Freehold Historic Farm Losing Visitors and Funds

Oakley Farm is rich in history, but may not have as prosperous a future.

The farm has been unable recently to attract school groups to the nationally registered historic site or craft vendors to its artisan fair. It even lost money on an ice cream social fundraiser.

Oakley Farm, located in Freehold, N.J., has been struggling to attract visitors this year. Subsequently, it is losing the money that comes along with tourism. This may force the 300-year-old farm to find new ways to raise revenue, including charging an admission fee and raising annual dues.

Oakley Farm in Freehold, N.J., has been struggling to attract visitors despite undergoing a major restoration. Tony Maglio | The Bridge

Oakley Farm has been a fixture in Freehold for centuries. The main farmhouse itself dates back to 1701 and was built from trees on the property, said Cheryl Cook, chairman of the Freehold Township Heritage Society, which manages the property. Additions to the main house coming from two separate locations were brought over in 1812 and 1850.

“Oakley Farm represents the importance that agriculture played in Freehold…also the important role it played in shaping the township of Freehold, having been here since 1686,” said Cook, a descendant of the Cooks who founded the town.

The site runs on a $5,000 yearly budget, funded by membership dues and private donations, said Cook. Last year, the farm managed to bring in $7,500, the bulk of which was donated by The Oakley Foundation for the renovation. This year, Oakley Farm has received $2,500 in donations.

Oakley Farm has been undergoing a $175,000 renovation since 2001, most of which targeting the 1812 era. The farmhouse had been open as Freehold Township’s history museum during the lengthy process, though it is now closed for the year with the exception of special events.

Most of the restoration money has come from membership dues, public donations and the township’s Historic Trust Fund, Cook said. This fund was established from auctioning landmark sites that were previously owned by private developers. The Oakley Foundation has been a major donor for the past seven years.

Over the past year, however, few visitors have graced the historic site. Previously, Oakley Farm could count on 600 to 700 visitors annually. But these days, tours are way down.

Oakley Farm’s Spring Festival used to see some 200 to 300 guests per day, whereas this past spring there were only about 125 guests, said Cook. The open houses have experienced a similar decline in attendance. On those days, barely 10 guests showed up, compared to their typical 60.

The farm has two major fundraisers per year, Cook said. However, this year it was forced to cut back on these potential revenue generators.

Oakley’s artisan fair, which the society hoped would attract 60 visitors each paying $20 per table, was cut due to a response from only 10 vendors. A Christmas Gala was likewise cancelled. And due to poor attendance at the ice cream social, Oakley Farm lost money on supplies.

Freehold officials offer several reasons for the declining interest in the historic site.

The main issue is the lack of press coverage and public awareness of both Freehold’s history and the museum’s existence, say Cook and Town Historian Dorothy Petricek. They believe that the restoration effort should help boost attendance.

Also, rising gas prices play a role in the declining numbers, said Petricek. People who are forced to work several jobs to stay afloat also do not have the time for such recreational activities.

The commission relies on outreach programs such as local Girl, Cub and Boy Scouts as well as schools to attract visitors, but even that has been ineffective recently.

The fifth graders go to another historic site yearly, an old schoolhouse a half-mile away, but Cook and Petricek cannot get them to visit the farm.

In recent years, elementary schools in the township have adopted a common core curriculum, requiring all trips be aligned to related coursework and subsequently minimizing class outings, said Superintendent Ross Kasun.

The decline in interest does not bode well for the site’s future, Cook said. While the renovation is coming to a conclusion, old properties like Oakley Farm require continuous maintenance, which can be costly. But the farm is no longer receiving the kind of monetary support that it has in recent years.

Since Oakley Farm is 100 percent privately supported, there are few avenues for it to find funding.

“Grants are nonexistent,” said Cook.

The Historical Preservation Commission, which protects the township’s historic sites and creates community awareness and support for their preservation, is considering raising dues for the base of the 100 or so members of the society. Dues are currently $20 per year for an individual or $25 for a family. The commission only collects on about 70 percent of members and uses that revenue as an operating budget for the farm’s postage, advertising and supplies, said Cook.

Oakley Farm is also in the early stages of allowing rentals of the property for special occasions such as weddings and showers for a donation.

Cook hopes that the canceled events will be reinstated in 2013, but she recognizes that the future of the farm is directly tied to the economy.

Oakley Farm does not charge admission, though that may have to change.

“We don’t want to make it a ‘pay as you go’ thing, but we may have to,” said Cook. “That would be a last resort for me.”

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