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Sunday, August 2, 2009

Jim McAnney, Great John Mathis & Where's Waldo?

Our recent foray into old New Gretna postcards has taken me into unanticipated and interesting areas. That trend continued as our local biweekly Friday Men's Breakfast Group, known as the ROMEOS (Retired Old Men Eating Out), met last Friday. I was particularly anticipating this get-together, as Jim McAnney had told me that he was bringing a 1930's postcard that showed the Great John Mathis house across the Bass River from Allen's Dock. He knew we had been talking about postcards on the Blog and that I had been looking for a photo showing the original location and orientation of the Great John Mathis house overlooking the Bass River. His find combines the two.

Jim reached under his chair and produced a large brown envelope, as the waitress poured my first cup of coffee. The others at the table - Pete Dunn, Gary Nisley, Bill McLennan, Carl Joorman, and Ricky Steele - noticed the heightened excitement and focused their attention away from their breakfast to Jim and me. They knew something was up.

Jim drew an old postcard out of the envelope and handed it to me with a smile of satisfaction on his face. "Boat Basin: New Gretna, N.J." was printed on the bottom. It showed a small part of the Bass River with the Township Dock, where many of the old timers kept their clamming garveys, in the foreground. Allen's Dock, looking much different than it does today, could be seen across the river.

This is the postcard Jim claimed to show the Great John Mathis house.

I took the postcard from Jim and carefully studied it, eagerly searching for the Great John Mathis house. My eyes quickly scanned the card but to no avail. Scratching my head, not wanting to admit that I couldn't spot the ancient structure, I thought to myself . . . "I feel like I'm playing "Where's Waldo?". It's got to be here someplace, but where? Jim wouldn't joke about this.

Where's Waldo? Can you find him?

Finally, Jim leaned over and pointed to a small gray patch nestled among the trees in the background. "That", he said as he pointed to a spot on the old postcard, "is the Great John Mathis house." Seeing some sign of disbelieve on my face, he quickly produced an old Polaroid photo to prove his point. It was taken in the 1960's and showed the same Allen's Dock area as the postcard but with a closer view from a slightly different angle.

Jim's Polaroid photo shows Allen's Dock in the 1960's with the Great John Mathis house around the bend and across the Bass River. It was located where Viking Boat Works operates today.
This closeup of an area from the Polaroid photo clearly shows the Great John Mathis house on a small rise adjacent to the Bass River. The right side of the house faces the river.

You can count the windows and see the chimney and front porch of the Great John Mathis house in this super blow-up of Jim's Polaroid photo.

I was able to spot the Great John Mathis house on the Polaroid. It was obvious. Jim then placed the postcard and Polaroid photo next to each other and was able to convince me that the Great John Mathis house was indeed on the postcard. The enlargement, below, of a section of the postcard clearly shows the outline of the house roof and chimney. It looked, at first glance, like a blur on the original postcard. That Jim McAnney sure has eagle eyes! Sherlock Holmes would be proud of his observational powers.

I'm willing to bet that Jim, myself, the breakfast gang, and now, you, are the only people on this planet to realize the Great John Mathis house is on the New Gretna Boat Basin postcard. Without Jim and the 1960's Polaroid photo, no one would notice Waldo, I mean the Great John Mathis house.

The house on the postcard and Polaroid photo, probably built in the 1730's, is the second of Great John's homes in what is now Bass River Township. His first house, built around 1716, was located on Biddle's Island, now called Oak or Dan's Island, a patch of trees in the meadows visible from the Job's Creek bridge.

1920 aerial map showing the location of the two houses that Great John Mathis built in the Bass River area. Notice that the Garden State Parkway, Viking Yacht, and the Bass River Marina have not been built yet.

The fate of the Great John Mathis house was discussed briefly in the Thursday, July 9, 2009 Blog entry and is reproduced below:
The Great John Mathis house stood on the rise overlooking the Bass River from the mid 1700's to the mid 1960's when Viking Yachts began developing their boat building complex. Viking offered to donated land and move the house a short distance so that it would be preserved. The Great John Mathis Foundation was formed by a small group of concerned citizens to raise money to restore the dilapidated house. Leah Blackman's "The History of Little Egg Harbor Township" was republished by the group to raise money to save the historic structure. Most people just didn't care or were too busy to get involved. It's often said that we vote with our pocketbooks. Such was the case here. Sadly, the efforts failed, and the house was finally demolished.

Following are a few photos of the second Great John Mathis house from various eras. It sure had changed over the years.

This circa late 1920's photo is the oldest photo that we have of the Great John Mathis house. It's rather modest digs, by today's standards, for the richest man in the Little Egg Harbor-Bass River area. (Photo courtesy of Franklin W. Gray.)

William Augustine, a photographer who traveled with Henry Beck throughout South Jersey, took this photo of the Great John Mathis house in the 1940's or 1950's. It may be found after Beck's preface to Leah Blackman's "History of Little Egg Harbor Township" that was reissued by the Great John Mathis Foundation in 1963.

This front view, circa 1950's, of the Great John Mathis house shows some the the extensive renovations that were done over the years.

The Great John Mathis house, in the late 1960's, after it had been moved to make room for the construction of the Viking Yacht facility. (Photo from a slide courtesy of Naomi Post Maurer.)

Unfortunately, I am aware of only one piece of furniture belonging to Great John Mathis that came out of Great John's house - a grandfather's clock. It is doubtful that such a fine clock graced many houses in Bass River's early days, and it speaks volumes regarding Great John's accumulation of wealth. It has remained in the family through all these generations and still keeps perfect time.

The grandfather clock belonging to Great John Mathis stands by a modern interior doorway which tells us that it is about 6 1/2 feet tall, short by today's grandfather clock standards. This would be consistent with the low ceilings found in early American homes. (May 28, 2003 photo by Pete Stemmer.)

Speaking of clocks, it's time for me to thank Jim McAnney for the postcard and Polaroid photo of the Great John Mathis house. I now have a good idea of it's location and orientation to the Bass River, something that has puzzled me for some time.

Pete S

PS- Did you ever find Waldo in the circus picture above? If not, give Jim McAnney a call. I'm sure he could spot the elusive Waldo right away.

PPS- Do to interest in the comments regarding the ownership of the boats in the postcard, I'm adding the following enlargements from the postcard. Hopefully, they may help in the identification of the boats.

An enlargement of the Allen's Dock section of the "Boat Basin: New Gretna, N.J." postcard
An enlargement of the Township Dock section of the "Boat Basin: New Gretna, N.J." postcard. Today that area is owned by Caldwell Diving.


  1. Great detective work Pete! I've asked you about this several times over the last couple of years. It is particularly interesting to me because I am a direct descendant of the Great John Mathis. Thanks!!!

    1. I too am a descendant of John The Great Mathis. My maiden name is Ada Shelby. For Stanley Leland Mathis is my grandfather

  2. Pete:
    Does the Mathis Society still meet? I put your house photo on my ancestry page for GJM and included the link to your blog. Thanks for your continued investigatory effort.
    Norm Goos
    SAR through John's Son-in-law Jeremiah Leeds, plus John himself, as well as others.

  3. John,

    With the help of eagle eyed Jim McAnney and permission from Viking Yachts, I hope to get a GPS reading on the original location of the Great John Mathis home shown in the postcard and Polaroid photo. Stay tuned!

    Pete S

  4. Norm,

    The Great John Mathis Foundation has dwindled throughout the years and only meets occasionally.

    Pete S

  5. Pete,

    Are you able to identify the boats from the photo or the post catd?

    John Allen

  6. John,

    I asked the same question of Jim McAnney. He couldn't identify any from the 1930's postcard, but knew some from the 1960's Polaroid photo. Hopefully, Jim will see your comment and respond. Perhaps there are others out in the Blog-O-Sphere who may be able to help.

    Pete S

  7. The big white boat to the right in the postcard looks like the "ALPAT" to me. Les Allen's boat. The garvey on the right side of the polaroid shot, appears to be my dad's boat at his dock.

    Bob Mathis

  8. I had seen some of these photos on Ancestry very recently. Do you have any modern aerial photos with the Parkway etc for comparison? I always look at Viking when I am on the parkway and think somewhere down there was my ancestors.

  9. You have created a treasure trove of Mathis information. I wish I had discovered it while I was still in New Jersey this summer.
    I am the last of a branch of Mathis'. I was wondering if anyone knows the whereabouts of descendents of Daniel & leah W. Mathis' sons Herbert S. born in Nov. 1878 and Daniel, Jr born in Dec. 1894. My grandfather was Charles Morrell Mathis who Daniel, Sr. was a brother of. I would like to find a male member of that line for possible DNA information. That seems to be the wave of the future for making family connections and since I do not have any brothers or uncles from my line, I am looking to Daniel's descendents for possible help. Hope someone in New Gretna or Atlantic County might have some knowledge. Thanks for the space to ask. Marjorie Mathis Ewell of Cape Coral FL

  10. I am a descendant of the Great John Mathis. A cousin is doing a family genealogy I will find out If me or my brother are descendants of that line. My grand Father was Charles Mathis however I am not sure if Charles Morrell Mathis and My grand Father are one and the same.
    Douglas John Mathis

  11. you have Mathis in Toms River, NJ and Brick town, NJ. Don't know if any relation.

  12. My husband is a descendant of the Great John Mathis through Caleb B. Mathis-William Henry Mathis-Gilbert Mathis-William G. Mathis-to him, William Mathis. The Mathis clan has made it all the way across America to Alaska.. Whats even cooler is not only does he come from The Great John Mathis but from his mothers side he descends from an Aleutiq chief from Afognak Island in Kodiak, Alaska. This makes for some very interesting history. Thankyou so much for the pictures.

  13. Thanks, I'm a descendant through his daughter Sarah, and really enjoyed what you've put together.

  14. Thank you! I'm a descendant through his daughter Mercy. Wonderful reading what you have learned!

  15. descendant through his son Nehemiah Sr/Nehemiah Jr/Martin James

    1. Thanks for responding. Has anyone in your direct Mathis line every had DNA analysis? As you saw above, I have no male family members alive to have tested. It does appear that new DNA tests can now get information from both mother and father where previously the Mathis line could only be traced thru male descendants. Even though my descendant is Jeremiah, his brother's DNA would probably provide enough identification for my branch also. Please get back tome and thank you. Marjorie Mathis Ewell

  16. I am eagerly awaiting my DNA analysis kit from Ancestry. It is supposed to arrive on Wednesday. I am really anxious to see where our family came from and where it is now. There was a rumor that Great John came originally from France, emigrated to Wales and then to America. It should be interesting to see where that goes.
    Beverly Mathis Robinson

  17. My DNA recently matched John Mathis to me as my 6th greatgrandfather. Thank you so much for this detailed article!!!

  18. Wonderful article, Pete. Can you tell us what has become of the grandfather clock?

  19. Still hoping for a descendant from Great John Mathis share the connections on their DNA report, particularly the family of Howard S or Daniel Jr. Mathis. I would so like to trace back to the European roots of the original John and Charles Mathis who immigrated here. Actually any male descendant of the Great John would work Thanks for sending this wonderful post about the Great John's house in New Gretna.

  20. Thanks to Ancestry, I learned this man is my great-grandfather x 9! From Daniel to Shadrack....down to Eliza Jane in South Carolina. Thank you so much for this endearing and humorous insight.