A Window to Marlboro’s Farming Past on The Monmouth Heritage Trail

It’s not that often you get direct physical evidence of a town’s distant past, its historic past. That is, a tangible confirmation of other people who came before and the work they did. We have many historic buildings but they usually undergo significant changes as subsequent generations of people occupy them. I’m talking about objects that exist exactly as they were left decades ago, where you’re only separated from the ‘event’ by Time…no one else has come along to change things in the interim. Typically what we’re left with of historical places and artifacts are photographs, which tells of photography’s value. Because in a photograph, it’s always ‘the present’; you can see things exactly as they were decades, even more than one hundred years ago. There is also an abstract aspect of photographs that draws us in and makes them intriguing and Romantic, because there is nothing ‘real’ about a photograph. That’s for another discussion but the important point here is hard evidence as distinct from the transcendent.

Old tilling equipment
Old tilling equipment just off the trail

I happened upon a graveyard of old farming equipment untouched since it was left to rust.

On my ride through Marlboro last week on my favorite rail trail, the Marlboro-Freehold section (Freehold Branch) of the Henry Hudson Trail, also known as the Monmouth Heritage Trail, I saw lots of hard evidence of Marlboro’s farming past. I happened upon a graveyard of old farming equipment virtually untouched since it was left to rust. To be sure, there has been some cannibalizing for parts over the years but you can tell the objects have otherwise sat exactly where they were left. They’re usually hidden by thick woods and overgrowth—I’ve never happened to see them before, only an old van which is visible from the trail—but the bare trees of winter leave them all visible.

It just takes a short walk into the woods…

A Little History

I grew up in neighboring Holmdel (and Matawan before that), both of which were agrarian communities before developers came along and built sprawling subdivisions in the post-World War Two decades. In fact, most of New Jersey was farmland, hence the state’s well-known nick-name. And a lot of that land—thousands of acres of it—was ripe for the picking (sorry!). So the developers came and built houses to fill the needs of the burgeoning post-war population…lots of them and they needed land to build on. Around this time small family-owned farms were going the way of the dinosaur. Likewise, the railroads that had been built to serve them in the mid-19th century were also disappearing. In fact, by the end of the 1950s the whole Northeast railroad industry was collapsing and rail companies were merging in order to survive. This meant that small branch lines like the one here through Marlboro had declining rail traffic and were eventually abandoned.

With the farms going out of business it must have seemed like perfect timing that developers came knocking to buy up their land. Suddenly, the prospect of wealth became very real. So the farmers sold out and in the process they left lots equipment to rot. At least in this case. I have my own idea of how this particular scenario may have played out…how all this equipment came to be abandoned in this spot.

How It Came To Be Now?

On one side of this clearing in the woods (looking East) where all these relics reside is a deep ravine; so they didn’t come from that direction. Looking West is where the railroad ran and now the trail. It looks like there was a path, probably a dirt farm road at one time. Many of the New Jersey roads we drive over started out as Indian paths, then farm roads, and now they’re paved roads. There was probably a dirt railroad crossing at the point where the path leads into the clearing. All of this stuff was likely kept in garages and barns on the other side of the tracks where Levitt (developer William Levitt) built a subdivision, probably in the mid-to late 1960’s. After the farm was sold, its buildings were demolished and with nowhere else to put the tractors, trucks and tillers they just drove everything to this clearing and left it. And here it still sits, within sight of the bedroom community windows that displaced it.

Who are we without our history?

East Freehold Road crossing
The East Freehold Road crossing in February 1966

Looking at these old farm antiques you get a real feel for what it must have been like in the area more than 50 years ago. My family moved here from New York City in 1963 to another Levitt development in Matawan to the north. It, too, was built on former farm land, and there was still an active farm adjacent to the subdivision. There were (and still are) many farms in the area and riding the Freehold Branch of the Henry Hudson Trail takes you through many former farm tracts which are now occupied by upper-class residential neighborhoods. The photo here was made at the East Freehold Road crossing (about 2-3 miles south of the graveyard) in February 1966, and you can see it was all open farmland. There are housing developments on this land now, and a 4-lane highway cuts through the landscape along the line just below the horizon. This was the sweeping change that came along in the 20th century. Some farms still exist while others are marked only in ruins like these forgotten remnants.

This is one of the major aspects of rail trails that has drawn me in and why they’ve now become so connected with my photographic work, writing and cycling. It’s the history, the people who came before and from whom we ourselves have come. There is plenty of railroad and Victorian town history connected with these trails and while we ride the old rail lines we can learn how people lived in that era and perhaps know ourselves better along the way. It’s also endlessly good fun and healthy as well to explore the landscape, old buildings and other railroad artifacts as you ride the rail trails.

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