Modern history

The Beloved Heart of the Town

Seventeen miles inland from Asbury Park, on the banks of Matawan Creek, was a typical early twentieth century American small town. Main Street rolled through its center, paralleling the creek, where flat-bottom boats set out with loads of tomatoes from the farm country. The tallest structures were the white church spires, which rose up over the shops and the fine houses that marched down the length of Main under elms and sycamores before thinning to barns and long gray fences that angled over brown fields and the vegetable rows beyond.

Matawan had long been a crossroads of the north-central New Jersey colonial breadbasket. The air was still clear and quiet but for the smoke from the beehive tile kilns along the creek and the percussive rhythm of the train making for New York City with tiles for the Eighth Avenue subway. More of the outside world was coming and going through towns in the new century, but little of it stayed or altered the people of Matawan, Scotch-Irish families of farmers and merchants and old self-reliant blood. These were the years small towns dug in against change and began to die slowly and with a long, sweet wistfulness, the years that spawned Norman Rockwell, then twenty years old and producing his first Saturday Evening Post cover, and Thornton Wilder, nineteen and gestating the bittersweet American fate of Our Town. If any change was most profound, it was that the goods and people and ideas now came by locomotive and motorcar and wire, and the town had stopped producing generations of rugged sea captains and fishermen. It was losing its old umbilical link, by the creek to Raritan Bay to the Lower New York Bay, to the sea, the blue Atlantic, fifteen miles distant. The town's mercantile heart had shifted from the Atlantic Ocean to Main Street.

Not all were happy with the transformation. Old-timers thought it a shame that Captain Watson Fisher's son—the only boy of the distinguished retired commander of the Savannah Steamship Line—had chosen, at twenty-four, to be a tailor. It seemed a waste to see the brawny W. Stanley Fisher—at six foot one, two hundred and ten pounds, the town's best athlete, towheaded and handsome, a giant of a man for the time—in his Cecil suit and Arrow collar, soft eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses, bent over needle and thread. But Stanley Fisher was a new kind of American youth, the first generation of the automobile and mass production, a lad with the freedom to do anything, go anywhere, to forsake the small town of his birth. To his father's dismay, Stanley had left Matawan as a young man to make his way in Minnesota, where his sister lived. But Captain Fisher's heart was soothed when Stanley returned home and, after apprenticing as a steamer and presser, opened a tailor's shop on Main Street. The strongest young man in town was no prodigal son. The boy took out large advertisements in the weekly Matawan Journal to announce his presence as a merchant, and was swept up in the new community-minded small-town life—joining clubs, hauling buckets with the volunteer hook and ladder brigade, reclaiming his birthright as the star athlete on town teams, singing every Sunday morning in the church choir. As soon as Stanley Fisher met the right girl, he'd be settling down and having children. If it seemed a close, small existence to the men who'd spent their lives at sea, there were compensations that dazzled the older generation—motorcars, fancy clothes, telephones, the bounty of things available with seeming ease. Such bounty would soon be called the American Dream.

The older folks were somewhat taken aback, however, by young Stanley Fisher's aggressive Matawan Journal advertisements. Advertising had been an unseemly or unnecessary thing in the last century when each man had his place and advertisements were little more than listings; not to merely publish relevant information but to sell was unheard of. But now with competition in town, Stanley Fisher's advertisements displayed drawings of a gentleman in the tailor's newest suit, the Cecil, costing $16 to $38, a sophisticated “New York” look, “the ultra nifty style” he would custom-tailor “for you . . . to your absolute satisfaction from any of the hundred splendid fabrics in my store.”

The tailor's shingle was also a newfangled thing: Stanley Fisher was not a man hanging out his own name but working under the sign “The Royal Tailors, Chicago–New York.” The sign evoked the glamorous style of wealth and leisure associated then with the British Empire—twin columns framing an elegant Indian tiger, fangs bared—but was vaguely unsettling to old-timers who'd never gotten used to the new combinations of wealth. Stanley was not merely a tailor but an “authorized resident dealer.”

With the overeagerness of youth trying to assert his place, his advertisements declared, “We are doing a splendid business, and the best of it is that old customers are coming in for new orders—a splendid recommendation.” In fact, it was known in town that Stanley was struggling to establish his customer base like any new merchant. The previous week, he'd sold his skills in barter, and when his friends heard about it, they laughed incredulously, for Stanley Fisher, young and vigorous, had exchanged a custom-made new suit for a ten-thousand-dollar life insurance policy. The old sea captains wagged their heads over the timidity and caution of the new generation. Stanley's young friends were astounded. “A life insurance policy!” one said, suggesting his friend should concentrate on enjoying this life, and hardly be thinking or worrying about the next one. “What are you, crazy? You're twenty-four years old.” The big, good-natured tailor just smiled.

On Tuesday morning, July 11, as Main Street awakened for business, Stanley Fisher opened the Royal Tailors early and, while his shop assistant tended to customers, sized a new suit. Old Dobbin, the big brown draft horse, clopped down Main, pulling the wagon of the Springdale Dairy, delivering Wooley's Aerated Milk in glass bottles. Main was still a wood-plank road with lots of dirt, and Old Dobbin wore netting to keep off the horseflies, whose bite could send the big workhorse into a runaway, which was dangerous with all the new traffic. Noisy, hand-cranked Model-Ts rattled behind the dust clouds of horse-and-wagon teams bringing crops to the train station. The smell of horse manure wafted over the street, mingled with gasoline vapors, yet gentlemen and ladies in Edwardian finery strolled the three blocks of Main Street with no fuss, for these were not fussy people. Rather they were hearty and resourceful.

It was unusual for a man like Stanley Fisher to have the luxury of a single profession. Martin Weber was a tailor, but there wasn't a living in the old days in fifty cents for a custom suit, so he opened the Weber Grocery Store right in his house, 263 Main. Weber sold flour and whatnot in bulk, scooping and packaging orders for women for miles around. John Wright, the bartender at the Aberdeen Inn across from the railroad depot, alternated mixing drinks with running the town telephone switchboard, which was behind the bar. Harvey Johnson operated the Farmer's and Merchant's Bank on one side of a house on Main and lived on the other side with his wife and children. And John Mulsoff, the Main Street barber, doubled as the constable. If a small town strangled a man with small-mindedness and familiarity, an idea Sinclair Lewis would soon introduce into the American consciousness with his best-sellers Main Street and Babbitt, these men felt the benefits of being known and needed.

Despite the town's traditional ways, many of the citizens of Matawan considered themselves modern and sophisticated, for they had time—freed at last from plowing and planting—for leisure. Matawan happily shared the new American craze for sports and clubs and entertainment. It would be thirteen years before the Rivoli Theater dominated entertainment by showing talkies. For now the domino tournament was the talk of the town. On the Fourth of July, men played the ladies' baseball team wearing long Victorian dresses and women's broad-brimmed hats festooned with flowers—all except the mayor, who dressed like Uncle Sam. People were proud of the town library, which boasted more than three thousand volumes. If a man wasn't interested in James Joyce's new Dubliners or the new poem by Joyce Kilmer, “Trees,” there were dime novels and westerns, and the new magazine, Detective Story, and the pulps Argosy and All-Story, whose editors vowed to “give the ordinary guy what he wants, that is . . . action, excitement, blood, love, a little humor, a taste of sex, a pepper of passion, a lot of escape.” “Tarzan of the Apes” was a new adventure in All-Story.

Yet the industries that gave men and women the money and time for leisure in Matawan—the town made not just tiles but matches, candy, pianos, baskets and bottles, waxes, asphalt, and copper castings—crowded portions of the creek and the land beyond Main with factories and tainted the air. By 1916, the creek was dotted here and there with manufacturers but still wound through vast tranquil prairies of spartina grass and sky. And so it was that by July of that year Matawan Creek flowed as an increasingly sentimental link to the rural and Romantic past, a place where “overcivilized man,” as Roosevelt called the urbanizing masses, could retreat to the quieter stretches. A woman could be courted in a natural setting, and a man could seize his last chance to be a boy or at least remember what it was like. Behind Main Street, sixty feet down a muddy embankment, was a place where boys went fishing and snared turtles for soup. The Matawan Journal was filled with poems and odes and remembrances of Matawan Creek—the gentle waters where friends picnicked on the banks, where lovers idled in moonlit canoes. The creek was the beloved heart of the town.

That afternoon of July 11, a hot summer day, Rensselaer “Renny” Cartan Jr., a dark-haired boy unusually athletic and broad-shouldered for fourteen, left the Cartan Lumber and Coal Company, his father's business, and walked down the street to find his cousin, Johnson Cartan. Johnson, a smaller, quieter boy of thirteen, stocked shelves at Cartan's Department Store at 92 Main, owned by Renny's uncle, A. J. Cartan. The Cartans were one of the most prominent families in town. A. J. Cartan had started as a telegraph operator before opening A. J. Cartan Furniture, Dry Goods, Shoes, Groceries, Hats, Western Union Telegraph Service, where folks got almost everything they needed. In recent years he'd dropped the telegraph service and put in one of the new telephones for the whole town to use.

Renny and his cousin Johnson cut down a bank to the creek, winding through tall grasses toward the swimming hole. Skinny-dipping in the old swimming hole was a Matawan tradition going back generations, and all the businessmen along Main let their sons and hired boys go to cool off for a few minutes every afternoon. Back behind the houses on Main was a barn, and beyond it the old brick limeworks stood on the bank of the creek. The limeworks, which crushed oyster shells into lime, had closed recently, as industry along New York's lower bays killed the oysters and the oysterman's trade. Yet the old warehouse shaded a lovely wide bend in the creek. Sheltered by the limeworks and a thicket of trees was a natural cove, the most popular swimming hole in town, framed at one end by the old Wyckoff propeller dock.

The boys scrambled onto the pier and pilings and threw off their clothes, laughing and shouting, the beginning of a daily ritual of roughhousing boys enjoyed like a natural entitlement. Renny Cartan was standing naked on a dock piling, joking with his cousin and friends, when he began to lose his balance. The creek was only thirty feet wide and shallow, but the water was darker than usual with the turbulence of recent rains and Renny couldn't see the bottom, couldn't see what he'd be hitting as he fell. But a naked boy at the lip of a swimming hole in the middle of the placid farm country during the last summer of peace had little to worry about.

Renny Cartan gave in to gravity and the joy of the moment and let himself go, laughing, into the creek.

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