I've moved many times in my life, and I never feel comfortable in a place until I find out something about its history and geography.
Here are some suggestions for you, based on the ways I go about it, using the help of people, books, maps, the internet, and my own eyes.
1) Introduce yourself to the reference librarian at your public library and ask for help finding reference books, old newspapers, County histories. Choose a date like your birthday or 4th of July and read the newspaper for that date 1 year ago, 10 years ago, 25 years ago, and so on back to the beginning of the paper's run. What news stories are important in each generation? What names and places around your town come up most often? What looks strange in the photos? What do the advertisements show about the ways your town people made a living or spent their money?
2) Find the local historical society (the reference librarian will know). Check for a county historical society, museum, library and website.
3) Ask members of the historical society where the oldest surviving buildings in town are, when they were built, who built them, why, how they have been used since. Go look at the buildings yourself and figure out what makes them look different from newer buildings (for instance, how close to the road are they? what are they made out of? how big are they? by counting the windows, how many rooms do they seem to have? where are the front doors positioned?). Mark them on a map, with the dates they were built. Look at surrounding houses and neighborhoods--can you figure out what is distinctive about them and when they were built? Can you detect, for instance, where a farm used be by spotting an old farmhouse surrounded by a new housing development (where did the barn stand)? Who or what are the streets named for?
4) Walk through the cemeteries in town and note down names and dates on the gravestones. From the gravestones, can you figure out who were the earliest families to settle in town? Where did they come from? (Was there a Lenape settlement or trails running through the area before Europeans arrive?) Can you still find those names in the phone book? Go to the offices of the churches or organizations that run the cemeteries and ask when they were founded. Do they go back before the Revolutionary War? Janice Kohl Sarapin,'s book, Old Burial Grounds of NJ, has good advice about learning history from graveyards.) I knew a middle-school kid who did a census of all the gravestones in her church's graveyard in New Providence NJ and showed how the kind of stone could be used to estimate the age of gravestones even when the dates were no longer legible. Because I'm a historian of medicine, I'm always curious to know what the epitaphs say about how people died and how old they were when they died. How many graves are there for kids your age or younger?
5) Talk to older people in town--the oldest teacher at your school, at the churches, senior citizen center, veterans group, members of your own family--and ask them to tell you about life in your town when they were kids. Where were the schools? How did they get to school? What did they pass along the way that is longer there? They might have photos or old school yearbooks they would let you copy for your poster.
6) Do a Google search for your town NJ and your county NJ and read/print out every web-page that might have something to do with the town's history. Look at the Underground Railroad sites on the web--was your town on the route for people escaping slavery? People who are posting their family trees on the web might mention ancestors who lived in your town--can you find their kinfolk in the cemetery? (They'd probably be delighted to know that and give you information in return.)
Karen Reeds is an independent scholar in the history of science and medicine and a museum consultant. She is the author of Botany in Medieval and Renaissance Universities and coauthor of Todays Medicine, Tomorrows Science: Essays on Paths of Discovery in the Biomedical Sciences.