By Celia Belmonte
FAIR HAVEN – A rich history that includes a colony of actors and tradesmen working on the Navesink River and a community of free African-Americans founded before the Civil War, gives Fair Haven residents many reasons to celebrate the borough’s 100th anniversary.
A storied history is packed into the borough’s narrow borders. The town’s origins and continuing character are rooted in its tradition as a close-knit community strongly linked to the Navesink River.
“Each town has its own personality,” said Patricia Drummond, Historic Association of Fair Haven founder and president. “Fair Haven’s past has everything to do with what it is today.”
Like neighboring Rumson, many historians believe Native Americans seasonally inhabited Fair Haven before the arrival of European settlers in the 1660s.
Little information is known about the town’s earliest days because its recorded history does not begin until the early 1800s when it was part of an extensive Shrewsbury Township.
The town’s earliest neighborhood dates back to the 1790s when Samuel Still and his group, likely free blacks, formed a community on Still’s 25 acres of land on the eastern end of Fair Haven.
In the 1820s two stores, one on the river east of Still’s property and the other on the western end of town on what is now River Road, opened and sold provisions and goods. In 1842 and 1850 Still also donated some of his land for an A.M.E. Church and a school for African-American students.
Still’s family members contributed to the formation of the town. Browns Lane, fondly known today as the “oldest street” in Fair Haven, was named after Still’s son-in-law Jacob Brown.
Fair Haven has its own historic quarter – Fair Haven Road, DeNormandie Avenue, Clay Street and Gillespie Avenue – with many 19th century structures still intact, and has become a part of town known today as the “Old Village.”
If residents wish to make architectural changes to their homes, they must present their plans to an advisory board. “We like to keep the front of the houses, what people see from the street, the same. We want to keep that same feeling with the white picket fences,” Drummond said.
Records show that Jeremiah Chandler built one of Fair Haven’s first permanent dwellings in 1816 on the riverbank, near the foot of what is now Fair Haven Road. In 1840 a tavern was built near his home and by 1850 “Chandler’s Dock” had been constructed close to where the current town dock stands.
The Navesink River supplied the expanding community with a strong economic base. Steamboats from New York City stopped at Chandler’s Dock from 1850 to 1926, bringing animals, produce and freight into the growing town. Oysters, clams and other river harvest caught in Fair Haven were then transported back to the Fulton Street fish market in New York City.
More importantly, people were brought into the town. Boats including the Albertina, whose image is depicted on the borough seal, carried summer visitors into Fair Haven.
By the mid-1800s families like the Bennetts, Chandlers, Doughtys, Hendricksons, Littles, Mintons, and Parkers took up residence in town. Many houses, along what is now Fair Haven Road, were constructed leading up to Chandler’s Dock.
“Up until recently there were Bennetts on Clay [Street] and there are still descendants of William Chandler in town,” Drummond said.
At the foot of DeNormandie Avenue, a free black man by the name of Charles Williams built his home in the 1850s. Williams’ descendants occupied the same structure for decades, making it one of the oldest continuously inhabited homes in Fair Haven.
“The house remained in the Williams family up until this day,” Drummond said. “The Robards family is the last family to own it. When Mrs. Robards died her two sons inherited it.”
The historic home, located right on the edge of the Navesink River, has caught the eye of the Fair Haven Borough Council.
“The town is trying to purchase the house and wants to make it into a small park,” Drummond said. “But for the last 150 years the families have passed it down without an attorney so there are problems with the deed. We hope we can make it happen.”
The Fair Haven residents that lived alongside Williams in the late 19th century worked in a variety of different trades. Some were boat builders, oystermen and river men on the Navesink River while others were builders, painters, and carpenters working in the town’s orchards, woodlands and farms or on the large estates in Rumson.
“Fair Haven was very casual as opposed to Rumson where you had mostly the summer homes of the wealthy,” Drummond said. “At the turn of the century you could walk down to the river in your bathing suit in Fair Haven. Mind you, bathing suits were a lot different back then. But that could not happen in Rumson.”
However, Fair Haven also attracted the rich. Large estates, including “The Grange,” the summer home of Harry C. Miner, “The Father of Modern Vaudeville,” adorned the town’s riverfront.
A large group of famous vaudevillians were also transported to Fair Haven from New York City in the second-half of the 19th century. They began staying at boarding houses as well as the old VanTine and Atlantic hotels.
By the late 1890s a neighborhood between the village surrounding Chandlers Dock and Browns Lane was dubbed the “actors’ colony.” More than 200 performers visited the quaint town and in 1910 they formed the Player’s Club, now the site of the Shrewsbury River Yacht Club on River Road.
Despite the growing cultural, economic and social life in the community, Fair Haven was still part of the overarching Shrewsbury Township. As early as 1893, a separation movement began in the village, however Fair Haven would not break free and establish itself as a borough until March 28, 1912.
Fair Haven has continued to expand throughout the years, growing from only about 1,000 residents in 1,900 to a recorded population of 6,121 in the 2010 U.S. Census.
This year’s centennial is about celebrating Fair Haven’s history with the antique treasures that still exist.
One of the town’s most prized historic sites is Bicentennial Hall. Originally at 38 Fisk St., decorated Union Army Officer General Clinton B. Fisk constructed the building in 1888. Also known as Fisk Chapel, the structure served not only as the African American community’s church but also as its social center. To avoid demolition, Bicentennial Hall was moved to its current location on Cedar Avenue in 1975. The 150-year-old chapel, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, still needed to be protected.
“There was talk of tearing down Bicentennial Hall,” Drummond said. “We could not see that happening. It is a very important part of the whole community, especially the African-American community.”
The historical association sprung into action.
“It all started in 1998,” Drummond said. “The historical association gave $10,000 to have a Princeton-based historical architectural firm come in and let us know what needed to be done.”
Almost 13 years of fundraising would follow that initial assessment. Money was collected from the historical association’s annual garden party and grants from the federal government, New Jersey’s Historic Preservation Office and the Monmouth County Historical Commission.
“Over the years we have raised close to $500,000,” Drummond said.
The historical association and members of the community were proud to open the doors of the renovated Bicentennial Hall this year on Jan. 1 for the borough’s re-organization meeting.
Fair Haven’s preservation efforts have been recognized throughout Monmouth County. In October, the Monmouth County Historical Commission is scheduled to hold its meeting Bicentennial Hall.
Drummond stressed the importance of educating the community about the town’s past. “We want to put highway markers in town that explain different historical spots,” she said. “One by the dock explaining the steamboats, on Browns Lane telling what it was, Bicentennial Hall. Even the police department because it used to be the African-American school during segregation.”
Drummond understands that in order to keep Fair Haven the quaint, peaceful and close-knit community it is today, it must always work to preserve the village that came before it.
“I feel it is important that people moving into town, especially new people, know its history so they become more involved and feel more a part of it,” Drummond said.