Howell Farm director Pete Watson.

For families looking for some old-fashioned outdoor fun, Howell Farm is reopening after its December hiatus.

For the next several months at the scenic 267-acre park off Route 29 in Hopewell Township, children and adults can harvest ice from a pond (weather permitting), go for a horse-drawn bobsled or sleigh ride, or taste the sweet rewards of maple sugaring.

Walking through the Visitor Center barn, raised by dozens of volunteers 15 years ago, visitors are transported back in time to a farm powered by horses. And that is by design.

When she donated the farm in 1974, Inez Howell envisioned “a living history farm” where visitors, “especially children,” could participate in farm life. The Mercer County Park Commission then transformed the property into a hands-on portal to the past.

With the farm’s focus on the turn of the 20th century, before tractors and commercial fertilizers revolutionized farming, Howell Farm Director Pete Watson says, “The decision to work the farm with horses was a given.” Throughout the seasons Howell offers horse-driven experiences: horse-drawn rides to the farmhouse, ice pond, or sugar maple grove; sleigh rides; plowing matches; and more.

On the last Saturday in January, visitors can help saw ice blocks to fill the ice house. As Watson explains, “Ice harvesting was a multi-million dollar industry at the turn of the 20th century, enabling the commercial shipping and storage of perishable goods, as well as the use of iceboxes in homes and businesses.” Milk from the farm’s six dairy cows was packed in ice and driven by horse to the train station two miles west. Watson recalls that before its restoration nearly 30 years ago, “All that remained of the ice house was a stone-lined pit filled with debris.”

If the ice on the pond isn’t thick enough to be used for cutting, visitors can still help load the ice house with commercially bought ice transported by horse-drawn wagon. Watson adds, “It’s a great hands-on experience for kids, full of STEM learning opportunities.” And since farms are all about food, visitors can crank the handle to make and sample ice cream. During Saturday programs, hot beverages and hearty homemade fare are sold in the Visitor Center.

On Saturdays, February 1 and 15, horse-drawn bobsled rides will be offered. And also on February 15, Howell celebrates Valentine’s Day with horse-drawn sleigh rides for couples. The Jugtown Mountain String Band also will be playing, and artist Lauren Muney will demonstrate how to make hand-cut silhouettes to add to the festivities. If there isn’t enough snow on either day, wagon rides will be offered.

The horses at Howell enjoy the rides as much as the visitors. Local historian Larry Kidder, who overcame his fear of horses after many years of volunteering at the farm, now drives them most Saturdays. “The sleigh rides occur after the horses have been doing much less work in the winter, and they are bored,” Kidder says. “I have had horses act 10 years younger when they get harnessed up for sleigh rides. They are very social animals, wonderfully able to understand and sense human emotions and feelings.”

February is also maple sugaring season. On Saturday, February 8, visitors can help tap the trees in the farm’s sugar bush. For those who want to try it at home, demonstrations will be held, and taps and buckets will be sold in the Visitor Center. Says Watson: “We’ve taught hundreds of people how to tap their backyard maple trees.” During most of February visitors will be able to stop at the sugar house to watch the sap cook down and sample the results.

On Saturdays, February 22 and 29, visitors can help collect sap from the trees. Much is needed since 40 gallons of sap cooks down to just one gallon of syrup, and the farm produces 60 to 70 gallons of this treat each year. Visitors can taste it atop homemade pancakes. They can also try cutting firewood or hand-churning butter.

Pete Watson carts an ice block carved from the farm’s ice pond on a horse-drawn sleigh. Visitors to the farm can help saw ice blocks, weather permitting, on Saturday, January 25.

Although Watson hails from urban North Jersey, he is uniquely qualified to oversee Howell Farm. Born in Newark, he grew up in a development in Livingston that adjoined Becker Dairy Farm. “Sometimes the cows got loose and grazed on the lawns, probably thinking they were still part of their pasture,” he recalls.

Watson’s first job was cleaning horse stalls at Watchung Stables in Mountainside. His father was a buyer for Sears, initially working at headquarters in Manhattan until he was transferred to the Chicago office. His mother, a homemaker and active volunteer, worked in telephone sales for the Sears’ catalog in later years.

Planning to become a teacher, Watson studied English and teaching at Lawrence University in Wisconsin. “During high school and college I volunteered as an English and reading tutor, helping city kids with these subjects. It was really satisfying work.”

After college he applied for the Peace Corps because they wanted English as a Second Language teachers.

During four months of training Watson took courses in tropical agriculture and French at the national agricultural extension school in Dahomey, West Africa. That knowledge, combined with his education and familiarity with horses, made him well suited to a United Nations “animal traction” project.

Watson helped West African farmers train their beef and dairy cattle to work as oxen. This provided transportation, helped reduce manual labor, and increased production and nutrition. “It was a good program because it was based on the use of local resources, including trades that produced yokes, plows and oxcarts,” he says.

Watson also gained experience riding horses. “Some of the people farmed pretty far from the villages where they lived, so my job often involved using a motorcycle or a horse to reach their fields. The horse was best during the rainy season when you had to cross rivers and streams. With the motorcycle you could wait hours for before someone showed up with a canoe to ferry you across.”

After returning to the United States Watson helped train new volunteers in Tennessee and California, using living history farms and museums as training sites. “Scouting out Howell Farm as a potential training location, I met the park commission staff that was getting ready to open the farm to the public for the first time. I got involved as a volunteer, wanting to learn horse hitching and driving skills from historic farmers Bob Fosetta, Halsey Genung, and Cliff Parkhill. One thing led to another, and before I knew it I was working horses and oxen in the state where I grew up,” he says.

The land that is now Howell Farm has been farmed for nearly three centuries. It has more than doubled in size in the 45 years that Mercer County has owned it. Thanks to the Mercer County Park Commission’s preservation and restoration efforts, the farm was listed on the National and State Registers of Historic Places a few years after it was acquired.

It offers programs throughout the year, welcoming more than 10,000 schoolchildren and 55,000 visitors annually. It might just be the getaway you’re looking for on a cold winter day.

Howell Living History Farm, 70 Woodens Lane, Hopewell Township. Starting on Saturday, January 25, open Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. On January 25, children can make ice candles from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. for a nominal fee. On February 1 and 15, rides are offered on a first-come, first-serve basis from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. On February 8, 22, and 29, tree tapping demonstrations will be held. No pets (except service dogs). Free admission, donations welcome. 609-737-3299.

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