D&R Greenway Land Trust has preserved 20 acres of the St. Michaels Farm Preserve in Hopewell, completing the preserve that was created in 2010 with an $11 million fundraising campaign. The final $600,000 acquisition brings the total size of the preserve to more than 400 acres on the former site of the St. Michael’s Orphanage.
“We have had our eyes on preserving this parcel since we closed on the first transaction with the Diocese of Trenton,” said D&R Greenway vice-president Jay Watson. “The Diocese could have sold it for development. It was our persistence that put us in a position to complete the deal.”
The property will be used for passive recreation, said Watson, and a group of advisors will be assembled to properly honor and care for the space, which was the site of the orphanage from 1897 until the building’s demolition in 1973.
“Many may not remember that the Diocese kept these 20 acres from the original acquisition with the intention to build a parish house on this site,” said Linda Mead, president & CEO of D&R Greenway. “When they decided to divest themselves of this property, it was only natural that it become a part of our preserve and a special place to honor the many children who lived here for nearly 100 years.”
There are historic remnants and artifacts D&R Greenway plans to preserve to help tell the story of the children who once lived on the property. “We hope to engage a landscape architect to create a park-like setting where visitors can contemplate nature,” said Watson. “This part of the preserve will become a place for healing and reflection.”
The 20-acre open space parcel will serve as a transition from Hopewell Borough to the farm preserve and includes a tributary to Bedens Brook. D&R Greenway will clean up the site, conduct an inventory of the trees, and enhance the pedestrian entrance and setting as funds become available to support the vision.
“This acquisition adds to the St. Michaels and the larger Hopewell Borough greenbelt, a priority project in the County’s Master Plan since 1995,” said Mercer County Executive Brian M. Hughes. “In total the greenbelt provides close to 600 acres of preserved land that protects spectacular views of the Hopewell Valley and the Borough, as well as protecting environmentally significant open space for the region.”
D&R Greenway has protected an additional 700-plus acres on the north side of the borough that extends the greenbelt.
The story of the St. Michaels property began at the end of the 19th century. As urban areas grew, the Catholic Church rose to the crisis of providing homes for orphans and children living in abusive situations, according to Hopewell historian Jack Koeppel. The Catholic Diocese of Trenton built the St. Michaels Orphanage to address the problem in the Trenton area. Koeppel told the story to a packed house at D&R Greenway’s Johnson Education Center recently, “Try to envision a crowd of 10,000 who came to attend the groundbreaking in 1896, with a parade of 3,000 people marching from the Hopewell Train Station to the site. Orchestras played, choirs sang and officials delivered in-depth speeches on the subject of child welfare.”
Another parade along the same route occurred in 1898 for the dedication, with marching bands, choirs, and drum and bugle corps from all over the state.
Ex-heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey visited the orphanage to address an adoring crowd as the band played. “I suppose you are all planning to be someone worthwhile when you grow up,” he told them. “Whether a firefighter, doctor, or lawyer, success depends on clean living. Do not smoke or drink, and be obedient to those who have charge of you.” He shook hands with every child and gave candy to them all.
The facility operated until 1973, housing more than 400 children at its peak. “I am sure that stories and images will continue to be discovered about this property, and we will capture, honor and share them as appropriate,” Watson said. “This is a story much larger than the 20-acre parcel. This land has been a fixture of the community for well over a century.”
D&R Greenway Land Trust Inc., 1 Preservation Place, Princeton 08540. Linda J. Mead, president & CEO. www.drgreenway.org.