JEFFERSON TWP NJ — American Legion Post 245 served for decades as a community meeting place before a devastating fire reduced it to rubble last month.
Now, amid the mangled metal and charred artifacts at the site, local business owners and residents are determined to rebuild.
For the past week, Andover-based J.J. Rich Demolition & Recycling has been leading the cleanup at Post 245 in the Lake Hopatcong section of Jefferson. A group of contractors, township officials and other volunteers combed through the wreckage of the 6,000-square-foot building to expedite the demolition process.
"Invariably, these things will sit for months and months and months," said Rocky Rich, the owner of the demolition company and a veteran himself. "One thing we wanted to do is get it moving as quickly as possible. We didn't want an eyesore in the neighborhood for the community."
Rich's involvement with the project began a few days after the Aug. 26 fire, when he was referred to a Facebook post from a Legion member. As a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, Rich said he felt an obligation to help despite having no prior affiliation with the post.
"I didn't know any of them," he said at the site Thursday. "All I knew was there was a call for help, and I answered the call."
While the blaze destroyed many framed photos and other artifacts, the cleanup crew has recovered other items that emerged in relatively good shape. They were able to save boxes of blank ammunition as well as 10 rifles, which Felter called the "holy grail" of the process.
The collaboration grew to include Blue Diamond Disposal and Jefferson Recycling, which donated dumpsters for the wreckage. Camp Six, a property management company that oversees several Lake Hopatcong restaurants and businesses, is covering the dump fees for the cleanup.
The partnerships are encouraging to the Legion's past commander, Tony Gross, who has been active at the post for 62 years. In that time, he said, support from residents and government leaders never wavered. "We have found that we get tremendous cooperation from the administrations," said Gross, 89. "That's why we've succeeded up to this point.
The volunteers' goal is for the restoration effort to be fully funded by locals, with more people and businesses contributing as word gets out.