One recent weekday off, coupled with an innate desire to "just go somewhere," led me to surf the net for an adventure close by that didn’t entail shopping. Knowing that my first destination would be the Hightstown Diner for breakfast, I wanted something that was within striking distance of that starting point. A few clicks and I was looking at an intriguing description of a restored 18th century estate in Allentown run by the Monmouth County Park System. The description fit all my criteria so off I went, willing friend in tow.
We were not disappointed in our serendipitous choice. The directions to Historic Walnford are simple and signs are easy to follow. After a leisurely drive through some vast horse farms, we arrived in a cul-de-sac parking lot. The road ends at the estate and allows visitors the chance to wander the 36 acres of buildings, fields, and wetlands unhurried. On this particular day, a Friday, we enjoyed exclusive run of the place.
The estate is open every day from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. with some extended hours in the summer months www.monmouthcountyparks.com/parks/walnford.asp We approached the estate through the huge double corn crib and we were immediately greeted by one of the several resident cats, a sleek grey tabby named Colonel, who upon receiving our entrance fee of one brisk tummy rub, remained our tour guide for the remainder of our day.
The estate is on the National Register of Historic Places and is the restored home of the Philadelphia Walns, a Quaker merchant shipping family who came over from England with William Penn. By the third generation they chose to focus on manufacturing their own goods for trade. In 1772 Richard Waln acquired land in Allentown at Crosswick Creek, where a local merchant had built a grist mill in 1734.
This mill had engendered a saw mill, fulling mill, blacksmith shop, cooper’s shop, a house, and assorted buildings along with a working farm of about 100 acres by the time Richard acquired the property. He built the family mansion in 1773. Richard was a loyalist and in 1777 was detained, leaving his wife to run the estate until his return in 1778, a not uncommon situation during the Revolutionary War. He was also a vocal abolitionist who encouraged the boycott of slave-made goods.
He quickly energized the industrial village to provide goods for his international shipping company. His son, Nicholas, took over the farm in 1799 and expanded the holdings over time to more than 1,300 acres. At the height of activity, more than 50 people worked and lived at Walnford.
The grist mill is in operation on weekends from 1 to 4 p.m. during April through November but special arrangements can be made for mid-week operation. Even though the mill was not operating the day we arrived, the parks service provides a thorough walking tour of its workings and visitors can get an understanding of the grinding of not only corn but wheat, rye, oats, and barley. Currently only cornmeal is produced using a process that dates back to a patent issued in 1795, only the third patent issued in the new United States, designed to "automate" the mill, allowing it to be operated by only one person. Other workers were needed to bag and move the flour but the actual production was the effort of the miller alone.
The resident cats are still a vital part of the farm’s life, keeping pesky mice at bay. And by the way, the shocking blue paint is authentic. On an upper floor, one of the original workmen wiped his brush clean on an inside wall, giving present-day restorers a window to the past.
Monmouth County had, at one time, 500 thriving grist mills. Six survive today and only Walnford is operating and open to the public. Walnford is a member of the Society for the Preservation of Old Mills www.spoom.org, which provided technical support for the renovations.
In addition to the mill there are several other restored buildings on the grounds. The carriage house contains a pristine antique sleigh, complete with lap robe, and a carriage. Interpretive placards discuss the economy of the region from the revolutionary period through the 19th century when the "maid of all work," Sarah "Sallie" Hendrickson, ruled the roost. The region has long been famous for its horses and the accounts of Sallie reveling in her letters about her high stepping pairs making the sleigh bells ring anew.
A major figure in the history of Walnford, the indomitable Sallie Hendrickson, daughter of Nicholas Waln, expanded the estate to its fullest. Widowed 17 months after her marriage in 1856, she ran the entire operation throughout most of the 19th century, dying in 1907. She is one of an overlooked cadre of women in the 19th century to manage such a business. By the time she took the reins, the economy had shifted from the international trade of her grandfather.
Improved roads, the advent of railroads, and steam power had moved the cultivation of grains and production of flour to the West and Hendrickson, along with her neighbors, reoriented her acreage to produce more of the fresh vegetables demanded by the cities and large canning operations such as Campbells, creating the beginnings of the Garden State.
Her story is the stuff of history and fiction. As a good Quaker, she opened her home to orphans and boys from local families too poor to care for them. These "bound boys" received education and lodging in exchange for work at the various jobs on the estate. They received a trade, whether it be blacksmithing, milling, coopering, farming, or the like, and the ability to move on after the agreed upon term with good prospects.
No family tale is complete without squabbles and a good one seems to have erupted over Sallie’s Last Will and Testament. In an act worthy of Scott Turow, Sallie left her entire estate to her hired man, John Wilson, in exchange for many, many years of unpaid services. A generous act and not a shocking thing in itself, but add the fact that Wilson was African-American and you can imagine the reaction at the turn of 20th century. But the tale does not end there. Wilson did win the will contest but subsequently sold the entire holdings to Sallie’s great nephew, Richard Waln Meirs, and went back to being a hired hand.
The term farmhouse hardly does the lovely stately home justice. The building is restored but few furnishings are exhibited. The house is the largest pre-Revolutionary structure in Monmouth County and was lived in as a home until 1985, when Edward and Joanne Mullen, owners of a horse farm in the area, donated it to the Park Service. It is this history of continuous habitation that has preserved the integrity of the house and the wealth of documentation about the Walns and their legacy.
Because Richard Waln was already wealthy when he purchased the property, the house he built was designed as a stately home and the entire existing construction dates from 1773. Additions such as the ornamental fencing and enclosed garden are the only significant changes. The sparse furnishings allow the visitor to thoroughly enjoy the architecture of the restored woodwork, the wide board floors covered with reproduction rugs, and the huge kitchen.
While no active archaeological digs are on site now, rains bring treasures to the surface, paying witness to the continuous and active habitation of the homestead. The Park Service does run "seeded" digs for school groups and families wishing to experience the thrill of archaeology. Arrangements for digs can be made by a call to the rangers.
Family history aside, there are other adventures to be had at Walnford. Picnic tables abound around the grounds (no grills or fires, naturally) and visitors are welcome to just come and sit on the porch in the very comfortable rocking chairs to watch the creek glide by. There is, however, no food available on site and no alcohol is permitted. The park is very family-friendly, with that most cherished of amenities: big, clean restrooms. Events are held at Walnford year around. It is a haven for bird watchers, canoeists and fishermen with events such as fiddle festivals, stargazing, wool processing, and archival instruction in skills such as ice cream making and milling. Wedding parties are welcome for pictures but the site cannot accommodate receptions.
Ranger Sarah Bent will put on a full afternoon tea for adults, from 2 to 12 in number, complete with fine china, a selection of teas, and goodies made from recipes of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. These elegant offerings are served in the original kitchen. Bent is extremely knowledgeable about the history of the entire estate and especially the legacy of the women of Walnford. Her teas are a stimulating combination of grace and fascinating discussion, exactly what you would expect from the dynamic tradition of the Walns.
Bent developed the tea event about five years ago "as a way to engage people with the history of Walnford," she says. "Food is something we can all relate to. Because we talk about the evolving family here, I had four generations of women to study, in terms of how women socialized. We start with Elizabeth Waln in the 1770s and end with Sarah Ridgeway Waln in the beginning of the 19th century."
Bent consulted eight different period cookbooks to develop the menu, using the criteria that the recipes "had to be able to be prepared under modern circumstances, needed to be something you could eat out of hand without a knife and fork, were generally representative of the period without being too unusual or too seasonal, and would give a good impression and overall view of that period in terms of flavors, cooking, and available ingredients."
A former art historian, Bent earned a bachelors of fine arts in 1978 from Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, and then did contract work in programming for Boston’s Museum of FIne Arts and Museum of Contemporary Art. She started in 1983 as a volunteer with the Monmouth County Park System at Longstreet Farm in Holmdel, which recreates the rural farm life of the 1890s, then eventually became a fulltime employee with the park system and joined Walnford, the park system’s newest site, as the supervisory ranger. Although she has not formally studied food history she expanded on her knowledge through the many professional organizations she belongs to as a specialist in historical interpretation. She also contacted a number of food historians and attended workshops on the subject.
The result of her research is a multi-course menu that spans three centuries with recipes that have been updated from measurements that were expressed in terms such as "a piece of butter the size of a walnut." "We usually serve six or seven items that reflect the continuum of time from the 18th to early 20th centuries," says Bent.
One of the recipes is directly connected with the estate: Jenny Lind cake was served to Sarah Waln by her neighbor, Emily Woodward, and Bent. Waln then requested the recipe in a letter and Bent says the recipe was drawn directly from the letter that Woodward wrote back to Waln. Bent says they adapted many of the recipes for smaller quantities, since it was typical of the time for a cake recipe to make four or five or even six cakes – all that would be needed to feed everyone on the farm for a week.
Guests at the tea, says Bent, are first given a general tour of the site. "We then spend time talking about the social structure and how different generations impacted life at Walnford. Then we sit down to tea and we talk about tea and tea preparation. Guests choose two or three different loose teas, which are then brewed for them. Everything is served on china appropriate to the time period. For example, the 18th century seed cake is served on a redware platter."
The seed in that seed cake – which represents the first portion of the menu, spanning the 18th and early 19th centuries portion – is caraway. Other items served from this time period include Queen’s cakes, which have dried currants as an ingredient and are flavored with rose water; and tea cakes, "what we would think of as a cookie," says Bent, "but are yeast-raised."
Representing mid-19th century tea traditions, guests are served sugar gingerbread, "but not the molasses-based product you think of today," says Bent. "In this case it’s a yellow cake and the only flavoring is ginger." Also from this time period is the Jenny Lind cake mentioned earlier, very similar to a modern day sponge cake.
A "brownie" that is actually a molasses-based cake with pecans represents the end of the 19th century, and what we consider a modern day brownie, says Bent – made with chocolate, vanilla, and walnuts – is served to represent the early 20th century.
According to Bent every conceivable type of social group has participated in the teas – from high school and college alumni groups to Red Hat chapters, garden clubs, and families celebrating birthdays and other special occasions. Bent says they also offer a tea twice a year open to the general public, which individuals can register for. The next one takes place on Tuesday, November 13. Also, a holiday puddings demonstration will take place on Saturday, December 8. See listings at end for registration information.
Walnford is part of the Crosswick Creek Greenway, 1,233 acres of preserved lands, adjacent to the Upper Freehold Historic Farmland Byway.
The destination is only part of the fun because the path to Sallie’s front door takes you through Allentown – with its own charming shops and eateries. Who knew that such a delightful hidden treasure was only a short ride from downtown Princeton? From the flowers about the grounds to the startling blue mill the feel of the estate is now one of calm and peace. Not what the bustling place was like in its heyday, but a sheer delight as a getaway today.
Historic Walnford, 78 Walnford Road, Allentown. 609-259-6275, monmouthcountyparks.com/parks/walnford.asp.
Gristmill demonstrations, weekends April through November, 1 to 4 p.m. All ages welcome, under 14 with adult.
Special events, Sunday, August 19, 3 to 4 p.m. Ice cream making demonstration (admission is $5 but registration was nearly filled at press time).
Sunday, September 16, 1 to 4 p.m. The cooper will demonstrate making wooden containers. Performances by the fiddler. Demonstration of 18th through 20th century crafts.
Walnford Day, Sunday, October 7, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. All the estate buildings will be open and staffed by experts in historic garb. Music and activities throughout the estate.
Afternoon tea, arranged for groups of two to 12, adults only. $80 flat fee. To arrange a party, call 609-259-6275. A tea open to the public, with individual registration, takes place on Tuesday, November 13, 2 to 3:30 p.m.
Holiday pudding demonstration, Saturday, December 8, 2 to 4 p.m. Demonstration and tasting of several steamed holiday puddings.
Directions from Princeton: Route 571 East through Hightstown to Route 539 South. Follow 539 through Allentown taking the sharp left just past the Allentown Mill. Continue along until you see the Cream Ridge Winery on the right and bear a gentle right (not a sharp right) past Fair Winds Farm. Signs for Crosswick Creek and Historic Walnford are present. A final right turn at the first intersection leads to the parking lot at the farm.