Home>Highlight>John Polhemus, two-term Democratic freeholder from Warren County, dies at 81

Former Warren County Freeholder John Polhemus. (Photo: Warren Hills Memorial Home).

John Polhemus, two-term Democratic freeholder from Warren County, dies at 81

Served as White Township mayor, U.S. Department of Agriculture official in Clinton administration

By David Wildstein, February 16 2022 12:02 am

John D. Polhemus, a former Peace Corps volunteer who was twice elected as a Democrat to the Warren County Board of Freeholders, died on February 12.  He was 81.

Raised on his family dairy farm with aspirations of becoming a minister, Polhemus was among to volunteer for  the Peace Corps after John F. Kennedy created it in 1962.  He spent two years teaching farming to the Quechua people in the jungles of Bolivia’s Beni River.

Later, he purchased and ran a Bar in La Paz, where he met his wife, Rita, an employee of the U.S. Embassy there.   He returned to New Jersey to run his family farm in 1967 and became a staunch advocate of farmland preservation.

After his wife, Rita, died of breast cancer in 1975, Polhemus raised his three young daughters as a single parents.

He began running for local office in White Township, winning races for school board in 1976 , and township committeeman in 1984.  He served as mayor and as a planning board member.

Gov. Brendan Byrne had named him to his Rural Advisory Council.

Polhemus ran for freeholder in 1986, seeking the seat of another Democrat, James Swick, who was not seeking re-election.  Polhemus defeated Republican Harold Reeves without about 58% of the vote, even though the head of the ticket, Rep. Jim Courter (R-Allamuchy), was carrying his home county with 64%.

Facing a challenge from former Hackettstown Mayor James G. Smith in 1989, Polhemus won re-election even as Courter took 52% of the vote to carry Warren County in his unsuccessful bid for governor against Democrat Jim Florio.

Following the death of the dean of the New Jersey Senate, Wayne Dumont (R-Phillipsburg) in 1990, Polhemus considered a challenge to the Republican State Sen. Robert Littell (R-Franklin).  He declined and the Democratic nomination went to Rev. Clarence Sickles, who finished third

Polhemus was unable to hold his seat in 1992, losing his bid for a third term to Republican Susan Dickey by about 2,600 votes, 53.5% -46.5%.

President Bill Clinton appointed Polhemus to serve as New Jersey state director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency.

“John was an exemplary public servant and his legacy in Warren County and White Township will long outlive him,” said Warren County Democratic Chairman Tom Palmieri.  “It was impossible to leave a conversation with him without being deeply impressed by his honestly, goodness, and love of his community.”

He sold his farm in 2004 after first using the state’s Farmland Preservation program to ensure that it remained a farm.  After living in Baltimore for several years, he later relocated to Massachusetts to be near his family.

Polhemus is survived by his daughters and three grandchildren.

A viewing will be held at the Warren Hills Memorial Home in Washington from 4-8 PM on Thursday.  Funeral services are set for Friday at 11 AM at the United Presbyterian Church in Belvidere.

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