JACKSON – A Russian Orthodox church sits majestically atop the hill overlooking Rova Farms – as if to protect the legacy of the arrival of the Russian people from their homeland.
“We have a historical connection with Rova Farms,” said Father Serge Ledkovsky of St. Vladimir’s Russian Orthodox Church. “But the property is not ours; we are basically neighbours.
Ledkovsky joined a few dozen people at a special event to learn about Jackson Township’s future plans for the 34-acre property. A deteriorated building bearing the scripted letters of the Rova logo remains at the entrance to the site to recall the name of the once bustling spot at 120 Cassville Road.
The name “ROVA” is actually a partial acronym for what is roughly translated into English as the Russian Mutual Aid Society. Ledkovsky described Rova as an organization that helped immigrants get on their feet in America.
Assemblyman Alex Sauickie appeared with Jackson Township Councilors Steve Chisholm and Nino Borelli as hosts of the Rova Farms event. A few months ago, Sauickie resigned from his elected position on the local governing body to fill the seat vacated by the late Assemblyman Ronald Dancer.
“We had to use eminent domain to prevent developers from buying the property,” Sauickie explained. “We had a deal with the owner of Rova Farms, and at the last minute the owner came back and said he had a developer coming in at a higher price.”
Township officials decided that eminent domain was not something to be loosely employed; however, the acquisition of Rova Farms was seen as for the greater good of the community. The Township of Jackson used open space funds to purchase the property for $600,000 in 2019, which Sauicke said was fair market value.
A committee formed by the governing body has already drawn up preliminary plans for the transformation of the area. However, the authorities say they are open to suggestions and that nothing is set in stone.
“Unfortunately, the building will have to be demolished because it is in poor condition and dangerous, and there is really nothing salvageable,” Chisholm said. “The long-term plan is to put a small community center and a small historic cultural center behind it. There will also be a small snack bar with an amphitheater, so groups like high schoolers will have a place to perform.
Perhaps the future could hold the prospect of headlining shows with big names reappearing on the legendary Rova Farms property.
“Bruce Springsteen once played here,” Sauickie explained. “I like to tell the story that the tickets were only $5 and they spelled his name Bruce ‘Springstein’ so he was Bruce Springstein for the day.”
The rock and roll legend’s book ‘Born to Run’ includes an account of a fight that took place at Rova Farms, the ‘Russian social club on the outskirts of town’.
Rova Farms represents Jackson Township’s first public waterfront property with its location on Lake Cassville. Plans include a kayak launch and a pavilion with a panoramic view of the water. Additionally, a fishing pier will provide people with an alternative to casting their line from the grass surrounding the lake.
Nature trails and a children’s play area are incorporated into the township’s plans for the area. Additionally, a community garden project suggests special significance given the roots of the acquired land.
History and personal stories
Local historian and former mayor of Toms River, Mark Mutter sits on the council of St. Vladimir’s Church and shared insight into Rova Farms from research, while others had anecdotal recollections.
According to Mutter, Rova started in the late 1920s after the Russian Revolution. People who left their homelands in search of freedom also continued to do so after the two world wars.
The organization decided to purchase the Cassville Road property and turned 1,640 acres into farmland. This allowed new immigrants to settle in tiny huts throughout the region as they bought land in Rova and worked on the farms.
Over time, the community has invested in two Russian Orthodox churches. St. Mary’s is just down the road from Rova Farms and was started by the Ladies Auxiliary of the First Branch of Rova, according to church history. It is next to the Russian Orthodox St. Vladimir’s Cemetery, a place where people associated with Rova can bury their dead.
Russian immigrants lived among themselves as they worshiped and worked together. As they prospered and new generations grew up, they slowly began to sell their farms. The land has remained a cultural haven for newcomers to the country and those already settled in the region.
Rova Farms eventually developed into an ethnic-style resort that was popular as a center for immigrants from Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe. People came to walk around the neighborhood and enjoy Russian music and delicacies. They have danced and enjoyed diving in the lake on hot summer days for decades. People came from all over to enjoy the cultural flair.
“In 1988 there were literally several thousand people here for the 1000th anniversary of Orthodoxy in Russia,” Mutter said. “St. Vladimir brought Christianity to Russia, and between the church and Rova thousands of people came to visit.
A fire at the scene was the beginning of the end of the excitement at Rova Farms. In the end, the space was reduced to a Tuesday flea market.
Lawyers and insurance companies who may never have visited the once booming resort town know the name Rova Farms all too well. A 1974 New Jersey Supreme Court case sets the precedent for bad faith claims against insurance companies that fail to reasonably settle claims within policy limits.
The court case involved a man who was paralyzed after being injured after jumping into the shallow end of the lake on the property. Rova’s insurance company refused to pay the $50,000 policy limits, and the case went to trial. The jury awarded the victim $225,000 and the station sued his insurance company for the money, claiming it acted in bad faith.
One of the visitors to the recent event at Rova Farms recalled the accident. Meanwhile, Tamara Worontsoff Woronczuk’s other memories go back even further in time and make her smile.
“I started coming here when I was six months old in 1944,” said Woronczuk, whose grandparents immigrated to the United States before the Russian Revolution. “I came every summer with my grandmother. We ate out and danced every Friday and Saturday until our feet fell off.
Woronczuk painted a picture of fun times with visitors showing off elegant and skillful dance moves ranging from waltzes to cha cha and tangos. After years of enjoying her childhood and teenage years at Rova Farms, Woronczuk won the coveted title of Miss Rova Farms 1963.
According to Woronczuk, the girls came from various branches that spanned New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The ladies all arrived at the competition by limousine and were escorted. The contest included a talent portion and an interview.
Memories of years of fun left Woronczuk with a sense of nostalgia as she attended the event hosted by township officials.
“It was a very difficult day for me,” said Woronczuk. “It was very sentimental because I spent more than 20 years growing up there, and everyone knew each other; it felt like home away from home.
“It was very sad to see him deteriorate the way he did,” Woronczuk continued. “But I’m so happy that Jackson bought the land and is doing something with it that people can continue to enjoy.”
The afternoon at Rova Farms last month offered interested guests much more than information. Renewed life was breathed into the property as dancers took the stage in traditional costume and a singer sang original songs in the style of Belarusian folklore.
Heritage plays a vital role in the legacy of Rova Farms, with the preservation of Russian artifacts being a vital part of the township’s plans for reopening the property.