Upon retirement, former library assistant reclaims Freehold Township’s historical legacy

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Cheryl Cook-Polverino had a 30-year career as a librarian before retiring and devoting herself to illuminating Freehold Township’s historical legacy.

“I was with the Monmouth County Library System,” said Cook-Polverino, who is vice chair of the Freehold Township Historic Preservation Commission and is the township historian.

While still a student, she began working as a page at the Eastern Branch Library in Shrewsbury. When she graduated high school, she became full-time and started working at the front desk.

“I started right out of high school, it was my first job,” she said. “I actually started in 1969 and worked through 1999, when I retired. I worked there for 22 years. I went from junior library assistant to senior to supervising library assistant.

“I wanted to go further in my career and there was an opening at library headquarters in Manalapan at the collection development level,” she said. “The library was converting to the Dewey Decimal System and I was actually training the librarians to get on board.”

According to Cook-Polverino, the transition to computers was not without its challenges.

“When we went computerized, it was another ‘wonderful’ experience, I say that tongue-in-cheek,” she said. “I had to train the computer specialists to learn to work with our checkout systems.

“So we sat down with them and helped them write the language that actually became the computerized library checkout system and the catalog system and all the things that go with it. We started computerization in the mid- to late-’70s and we didn’t really finish until late in the ’70s, it took five or six years.

“I moved from Shrewsbury into Manalapan in 1992 and became part of the Collection Development Office. I started to make my way to the top of the office and I stayed until 1999. When my boss retired, they put me in his post.

“It had been 30 years and it was time to move on. It just kind of fell into place all along the way. I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason and you just have to trust that. I had a lot of good people helping me along the way. My bosses were fantastic. And working in a library, you can’t help but learn things.

“I retired in June 1999, and was appointed in November to the historic preservation commission, which kind of became my full-time job because there was so much going on, with setting up museums and trying to find funding and all kinds of things like that.

“It was the right fit at the right time. Now historic preservation work is what I do.”

Shortly after she was appointed to Historic Preservation Commission, which is charged with protecting and preserving the township’s historical resources and sites, her friend and mentor Nancy Dubois Wood took her on a tour of the township’s shuttered historical properties.

“Nancy said one day, ‘I’m going to take you in the car and show you all these places,’ Cook-Polverino recalled, “and when we saw the places, I asked, ‘Nancy, why aren’t these open as museums?’ “

“There’s never been anybody with an interest to do it,” Wood responded.

“Well, you know what?” Cook-Polverino said, “I’m recently retired, I’m a former library person and I think we can do this together.”

“We had three properties in the township,” she explained, “on Wemrock Road, West Freehold Schoolhouse and Oakley Farm, which is over 300 years old and was just sitting there, and Georgia Road Schoolhouse, on the corner of Jackson Mills and Georgia Road.”

“I’m a can-do person. I said, ‘This is sad, these beautiful buildings need to be opened up,’ ” said Cook-Polverino, who is currently vice chair of the commission, which is charged with protecting and preserving the township’s historical resources and sites.  

“We have 300 years of history, a museum of early education from the 1800s through 1954, and the Oakley Farm history.

“So we started out with the West Freehold Schoolhouse as our first project,” she said. “It’s a museum and it had furniture, all the desks and the teacher’s desk. The only thing we had to do was the blackboards. They had been given away when it closed in 1935 so we had to paint blackboard on the walls.”

Cook-Polverino, who retired in 1999 as supervising library assistant with the Monmouth County Library System, is an unabashed fan of Freehold Township, which was incorporated in 1693, and where she has lived for 28 years.

The qualify-of-life in the township, she said, continues to attract people moving from out-of-area.

“The township is a good fit, that’s why everybody wants to live here,” she said. “People are moving out of the city, out of Staten Island and moving here. They’re moving to Freehold Township.

I love Freehold, my ancestors are from Freehold and Farmingdale and came here in the 1600s. I just love that hometown feeling I get, dealing with everybody from top to the bottom.

“The camaraderie, the fact that the neighborhood I live in is one of the oldest neighborhoods in the township. I know everybody. People have been here since the 1950s. We are just one big family,” she said.

“When I moved into the neighborhood it was like I moved in with my sisters and brothers. When somebody moves in we have a welcome committee and make sure they know this is a nice friendly neighborhood.

“It’s like when I grew up, you knew everybody in your neighborhood. My husband Sam was a fireman in East Freehold. When my husband passed away, there were 100 people gathered in my front yard. It was a beautiful tribute – and that is why I live in Freehold Township!”

Her passion for history is evident in everything she does. Another mentor was Kay Hall, who, along with her husband Charlie, was the historian for Howell Township.

“They had redone the Ardena Schoolhouse,” said Cook-Polverino. “She was my teacher, she showed me how to do it, told me what to do. I met with her a few times and then we just opened up the [West Freehold] schoolhouse because it was perfectly ready to open since everything is still there on Wemrock Road.”

By 2002, it had become clear that a source of funding was needed for the restoration projects and in 2003 Cook-Polverino founded the Freehold Township Heritage Society to raise funds for preservation and restoration of the sites.

“The township Historic Preservation Commission is not allowed to make money,” she explained, “and we had to find a way to raise funds to support these properties. I started the heritage society so we could apply for grants and help.”

In 2013, Cook-Polverino was recognized by Monmouth County with the Jane G. Clayton Award, which cited her efforts, including establishing the Oakley Farm Museum, which opened in 2002; founding of the Freehold Township Heritage Society in 2003; efforts to restore the Georgia Road Schoolhouse from 2004 to its reopening in 2010, as well as “promoting educational programs and facilities to promote knowledge of local history.”

However, Cook-Polverino shared, it has become difficult to carry on the society’s preservation and restoration work in large measure due to a shortage of members to help with the festivals, music programs, tours of the schoolhouses, tours of the farm and special events.

“It is a challenge, we’re still operating but we don’t have the membership we need and we really need to have many more members because right now we’ve got a lot of great things happening,” she said. “We try to get the public involved and the public loves it.”

Declining membership, exacerbated by COVID, is a problem, she acknowledged.

“Right now we need members badly. We need volunteers. It’s a great thing because we use the kids from the National Honor Society, the ROTC, the community service program from the area, to help us as volunteers for our events. We have Eagle Scouts who work on the farm or at the schoolhouses,” she said.

“It’s a wonderful community project that benefits the community in so many different ways. We’ve had several Gold Awards for the Girl Scouts. We have had 27 Eagle Scouts that have worked on the farm or at one of the schoolhouses. So, 27 young men have gotten their Eagle award through us. It’s a pretty remarkable thing.

“But membership is down because of COVID and the older people are leaving and younger people don’t have the time,” she said. “It’s such a wonderful thing; it’s a fun thing. We don’t require a lot of your time, just require you to be there once every couple of months. It’s a fun job and it’s so rewarding.

We need members. We are really desperate to have people join us and help us,” she said. “Membership is really important to any society trying to raise funds. We now have five different historic sites … and every site needs more and more help every year because it gets older.”

The five sites are: Oakley Farm Museum and West Freehold Schoolhouse, both on Wemrock Road, Georgia Road Schoolhouse at Georgia Road and Jackson Mills Road; the Wikoff Hill Burial Ground off Great Bridge Road, and Henderson Park, which is in the planning stages to be developed within the Freehold Marketplace center off Rte. 537.

“There’s a hill there, it’s the homestead of Dr. Thomas Henderson, he was the town doctor and was a confidante of George Washington, and also was elected governor of the state,” Cook-Polverino said. “He was very prominent during the American Revolution. He and George Washington had several meetings before the Revolution because Henderson had lived on this site since the mid-1700s with his wife and children and he was a patriot.

“The house burned down in the ‘80s but we still have the original foundation and we also have the barn, so we are turning the property into a passive park and it will just be a walking area, a contemplative area and the house will be outlined in the park so you will be able to see what it looked like and we’ll develop the barn, a visitors center and it will all have connections to the American Revolution,” Cook-Polverino said.

“We’ve been working on it since 2003 and we’re getting to a point now where we’re going to start developing it in the next two years. We need a lot of money for it, it’s a very big undertaking. It’s going to be a beautiful area. The park is actually in the middle of this green space. We were so excited because Henderson Park, the green space, we actually had three archaeological digs there and they found over 3,500 artifacts there from the early 1700s to early 1800s.”

Cook-Polverino delights in recounting the rich history that embellishes the legacy of Freehold Township, including decisive battles of the American Revolutionary War.

“The British were stationed on the Oakley Farm during the American Revolution and the family that owned the farm were the Walkers. While the husband was off fighting the Battle of Monmouth with his son, the British were burning everything coming into Freehold,” she said.

“They destroyed everything and they came to the farm and Mrs. Walker went out there and said, ‘You can camp on my farm, I will feed your men. Please don’t burn my house down.’ And they didn’t, the farmhouse and Mounts Tavern were the only things not destroyed and the Solomon Farm on the corner.

“Those interested can research this historic milestone and more on the township website. Go to Heritage Society, almost all of our history is there. We established that early on. At the library, we went from the card catalogue to the computer and I knew how important computerization was going to be. So I said to the township, you’re going to need to give me a page on the website because we can’t just leave this stuff in here, it’s got to be out there on the Internet.

“Oakley Farm also has its own website,” she added, “and we are in the process of doing QR codes so if we get shut down again, people will be able to go to the Oakley Farm website and scan the code and then be able to visit virtually. So that’s our newest and latest project.

Freehold Township Mayor Thomas Cook credited Cook-Polverino’s role “in preserving and bringing to life township history.”

“I think one of her best and most important qualities is her passion to preserve the history of Freehold Township and the commitment of her time and energy to do the things she’s done. Cheryl has been our township historian since 2013,” he said.

“It’s her overall commitment and the passion to do it. She raises funds, she works well with our township administrator and township committee and let’s us know, “we’ve got this project, we have to do this …”

“She has been instrumental in the Georgia Road Schoolhouse restoration, she helped create the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County, which is over by Mounts Corner,” Mayor Cook added.

“It’s a passion and this is hers … She’s done, and continues to do, good things, she recruits people for the historical society. She’s very proud of what she does.”

“I love history, I really do, and this history is so important,” Cook-Polverino stressed. “Without the Battle of Monmouth we probably wouldn’t be our own country. That was one of the most important battles that took place and nobody really knows that much about it.

“It’s a funny story if you listen to the historians about what happened that day. It was 98 degrees, with 90 percent humidity, the British were dressed in their wool uniforms and they were on the south side of [Route] 522 in the apple orchards and they were moving up and the battle took place on the north side of 522, so on Monmouth Battlefield itself.

“The British were working it, but the heat got to them and they were losing people left and right from heat exhaustion and the firing and they actually left in the middle of the night, they left the battle.

“It’s pretty impressive. We were winning, no doubt about it, but the fact that they were losing so many men to heat exhaustion and to injury, they just figured, you know what, we’re going up to New York because this isn’t working.

“And that’s what they did, they took off and crossed over into New York. It’s a real interesting story.”

She also reprises the tale of local heroine Molly Pitcher.

“At Oakley Farm, Molly Pitcher was on the north side of 522, right on the battlefield with her husband, he was a gunner firing the cannons. He was mortally wounded and she took over firing the cannon, so that’s where she was, what a great lady,” Cook-Polverino said.

“There were a lot of camp followers, but she was amazing. She actually retired from the Army as a sergeant. Her name was Sgt. Mary Hayes, she was known as Molly Pitcher because she was carrying water to the men and she was also carrying water because they had to wet down the gun every time they fired it because they got so hot it would have blown up.

“She was an amazing woman. She carried 70 pounds of weight all the way from Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania, they walked. She had to carry the campfire pot to cook in because that’s what the camp followers did, they did the cooking for the men and took care of them. It’s an amazing story of the American Revolution.”

Events sponsored by the Heritage Society include the Civil War Re-Enactment Weekend at Oakley Farm, Pickin’ at the Farm Old Time Music Jams at Oakley Farm on the second Tuesday of each month, and Artisan Car Show, and then Christmas at Camp in early December.

Monthly meetings of the society are held on the second Wednesday of each month at 10 a.m. at the Oakley Farmhouse.