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Social Distancing: Freehold 1845 Style

Ruth Freeman Richardson, circa 1850

In the Spring of 1845, Professor Amos Richardson and his wife Ruth Freeman Richardson arrived in Freehold, New Jersey. Hailing from New Hampshire, the couple relocated to the area to establish a girls' school at the request of several prominent businessmen who believed in the necessity of female education. The Richardsons went on to found the Freehold Young Ladies Seminary, which would grow to become one of the most prestigious female educational institutions on the eastern seaboard. More than 900 young women would attend the Seminary.

Ruth Freeman Richardson accompanied the Professor, a full partner in her husband's vision. Years later, after Richardson retired, she was asked to write her memories of her first impressions for the fiftieth anniversary of the school in 1895. In her neat copperplate handwriting, Ruth Richardson recalled her first look as she traveled down Main Street.

"It was a little town of frame buildings, with only one brick dwelling house, one brick store and one brick church. Every body practically knew every other person in town, that is, his name, his locality, and his business."

Freehold circa 1870. By this time, convenient board sidewalks had been added.

The one thing that Richardson still remembered most vividly was the mud. None of the streets were paved, nor would they be for many years. After a wet, snowy winter and a rainy spring, the roads were virtually impassable, churned into brown glue by wagons, stagecoaches, horses, and livestock. She remembered watching as the Keyport stagecoach, heavily loaded with passengers, became completely mired. The driver had to enlist local Freehold men to gather poles to pry the carriage out, freeing his passengers.

As difficult and challenging as the mud made regular travel, it seriously impacted the lives of young girls living in Freehold at the time. Ruth Richardson recalled:

"Occasionally, young ladies living not far apart would pick their way along by the fences, perhaps having an overshoe left in the mud (for there were no sidewalks in Freehold) until they came opposite to each other, and their make their morning call, for they could not cross the street."

One of the early graduating classes of the Freehold Young Ladies Seminary, circa 1868

With the real possibility of sinking up to one's knees in the thick mud, and quite possibly (as Richardson noted) losing at least one shoe in the bargain, crossing the street was not an option. That small moment, captured fifty years later by elderly Ruth Richardson, comes back in all its humor: two properly dressed young girls, one with a missing overshoe, standing on opposite sides of Main Street, shouting at each other across the sea of uncrossable dark brown mud. What did they talk about, as farm wagons rumbled by? Perhaps a dress one of them was sewing at the time; news of siblings and parents, plans for the coming summer, maybe talk of the new girls' school being built in town. These are the moments that don't appear in history books, but they make the past come alive again.

Ruth Richardson completed her reminiscences more than 125 years ago with the final words:

"Let us look forward to happier days, and to more useful lives in the future..."

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