European settlers began living in the section of Woodbridge Township that eventually became Metuchen during the late 1600s, setting up homesteads and farm lots within an area long populated by the Lenape people. This area was then, and is still named for the Lenape leader MeTochen, who lived here in the late 17th century.
The larger geographic area, now known as New Jersey, is part of the larger Lenapehoking, which spans from Western Connecticut to Eastern Pennsylvania, and the Hudson Valley to Delaware, with Manhattan at its center. Today the Lenape diaspora includes five federally recognized nations in Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and Ontario.
Like many early New Jersey colonial towns, this area experienced some Revolutionary War activity when General George Washington marched up what is now Main Street, stopping at the meeting house then located in what is now known as the Colonial Cemetery. Evidence of this early history lays in the fact that there are still more than a dozen homes here that date from the 18th century, and many current roadways still follow the Lenape paths from which the early colonial routes were laid.
In the 1830s, the railroad came to Metuchen and development as a village began to pick up in earnest, hastened by the proximity to New Brunswick, Newark, and New York City. In the 1870s, Thomas Alva Edison established his invention factory just outside of town, where he perfected the light bulb, invented recorded sound, and patented 400 other inventions. Many of the area’s residents worked for – and some became good friends with – the “Wizard of Menlo Park.” In fact, the first public demonstration of the phonograph took place just off Main Street in Metuchen.
By the end of the 19th century, Metuchen had grown into a thriving residential community populated by commuters, long-time local residents, immigrant workers in the local clay mines, and a growing culture of literary and artistic notables whose influence spread far and wide. Many of our Victorian, Colonial, and Classical Revival homes date from this period.
In 1900, residents voted to separate from the surrounding Raritan Township and officially incorporate as their own municipality, effectively making it the “hole in the donut.” Soon afterward it acquired the title of “The Brainy Borough,” beating out Glen Ridge in a battle of wits played out in the local newspapers of the 1910s (for more about the fascinating story behind the nickname, visit the Historic Preservation Committee page on the borough’s official website).
Metuchen’s downtown during the early to mid-20th century was filled with retail establishments, services, and light industrial concerns; appliance dealers, clothing retailers, an ice-cream manufacturer, banks, meat markets, and more. As the nature of commercial retail has changed, Metuchen’s downtown has become home to a diverse array of restaurants and smaller, distinctive shops. But those things that have made Metuchen an ideal community remain; location and mass transit, wonderful homes and schools, vibrant community life, a strong Chamber of Commerce, and a “walkable” downtown district.
For more local history, including a list of historic sites, a walking tour of its commercial district and residential architecture, and more about some of its famous residents, including Thomas Mundy Peterson, Mary Wilkins Freeman, and David Copperfield, contact the Metuchen-Edison Historical Society at www.metuchenedisonhistsoc.org.