JACKSON – A Russian Orthodox Church stands majestically atop the hill overlooking Rova Farms – as though to protect the legacy of the arrival of the Russian people from their homeland.
“We have a historical tie with Rova Farms,” said Father Serge Ledkovsky of St. Vladimir’s Russian Orthodox Church. “But the property is not ours; we are essentially neighbors.”
Ledkovsky joined a few dozen people at a special event to learn Jackson Township’s future plans for the 34-acre property. A deteriorated building bearing the scripted letters of the Rova logo remains at the site’s entrance as a reminder of the name of the once vibrant spot at 120 Cassville Road.
The name “ROVA” actually represents 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 to get on their feet in America.
Assemblyman Alex Sauickie appeared with Jackson Township Councilmen Steve Chisholm and Nino Borelli as hosts of the Rova Farms event. A couple of months ago, Sauickie resigned from his elected role on the local governing body to fill the seat vacated by late Assemblyman Ronald Dancer.
“We had to use eminent domain to prevent developers from buying the property,” explained Sauickie. “We had a deal with the Rova Farms owner, and at the last minute, the owner came back and said he had a developer coming in at a higher price.”
Township officials decided eminent domain was not something to be employed loosely; however, the Rova Farms acquisition was thought to be for the greater good of the community. Jackson Township 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 come up with preliminary plans for the area’s transformation. However, authorities say they are open to suggestions and that nothing is set in stone.
“Unfortunately, the building will need to come down because it’s been in disrepair and is unsafe, and there’s really nothing salvageable,” said Chisholm. “The long-range plan is to put a smaller community center and a little historic cultural center behind it. There will also be a small snack bar with an amphitheater, so groups like high school kids have a place to perform.”
Perhaps the future could hold the prospect of headliner shows with big names reappearing on the legendary Rova Farms property.
“One time Bruce Springsteen played here,” Sauickie shared. “I like telling 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” incorporates a tale about a fight that occurred 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 Cassville Lake. Plans include a kayak launch and a pavilion with a scenic view of the water. In addition, a fishing dock will allow people an alternative to casting their line from the grass surrounding the lake.
Nature trails and a children’s playground are incorporated into the township’s plans for the area. In addition, a proposed community garden suggests a special significance considering the roots of the acquired land.
History And Personal Stories
Local historian, and former mayor of Toms River, Mark Mutter sits on St. Vladimir’s Church Council and shared an overview of Rova Farms from research, while others had some anecdotal remembrances.
According to Mutter, Rova began sometime in the late 1920s after the Russian Revolution. People who left their homeland in search of freedom also continued to do so after both world wars.
The organization decided to purchase the Cassville Road property and turned 1,640 acres into farming land. This allowed new immigrants to settle in tiny huts throughout the area as they bought land from Rova and worked the farms.
As time went by, the community 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 the church’s history. It sits beside St. Vladimir’s Russian Orthodox Cemetery, a place for those associated with Rova to bury their dead.
The Russian immigrants lived among themselves as they worshipped and worked together. As they prospered and new generations grew, they began slowly selling off their farms. The land remained a cultural haven for newcomers to the country and those already settled in the area.
Rova Farms ultimately transformed into an ethnic-style resort that was enjoyed as a center for immigrants from Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe. People would come to stroll through the area and enjoy the music and Russian delicacies. They danced and enjoyed dipping into the lake on hot summer days for decades. People came from all over to enjoy the cultural flair.
“In 1988, there were literally many thousands of people here for the 1,000th anniversary of Orthodoxy in Russia,” said Mutter. “St. Vladimir brought Christianity to Russia, and between the church and Rova, thousands came to visit.”
A fire on the premises was the beginning of the end for the excitement at Rova Farms. Ultimately, the space was reduced to a Tuesday flea market.
Attorneys and insurance companies who may have never visited the once-booming resort are all too familiar with the name Rova Farms. A 1974 New Jersey Supreme Court case stands as precedential law for bad faith claims against insurance companies who fail to reasonably settle claims within policy limits.
The legal case involved a man who was paralyzed after he suffered injuries after jumping in the shallow end of the property’s lake. 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 resort went after their insurance company for the money, saying they 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 went even further back in time and brought a smile to her face.
“I started coming here when I was six months old in 1944,” shared Woronczuk, whose grandparents immigrated to the states before the Russian Revolution. “I came every summer with my grandmother. We ate in the restaurant and danced every Friday and Saturday until our feet fell off.”
Woronczuk painted a picture of fun times with visitors exhibiting stylish and skillful dance moves from waltzes to cha chas and tangos. After years of enjoying her childhood and teen years at Rova Farms, Woronczuk earned the coveted title of Miss Rova Farms 1963.
According to Woronczuk, girls came from various branches that extended from New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The young ladies all arrived at the competition in limousines and were assigned escorts. The contest included a talent portion and an interview.
The recollection of years of fun times left Woronczuk with a feeling of nostalgia when she attended the event hosted by township officials.
“It was a very hard day for me,” Woronczuk said. “It was very sentimental because I spent well over 20 years there growing up, and everyone knew everyone; it was home away from home.”
“It was very sad to see it go downhill the way it did,” continued Woronczuk. “But I am so pleased that Jackson has purchased the land and is going to make it into something that people can continue to enjoy.”
The afternoon at Rova Farms last month treated interested guests to much more than information. Renewed life was infused into the property as dancers took to the stage in traditional garb, and a vocalist belted out 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 a critical part of the township’s plans for reopening the property.