Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 32
Wednesday, August 10, 2011
Coldwell Banker Princeton Office

Prudential Fox and Roach, Realtors

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It’s New to Us by Jean Stratton

LIFE ON THE FARM: “We love to come here and collect the eggs!” Alexis (standing) and Jennifer Miles are shown gathering eggs in the chicken house at Howell Living History Farm. The girls, who live in Maryland, are visiting their grandmother, Jane Van Hise, of Pennington.

Tours, Events, Education, History and Fun Highlight Howell Living History Farm

“Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again, as if by magic; but destroy our farms, and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.”

- William Jennings Bryan

Today, just two percent of the population in the U.S. feeds the rest of the people. In 1910, 40 percent of the population was needed to feed the rest of the population.

There is no question that American farms have been disappearing as fast as the developers could snatch up the land. On the other hand, reports Pete Watson, Director of Howell Living History Farm, the emergence of small farms is growing. “I have read that there were 125 new farms in New Jersey in the past year,” he says.

Howell Living History Farm, located at 70 Woodens Lane in the northwest corner of Hopewell Township, two miles south of Lambertville, is not one of these new farms, but it is a true treasure in our area.

It is a step back in time to the days when 40 percent of the population did feed the rest of the country, and at the same time it is a vibrant example of how a farm can flourish and thrive without the modern conveniences of today’s technology, including chemicals, pesticides, herbicides, and the like.

Snapshot in Time

“I can’t think of any place in our great Garden State that embodies New Jersey’s rich farming history any better than Howell Living History Farm,” says Brian M. Hughes, Mercer County Executive and Princeton resident. “As a true, historic working farm, Howell Farm is a snapshot in time. The staff there is true to their mission to make living history accessible to thousands of visitors to the farm each year, and that is evidenced by their authentic period attire and use of tools and machinery of the late 1800s.

“I’m a staunch advocate for historic preservation, and I’m proud of the achievements we’ve made at Howell Farm. Today, we talk about the slow food movement, recreating the kitchen garden and generally being more mindful of where our foods come from. I encourage everyone to step back in time to a place where life was a little slower, but the fields still were plowed and the harvest came in, and that is Howell Living History Farm.”

The farm’s history coincides with that of New Jersey. It dates to 1732, when Joseph Philips purchased 125 acres from landholder William Bryant. It had been a working farm for more than 240 years when its last private owner, Inez Howe Howell, gave it to Mercer County in 1974 in memory of her husband. She hoped future generations could experience the way of living she knew as a child near the turn of the 19th century.

“I am offering the farm as a gift to Mercer County … to be used as a Living History Farm where the way of living in its early days could not only be seen but actually tried by the public, especially children … in milking a cow, gathering eggs in a homemade basket, helping to shear sheep, carding wool, spinning and weaving …. Older people could teach the young how to sew a fine seam, or find hickory nuts to crack with a stone on the hearth, or find wild herbs for curing the miseries … or just go off fishing with a hickory pole.”

The Mercer County Park Commission restored the farm to its 1890-1910 appearance, and in 1984, it was opened to the public.

The farm features more than 45 acres of tillable land, period crops and gardens, numerous buildings listed on the New Jersey State and National Register of Historic Places, and more than two miles of lanes, accessible on foot or by horse-drawn wagon.

Historic Landscape

An additional 80 acres of pastures, meadows, and woodlands complete the farm’s historic landscape, which is enhanced by the preservation of adjacent Baldpate Mountain and stream corridors supported by the Delaware Greenway. Seven paid staff members and many, many volunteers (more than 17,000 hours a year) keep the farm operating, in addition to support from the Mercer County Park Commission and private donations.

“The farm’s goal has always been to involve the community, especially school children, in the actual operation of what farm life was like at the turn of the century,” explains Pete Watson, director of the farm. “The Mercer County Park Commission has done a magnificent job not only of preserving the farm, but acquiring surrounding property, all of which has historical significance. There has been a master plan. The result is that when people come to the farm, it is not just the 130 acres, it is the Greater Pleasant Valley Historical District. Everything is in context, including the nearby one room schoolhouse, gristmill, and blacksmith shop. It has been great planning and execution.”

At the turn of the 19th century, horse-powered farming was still in its golden era. Large draft horses were used to pull moldboard plows through the soil, as farmers walked behind and steered. Corn, oats, hay, and wheat crops were rotated in the fields, while vegetables were grown in the kitchen garden. There wasn’t much “specialization” — a successful farmer needed to know how to build a barn and deliver a baby lamb in addition to all his other chores.

The farm’s operation has always appealed to a wide spectrum of visitors — more than 60,000 a year, reports Mr. Watson, who joined the farm in 1983. Now, not only does it offer a historical look at a time past, it also provides relevant information for our lives today.

“People have an increasing interest in knowing where their food comes from.” says Mr. Watson. “We try to show them the historical methods and create a portrait of the way things were. Many, many of the farming and gardening practices of the period are the foundation of the modern day organic movement. They did not use herbicides and pesticides. There was no access to the technology and resources available today. Farmers relied on traditional wisdom.”

Traditional Wisdom

“Within traditional wisdom were systems that worked, that would minimize pest infestation; crop rotation helped the soil, and controlled the weed population. Manure was the fertilizer, as it is at the farm today. In our barns, you rarely see mosquitoes or flies because the barns are filled with barn swallows that eat these insects.”

Livestock on the farm includes seven Belgian draft horses (six working, one retired) that are used for plowing, pulling manure spreaders, and pulling logs out of the woods. The horses can also be ridden in the spring.

Milk cows, sheep, chickens, and pigs are also important to the farm’s operation.

Visitors to the farm are encouraged to participate in a number of hands-on activities, if they wish, including helping with chores, such as milking (no milking machines!), mixing feed, collecting eggs, harvesting ice, and many more.

On Saturdays, a variety of events is available, and on weekdays, self-guided tours are offered. Taking approximately an hour and a half, the tour includes walking past beehives, visiting the farm animals, the barn, chicken house, hog pasture, apple orchard, farmhouse, and ice house.

There are also school and community programs and an annual 4H Fair. Seasonal operations, such as maple sugaring, ice harvesting, sheep shearing, wheat threshing, and corn harvesting are all hands-on projects.

A summer day farm camp is also offered for children six to nine and nine to 12.

Horse-drawn hay rides and sleigh rides are always popular events, as is ice cream-making. Ice cream is on the agenda for Saturday, August 27.

All of these programs, including various crafts and canning workshops, give children — and adults — the chance to perform tasks exactly as they were done in 1890-1910. Everything is prepared from scratch. For instance, in maple sugaring, the pancakes are made from wheat grown on the farm. Participants grind and sift flour, and churn butter to create the pancakes.

Another popular event is the corn maze, including four acres and more than two miles of paths, endless dead-ends and just one way out. A giant green puzzle, the maze is open Saturdays and Sundays from September 17 through October 30.

Animal Power

Besides preserving Mercer County’s agricultural history and heritage, Howell Farm provides internships and training for Peace Corps volunteers and others who are introducing animal-powered technology to international farmers who currently work by hand.

“Animal power is still the main source of farming throughout the world,” notes Mr. Watson. “Even in Europe, there are still small farms operated by animal power.”

Howell Farm is operated and funded by the Mercer County Park Commission, with special projects also supported by grants, and by Friends of Howell Living History Farm, a non-profit organization. It is through the dedication of so many that it remains the thriving operation that it is, and its influence extends beyond the area, points out Mr. Watson.

“Not a month goes by that we don’t get e-mails, letters, or calls from people all over the country, asking how to develop a project like ours. It is not easy; it takes commitment, the right resources, and location. Our job is to create opportunities for visitors to have experiences on the farm that are really adventures; to provide something for them that they will never forget. I feel lucky to be a part of it.”

A visitor’s shop offers a variety of items made from farm products, including wheat flour, corn meal, honey, and popcorn, as well as toys, books, and other choices.

Admission to the farm is free. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday noon to 4. On Saturday and Sunday, farm representatives dress in the style of 1890-1910.

For more information call (609) 737-3299 or visit

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