When talking about Chester in southwestern Morris County, you need to distinguish between the Borough of Chester, which is the shopping village, and Chester Township, the surrounding area which is decidedly more rural. At about 1 ½-square miles, the borough is located at the intersection of Routes 206 and 24 and offers quaint streetscapes lined with one-of-a-kind boutiques, antique shops and restaurants. Chester Township includes 29.8 square miles of farmland, newer residential developments and historic homes.
Incorporated in 1799, over 40%-- or 12 square miles--of the township is preserved as open space. There are nature reserves, parks and deed-restricted agricultural property under the state Farmland Preservation Program, which buys the development rights while allowing the farmer to retain title and continue working the land.
The Borough of Chester was incorporated in 1930, and is a separate municipality that shares many services with the township such as a library, first aid squad, fire department, community pool, athletic programs, civic organizations and schools.
Chester was first settled by Europeans in the early 18th century at the intersection of two Lenni Lenape Indian trails, and was originally known as Black River. According to local history, deeds date to 1713, but the first settlers were the Rogerenes, a Quaker sect that arrived in 1730.
Over the next 150 years, the area produced agricultural products like flax, wool, cattle and applejack. In 1875, the discovery of iron generated a 15-year boom, with the development of 35 mines and a blast furnace. Many of the buildings that still line Main Street were created during this vibrant period.
For most of the 20th century, Chester remained a farming community, just far enough west of New York City to be bypassed by the huge housing developments in nearby towns.
The borough experienced a major change in the 1970s when a variety of unique shops featuring crafts, collectibles, clothes, gifts, gourmet items and antiques were established. Throughout the 1990s the town transformed from a well-known antique center to a more diverse shopping area with a growing selection of specialty stores. While there are still several excellent antique and memorabilia stores, there are also restaurants and over a hundred shops that sell jewelry, gifts, furnishings, pets, confections, clothing and accessories.
Chester is renowned for its shopping, restaurants and cultural opportunities, drawing visitors from around the state and beyond. The borough offers a newer mall called The Streets of Chester, with a selection of upper-end fashion shops. Additionally, the sidewalks in the charming borough are lined with old-fashioned businesses including ice cream parlors, candy shops, antique stores and craft shops. A grocery store and several strip malls are also located in the borough. The township has a few small restaurants, an antique mall, several service-oriented businesses and some of New Jersey's most popular farm stands for locally-grown produce.
There are many special events held throughout the year, including one of the largest craft shows in the Northeast on the weekend after Labor Day, car shows, a jazz festival, fireman's carnival and an apple festival. Chester's rural environment caters to "agri-tourism," welcoming visitors who come to pick apples and pumpkins or cut down a Christmas tree.
Several parks and preserves located in the township are free and open to the public. A partial list includes:
Among the state-owned parks are the 1826 Cooper Mill, the oldest working grist mill in Morris County, and the 100-acre Bamboo Brook Outdoor Education Center, which showcases gardens developed by the early 20th century landscape architect Martha Brooks Hutcheson.
Students in kindergarten through grade eight from Chester Borough and Chester Township are in the Chester Township Public School District. The district is composed of Dickerson Elementary School (kindergarten through grade two), Bragg Intermediate School (grades three to five), and Black River Middle School (grades six to eight).
High school students attend West Morris Mendham High School, which is located in Mendham Borough and is part of the West Morris Regional High School District. Students also come from the surrounding school districts of Mendham Borough, Mendham Township and from Washington Township. It has been ranked as one of the state's top high schools by New Jersey Monthly magazine.
Suburban Hills School on Oakdale Road is a private pre-kindergarten and kindergarten school. Devereux Deerhaven on Pottersville Road is a small high school for special needs adolescent girls.
Commuters to midtown Manhattan often take the New Jersey Transit train from the Peapack or Gladstone stations (about five miles south of Chester) to Penn Station, a rush-hour commute that takes about 90 minutes. Lakeland Bus runs from nearby Far Hills to Port Authority in midtown Manhattan, a trip of about an hour and ten minutes. Newark Liberty International Airport is about 38 miles from Chester.
Chester is located near a network of local highways including Routes 24, 202 and 206. Interstate highways Routes 78, 80 and 287 are short distances away.
A wonderful mix of housing is available in both the township and borough. Many historic homes dating from the 1700s, 1800s and 1900s are located in the borough. Smaller, older homes situated near country roads are interspersed with new 5,000-plus-square-foot brick or stone-front estate homes set back from the road. New construction requires building lots of two to five acres. There are also equestrian and farm properties in this horse-friendly part of the state.
An article in the New York Times appearing on June 24, 2007 summed up the future of Chester when it said "Because so much of the township is protected open space, a century from now Chester could very well look and feel as it does today: a bedroom community of large houses on estate-sized properties, coexisting with a farming industry focused on the local market."
The Black River Playhouse has been home to the award-winning Chester Theatre Group since 1965. Located at Grove Street in Chester Borough, the 104-seat theater-in-the-round actively involves audiences and actors alike.
Cooper Mill in Black River Park on Route 513 is probably Chester's most famous historic site, and is a scenic reminder of the area's strong agrarian roots. The 19th century mill is listed on both the state and national register of historic sites, and hosts activities and events for the public throughout the year. Built in 1826 by Nathan Cooper, this fascinating grist mill included some of the newest innovations of the time.
Willowwood Arboretum (http://www.morrisparks.net/aspparks/wwmain.asp) has about 3,500 kinds of native and exotic plants amidst 130 acres of rolling farmland. Both wild and cultivated plantings can be seen on self-guided tours. The circa 1792 residence features two small formal gardens and several meandering pathways.
Alstede's Country Market (http://www.alstedefarms.com/) on Route 513 presents 200 crops on the 500 acres farmed here, and visitors enjoy the experience of picking their own fruits and vegetables. Chester is also home to Hacklebarney Farms and Riamede Farms, where pick your own berries, apples, peaches, strawberries and vegetables as well as baked goods are available.
Fun Fact: Amazingly, the 16-foot water wheel at Cooper's Mill –which weighs six-and-a-half tons-- takes as little as two cups of water in less than half of the wheel's 48 buckets to keep it turning at four rotations-per-minute.
Size: Borough, 1.5 square miles; Township, 29.8 square miles
Incorporated: Borough, 1930; Township, 1799
2000 Census Population: 7,282
Location: Morris County
Distance from New York City: About 49 miles
Distance from Newark: About 35 miles
Distance from Philadelphia: About 76 miles
Mass Transportation: New Jersey Transit train station in Peapack provides service to midtown Manhattan's Penn Station. Lakeland Bus has service to Port Authority bus terminal in midtown Manhattan from nearby Far Hills.
Parks: Chubb Park, Route 24; Tiger Brook Park, Cooper Lane; Black River Park, Route 513; Cooper Mill, Route 24; Bamboo Brook Outdoor Education Center, Willowwood Arboretum, Longview Road; Hacklebarney State Park, off State Park Road; Chester Area Pool on North Road.
Local Sites/Attractions: Cooper Mill at Black River Park, Willowwood Arboretum, Chester Borough for shopping and dining, local farm stands for produce and plants.
Housing: Antique farmhouses and Colonials, equestrian properties, luxury real estate, Cape Cods, Victorians, executive homes, custom homes, cul-de-sac homes, new homes, ranch homes, cottages, contemporary designs and a variety of architectural styles spanning the centuries.
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