Matawan homeowner speaks about 200 year-old estate’s history

Owner of the hist

MATAWAN–With a history dating to the 1600s, Mike Chartier, the owner of the historic Philip Freneau house, gave a presentation about his notable homestead.

Chartier and his family moved back to New Jersey from Arizona in 2004, he said. His wife wanted to buy an old house, Chartier said, and they purchased Freneau’s former residence.

“The Freneau house was for sale and [we] knew very little about it, so we bought it. We were looking for a small ranch and instead we brought a three-story, giant old house,” Chartier said.

More than 25 residents attended Chartier’s presentation on May 21 during the Matawan Historical Society’s meeting at the Burrowes Mansion, 94 Main St.

Chartier said after he and his family moved into the house, he became interested in researching the home’s history. Today he has a website were he posts the history and news related to his historic house.

He said the history of the house began during the late 1600s with Peter Watson, who was Freneau’s maternal great-grandfather. Watson was one of the 23 original Scott Presbyterians who came to America and located in Perth Amboy as indentured servants. The Scott Presbyterians, also known as the Scottish Presbyterians, were one of the groups in the British civil war that supported Oliver Cromwell against the king, according to Chartier.

After three years, Chartier said, Watson worked off his servitude and started buying land and building up a plantation. Watson divided up 100 acres on Gravelly Brook. The land was then passed down to one of Peter Watson’s sons, Richard Watson. Richard Watson had a daughter, Agnes Watson, and a son, David Watson.

In 1750, Freneau’s father, Pierre Fresneau married Agnes Watson. In 1752, the year Philip Freneau was born, Pierre Fresneau and Anges Watson moved from New York and built the original house on David Watson’s 100-acre plot on Gravelly Brook, according to Chartier.

“[David Watson] didn’t have any children so he willed his land to his sister Agnes. Before David Watson died; however, he let Agnes Watson and Pierre Fresneau build the original house on his land,” Chartier said.

Chartier said David Watson died in 1762 and left the deed for 400 acres and a saw mill to his sister, Agnes Watson. Pierre Fresneau died on Oct. 17, 1767 and Philip Freneau enrolled in Princeton University as a sophomore in 1768. Agnes Watson then married James Kearney on June 5, 1771.

“They had [a prenuptial agreement] in 1771, so Agnes Watson and James Kearney both kept whatever property they had before the marriage,” Chartier said.

Chartier said Freneau had a long on-and-off career as a sea captain for 50 years. It is unclear how much fighting Freneau did during the Revolutionary War. When the war started, Freneau went to the Caribbean and was imprisoned by the British. Freneau also was a famous poet and editor.

“In 1791, Thomas Jefferson and Freneau’s best friend, James Madison, are coming back from Philadelphia, where the capital was, and they met him in New York to convince him to open a newspaper in Philadelphia to combat Alexander Hamilton’s paper in New York,” Chartier said. “… This was the beginning of partisan press, it was terrible.”

Freneau created and edited the National Gazette newspaper and was a clerk in Jefferson’s office. In 1793, the National Gazette was shut down due to yellow fever and Freneau returned to Mount Pleasant and opened a print shop on the property. He printed a collection of poems and the Jersey Chronicle, which was the first newspaper in Monmouth County, according to Chartier.

“Mount Pleasant was the original name of the area. It seems to have been given it by John Ried, the first surveyor and someone who also came over on the boat with Peter Watson in 1683,” Chartier said. “The main town, which is now downtown Matawan, was called Middletown Point at that time.”

During his presentation, Chartier passed around an original copy of the National Gazette newspaper.

In 1796, Freneau started the Time Piece newspaper in New York, but left in a year. Freneau then spent the next 20 years, sailing, writing poems and farming, but does no more printing, according to Chartier.

Chartier said in 1816 both of Freneau’s daughters are married. Freneau’s daughter, Eleanor, married a man named Hammill and his daughter, Agnes, married Edward Leadbeater. In 1818, Freneau’s house at Mount Pleasant caught on fire, so he moved to the house, which today is located at 12 Poet Drive.

Having trouble finding information about Leadbeater, Chartier said he found “a notice of bankruptcy for an Edward Leadbeater in New York in 1818. I can’t verify if it is the same Edward Leadbeater…but if he did declare bankruptcy in 1818, it would be a reason why that house wasn’t called his and why he would not take ownership of it.”

Chartier said in order to insulate his house, the original builders used an old dutch construction technique called “nogging.” The house also has some ancient features that includes a rubble rock foundation and hand-hewed rafters.

Since the White House was built around the same time as his house, Chartier said his house has federalist features that are similar to the White House, which includes the doors and the windows.

In 1824, Freneau moved to East Freehold, off Kozloski Road. Leadbeater and Freneau died in 1832 and are both buried in Locust Grove, along with Freneau’s aunt, Allaire Fresneau, and his mother, Agnes Watson Freneau Kearney, according to Chartier.

Accoridng to Chartier, in 1835, Freneau’s wife and daughter sold the land to Nicholas Cottrell. It then passed to Garret Hiers, a captain making runs between Middletown Point and Washington Market. Hiers then sold the land to Thomas Ryer in 1843, the property became known as “Magnolia Farm.” Then, in 1910, Magnolia Farm was sold to Howard Higgins, who bought the house for his wife. In 1918, the farm is sold to Clarence Ware, who was a jockey and owned many horses.

In the 1920s, Ware sold off pieces of the property; then in 1939, he put up the farm in an auction. In 1947, Rudolph and Leona Finsch, who were dog-breeders, bought the house, according to Chartier.

Chartier said Finsch did incredible work to restore the house. He removed the print shop that was located on the property; added two south rooms and a kitchen; removed the original chimney; reinforced the whole house with iron “I” bounds; and plastered the house.

In 1969, a development company wanted to build 288 garden apartments on the land and received site plan approval from the Planning Board in January 1969. At least two residents, Stanley Yacker and Dr. Richard Siss, did not want apartments to be built on the land, so they help found the Matawan Historical Society.

Siss became the first president, and Yacker and Siss both ran for town council on a campaign to oppose the apartments. They were elected and proposed a new ordinance banning the apartments, which the council passed. The town building inspector refused to issue a permit for work to start. In 1972, former Mayor Victor Armelino bought the house, according to Chartier.

Contact Vashti Harris at [email protected].