History of Freehold

The term “Freehold:” is derived from an English legal term describing fee-simple property ownership.  Freehold Borough was incorporated as a town on March 25, 1879, and reincorporated on April 15, 1919, as a separate municipality from Freehold Township.  The Lenni Lenape Native Americans were among the earliest settlers in the area.   Scottish immigrants also settled here to avoid religious persecution in Scotland. The Borough of Freehold was designated as the County Seat, and a Count Courthouse was opened in 1715.

During the Revolutionary War, Freehold was known as a center of patriot activity. In 1778 the British Army evacuated the city of Philadelphia and were marching toward New York City.  However, they were intercepted by the Continental Army in Freehold, and that Battle of Monmouth became one of the largest battles of the Revolutionary War.

The Borough has a land area of 1.9 square miles, and a current population of  12,047 people.

The Borough is rich in many historical attractions dating back to the Revolutionary War era.  Lovely Victorian style homes  sit on shady tree-lined streets. In 1824, the American Hotel opened on West Main St., where it still stands today, as does the Freehold Racetrack which opened in 1853.     Downtown Freehold has experienced a renaissance in recent years with the addition of brick sidewalks. Downtown Freehold features many fine restaurants and shops, and is frequently the site for outdoor concerts, parades, athletic events, a summertime farmers’ market, and many other events.

Freehold Borough is governed under the Borough form of New Jersey Municipal Government, consisting of a Mayor and six Council Members.   Today, J. Nolan Higgins serves as Mayor, along with Council Members Michael DiBenedetto, Kevin Kane, Ronald Griffiths, George Schnurr, Sharon Shutzer, and Jaye Sims.      

Early history

The Lenni Lenape were the earliest known people to live in the area that became Freehold.[25] 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.[26]

In 1498, John Cabot became the first European to sight this land.[25] The Dutch were the first to settle and develop the area. By the 17th Century, the English had taken 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 immigrants, fleeing religious persecution at home, became the first to settle the area.[25] In 1693, Along with Middletown and Shrewsbury, Freehold was established by act of legislature as one of the three original towns in Monmouth County.[27] The name of the township comes from the word Freehold, an English legal term describing fee simple property ownership.[28]

Colonial Freehold

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 sold the property to the Board of Chosen Freeholders at a bargain price, and this may have been the deciding factor why Freehold was selected over Middletown and Shrewsbury. In return for the heavily discounted price, 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.[29]

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.[30] A small village quickly began to develop around the courthouse. At first, the village was called Monmouth Courthouse. Overtime, 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.[31]

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.[26] The differences within Freehold between the growing village around the courthouse and the surrounding farmland were the seeds for the eventually 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.[32] In modern Freehold today, many important streets bear the name of early colonial families, including Barkalow, Applegate, Rhea, Throckmorton, and Schanck.[32]

The Revolutionary War in Freehold

Freehold was deeply impacted by the American Revolution. By the early 1770s, the Sons of Liberty were actively recruiting local members in Freehold, and were agitating the relationship between the British government and the colonists.[33] In 1775, immediately after the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Capt. Elias Longstreet recruited the first company of Freeholders to join the Continental Army.[34] 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.[32]

However, after British success at the Battle of Long Island, Freehold and all of Monmouth County fell under the control of Loyalists.[35] 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.[35] The success of the Continental Army at the Battle of Trenton helped to weaken loyalist control of Freehold.[36]

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.[37] The Battle of Monmouthwas one of the largest battles of the Revolutionary War, involving over 25,000 soldiers combined in Continental, British, and Hessian forces. The Continental Army was able to repel the British forces, and 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.[37]

Molly Pitcher fighting at the Battle of Monmouth in Freehold, New Jersey

Several famous figures from the Revolutionary War fought at the Battle of Monmouth. British forces were commanded by Sir Henry Clinton andCharles 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 GreeneAlexander Hamilton"Mad" Anthony Wayne, the Marquis de Lafayetteand Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben also fought at the Battle of Monmouth for the Continental Army.[38] Another famous figure at the Battle of Monmouth was Molly Pitcher, who manned a cannon during the battle after her husband was wounded.[38]

In the aftermath of the Battle of Monmouth, Loyalist control of Freehold faltered. The town 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.[39] Colonel Tye, was an escaped slave formerly named Titus, and the leader of a prominent loyalist guerilla 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.[40] Patriots later cut down Huddy's body hanging from the gallows and buried it in Freehold, at Old Tennent Church.[41] At the end of the war, the community was deeply divided, and nearly 120 loyalist families left Freehold, fearing persecution from their neighbors. Most of these families re-settled in Canada.[42]

19th Century Freehold

During the early 1800s, Freehold steadily grew in size. The village around the courthouse was now called Freehold, along with the surrounding farmland.[43] In 1852, when long distance railroad systems were first being developed, a railroad station, with trains making regular stops, was built near the courthouse 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.[43] 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 benefitted greatly by being able to sell their products more easily in New York and Philadelphia.[44] 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.[45]

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 1896–1899 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.[46]

Town Hall in Freehold Township, located on Schanck Road

Freehold divided

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.[47] 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.[48] 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 formerly separated from Freehold Township.[23] 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.[49] 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.[49]

The Township in the 20th Century

Freehold Township 911 Memorial located near Town Hall on Schanck Road

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. Among the corporations that opened production factories in Freehold include Nestlé in 1948[50] and 3M in 1957.[51] In 1971, a major medical complex, originally called Freehold Area Hospital, and today called CentraState Medical Center, opened in the Township.[50] Not all industrial developments in the Township were positive. In 1983, the United States government designated the Lone Pine Chemical Site in the Township as a Superfund site, one of the worst environmental disasters in the country.[52] In 1990, with the opening of Freehold Raceway Mall, the second-largest mall in the state, the Township become a primary commercial center for Central New Jersey.[53]

As the Township grew, Route 33 which ran through the heart of Freehold, become increasingly congested, and study suggested construction of a new freeway. 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 just kept getting worse. 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.[54][55]

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 CityNewarkTrenton, and Philadelphia. Five residents of the Township were killed in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and are listed on the county's 9/11 memorial.


Bradly Trebotica
Keller Williams
Ph: 800-405-3914
Freehold, NJ 07728 US
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