building, formerly known as the Shadow Lawn mansion, was built in 1929 at a cost of $10.5 million, a hefty sum even by today’s standards. It was the private residence of former F.W. Woolworth Co. president Hubert Templeton Parson and his wife Maysie. President Woodrow Wilson never owned the home; instead, he was gifted with tenancy in the home, which brought an economic boom to the Jersey Shore.

Moving down Ocean Avenue is a tiny little street called Garfield Avenue with a big rich story. This is where President John Garfield died in September of 1881 from complications following an assassination attempt. On July 2, 1881, just four months after his inauguration, and without protection, President Garfield went to the Washington train station to travel to his Long Branch summer retreat when the insane Charles Guiteau leapt from the shadows and fires two point-blank shots into the President. What followed next was a string of gruesome, torturous attempts to save the President’s life. Always a humid mess, Washington was undergoing a malaria outbreak. The bungling doctors decided that the cool quiet air of the shore would speed the recovery. So, Garfield was put on a train to the Jersey Shore. He was so ill they didn’t think he could take a 12-minute carriage ride down Lincoln Avenue, so overnight the townspeople came together to build a five-eighth  mile railroad spur from the station to the home. The rare train trip was attended by thousands, including former Governor Thomas Kean’s mother, who wrote in her journal that the crowds stood silent so as not to disturb the gravely ill president.

On September 19, Garfield died. The cottage has been torn down but there is a plaque commemorating the spot where Garfield died. Famous actor Oliver Byron, who was the George Clooney of the day, purchased some of the tracks and ties and used them to construct a tea hut for his summer home. Originally painted red, white, and blue; today it is simply red and white and after several moves, it now rests on the Long Branch Historical Museum grounds, which is the site of our last stop.

Here, at 1260 Ocean Avenue, you will find St. James Chapel, which was re-named the Church of the Presidents, in honor of the seven presidents who worshipped there while on retreat. The Church had fallen into severe disrepair and was even slated to be demolished, but thanks to the  assistance of the NJ Historic Trust Fund grant, the Monmouth County Historical Commission grants, and private donations, the board has successfully and properly restored the building to its original 1879 condition; and the tower to its 1893 condition. You can drive by now as the museum is nearing restoration and structural completion. Once restored, the Church and the Garfield Tea House will open as a museum to the presidents and the people of the Jersey Shore from the early times. The Long Branch Historical Museum Association has been working since 1953 to preserve this landmark. They are very near completion, and gratefully appreciate any donation of cash, talent, and materials. For more information, please visit  www.churchofthepresidents.org to learn more and get involved.