Prior to the coming of settlers, the town we call Jamesburg was occupied by the Leni Lenape Indians. They fished in Lake Manalapan (which means “Land of Good Bread”). Settlers arrived in the late 1600s. A sawmill was established by 1685. At the time Jamesburg was a part of South Amboy Township, which was created that same year from the South Ward of Perth Amboy.
Records indicate that there was a gristmill in operation at Jamesburg well before the American Revolution, probably as early as 1734. In 1746, the Reverend David Brainerd established “Bethel,” an Indian mission near and on the land of the present Thompson Park. This mission consisted of 160 Indians living in log houses with a log school and church, cultivating 80 acres of corn, grain, and fruit. The mission closed in 1760. The area was also dotted with prosperous farms.
During the Revolutionary War, Washington’s Army marched through the area on their way to the Battle of Monmouth, June 28, 1778. It’s very possible that some of Washington’s soldiers stopped at the gristmill for supplies.
Between 1787 and 1832, Jamesburg was known as “Enlsey’s Mills,” “Rossell’s Mills,” “Mount’s Mills,” and “Gordon’s Mills,” depending on who owned the property. James Buckelew purchased the mill in 1832, at which time it became “Buckelew’s Mills.” In 1838, Buckelew’s Mills became part of the newly-created Township of Monroe.
James Buckelew, Jamesburg’s namesake, was born on August 12, 1801. Until he was 31 years old, James was a successful farmer and businessman, running a small milling operation on his farm, about four miles from Lakeview Mansion, in Monroe Township. He then purchased the mill that was located at Lake Manalapan and set up business there. In addition, seeing the possibilities that the “Iron Horse” could provide businesses, he became involved with the Camden Amboy Railroad and later with the Freehold & Jamesburg Agricultural Railroad. His other transportation-related business ventures included a stagecoach line between Jamesburg and Freehold and providing the finest mule towing teams on the Delaware & Raritan Canal.
Mr. Buckelew was also well-known in agricultural circles. He introduced improved farming methods on his 4,000 acres under cultivation and was particularly noted for using marl (sand or clay that contains a substantial amount of calcium carbonate) as fertilizer on his farms. He was also involved in growing cranberries, owning two bogs, the largest single tract in the State of New Jersey for cranberry production. James Buckelew died on May 30, 1869. He was interred in the family plot in Fernwood Cemetery.
A school is responsible for the town assuming the name “Jamesburg.” In 1847, James Buckelew built a brick school on the corner of Church Street and Gatzmer Avenue, the present location of the Jamesburg Presbyterian Church manse. He built the schoolhouse because the Monroe school system refused admittance to an African American boy. He declared his school open to all children. At the dedication ceremony, the people proclaimed it as the “James B.” or “Jamesburg” school. After this the town came to be known as “Jamesburg.”
By 1887, Jamesburg’s interests were so different from that of the rest of Monroe Township that there was a successful movement to establish a commission form of government. Jamesburg became a completely independent Borough on April 27, 1896.
Over the years Jamesburg has played an important part in national and world history. The first canned tomatoes were canned in Jamesburg in 1847, and the home of the Downs and Finch Shirt Factory, the largest of its kind in the world, from 1870 until it burned in 1900. Jamesburg was also an important railroad town, with two main lines and a roundhouse.
On a sports note, Frankie "Blimp" Hayes, born and raised in Jamesburg, was signed by Hall of Fame manager Connie Mack on September 21, 1933 for the Philadelphia A's. At the time of signing he was the youngest player in major league at eighteen years of age. In 1934, Frankie set the record for most games caught by a teenager at 92 games. In 1944 he caught 155 games which is still an American League record.
Today, Jamesburg has over 6,000 residents and is 99.9% built up. Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, Jamesburg was in a slump but beginning to experience a renaissance. The slumping economy, which had roots to the 1970s, began to turn around and the mom and pop stores that had went out of business have found new owners, eager to start new prospects in Jamesburg. Buildings have undergone total renovations, while some owners have preserved the quaint historic architecture that makes Jamesburg a no-frills community. The local government is proactive in keeping Jamesburg moving in a positive direction. By examining the trends of development over the years in Jamesburg, one may notice a pattern, or cycle, develop. Jamesburg went from being part of a new nation to a very prosperous and important to the economy of central New Jersey during Mr. Buckelew’s regime. Then Jamesburg hit a slump after 1920, becoming very quiet, losing its status as a major leader. More recently, Jamesburg has once again been moving towards renewal and rebirth.
Some Excerpts from: A House of Many Windows, August, 1981, by Louise Johnson Kerwin for the Jamesburg Historical Association. For more a more complete history of Jamesburg, visit www.jamesburghistory.com.