Growth and Change: The Postwar Years
1948 – 1958
The Monmouth County Historical Association celebrated its fiftieth year of existence with a gala afternoon event in October of 1948. The coming decade would bring changes to both postwar America and to the Association itself. The museum would acquire a second historic house, focus on community programs and exhibitions, and welcome some of the finest objects and artifacts into its collections.
On January 14, 1949, the board meeting met at a hurriedly-arranged gathering. Shrewsbury resident Mrs. Nellie R. Holmes had died, and trustees learned that she had willed the Allen House, a well-known eighteenth century structure on the corner of Shrewsbury Avenue and Route 35, to the Association. The will gave life rights to Lillie Huelson, a close family friend of Nellie Holmes. The Board meeting minutes noted that “In the event that Mrs. Huelson does not wish to occupy the building, it reverts to the Historical Association to retain and maintain…” By early February, the Association learned that Mrs. Huelson planned to live in the house for the time being, but the fact that the organization would one day have two historic structures to care for was both exhilarating and sobering.
The Allen House was not the only historic site offered to the Association. Early in 1949, a small structure believed to have been Phillip Freneau’s print shop offered to the Association. Philip Freneau was born in 1752 in New York City and was raised in Matawan, Monmouth County, New Jersey. Known as the “Poet of the American Revolution,” Freneau was shaped by his experiences as a ship’s captain, New Jersey militia member, and a prisoner of war on a British prison ship. He published the newspaper The National Gazette and was close to such celebrated figures as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Freneau died at the age of eighty, frozen to death while walking home. Research revealed that the building was not Freneau’s 18th century print shop but a much later building, apparently dating to the 1840s. The Association did not pursue the purchase.
A second opportunity quickly presented itself, this time a small building constructed in the early 1820s and used as the medical office of Holmdel resident and physician Robert W. Cooke (179 – 1867). In July of 1949, museum Director Edward Feltus reported that the removal of the little building and its relocation to the back yard of the Freehold campus would be “quite expensive,” the price tag of $1,280 including the construction of a foundation for the house. The acquisition of this structure would occupy numerous board meetings for the next several years.
Fundraising was a key issue for the Association in the postwar years. In 1949, the board began planning a large-scale fair to raise much-needed funds for purchases and improvements and repairs to both the museum building and Marlpit Hall. The fair included a Fashion Show, “two theatrical acts,” an auction, an exhibition of vintage cars, another exhibition on old toys, and a “live pony ride and a carousel for the children.” The Fair did well, netting well over $3,000 for the Association. By 1952, the fair was expanded to a two-day event and featured a Horse Show. Board members Charles Vanderveer and Lillian Boschen chaired an accompanying antiques show and sale, posing for humorous publicity photographs to advertise the event.
During the war, board meetings had been cut back to four times a year. After gasoline rationing ended, trustees met monthly, with a short gap during the hot summer months. In October 1949, board president Josephine Mabel Brown stepped down as President. Assuming the role of Trustee head was Rumson resident Mary Jackson (Mrs. William C.) Riker.
Director Edward Feltus, with board support, focused on exhibitions in the post-war decade. Chief among the plans was the development of a Junior Museum in the attic space. In January, 1950, work to convert the third-floor space was underway. Insulation was installed, storage and display shelving was constructed, and shadowbox dioramas of local historical moments were fabricated.
The post-war decade saw some of the Association’s most important acquisitions to date. In 1953, a set of embroidered early eighteenth century American bed hangings entered the collection. Made by a member of the Polhemus family of New York and descended within the Hartshorne family, the set is one of the earliest and most complete in existence. Three years later, the Association received more than one hundred pieces of eighteenth and very early nineteenth century Chinese export porcelain pieces from the collection of Helena Woolworth McCann. A contemporary of Mrs. J. Amory Haskell, McCann focused on amassing a huge and encyclopedic collection of porcelain made in China for the European and American markets of the Colonial and early Federal periods. Another important accession was the gift of a sword carried by British Lieutenant Colonel Henry Monckton. Monckton fought in the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778, and was the highest ranking officer killed during the fight.
In September of 1952, the magazine Antiques featured an article on Marlpit Hall. Editor Alice Winchester wrote in that issue’s introduction “Though one of the most historic regions in the country, the home of many antiques and of many collectors, New Jersey has been rather neglected by antiquarians outside the state, including ourselves, we regretfully confess.” The article included eight black and white images of the carefully and lovingly furnished rooms of, as the magazine described it, the “exquisite little building.”
The Historical Association’s board not only worked tirelessly to promote and support the museum, but reached out to assist other local historical sites as well. In 1952, trustees drafted a formal letter to New Jersey Governor Alfred E. Driscoll regarding the preservation and protection of the “deserted village” of Allaire, urging the Governor to include in the state’s budget dedicated funds to open Allaire to the public and restore the remaining historic structures on the site.
Across the street from the museum’s headquarters, the new courthouse building was taking shape by the fall of 1953. In preparation for the construction, the 18th century home named Boxwood Hall was moved to a lot nearby. The Board of Chosen Freeholders donated a small storage building on the site to the Historical Association, which arranged for the structure to be moved to 70 Court Street, where it is still used as a storage space today.
At the end of the organization’s sixth decade, the Association was recognized not only as a successful historical institution but as a museum and archives with important local, state and regional collections. The fact that the Allen House, located in Shrewsbury, would one day join Marlpit Hall as the Association’s second historic site was recognized as both challenging and exciting. Successful fundraising events such as an annual summer fair drew large crowds and yielded welcome income for the Association. The collections grew by leaps and bounds, filling the site at Court Street with fine and decorative arts, archival materials, and changing exhibitions for visitors.
Surprises At Every Turn: The Sixties 1958 – 1968