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Medford, N.J.: A Rural Township With a Quaint Downtown

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After the Campbell Soup Company announced a reorganization early this year, Quinton and Jacquelyn Cookis had a choice to make. They could move with the company’s snacks division, where they both worked, to its new consolidated headquarters in Camden, N.J., or shift to other Campbell operations in Connecticut or North Carolina, where they were living.

Coloring their decision was what Mr. Cookis described as his wife’s only condition: “Anywhere but Jersey.”

But an exploratory trip to South Jersey in March revealed a part of the state that was far different from the urban and suburban sprawl they were familiar with outside New York City. Specifically, it was the wooded Burlington County township of Medford that changed their minds.

So enthusiastic were the Cookises about Medford — a 39-square-mile township, about two-thirds of which lies in the Pinelands National Reserve — that they ended up buying their 2,800-square-foot colonial in the Oakwood Lakes neighborhood before ever stepping foot inside. After a FaceTime walk-through with their real estate agent, Cheryl George, of Weichert, they offered $615,000 for the four-bedroom house on 0.67 acres, and it was accepted in June.

Since arriving in Medford, Mr. Cookis said they have taken their 2-year-old son, Beckett, and 1-year-old daughter, Luna, to the township’s apple festival, cranberry festival and Amish market. On several summer weekends, they traveled to the Jersey Shore, less than an hour away.

“I’ve lived down South for 10 years, and I’ve never had more nature,” said Mr. Cookis, 28. “We can hear the owls from our deck. We see baby bunnies and had deer giving birth in our backyard. It’s not at all what we thought of when we thought of New Jersey.”

Molly and Sean Dodd also found their way to Medford as a result of a work situation. Nine years ago, while employed at TD Bank, Mr. Dodd grew weary of the frequent trips he had to make from their home in Maine to Cherry Hill, N.J. So the couple and their four children moved closer to the bank’s South Jersey headquarters.

Coming from Maine, they were surprised at Medford’s similarly woodsy, rural feel. Their four-bedroom colonial, which they bought for $510,000, backs up to Wharton State Forest.

“We liked Medford because it reminded us of Maine,” said Ms. Dodd, 48, who was enthused by all the children they saw playing on the streets of their Highbridge neighborhood. “You’d never know you’re 20 miles from Philadelphia. All you can see is woods.”

Abbie and Sean Galie were attracted by something else that has increasingly become a draw for many of the township’s 24,500 residents and others living in the area: the quaint, historic downtown. When the couple moved to Medford in 2000 and opened a cafe, Main Street was lined with antiques shops and other small businesses. An economic downturn forced many of those businesses to close, including the Galies’, leaving behind what Charles Watson, Medford’s mayor, described as “Death Valley, with dust bowls rolling down the sidewalk.”

In recent years, Medford has seen its downtown return to life, led in part by business owners like the Galies, who in 2016 opened Lower Forge Brewery, the township’s first craft brewery, in a former print shop on Main Street that had been closed since the 1990s. Today, there are three — soon to be four — craft breweries in town.

“We missed being entrepreneurs and thought, ‘Let’s invest in Main Street,’” said Ms. Galie, who also serves as the vice president of the Main Street Merchants of Historic Medford Village, an organization formed in 2021 to promote the downtown area. “Within Medford, we knew we had the demographics to support our businesses, but people were leaving to go elsewhere. Our goal was to capture that audience and let them know they could drive five minutes to be entertained, rather than 25 minutes. We showcased our beauty, local shopping and events as reasons to visit Medford and stay in Medford. And it worked.”

The numerous lakes, streams and cranberry bogs running through Medford serve to define many of its residential communities, with neighborhoods named for the lakes they surround, including Centennial Lake, where some of the largest homes are found. Other lake communities are dotted with log cabin-style homes, but not as many as are in Medford Lakes, a separate municipality that sits like a doughnut hole in the middle of Medford Township.

Regarding the log cabins, Ms. George, the Weichert agent, said: “People either love them or hate them. They have to decide if they can live with the inconveniences in exchange for all that charm.”

While log cabins may not suit all tastes, many buyers express interest in lakefront properties, which aren’t easy to come by, said Ms. George, noting that “when people have something on the lake, they don’t get rid of it.” Most of the lake communities have their own associations, giving neighborhood residents who join access to the lake beaches and clubhouses.

With its wooded pockets and open farmlands, Medford has avoided some of the excessive development of nearby townships like Cherry Hill and Mount Laurel, although it has been a struggle to keep it that way, said Mr. Watson, the mayor. Since 1970, the township’s population has tripled, and the state’s continuing mandate to build more affordable homes has triggered lawsuits and much debate in Medford. To comply with the latest negotiated settlement, the township is adding 1,000 new homes, about a quarter of which will be affordable housing, the mayor said.

“I wish that none of those houses had to be built and it could have remained farmland,” said Mr. Watson, 64, a lifelong township resident. “While I’m not happy about all this development, it’s a lot less than what we were once facing. We did the best we could.”

Most of the new development is on former farmland north of Route 70, where sewers and public water are available. Everything south of Route 70 is in designated Pinelands preserves, where most properties have wells and septic tanks. Building is limited in this area, which includes the historic downtown, and any plans to develop or rezone property have to go through the Pinelands Commission.

To maintain the rural feeling, the township has aggressively pursued opportunities to preserve open space, said Beth Portocalis, Medford’s open space coordinator. To date, it has amassed 5,662 acres of open space and farmlands by combining parks and wooded lands and buying development rights of area farms, as well as two large summer camps run by the Y.M.C.A. and the J.C.C.

As of early November, there were 31 homes listed for sale in Medford, three of them townhouses, as well as a handful of sizable lots. The most expensive home was a 7,000-square-foot, five-bedroom house built in 1992 on 72 acres, listed for $1.95 million; the least expensive was a two-bedroom 1860 farmhouse on 0.41 acres, listed for $249,000. A 75-acre buildable lot, which had been on the market for many years, was listed for $4.999 million, and a 13-acre wooded lot that could be used only for hiking or hunting was listed for $69,900.

The median price of the 231 homes that sold between January and the end of October was $562,000, according to Bright Multiple Listing Service; during the same 10 months of 2022, the median price for the 445 homes sold was $514,953.

Main Street boasts an eclectic mix of shops and restaurants, including Braddock’s Tavern, which dates to 1844; ITA 101, an Italian restaurant; and Whole Hog Cafe, a barbecue spot. In addition to three craft breweries, Medford now has Stokelan Winery, a 10-acre farm with a historic mansion that opened to the public in 2022, offering wine tastings and live music.

Families visit Johnson’s Corner Farm to pick apples and pumpkins, or Indian Acres Tree Farm for fresh-cut Christmas trees. Dog owners gravitate to Freedom Barks Dog Park, 26 acres of off-leash fields and woods in Freedom Park.

The township holds several events throughout the year, the biggest being the Dickens Festival, a street fair with costumed characters that draws thousands of visitors on the first Saturday in December.

Medford has five elementary schools serving students in prekindergarten through fifth grade; one school for sixth graders; and Medford Memorial Middle School for seventh and eighth grades.

For high school, students attend Shawnee High School, a large regional high school with 1,500 students from Medford and six neighboring towns. The school, which is in Medford, offers 24 Advanced Placement courses and has a cooperative agreement with Rowan University that allows students to earn college credits. The average SAT scores in 2021-22 were 568 in reading and writing and 545 in math, compared with state averages of 538 and 532.

Private school options include St. Mary of the Lakes, a Catholic school in Medford for students in prekindergarten through eighth grade, and Moorestown Friends School, a Quaker day school in Moorestown serving students in preschool through 12th grade.

Burlington County Institute of Technology also has a campus in Medford.

Medford is about 90 miles south of New York City, and driving to Manhattan takes about two hours.

There is no train service, but bus service is available through Greyhound, which offers several daily trips from Westampton, N.J., to Port Authority in Manhattan. The ride takes an hour and a half to two hours; one-way tickets cost $15.99.

Medford is also home to the Flying W Airport, a public airport for small planes, although it is slated to be sold and the site used to build more housing.

James Still, a 19th-century homeopathic doctor, had his home and office in Medford. Born to two former slaves, he was one of 18 children, including William Still, an abolitionist and a founder of the Underground Railroad. Known as “the Black Doctor of the Pines,” the self-taught Dr. Still believed in natural remedies from herbs and roots. His office on Old Church Road is a state historic site, with an education center and walking trails.

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