Darkness on the Edge of Town … That Bruce Springsteen song always comes to mind when, on visits to my mother, I drive through Freehold, the town I grew up in, and hit the intersection of East Main Street and Jackson Terrace. This is actually the meeting point of two Freeholds: Freehold Township, once farmland and now McMansions and other unchecked suburban horrors; and Freehold Borough, the old colonial town, dating from the 1600s. Long before that, the area was steeped in the traditions of the displaced Leni Lenape people.
The junction of Jackson and Main still feels like where farmland meets town, a stretch of dark country road, marked by a lonely gas station and a dilapidated barn before the asphalt corridor redefines itself with late-Victorian and early-20th-century buildings often draped in red, white and blue bunting. One Queen Anne-style house is so striking it was used as the family home in 1990s TV show Sabrina the Teenage Witch.
Several blocks away is Freehold High School, a 1920s colonial revival structure mimicking Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. That’s where Springsteen went to school. I did too, though many years later. When I was young, a popular story told of Springsteen playing guitar in the school’s courtyard while teachers rained insults, insisting he’d never make anything of himself. Springsteen may be most closely associated with nearby Asbury Park, where he first sang to acclaim, but Freehold is the place the Boss called his hometown.
How the musician’s fame stretched from this little town about an hour from Manhattan to the rest of the world is the theme of a new exhibition at Monmouth County Historical Association (70 Court Street) entitled Springsteen: His Hometown.
More than 150 objects are on display at the exhibition, which runs until the end of September 2020. Some are the MCHA’s own, others come from the Springsteen Archives of Monmouth University in Long Branch (his town of birth), with more from private collectors and the Boss himself. There are unreturned keys from hotels Springsteen stayed at early in his career, and a letter to his landlady where he admits to practising his autograph. Clothes, including boots and a leather bomber from the 1980s, sit alongsde a Bruce Springsteen board game created and marketed in Europe by a French fan. Parked in the museum’s garden is an antique truck the musician and his manager used to travel from gig to gig – and to Woodstock.
The exhibition’s genealogical section, tracing the life of Joost Springsteen, the Boss’s earliest New Amsterdam ancestor, offers ways to explore beyond the town’s famous son.
In the museum’s permanent exhibition, the 1778 Battle of Monmouth is commemorated by two valuable objects: a Dennis Carter painting of revolutionary folk heroine Molly Pitcher with George Washington; and another of the battle itself by Emanuel Leutze, better known for his Washington Crossing the Delaware (in New York’s Met).
Borough historian Kevin Coyne, who is also a Columbia University journalism professor and features in a mini-documentary about the town, said: “A little piece of everything that has happened in America has happened here: colonial settlers, the revolution, the civil war, agricultural prosperity, the rise and fall of manufacturing, racial tensions, creeping suburbanisation. It all played out here, and Springsteen and his ancestors have been part of every stage.”
So while Springsteen is Freehold’s main lure, it holds centuries of American lore, too. The exhibition blends recent musical history with revolutionary heritage of this town, which was once called Monmouth Courthouse, an important early stagecoach link between New York and Philadelphia.
Just across the street from the MCHA, the Battle of Monmouth monument has a dramatic bronze of Molly Pitcher, hair fiercely windswept as she loads a cannon. The 1950s Monmouth Courthouse, with its mix of period enamelled turquoise panels and classical columns, was the site of another battle with international implications: the 1980s Baby M court case, one of the earliest to rule on surrogate parenting. (Mary Beth Whitehead had contracted with a family called the Sterns to carry a child for them, but changed her mind after giving birth. The court ruled surrogacy contracts invalid, but the Sterns won a protracted custody battle.)
There’s more about the revolution at Monmouth Battlefield state park, in neighbouring Manalapan Township, behind the Freehold Raceway Mall. The preserved land here is all that is left undeveloped from the massive battle nearly 250 years ago, at which the British had to abandon hope of a military victory. The bucolic setting is now better-known for summer weddings and autumn apple picking.
The shopping mall takes its name from Freehold Raceway, America’s oldest harness horse racing track, dating from the 1830s. The old track is a remnant of Monmouth County’s long history of racehorse breeding, before Kentucky became pre-eminent.
Equestrian stables such as Burlington Farm, on a colonial road laid over an ancient Native American path to the Atlantic, continue this tradition. My school was across the street, and the horses running through the fields and poking their heads through the mossy split-log fencing mesmerised me as a child. Springsteen’s daughter, Jessica, was just as taken by horses, though her parents had the means to actually own them. She learned on her father’s estate in neighbouring Colts Neck and is now a champion rider.
Dedicated Springsteen fans can a take tour of the area. Stan Goldstein and Jean Mikle, members of the Spring-Nuts fan club, runs Springsteen tours (from $20pp, book through NJ Rock Map). As well as Asbury Park, their four-hour tour also includes Freehold, taking in Springsteen’s Catholic elementary school, St Rose of Lima, and the Karagheusian rug mill, where his father worked and which made carpets for Radio City Music Hall and the US Supreme Court.
If exploring on your own, check out Federici’s Family Restaurant on 14 East Main Street. Owned for nearly 100 years by relatives of late founding E Street Band member Danny Federici, it is steeped in Italian-American and Springsteen history. Outside, in good weather, it’s one of the busiest downtown venues, with sidewalk seating near where bands play in summer. Much of the inside space is dark, cavernous and cosy, with booth seating and a menu heavy with Italian choices.
Nearby St Peter’s Episcopal is one of America’s last colonial churches and oldest continuous congregations. The current clapboard structure was begun in 1771. Construction halted in the Revolution, though it served as a storehouse and hospital during the Battle of Monmouth. As children, we were told the pews had patriots’ blood stains and there was a mass unmarked grave out front.
Freehold isn’t a big town: most places are within walking distance of the bus station, from which half-hourly buses run to Manhattan. He mentions the bus stop in My Hometown (on the Born in the USA album) as the place his eight-year-old self would buy his father a newspaper.
If staying overnight, try the American Hotel (doubles from $135 B&B), which dates from 1827 and the stagecoach era. The facade is a more New Orleans than Mid-Atlantic, with its ornate wrought iron balconies overlooking outdoor tables on East Main Street. The rebuilt interior maintains the large Federal-style wooden fireplace, but the 20 spacious rooms have a neutral modern feel. The hotel’s lobby and bar have long made the American Hotel an important social centre in the middle of town – a perfect place to raise a glass to the Boss’s hometown.
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