July 18, 2018

Town Takes Ownership, Teams With FOHW At Herrontown Woods and Veblen House

TAKING CARE OF LEGACIES: Friends of Herrontown Woods (FOHW) volunteers installed plant labels, with QR codes that connect to native plant information on the group’s website, at a rain garden designed to catch runoff. Princeton Council last week agreed to accept ownership of the Herrontown Woods property from Mercer County and is currently working on a formal agreement with FOHW to proceed with work on the grounds and renovations of the buildings that used to be the Veblen homestead. (Photo Courtesy of FOHW)

By Donald Gilpin

Friends of Herrontown Woods (FOHW) held a picnic last month with games, food, and presentations to celebrate Oswald Veblen’s 138th birthday. There’s a lot to celebrate, with Princeton Council agreeing last week to accept the property from Mercer County and the FOHW stepping up work on various environmental projects and looking to renovate the Veblen House and Cottage.

The Council is currently working on an agreement with FOHW to specify responsibility for stabilizing and maintaining the aging structures that used to be the Veblen homestead.

In the meantime the all-volunteer FOHW have “dramatically transformed the Veblen House grounds,” according to FOHW President Steve Hiltner, by planting a Phoenix Garden with 200 native plants representing 85 species, and beginning to create an edible forest and rain garden to demonstrate the use of runoff in the landscape.

“Herrontown Woods at 142 acres is one of the jewels of Princeton’s park system, but had gone mostly untended for decades,” said Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert. “We’re very fortunate to have the enthusiastic volunteers of the Friends of Herrontown Woods, who have already done extensive and exceptional maintenance work on the network of trails and stream crossings, and have planted a botanical garden.”

A year ago, Mercer County agreed to transfer ownership of the property to the town of Princeton, resolving years of discussion about the fate of the park, which includes a house and cottage formerly owned by the renowned mathematician and his wife Elizabeth, who gave the property to the county in 1957 and 1974. In addition to his own work in mathematics, Veblen has been acclaimed for saving lives and careers in bringing the Institute for Advanced Study to Princeton, helping to make the U.S. ascendent in the world of mathematics, and initiating the open space movement in Princeton.

Describing Veblen as “a visionary and humanitarian,” Hiltner, who is a botanist and naturalist, added, “Learning more about him makes our work all the more meaningful, to protect and restore buildings and land the Veblens so loved and wished to share at Herrontown Woods.”

The FOHW have returned the ground around the house to the original grade and discovered in the process long-buried stone walls and parts of an elaborate drainage system. They have also cleared away a sea of invasive plants in order to plant the native Phoenix Garden, looking to now add labels and pathways to provide a place where visitors can learn more about native plants of Princeton.

Restoring vistas by removing brush, FOHW volunteers weeded out invasive species and planted hazelnut, pawpaw, and the rarely seen butternut tree to establish the beginnings of an edible forest.

FOHW also takes care of a replanted detention basin that catches runoff from the Smoyer Park parking lot, helping the town and Partners for Fish and Wildlife (a federal agency) transform it from turf grass into a native wet meadow.

Girl Scout Cadette Troop 72905 from Princeton recently helped plant seeds of additional native wildflowers, and there is a project in the works to create podcasts so that visitors can learn more about Herrontown Woods’ cultural and natural features, including the magnetic rocks found there.

Hiltner, who is a botanist and naturalist, is looking forward to focusing the FOHW’s energies on renovating and repurposing the buildings. “We feel this project is transformative for Princeton,” he said. It includes history, ecology, and sustainability.” He is hopeful that they can soon get insurance so that volunteers and professionals can make preliminary repairs on the buildings to head off further deterioration in the property that has been vacant for about 20 years.

FOHW, www.fohw.org, has already received several five-figure donations without even asking, Hiltner reported, and they are working on a fundraising plan to approach individuals and institutions. “Princeton University and the Institute for Advanced Study have not shown interest as yet,” Hiltner said, “but as we gain momentum I hope they will see this as something they should support.”

Hiltner emphasized the importance of “taking care of buildings and plantings and legacies.” He noted, “I know what happens when the weeds, or a leak in a roof, or even an imbalance in the atmosphere’s chemistry, are not taken care of quickly. There’s been this tendency to undervalue the taking care of things, particularly those that come to us for free, and the Veblen House and Herrontown Woods, like so much of what nature provides, were and continue to be a pure gift.”