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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Captain Tom's Quilt

A few days ago I received a copy of the October, 2010 edition of the Ocean County Historical Society's newsletter "The Society Scroll." I always look forward to reading this excellent newsletter for its wide variety of historical articles and its vivid color photos. I was not disappointed by this latest issue. You can visit their informative Web Site where you can read back issues of "The Society Scroll" by clicking on the link below:

The Ocean County Historical Society is located at 26 Hadley Avenue, Toms River, NJ. They have a great history and genealogy library that's worth a visit. (Photo courtesy of the Ocean County Historical Society.)

A short article in the October, 2010 edition of "The Society Scroll", reproduced below, immediately caught my attention as it dealt with Thomas A. Mathis who was born in New Gretna and later moved to Tuckerton and, eventually, Toms River where he became a very predominant political leader in Ocean County and New Jersey state politics. I thought I would share the article with you, along with a photo of the quilt that he made as a young seafaring man.

Thomas A. Mathis was born on June 7, 1869 in New Gretna. He attended public school in New Gretna. At the age of 16, he left school to go to sea. His father had been a sea captain and Thomas soon followed in his footsteps. He was considered a master mariner and held master's licenses for any ship, steam or sail, in any sea. He retired as a sea captain in 1916. As a young boy during one of his early voyages at sea, Thomas sewed the "T" design quilt that is displayed in our museum. The fabric that was used was purchased at the New Gretna store of Levi French. Thomas later went on to become a New Jersey State Senator and New Jersey Secretary of State. He died in 1958.

Tom Mathis, the son of Alfred and Abigail Loveland Mathis, was born in a Hammonton Road house on the bend at Sherman's Corner. (Courtesy of Bing Maps.)

The Hammonton Road house where Tom Mathis was born is now owned by Ron Vorhees, Jr. (April 27, 2009 photo by Pete Stemmer.)

The 1880 Bass River Township Census shows that Thomas, the eleven year old son of Alfred (a 44 year old sailor) and Abigail Mathis, lived on the family homestead along with three sisters, Abigail (age 16), Mary (age 14) and Daisy (age 2).

Thomas made the quilt that is hanging at the Ocean County Historical after he left the family's Bass River home as a teenager and went to sea.

The quilt made at sea by a teenage Thomas Mathis hangs at the Ocean County Historical Society in Toms River, NJ. Notice the "T" theme in each square. (Photo courtesy of the Ocean County Historical Society.
Quilting was a popular past time in the 1800's. I wonder how many quilts sewn by old New Gretna families still exist. If anyone out in the Blog-O-Sphere are aware of any, I would like to hear from you.

The following clipping from the November 11, 1951 edition of the "Asbury Park Press" highlights some areas of Thomas A. Mathis' nautical career.

Secretary of State Thomas A. Mathis, who was honored by more than 1000 persons from all sections of New Jersey at a testimonial dinner at the Ambassador Hotel, in Atlantic City, last Saturday night is shown above, left, as he was presented with a model sailing ship, the "Columbia", by former Governor Harold G. Hoffman, who acted as toastmaster at the affair. The "Columbia" was the first ship which Secretary of State Mathis, a licensed captain, had command in 1896. Secretary of State Mathis also was presented with a wrist watch at the testimonial which was given under the auspices of the United Republican Committee of Ocean County. [Tuckerton Beacon - January 19, 1939]

The Yacht Columbia, captained for eleven years by Thomas A. Mathis, wintered on the Bass River, just a stone's throw from the Bass River Bridge which can be seen in the background. It was a wooden centerboard schooner, designed and built in 1871 by Joseph B. Van Deusen in Chester, Pa. for owner Franklin Osgood of the New York Yacht Club. Skippered by Andrew J. Comstock, Columbia won the first two 1871 America's Cup races against Livonia. It was beaten by Livonia in the third race, in which Columbia, damaged from the second race, was skippered by Horatio Nelson "Nelse" Comstock. Columbia was further damaged in this third race and was unable to compete in the final race. The yacht Sappho substituted and won the America's Cup for the second time for the U.S. Columbia ended its racing career in 1908, when it was dismasted and used as a houseboat in Brooklyn Harbor on the East River. Three years later it was rebuilt and sailed as a cruiser out of Newport News, VA. In 1920, Columbia was bought by a fisherman. It was declared lost in 1923. [Note: This is a corrected caption. See the October 17th Blog entry for an explanation.]
I transcribed the following biography which presents the life of Thomas A. Mathis through 1945 from "Prominent Families of New Jersey by William Starr Myers, 1945, pages 221-2.

THOMAS A. MATHIS—Prominently Identified with public life and activities in Ocean County and in New Jersey for nearly forty years, Captain Thomas A. Mathis of Toms River, New Jersey has held many official positions, both elective and appointive since 1916. In that year, retiring from the sea which he followed for many years, he settled down at Toms River and engaged in the automobile business, later entering real estate and bonding as commercial activities, while generously devoting much of his time to public service.

Thomas A. Mathis was born at New Gretna, Burlington County, New Jersey, on June 7, 1869, the son of Alfred H. and Abigail (Loveland) Mathis, both of whom were born at New Gretna, New Jersey. Alfred H. Mathis followed the sea for many years, holding his master's ticket, while at home he was active in his community as a member of the Republican party.

After attending the public schools of New Gretna, Burlington County, New Jersey, Thomas A. Mathis followed his father to sea and became a master mariner, holding master's licensee for any ship, steam or sail, in any waters. He retired from the sea in 1916 and for a number of years engaged in the automobile business at Philadelphia and at Toms River, New Jersey, and subsequently became interested in activities concerned with real estate and the bonding business. A member of the Republican party and always deeply interested in the welfare of his community, upon making his permanent residence in New Jersey he began to devote himself very generously to the public welfare, beginning a career in public life which has already exceeded thirty-five years. The captain's first public office was that of member of the State Board of Pilot Commissioners, to which position he was appointed by Governor Stokes in 1906 and then in 1909 he was first elected to the New Jersey Senate to serve out the unexpired term of Senator William J. Harrison, while in 1913 he was elected for a second full term, as he was again in 1922. During the sessions of 1924 and 1925, he was chairman of the Joint Appropriations Committee while, in 1925, he was once again elected to the Senate be a very large majority and in 1928 he was nominated without opposition and again elected by the largest majority ever given a candidate for the Senate in Ocean County. In the 1928 election, he was chosen majority leader by unanimous vote of the members of the Senate and, according tn long established rule, was elected president of the Senate (1929), being the first Senator from Ocean County ever to have been chosen for that high honor. On July 7, 1931, Senator Mathis was appointed Secretary of State for New Jersey and was reappointed to the office for a second term of five years on July 7, 1936, and while serving as Secretary of Sttate also was appointed lieutenant commander of the Naval Militia by Governor Moore in 1932 and captain of the Naval Militia on December 6, 1934. After these many years in State office, Captain Mathis on January 1, 1942, was elected county treasurer of Ocean County for a term of five years while, at the present time he is a candidate for his seventh term in the New Jersey State Senate. A member of the Tuckerton, New Jersey, Presbyterian Church, the captain, who is an honorary member of the Thomas A. Mathis Republican Club, belongs to the Toms River Yacht Club and holds thirty-second degree rank in the Mason fraternity, his memberships including all bodies of the order as well as the Ancient Arabic Order Nobles of the Mystic Shrine.

Thomas A. Mathis married on November 15, 1897, at Tuckerton, New Jersey, Helen S. Steelman(1), who was born at Tuckerton, New Jersey, and is the daughter of William S. and Eliza A. Steelman, natives of Absecon, New Jersey, and Atlantic City, New Jersey, respectively. Captain and Mrs. Mathis have become the Parents of a son: W. Steelman who was born at Tuckerton, New Jersey, on December 1, 1898, and, after graduating from the Toms River High School, attended Peddle Institute and the Peirce Business College at Philadelphia. Having thus completed his education, he entered the newspaper business and became the owner of the Sun Publishing Company at Toms River, and the editor and publisher of the "Ocean County Sun". Following his father into public life, he was elected to the New Jersey State Senate although, when the United States entered the Second World War, he resigned from the Senate in order to enter the United States Coast Guard. While a Senator, he was appointed as a member of the New Jersey State Fish and Game Commission.

(1) Steelmen was misspelled as Stellmen in Myers biography.

From "The Jersey Shore", Vol. 3 via Shirley Whealton

I don't know much about Captain Tom after 1945. Strangely enough, the internet has a dearth of information on his life, except for a Route 37 bridge, completed in 1950 and named after him, which spans a portion of Barnegat Bay connecting Toms River with Pelican Island on the way to Sea Heights.

The Thomas A. Mathis bridge, built at a cost of six million dollars, was opened in 1950. It is the taller eastbound span paralleling a westbound span called the J. Stanley Tunney Bridge which opened in 1972. (Photo courtesy of Google Images.)

Captain Tom committed suicide in 1958, at the age of 88, two days after his release from the hospital where he had been dealing with a circulatory ailment in his legs. He had put a gun in his mouth and shot himself. He is buried in the family plot in Riverside Cemetery in Toms River.

Pete S

PS- A special thank you to Frank Parks, a member of the Ocean County Historical Society's "The Society Scroll" staff who shared the quilt photo and text with the Blog.


  1. Well, what do you know, he is a third cousin three times removed. Lovely to know about such illustrious relatives. Thanks
    Beverly Mathis Robinson
    PS: Ancestry has an interesting new feature. When you bring up the profile of a person you can click on a heading "relationship to you" to see if and how the person is related to you. Neat.

  2. Pete: It appears that you have recovered from your recent health problems as your blogs continue at a rapid pace.

    You might gain some insight on your recent blog featuring Capt Tom and Harold G. Hoffman and other politicians by downloading the following site:

    Regards - Clif Brown

  3. Clif,

    I'm feeling well and am at home on hold until November 3rd when I am going back to the University of Pa. for an operation. There will be a lapse in the Blog from 11/3 for a few weeks.

    Thanks for the Political Graveyard Web Site.

    Pete S

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