The search lasted for months. An antique stone pony that had become a landmark in Mendham Borough disappeared from its familiar spot on the front lawn of residents Jack and Jace Botti. “We had dozens of people come to our front door voicing their disappointment,” says Jace. The town, after all, takes pride in its historic relics. Local police, friends, neighbors—even borough residents whom the Bottis had never met before—joined the hunt for the purloined pony. “Everybody looked in their backyards and their neighborhoods to see if there was any evidence,” Jace says.
It’s not unusual for folks in Mendham Borough to lend their neighbors a hand. But more than the Morris County town’s strong sense of community makes it number one in New Jersey Monthly’s 2013 Top Towns survey. Bucolic yet posh, Mendham Borough has managed to keep its taxes relatively low, its home values rising and its schools scoring well above average. “We are all working for the same thing,” says borough Mayor Neil Henry, who grew up in adjacent Mendham Township but settled in the borough with his wife and three kids in 1998.
Old Route 24, the main artery in and out of town, becomes Main Street as it passes through the heart of Mendham Borough, flanked by historic buildings like the Phoenix House, a former inn that once was frequented by such famous personages as Abner Doubleday, a Civil War general who eventually built a home for himself on Hilltop Road. The old Federal-style inn is now the town hall. Across the intersection—controlled by one of only two stoplights in town—Robinson Drug Shop and Compounding Center has been dispensing medications since 1870; it’s still the neighborhood kids’ go-to destination for candy and trinkets.
“It’s kind of like Main Street, USA,” says Cindy Burke, who has lived with her husband in their West Main Street cottage for 38 years and raised three kids in town.
The borough’s best-known landmark is the Black Horse Tavern and Pub. The tavern, a stately white clapboard building accentuated by a wrought iron fence that wraps around its English garden, was built in 1742 by Ebenezer Byram, founder of the Mendhams. What is now an equestrian-themed pub used to be the tavern’s stagecoach stop and stables. George Washington is said to have dined at the tavern and even spent the night there. Fast-forward a couple of centuries, and celebrities like the late singer Whitney Houston, former Jets quarterback Neil O’Donnell and comedian Jim Breuer have been known to make reservations. Governor Chris Christie, who lives in Mendham Township, also comes in with his family when his schedule allows.
However, what has helped the Black Horse stay so popular is its attention to regular customers, the locals. “It’s all about the people, taking care of them and their needs,” says general manager Michael Horty, who’s been with the establishment since 1995. He says a former owner, Anthony Knapp, would sometimes send a vehicle to pick up guests at their homes and bring them to the restaurant. Horty has maintained that spirit, greeting guests by first name, slipping an occasional complimentary dessert into takeout orders and even adding customers’ special orders to the regular menu.
Beyond the center of town, the surrounding hills are graced by antique cottages and charming colonials as well as developments built in the 1970s on what was once farmland. Some residents still hold onto the area’s agricultural past with their own apple orchards or tree farms.
Mendham Borough’s six square miles are bordered on three sides by Mendham Township and, to the south, by Somerset County. The borough and township were once one, but in the early 20th century, when it became too difficult for firefighters in the area to access water, the borough decided it was time to install its own public water system. Federal law stipulated that to do so the borough would have to become an independent municipality. So in 1906, the borough broke away from the larger Mendham area.
“It’s no big secret,” says Henry of the split. Still, many longtime residents are uncomfortable talking about the separation, which has produced a bit of a rivalry. Today, the borough is known for its commercial district, while the township is noted for its sprawling estates.
Now in his second term as mayor, a part-time post, Henry says his administration has worked to rein in spending. “We’ve been able to do our capital projects selectively and used money that we already had in the coffers, if you will,” he explains. Certain roads have been paved and some aging firefighting equipment has been replaced, but the town has avoided major infrastructure projects and large purchases. Henry also says his administration has been diligent in reviewing each line of the town’s nearly $9 million municipal budget. As a result, property taxes have been relatively steady, seeing only a 0.6 percent increase from 2010 to 2012. Mendham Borough property owners paid an average of $13,515 in 2012.
The borough also controls costs by sharing services with neighboring towns and leveraging the best possible deals. For example, the borough has a contract with Mendham Township to use the township’s court; however, starting in January, the borough will switch to the Chester Borough court, a move that will save about $90,000 a year. Henry says the borough cut costs and also improved service by sharing animal-control services with Randolph instead of relying on an animal shelter in Madison. “It’s really worked out well,” he says. The borough’s efforts to preserve its financial standing also resulted in an improved Moody’s Investor Services bond rating in 2012.
The borough’s appeal is not lost on potential home buyers. The median home sales price increased 12 percent between 2010 and 2012, rising to $570,000. That figure reflects the demand for the borough’s less expensive properties, says Fredi Ash, a sales associate at Sotheby’s International Realty. Some of those are in the Commons, a large condo complex where units sell in the $200,000s and $300,000s.
At the other end of the spectrum are $5 million homes on multi-acre properties. Ash acknowledges that the market has been soft in recent years for homes priced at $1.5 million and up, although the pace has picked up in the past year.
Mendham Borough attracts people looking for traditional homes, historic ambience, open space and a low crime rate. Many residents who have grown up in the area and moved out at some point return to raise their families. Some find Mendham Borough particularly attractive because of its schools. “People are here because of the education and conservation,” says Jane MacNeil, a sales associate with Keller Williams Realty. The town has one elementary school and one middle school and is home to West Morris Regional High School, which also serves students from Mendham Township, Chester Borough and Chester Township. It ranked number 45 on New Jersey Monthly’s 2012 list of the state’s top public high schools.
Borough residents are a blend of blue- and white-collar workers, including New York executives and public figures such as Fox News Channel TV anchor Neil Cavuto. The commute can be a chore. The nearest major roadways, routes 202 and 287, are about a 15-minute drive. Neither of the Mendhams has a train station or a bus stop; rail commuters must travel seven miles to the station in Morristown. But most residents happily trade such inconveniences for the peace and privacy in a town that strictly enforces its zoning rules. “The grandfathers of the town were very diligent in keeping it the way it looked way back,” says Jace Botti. “There’s no McDonald’s or Burger King here.”
Mendham Borough has a tiny bowling alley and racquet club but no movie theater or indoor shopping mall. However, there are a few stores on the main street, including boutiques like Fun House Furnishings and the popular Barney’s Consignment Shop, as well as shops offering cosmetics or services such as framing, upholstery and home design. Residents also frequent the Mendham Village Shopping Center on East Main Street, where there is a small but sufficient Kings Food Market, an eclectic apothecary, and a book store that has hosted signings by authors like Mary Higgins Clark and Caroline Kennedy.
The town holds several family-oriented events throughout the year. Labor Day Weekend is always the biggest annual event, with a morning parade, carnival and evening fireworks. “It’s a great way to bring the community together,” says Henry. Many residents mark the weekend with private parties. Jeanne Rice, who lives on the parade route along Mountain Avenue, invites family and friends for donuts, coffee and mimosas. “It is such a wonderful, hometown kind of a day,” she says.
A 17-year resident, Rice has raised two boys in the borough with her husband Tom, with whom she runs a public relations business. By night, Tom is frequently featured on guitar with Tom Rice & Friends, a band of locals who pack the Black Horse.
Which brings us back to the Bottis and their wayward pony. For two years, they received tips that their lawn ornament had been spotted. Jack Botti eventually found a similar pony statue and had it fixed up, replacing a missing leg and part of an ear. This time, the Bottis secured the pony, Vixon, to a sturdy foundation. Soon people began stopping by, asking about its reappearance. The original stone pony was never found, but the Bottis had revealed the heart of Mendham Borough.