Monmouth Beach Politics: Johnson & Johnson Style
During the first century of Monmouth Beach governance for nearly half of that time a dynamic father-son combo ran things as activist mayors.
These very consequential town leaders were Abram Osborne Johnson (mayor from 1917 to 1926 and 1937 to 1945) and his son, Sidney Borden Johnson (mayor from 1949 to 1978). Combined they were elected to 12 terms as the borough’s chief executive.
Observers say that both men were politicians to the core and each worked mightily so that Monmouth Beach was left a better place for their service. Both mayors, who frequently employed a “way with words,” had a deep respect for the town’s history and traditions. They also weren’t afraid to employ politics to get what they wanted.
The two men bridged an era of brisk and meaningful community growth. When Abram left office the town had a population of about 450 residents and by the time his son retired, our coastal community had grown to nearly 3,300 people.
Born in North Long Branch in 1878, as an only son Abram was forced to go to work at a young age selling fish from a wagon. His father, Garrett, had been killed by a horse at Monmouth Park when Abram was 10 years old. Over the years he would come to be a prosperous local entrepreneur, building viable seafood, real estate, and construction businesses.
He managed the Monmouth Beach Clubhouse Hotel properties and started the Monmouth Beach Cold Storage Company in 1912 and made a large renovation in 1930 (and at one point was freezing more than 2 million pounds of fish annually). After his death, his son Sidney took over the fish business and controlled it for 30 years until it he left in 1978. The large Riverdale Avenue plant was closed in 1983.
A.O., as he was known, was an inaugural member of the borough council in 1906. He was a founding member of the fire company and MB School board of education. He was responsible for laying out the boroughs traffic routes and also had the wisdom to preserve (and move) what is now borough hall in 1917. Also the borough didn’t have a have a public school until he helped found it in 1909.
Admirers also say he was an ally for those hit by hard by 1930s Depression times, often seeing to it that down-on-their-luck residents had work, shelter, and food. Also known for his dashing ways (he wore spats and a monocle), A.O. died in August 1950 having lived to see his son become mayor the year before.
“Politics is the art of the possible.”
—Otto von Bismarck
The Son Also Rises
Born in 1915, Sidney was educated at the MB School and would go on to become an Ivy League-trained lawyer (Columbia Law School). First running successfully for borough office in 1949, Sidney was a guy “always on the go” — never losing a town election in 10 campaigns.
He served as a powerful elected borough leader (mayor and commissioner) for parts of 50 years. He left borough politics in 1978 to serve in the Monmouth County Prosecutors Office (commissioners then said replacing him was like “trying to find a twin Babe Ruth”). He returned in 1989 to recapture a seat on the board of commissioners at age 74 and served until 1997.
A man of exceptional drive, vision, and intelligence, he also wasn’t afraid to play hardball politics. Sidney could have been “a successful politician on any level,” according to a national newspaperman who watched him operate locally in the 1960s. And he could talk — an Asbury Park Press columnist once claimed he “speaks faster then the human ear is capable of hearing.”
Among his many contributions to Monmouth Beach were founding the borough library, expanding and improving borough hall and its operations, developing the local sewerage authority, developing a regional high school, preserving open space, and stabilizing property taxes. He and his wife, Mary, had five children. Sidney died in March 2001, four years after his final retirement from the Board of Commissioners.
Not everyone agreed with him. Future four-term borough mayor Lou Sodano, upon first entering borough politics in March 1977, said Johnson “runs the show constantly.”
In addition to his Monmouth Beach efforts, Sidney played a vital role in county education. He was president of the innovative Monmouth County Vocational School board for over 20 years, which is responsible for the county’s excellent career academy schools today.
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Vivian Johnson: Roaring 20’s Gal
There was also a fashionable female contingent of the Johnson family. Vivian Johnson, born in Monmouth Beach in 1901, was a trend-setter and accomplished businessperson. The daughter and sister of Monmouth Beach mayors, she came of age during the Roaring ‘20s and liked to live the high life.
Friends and relatives admired Vivian as an original “flapper girl” — a talented and fun-loving women well ahead of her time. Beginning in 1927, she was the owner/operator of Vivian Johnson’s Nightclub on Ocean Avenue. At first a “speakeasy,” she was finally granted a license “to sell beer” in 1933. The club, highly promoted by her father, was located north of the MB Bath & Tennis Club. The business hosted many parties and events in the early 1930s, including dining, dancing, and music.
Lost to a spectacular fire in September 1935, the Queen-Style structure sported a floating yacht-shaped bar. Living in an upstairs apartment, Vivian escaped unharmed. Just two weeks prior to the fire, a dinner-dance party and fashion showed with over 350 guests had been held.
Prior to her nightclub, she had operated a small tearoom on River Avenue in the 1920s. Her father A.O., owned much of the property in that area; nearby Johnson Street is named for borough’s “First Family” of politics. Vivian died in October 2002 at age 101.
And finally there’s Maude W. Johnson — wife of A.O. and mother to Sidney and Vivian — who was no slouch herself. A Red Bank native, before her death in July 1959 at age 80 she was part-owner of the family cold storage business and was borough tax assessor from 1933 to 1945.
More Johnson Family Photos & History …