The Bicentennial Veterans’ Memorial Park is a beautiful yet solemn site in the Jefferson Township Municipal Complex on Weldon Road serving as an everlasting tribute to all those individuals who have given their lives for their country.  It also honors those who have survived the aftermath of conflicts and wars. The park’s theme is “Lest We Forget,” and five flags representing each of the Armed Forces fly at the site.  

In 1976, Jefferson obtained a Liberty Tree, commemorating the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence from the Morris County Park Commission. The committee planted the tree on municipal grounds on Arbor Day ’76.  

In 1986, the town formed the Veterans Memorial Park Committee to discuss building a veterans’ memorial adjacent to the Liberty Tree. Veterans from American Legion Posts 423 and 245, VFW Post 564, and other interested individuals set the wheels in motion. Resident, Post 423 Legionnaire, and Navy veteran Jack Kelly coordinated the efforts of committee members Jay Dunham, Albert Ginolfi Sr., Brooke Hardy, Joseph May, Ray Polakoski, Fred Eastman, Tony Gross, Buddy Hanson, Rose Kelly, Frances Slayton, Michael Wickham, and Paul Mikowski.

This Howitzer gun was donated by Picatinny Arsenal to Jefferson Township for its Veterans Memorial and is a focal point of the site. (Photo: Carol Punturieri)

Simple Design

The design was simple, with the placement of two large stones from the Morris County Park Commission’s Mahlon Dickerson Reservation on either side of the Liberty Tree, each set in a gravel bed. Jefferson’s Department of Public Works transported the stones to the site. Bill Trudeau, Jr. of Headley Lumber donated the wooden framework for the beds, and Wayne Ackerson donated the gravel. Bill Trudeau, Sr. made flag poles for the Liberty Days in Jefferson Township celebration in 1976 (the township celebration that later became Jefferson Township Day), which were donated by the Jefferson Arts Committee to be placed in the Veterans’ Memorial. 

A plaque that was displayed on the property of the original Lake Hopatcong shopping center on Route 15 by the Lake Hopatcong Businessmen’s Association was one of the first plaques installed at the Veterans’ Memorial site. Joseph May notified the committee that he had obtained the plaque and kept it safe until the memorial was built.

On November 12, 1987, Mayor Frances Slayton dedicated the Jefferson Township Veterans’ Memorial at the Veterans’ Day Observance. Kelly recalls that this “first observance was so cold that the pulleys on the flag poles froze. The flags could not be taken down until the weather had warmed up the next day.”

Picatinny Arsenal offered Mayor Slayton a de-militarized 105mm Howitzer gun for the memorial. She accepted the offer and the township’s Department of Public Works picked it up and placed it under the Liberty Tree between the stones. Marine Corps veteran, VFW Commander, and 423 Legionnaire Fred Eastman utilized his skills as a machinist to make a muzzle plug which was permanently installed on the Howitzer.

Arthur “Bud” Hanson, a VFW Post 564 commander, approached Jack Kelly in 2004 to add benches and private areas for reflection at the site, while college student Michael Wickham suggested a wall of honor and the addition of more trees. Now chairing The Bicentennial Committee, Kelly set up a meeting to consider these and other ideas to develop a park concept. The committee decided to improve the memorial on the existing site, and Bill Rolstad of Bill’s Scenic Landscaping in Lake Hopatcong received the contract for the new design and construction.

The Silentia Masonic Lodge in Butler, NJ stored a plaque that was over 100 years old displaying the names of those who served in World War I.Jim Sisco, a former American Legion Post 423 commander, was in possession of the plaque; it was mounted on the stone that stands to the right of the Howitzer gun.

A Bicentennial Tree donated by the Jack Kelly family was planted in the spring of 2004 to the rear of the wall in commemoration of the township’s 200th anniversary. Through the generosity of many private donations, a meditation area was constructed with trees and seating areas surrounding a beautiful brick inlay of the American Flag.  Lighting was added and the flagpoles were moved to a more prominent position behind the wall.   

Pavers Available for Residents

To raise funds, the Jefferson Township Bicentennial Committee offered (and still offers*) for sale 6”x9” engraved paver bricks to memorialize a veteran or family member, commemorate a birthday or anniversary, etc. The program is still administered by Fran Slayton.   A combination of engraved and non-engraved paver bricks creates a beautiful walkway to the memorial.

The refurbished Hurdtown Schoolhouse bell (circa 1800’s) is the centerpiece of the memorial, representing the call to duty. It sits on the top of the wall dedicated to all those Jefferson Township residents who served their country.  The historic bell is complimented by a bronze commemorative plaque, as well as the symbolic emblems of the township’s two American Legions and Veterans of Foreign Wars organizations.

The centerpiece of the memorial is the Hurdtown Schoolhouse bell with the 2004 re-dedication plaque below it as well as the symbolic emblems of the township’s two American Legion post. (Photo: Carol Punturieri)

On June 6, 2004, Richard Yocum, Township Council president at the time, re-dedicated the new memorial on the 60th anniversary of D-Day. The site was renamed the Bicentennial Memorial/Veterans Park.

A bicentennial project was to create a time capsule to preserve a sample of what life was like in the township at the start of the 21st century.  Some 75 items reflecting popular culture, news events, and information about the township and its people were collected.  Mayor Slayton obtained an American flag that had flown over the State Capitol, and the Wroblewski family added personal items to remember their son Marine Second Lt. John T. Wroblewski, who died in Iraq in 2004.  The Jefferson Township Public Library paid for the preservation of the materials and the stainless-steel container. It was enclosed in a concrete case and buried in the back of the memorial’s wall and dedicated at the Veterans’ Day Observance on November 13, 2004.  It is to be opened during the week of April 9, 2054 – the township’s 250th anniversary.

Every year, Jefferson’s Veterans’ Day Observance is held at this sacred site; and today, that original Liberty Tree towers above everything else at the memorial, reminding us of those who gave and continue to give their lives for our freedom.

* Order forms are available in the Jefferson Township Municipal Building’s lobby literature rack, or contact Frances Slayton at 973-697-4436 for a form and details.   The cost is $50 per brick with space for a maximum of 39 engraved characters and spaces.

Sources Used: 

Jack Kelly; Larry & Betty Eastman; Veterans’ Day Observance press releases;  Bicentennial Memories of The Township of Jefferson published by the Jefferson Township Bicentennial Committee and compiled by Thomas Kieren; article “Time Capsule” by Karen Maurer; article “Dedication of the Veterans Memorial Park” by Brooke Hardy.

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Carol was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York and moved to Jefferson Township with her husband in 1976. She initially joined the Garden Club of Milton, eventually serving as President. She was a co-founder of the ABC Mothers Group, active in the local PTAs, Girl Scouts, and Cub Scouts. She worked for AIM Newspapers as a reporter and eventually became its Editor. Currently, she is President of the Jefferson Arts Committee and the Recreation Program Coordinator in the Jefferson Township Recreation Department. She can be reached at carol.punturieri@thejeffersonchronicle.com.