By Thomas K. Robbins
The Robbins Burial Ground in Upper Freehold Township has been discovered again and again over its 300-year existence. Abandoned, overgrown and forgotten describe its current state. Occasionally a news story is published which renews interest in it.
A headline in the 1966 Asbury Park Press read “Hunter Finds ‘Lincoln’ Family Grave” which reporter Pete McLain described as follows:
“Walking through the woods not far from the village of Cream Ridge in western Monmouth County, we came suddenly upon a cemetery. At first glance it appeared to be a small family cemetery, similar to the family burial grounds on the old farms throughout this area.
“But, on closer inspection, it appeared that over 200 people had been buried in this out-of-the-way spot. The area is located on the top of a small hill, and its only connection with the and road is a grown-up path which is barely discernible due to the growth of tree-size oaks and pines.
“The remains of an old fence still surround the cemetery, and some withered flowers, the tattered remnants of the American flag, and broken pottery around several graves attest to some attention during the past decade or so.”
Why the hunter was there in the first place can be attributed to New Jersey’s Green Acres program, launched in 1961. Voters approved a bond issue for $40 million for the purchase of land which had two goals: stop the flooding in Trenton and western Monmouth County, and preserve land for recreational use.
The plan called for acquiring 3,860 acres between Clarksburg (Millstone Township) and New Sharon (Upper Freehold Township) where the Assunpink Creek was situated. The creek was notorious for flooding downtown Trenton where it flowed to the Delaware River.
In 1962, the Freehold Soil Conservation District supervisors approved four flood control sites along the Assunpink Creek in Millstone Township and Upper Freehold Township. Two lakes were formed when the creeks were dammed that offered fishing and boating to the community and a game preserve for hunters.
Neal Munch, director of the supervisors at that time, said, “These artificial waters would drain away water from the Assunpink Creek area and prevent flooding in Trenton.”
Starting in 1965, New Jersey’s Green Acres program acquired land around the burial ground to form the Assunpink Wildlife Management Area.
A 1965 Trenton Sunday Times Advertiser article interviewed Mrs. Max Scheibner, who owned the farm next to the burial ground and was selling the property to the Green Acres program.
The headline read “The Lincolns Paused Here” and discussed Deborah Lincoln, President Abraham Lincoln’s great-grand aunt and the Robbins Burial Ground.
Mrs. Scheibner said, “… visitors were rare … Years ago, relatives of the people buried in the cemetery came to decorate the graves, but no more. Sometimes people interested in history visit. But now no one comes. I guess nobody cares anymore.”
The expectation was for the state to make the burial ground a tourist attraction. A spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Conservation and Economic Development (the organization Green Acres was under at the time), said, “We except to mark the area and try to make the site a tourist attraction, but we can’t make any plans until we actually own the property.”
Scheibner sold the property on Nov. 12, 1965 for $1. This was recorded in Book 3443, pages 366-373.
Tract One in the deed is the 6.15-acre plot next to the burial ground and notes the exception to the “… aforesaid Covill Hill Burying Ground and such additional portion or portions thereof as may have been used for Burying Ground graves.”
Covill or Covell Hill was the name locals used for the burying ground based on the fact that Lewis Robins sold the property next to where the burying ground is located to Samuel Covell in 1792. The assumption for many years was that the state owned the property.
Senior citizens found the burial ground in 1968 while cleaning up brush as part of the Green Thumb project that was formed to provide jobs for retired senior farmers in rural communities.
An article on their effort in the Asbury Park Press on Sept. 11, 1968 noted, “… A few graves, including that of Deborah Lincoln, infant daughter of Mordecai and Hannah Saltar Lincoln, had long been known at the site called the Robins burying ground.
“Mordecai was the great-great-grandfather of the President. But work by the Green Thumb task force has revealed a fenced burial ground an acre in size containing about 75 marked graves, and nearly as many designated only by rough, unmarked pieces of fieldstone.”
There would be additional cleanup efforts in the years ahead, but every time the burial ground was cleaned up, vandals would descend upon it and destroy the headstones.
The state stopped its efforts to discourage the vandals from inflicting further damage, but local groups still shared an interest in seeing the burial ground cleaned up.
Several cleanup efforts were initiated over the years by Boy Scout troops and other volunteers, but the wilderness always returned.
Thomas K. Robbins is a resident of Havre de Grace, Md., and a descendant of the Robbins family of the Allentown-Upper Freehold Township area.