Dennis Waters often jokes that the Lawrence Historical Society’s motto should be “We’re Right Between Trenton and Princeton: Something Must Have Happened Here.”
But behind the joke, he says, are facts, and he would know—Waters recently stepped down after 12 years as the township’s historian. Rider University history professor and Lawrence resident Brooke Hunter will take his place.
“There’s a lot of really unique things about this history of Lawrence,” Waters said. “Route 206, that highway has been there for 300-plus years. It started as an Indian trail, and it’s gone through all kinds of things. You can sort of immerse yourself in that as you’re driving and say, ‘There’s the 295 intersection, there’s the municipal building, there’s Notre Dame.’ But you can also put yourself in the shoes of a traveler who was on a stagecoach on that road int he 18th century.”
That kind of history is exactly what drew Hunter to the township historical society when she moved here in 2002 after getting hired at Rider University. Hunter graduated from the University of California at Irvine and then earned her PhD at the University of Delaware.
Her forte is early American history, and she teaches courses on the American Revolution, United States history through Reconstruction, Native American history, American environmental history and a variety of seminars for history majors. She currently has students researching Civil Rights activist Fred Vereen, who advocated for affordable housing in Lawrence, and the World War I centennial.
Hunter and her students often use the township’s archives at the library for projects and research, like the seminar project she did a few years ago on oral history interviews with three African Americans who lived on Lewisville Road. Hunter continued her research and, along with Waters and other members of the historical society, wrote and published articles about key aspects of Lawrence Township history. Hunter wrote one of her pieces on the African American community that emerged on Lewisville Road in the 19th century.
“I think it’s wonderful to see how a place that seems from the outside insignificant actually can tell you a lot about the broader pieces of history, so you can see how various events affect local populations. Instead of major figures and big names, here, you can get at the history of people who are more like us. It’s more relatable.”
Waters, who formerly worked with a technical publishing company for a molecular biologist, stepped down last month to “carve out some time” for research in the lichenology field. You might find him wandering around the woods nowadays—he says his current project requires him to spend a lot of time there.
His primary focus as township historian was education and public lectures. Hunter enjoyed Waters’s lecture about education in the township from the 18th century up to the present.
“It’s part of a larger story how public education evolved within New Jersey and to what we have today,” he said. “You don’t have to go back very far when the idea that you moved to a town because it’s got good schools was, like, ‘What? Why would you do that?’ Today, that’s a very big thing. If you go back 50 or 70 years, people really didn’t pay that much attention to it.”
Waters also remembers presentations about trolley line and AT&T pole farm as well-received.
“Unless they were living here prior to 1975, they have no idea that this was this incredible telecommunications facility that was a key part of international communications certainly during the second World War and subsequent to that,” he said.
Waters said each township historian often works on a platform or passion project, and the presentations were his. His predecessor, Bob Immordino, was interested in events and getting the township government involved with celebrations like the Colonel Hand march. Winona Nash, after whom the township room in the library is named, organized and catalogued the historical archive.
‘Brooke is a multi-talented person who is going to forge her own path, and I’m eager to see what it is.’
Waters thought Hunter was the perfect person to take over the reins. The two have known each other since Hunter joined the historical society when she moved here from San Diego, and she has a deep passion for and knowledge of history.
“To my mind, she was the clear person to take this on,” he said. “The job itself, there have been a number of historians over the years, and each historian has brought his or her own style or approach to it.”
Hunter hopes to continue to research, preserve and publicize the township’s history while also making it easier for residents to access historical documents and materials.
“One of the key jobs is to bring the materials in all these boxes to life,” she said. “One of the things that I want to do is to build an online catalog so people know what’s in here, digitize things that can be digitized. I think it’s very important because people seek information differently these days, and we need to make more of what we have available to the community. I think that the more that we can create access online, the more people will engage in local history.”
Both Hunter and Waters say they’ve always been interested in local history, and it just might be in their blood. Hunter’s grandmother, who is 102 years old, was in her local historical society for many years, working on newsletters, parades and activities. The community her grandmother lived in, Hunter said, is similar to Lawrence—it’s small and outside of a city, but there are a number of important historical events that happened there. Hunter’s father also owns a nursery that her great-grandfather opened in 1919. Her mother was also a resource specialist at an elementary school.
Waters—who has four children with his wife, Laura, an education writer and former township school board president—was a “service brat,” he said. He attended Binghamton University in New York for undergraduate and graduate degrees. Waters’s father was trained as a historian and worked for the United States National Archives early in his career. His father also did archival work with the United States Air Force and, after retiring to Florida, was a member of the Florida Maritime Historical Society and the Florida Railroad Historical Society.
“I think I must have picked up a little something along the way,” he said.
He’s passed along some of that to Hunter, she said, but Waters is more than confident in her abilities.
“Brooke is a multi-talented person who is going to forge her own path, and I’m eager to see what it is,” he said.