Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

July 7, 2017
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A large group of citizens gathered in Shrewsbury to hear and read aloud the words of the Declaration of Independence in an annual tradition started three years ago by the Monmouth County Historical Association. The event was both joyous and reverent, drawing participants young and old.

By Emma Wulfhorst |

SHREWSBURY — People young and old, from different towns, states and even countries, gathered on the lawn outside the historic Allen House, 400 Sycamore Ave. on Tuesday, July 4, for the Monmouth County Historical Association’s (MCHA) 3rd Annual Independence Day Celebration.

Tuesday’s joyous event drew a crowd of 400 excited participants, including families from Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and even one seven-year-old girl from Costa Rica who was here visiting her grandmother. Many people chose to stand throughout the entirety of the morning, while others brought chairs and blankets to sit on.

The MCHA’s education committee started the annual celebration three years ago as a way to bring the history of the Declaration of Independence to residents in a fun and entertaining way. “We have an education committee of our trustees and they hold their meetings here at the Allen House, which was the Blue Ball Tavern,” explained MCHA president Linda Bricker of Rumson. The tavern operated in the late 1700s to early 1800s. “We always talked about how the tavern was the center of community life, and we imagine that back in the day this is where the community came to get the news about the Declaration of Independence.”

In May 2015, MCHA’s recently appointed interim director Chuck Jones, who at the time was the education committee chair, thought, “Why don’t we invite people to come and hear (the Declaration of Independence) and read it out loud?” The committee members questioned whether they could put together such an event on short notice, but were ultimately successful.

“That first year, we had very little time to publicize it, but lo and behold we had 200 people show up here at 10 in the morning,” said Bricker. “We knew we had touched a chord with people and that it was worth repeating.”

Three years later, the event continues to be a simple but powerful gathering. It features refreshments, served in the form of lemonade and homemade cookies; an invocation, given by Rev. Lisa Mitchell of Christ Church; the singing of the Star-Spangled Banner, performed a-cappella by Rumson student Owen Doherty; and finally the reading of the Declaration of Independence. “People just really enjoyed the simplicity of it,” Bricker said.

Participating in the annual event were William Githens of Neptune; and three sisters from Little Silver, Juliet, 6; Noelle, 3; and Carrie Davis, 6.

There was also the Pledge of Allegiance and the color guard, performed for the second year in a row by the Rumson Boy Scouts, Troop #201. “It’s the most important day of the year and the Boy Scouts are a big part of Americana,” said the troop’s Scout Master, Andrew Young. “We’re very proud to be here and to celebrate the day.”

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For the recitation, the Declaration is divided into 31 sections. Each section is read by a different person. The first section was read by Lillian Burry, director of the Monmouth County Board of Chosen Freeholders, and the last part by Shrewsbury Mayor Donald Burden. The rest of the readers were chosen at random from those in the crowd.

“We want little and big voices,” Bricker said, explaining how they try to choose a diverse group of readers, both young and old, from different places.

Some read with gravitas, like Mark Molyneaux, of Fair Haven, who said, “If you’re gonna do it, own it.” Others, like Shrewsbury native Iona Leslie, 11, could barely reach the microphone, but handled the difficult wording of her paragraph with poise and expertise.

Two of the younger voices this year were Emma and Abby Bacher, sisters from Philadelphia, who attended Tuesday’s event at the request of their uncle, Gabe Migoyo, of Bradley Beach, who also read a section. Migoyo participated in the celebration last year, and felt it was an important experience for his nieces to have.

The audience on Tuesday was quiet yet engaged, listening intently to the words of the Declaration. Some hung their heads or closed their eyes, while others mouthed along, reciting the words in time with the readers at the microphone.

“I thought it was really cool getting to listen to something that happened in our country’s past,” said Sonia Sergeant, 14. “I think that it’s really important for kids our age to listen to this type of thing.” Sonia, and her brother Kai, 11, enjoyed their first MCHA Independence Day celebration with their parents. The family lives in Brooklyn but has a summer home in Monmouth Beach.

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One noticeable difference at this year’s celebration was the upgraded sound system, made possible by the Independence Day Celebration’s first ever sponsors, MCHA trustee, Amy Almasy, and Kim Quigley, from Heritage House Sotheby’s International Realty.

The celebration didn’t end after the Declaration of Independence had been read. Attendees were invited to get a close-up view of Christ Church’s treasured 300-year old Vinegar Bible. Published in Oxford, England, it has been in the church’s possession since 1752. The Bible, which is in remarkably good shape, got its unusual name because of a typo for the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard and is believed to be only one of six that exists.

There was also a performance by the Dead Actors’ Guild at Christ Church. The Allen House and the Shrewsbury Historical Society Museum, located across the street in the Shrewsbury Municipal Center, were also open until noon for tours.

This area, the intersection of Sycamore Ave. and Broad St./Route 35, is known as the historic Four Corners, because of the significance of the buildings which stand there. The historic Four Corners is comprised of the Allen House, circa 1710; Christ Church, 1702; the Presbyterian Church, 1735; and the Quaker Meeting House, 1672.

Robin Blair, vice president of the Shrewsbury Historical Society executive board, was in the Shrewsbury Historical Society’s Museum on Tuesday giving tours, and looking for volunteers. “There are a lot of materials that we need to purge, and a lot of materials which need to go in to archival protection,” Blair said, while discussing the museum’s extensive collection of memorabilia. “We’re looking for grants and time and interested people.”

“The reason people want to live here is, it’s not just a beautiful place to live, but it’s a place that’s rich in its own history,” said MCHA interim director Jones, “and those are things that deserve to be preserved and learned about. An event like this is really emblematic of the work we do.”

This article was first published in the July 6-13, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.









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