The Lenni Lenape Native Americans were the earliest known people to live in the area that became Freehold. The Lenape were a hunter-gatherer society. They were largely sedentary, changing campsites seasonally. They were prolific hunters of small game and birds. They were also skilled fisherman, and were known to harvest vast amounts of clams from the bays and inlets on the Jersey Shore. They also practiced some agriculture to augment their food supply. During this time, an important crossroad of two major Lenape trails was located in the area of Freehold.
In 1498, John Cabot became the first European to sight this land. By the late 17th century, the English had begun to take over the area. In 1664, the Duke of York (later James II & VII) granted a patent to Sir George Carteret to develop the area. In 1685, Scottish Presbyterians from Scotland, along with English Baptists and Quakers from New England fleeing religious persecution at home, became the first to settle within the area. In 1693, along with Middletown and Shrewsbury, Freehold was established by act of legislature as one of the three original townships in Monmouth County. The name of the township comes from the word freehold, an English legal term describing fee simple property ownership.
In 1714, when the colonial government was deciding where to locate the county seat and courthouse, Freeholder John Reid, the first Surveyor General of East Jersey, wanted the county seat located in Freehold. Reid's offer to sell the property to the Board of Chosen Freeholders at a heavily discounted price may have been the deciding factor in choosing Freehold—rather than Middletown or Shrewsbury—as the site of the county seat. As part of the deal, Reid placed a restrictive covenant in the deed that, should the property ever cease being used as a courthouse, ownership would revert to the Reid family. Direct descendants of John Reid still reside in Freehold Township.
Freehold was officially designated as the seat of the Monmouth County government, and a court house was commissioned to be built on the land purchased from John Reid. The Monmouth Courthouse opened in 1715. A small village quickly began to develop around the courthouse. At first, the village was called Monmouth Courthouse. Over time, other government buildings opened near the courthouse, including a sheriff's office, a prison, and a post office. A number of homes and commercial businesses also sprang up in the village, including a blacksmith, a general store, a bank, a hotel, and saloon.
In the area surrounding Monmouth Courthouse, many successful farms began to appear. The farms in Freehold were particularly well known for the production of potatoes, beans, and rye, which were sold in the markets of nearby cities. Freehold also became known for its excellent horse farms. The differences within Freehold between the growing settlement around the courthouse and the surrounding farmland were the seeds for the eventual division of Freehold into two separate municipalities in the early 20th century.
As of 1745, the majority of families in Freehold were still Scottish immigrants. In modern Freehold, many important streets bear the name of early colonial families, including Barkalow, Applegate, Rhea, Throckmorton, and Schanck.
The Revolutionary War in Freehold
Freehold was deeply impacted by the American Revolution. In 1765 with the passage of the Stamp Act, dissidents in Middletown and Upper Freehold established Sons of Liberty groups. In late 1775, Capt. Elias Longstreet recruited the first company of colonists from the county to join the Continental Army for an ill-fated invasion of Canada. Freehold was a known center of patriot activity. The Declaration of Independence was publicly proclaimed, read aloud, from the steps of the Monmouth Courthouse just a few days after being signed in Philadelphia.
However, after British success at the Battle of Long Island, Freehold and all of Monmouth County fell under the control of Loyalists. The British government continued to operate the Monmouth Courthouse, and several people involved in revolutionary activities were arrested and tried for treason at the courthouse. The success of the Continental Army at the Battle of Trenton helped to weaken loyalist control of Freehold.
In June 1778, the British Army began a major strategic evacuation of the city of Philadelphia. They attempted to protect a long, slow moving column of loyalist families, equipment, and other supplies seized in Philadelphia, as they moved towards ships in New York Harbor. On June 28, 1778, the Continental Army intercepted the column in Freehold. The Battle of Monmouth was one of the largest battles of the Revolutionary War, involving over 25,000 soldiers combined in Continental, British, and Hessian forces. The initial engagement was in doubt until Washington arrived because Charles Lee was retreating from the battlefield. Washington rallied the Continentals and strongly engaged the British forces and they held their ground on the battlefield. However, British forces were successful in completing their primary goal, the evacuation of Philadelphia. Both sides claimed victory in the battle.
Several famous figures from the Revolutionary War fought at the Battle of Monmouth. British forces were commanded by Sir Henry Clinton and Charles Cornwallis. The Continental Army was commanded by George Washington and Charles Lee. Charles Lee was later court martialed by the Continental Army for his actions at the Battle of Monmouth. Nathanael Greene, Alexander Hamilton, "Mad" Anthony Wayne, the Marquis de Lafayette and Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben also fought at the Battle of Monmouth for the Continental Army. Another famous figure at the Battle of Monmouth was Molly Pitcher, who manned a cannon during the battle after her husband was wounded.
In the aftermath of the Battle of Monmouth, Loyalist control of Freehold faltered. The township ceased to have a functioning municipal government and the courthouse was closed until the end of the war. Minor clashes between loyalists and continentals flared up in town, with the violence peaking around 1780. Colonel Tye, was an escaped slave formerly named Titus, and the leader of a prominent loyalist guerrilla force, which conducted several raids in and around Freehold. In one famous incident Joshua Huddy was captured and hung by British Loyalists under the direction of Richard Lippincott and Colonel Tye. Colonel Tye later died from injuries sustained during that raid. Patriots later cut down Huddy's body hanging from the gallows and buried it in Freehold, at Old Tennent Church. At the end of the war, the community was deeply divided and nearly 120 loyalist families left Freehold, fearing retribution from their neighbors. Most of these families re-settled in Canada.
During the early 1800s, Freehold steadily grew in size. The village around the courthouse was now called Freehold, along with the surrounding farmland. In 1852, when long distance railroad systems were first being developed, a railroad station, with trains making regular stops, was built running nearly parallel with Throckmorton Street in Freehold. Freehold soon had public sewers in the village and in some of the outlying farmland. By 1883, there was an electrical grid and a telephone switchboard, at a time when these inventions were still brand new. These public advancements caused rapid economic growth in Freehold. The village of Freehold became an important commercial and industrial hub in central New Jersey. The farms in the rest of Freehold benefited greatly by being able to sell their products more easily in New York and Philadelphia. Both the village and the farms prospered together, however the public policies sought by the two different communities continued to grow further apart. The municipal government was increasingly divided between the villagers and farmers.
In 1824, the American Hotel opened on Main Street in Freehold. It is still standing today and is one of the oldest buildings in Freehold. In 1853, the Freehold Raceway opened. Though the original grandstand burned down in a fire, the racetrack is still open today, and is one of the oldest harness racetracks in America. The Great Fire of Freehold happened on October 30, 1873. The fire reportedly began in a commercial building on Main Street. It soon spread to engulf a large section of the village, and many wooden buildings, including Monmouth Courthouse, were burned down.
Freehold also has a relatively forgotten but important place in the history of the bicycle. Cycling champion Arthur Augustus Zimmerman resided in the town during his racing career in the 1880s and 1890s, and from 1896 to 1899 operated the Zimmerman Bicycle Co.; the company's bicycles were known as the "Zimmy." Today, Freehold Borough is home to the Metz Bicycle Museum, where the only extant "Zimmy" can be seen.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Freehold was an increasingly divided community. The issue of local tax dollars, used as funding for public works and infrastructure projects, was the primary point of contention. The Freeholders living in the downtown area, around the courthouse had very different ideas about how to spend public money compared to the Freeholders living in the surrounding farmland. Tension within the community increased greatly in 1916 when a severe polio epidemic swept through Freehold. After contentious public debate, a referendum was held to on the future of Freehold, and voters overwhelmingly decided to split the town into two separate municipalities.
On April 15, 1919, Freehold Borough formally separated from Freehold Township. Freeholders generally refer to the different municipalities simply as the Borough and the Township. The Borough, the downtown area around the courthouse, retained all the existing government buildings around Court Street and Main Street. The Borough also kept the designation as county seat. Freehold Township, the farming communities that surrounded the courthouse, set up a new town hall complex on Schanck Road. The Township completely encircles the Borough. On September 7, 1926, Freehold Borough annexed additional territory from the Township.
The Township in the 20th century
In the early 20th century, the farms in Freehold Township continued to be prosperous and successful, and the area steadily grew in population. However, after World War II, the Township experienced rapid growth. By this time, transportation systems had increased to a point to allow workers to commute daily to jobs in larger cities, such as Newark, Philadelphia, and New York City. Highways, including U.S. Route 9 and Route 33 helped to make it possible for commuters to live in Freehold and work in nearby cities. The township quickly developed large neighborhoods of suburban single family homes.
Soon, the Township began to grow commercial and industrial businesses that rivalled the Borough. Brockway Glass built their initial facility off Center Street in 1955 with additional facilities added in 1956, 1967, 1969 & 1976 and ceased operations in 1991. The site is now operated by Iron Mountain. 3M opened a magnetic tape production facility in 1957. In 1971, a major medical complex, originally called Freehold Area Hospital, and today called CentraState Medical Center, opened in the Township, a regional hospital for communities in western Monmouth County and southern Middlesex County. Not all industrial developments in the Township were positive. In 1983, the United States Environmental Protection Agency designated the Lone Pine Chemical Site in the Township as a Superfund site. The site has been called "one of the worst environmental disasters in the country". Based on the latest EPA five-year review in 2019, remediation work has contained the spill. In 1990, with the opening of Freehold Raceway Mall, the second-largest mall in the state, the Township had solidified in being a premier commercial center for Central New Jersey.
As the Township grew, Route 33, which ran through the heart of Freehold, became increasingly congested, in which studies suggested the construction of a new freeway. This was due to the fact that there was no room to widen the highway to 4 lanes between Route 9 and a railroad bridge at the eastern end would need to have been widened to accommodate 4 lanes. After several years, the new freeway was downsized to merely a bypass of Freehold. Construction from near Sweetmans Lane (CR 527) to U.S. Route 9 was finished in 1972. Eventually construction began again and the bypass was extended to Halls Mill Road in 1989. For decades traffic was detoured, and congestion continued to worsen. The delay was lengthened when an endangered species was found in the path of the proposed roadway. Finally, after 32 years of waiting, the bypass was fully completed in January 2003, reducing congestion on Route 33 and Route 33 Business, albeit not a completely 4 lane highway between Halls Mills Road and the Howell Road intersection.
The Township has thousands of jobs located within the municipality, along with a growing numbers of commuters who work in neighboring cities such as New York City, Newark, Trenton, and Philadelphia. Five residents of the Township died in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and are listed on the county's 9/11 memorial.
The COVID-19 pandemic, like many communities, affected Freehold Township. Early in the pandemic, the township (and county at large) made news for the numbers of cases that were being reported. In particular, one Freehold family named the Fuscos had made news for having lost five of their relatives during the first few months of the pandemic, with 19 other family members coming into contact with the virus. As of March 1, 2021, the township had reported 2,793 positive COVID-19 cases, with Monmouth County as a whole ranked fourth in the state for new COVID-19 cases. The township implemented protocols in an attempt to slowing down the spread of the virus, by providing support to local citizens, businesses, and services. The township's health department has implemented an intricate contact tracing system for Freehold Township residents. On May 26, 2020, the township adopted an ordinance to help in simplifying the process for restaurant owners to obtain permits for seasonal outdoor dining. As of June 25, 2021, the township and county has been ahead of the Biden Administration's Coronavirus vaccine goal, with at least 73.5% of adults receiving at least one dose, compared to the national average of 65.6% of adults receiving at least one dose.
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