The Holcombe-Jimison Farmstead Museum, located on the oldest recorded farmstead in Hunterdon County, is more than an unusual destination — it is a place where New Jersey’s agricultural heritage is preserved.
Here displays of period farm equipment from every era educate visitors about the Garden State’s many important but little-known contributions to modern food cultivation.
The club-like museum also hosts a variety of activities for members and the general public. For those wanting to learn blacksmithing, pottery-making, musical instrument playing with a group for the first time, or just learning about obscure New Jersey history, this Lambertville landmark is the place to go.
The main exhibits are housed in the restored three-story bank barn built into the hillside to make floors accessible from ground level.
Here visitors can view tools and equipment used to raise and harvest crops and raise livestock, tractors from different eras, and common 19th-century household items that teach visitors about domestic chores, the preparation and preservation of food, and the making of clothing.
There is also a pottery studio, an herb garden run by the Delaware Valley unit of the Herb Society of America, and bluegrass jam sessions held the third Sunday of every month through the summer.
The oldest house on the property is believed to have been built in 1711 by John Wey and sold to John Holcombe in 1742. According to Holcombe’s will, the museum property was once part of his “Plantation.”
The property was donated in 1968 to the Hunterdon County Historical Association by his descendents, Milo and Rachel Jimison, who retained life rights.
But when Milo Jimison died in 1984 the property was deeded to the Holcombe-Jimison Farmstead, Inc.
The nonprofit foundation is run by an unpaid board of 12 trustees who maintain the property and restore the exhibits and equipment.
This museum’s general funding comes from membership dues, donations from visitors, and local business sponsorships. There is no government funding.
Combining the above with grants from small foundations, individual donations, and a substantial gift from philanthropist Colonel James Van Horn, the museum’s volunteers and trustees have restored the property and added several small buildings for the general store, post office, a working blacksmith shop, print shop, and a typical farm workshop.
As demonstrated by the museum, New Jersey has a rich agricultural history. At one point, Hunterdon was the third largest egg producer in the United States.
Museum president Randy Niederer says the reason was a 1930s-era program set up to help Jewish refugees who were escaping the Nazis in Europe. “Following World War I and leading up to World War II, the worldwide Jewish society was trying to save their people from Hitler, and they would send many families over to this country. They were called DPs, or displaced persons, and they were given a certain amount of land, a house, and a chicken coop, and they went in the chicken business, producing eggs and meat birds.
“And of course the great markets for eggs and chicken were New York and Philadelphia. New Jersey was sandwiched right in between, and that is also one of the reasons why New Jersey was called the Garden State — because many small farms produced what they called ‘produce.’ And the farms were called ‘truck farms’ because produce was harvested, loaded on the truck, and then driven to the market in the cities.”
Niederer, now retired, used to be the superintendent of the Riverview Cemetery in Trenton, the oldest cemetery in Trenton, and serves as secretary on the board of directors of the New Jersey Cemetery Association.
The Niederers have been in agriculture for more than 100 years in the central New Jersey area, so Randy was always interested in history. The Titusville native also has an affinity for antique cars and antique farm equipment. “It’s my agricultural heritage, and before I was a member here, whenever they had something like their open house or some special activity, I would bring my car and show it.” He had two antique Model T Fords, a 1913 Brass Radiator Touring and a 1922 Roadster.
His grandfather Otto Niederer invented the first successful, marketable egg grading machine in the 1930s, the Eggomatic. An early version of the machine, which automatically sorts eggs by weight, is on display on the second floor of the barn, in the 20th-century poultry exhibit.
Niederer gives demonstrations of the machine that he loans to the museum. The exhibit also has examples of poultry-raising equipment of the era, such as nesting boxes and cages.
One display of particular interest is a large statue of Mr. Famous. The bowtie-clad rooster was the mascot for the Flemington Auction Market Co-Operative Association, the first egg auction cooperative established in the United States. The statue was displayed at parades throughout the 1950s.
Next to the poultry exhibit sits a display of an early 20th-century doctor/dentist office. Morris Leaver, whose belongings are on display, was an accomplished man who kept the practice until his death at age 82 in 1954.
A doctor and a dentist in Quakertown, New Jersey, Leaver also managed a farm. He was also an instructor and leader of the local brass band and president of the local telephone company.
In addition to his dental chair and an assortment of medicine bottles, the display also contains the telephone company switch board that he was in charge of. One particularly morbid curiosity also on display is a plaster death mask of his premature infant daughter, who died shortly after birth in the early 1900s. The practice of making such masks was common in the days before photography.
Volunteer Wayne Witowsky, a master locksmith with years of experience in machining and welding, maintains and repairs metal parts for the museum’s farm equipment in the blacksmith shop. Here visitors learn to make hooks, flower pot hangers, or roasting forks, used to roast foods like hot dogs or marshmallows over a campfire, or just purchase ones already made by volunteers.
While the museum doesn’t offer official classes, Witowsky is available to teach visitors whatever they want to know. “If you’re here and you want to spend the time, you will learn something. And it might be more than blacksmithing,” he says.
Witowsky says he is willing to help visitors in any way he can with blacksmithing projects or anything else related to his areas of expertise. He taught one young volunteer how to solder with an electric soldering iron and helped a woman build a shelf that involved blacksmithed parts.
Originally from Springfield, New Jersey, Witowsky got involved with the museum six years ago after retiring from his job at a power station. “I came down here just to look at the blacksmith shop, and I got to know the people and got involved with the museum,” he says. “It’s a good place to learn, and you do meet a lot of good people here.”
The museum is maintained by caretakers Phil and Sue Thatcher, who live in an apartment on the property as rent-paying tenants. They arrived in March, 2018. They were looking for a place to live at the time, and one of their friends who was on the board of trustees for the museum let them know about the opportunity. “It’s a great place to be,” Sue says.
When the museum is closed, the couple is responsible for basic maintenance tasks such as mowing the grass, picking up sticks, keeping the geese under control, and clearing snow off the sidewalks in the winter.
Sue, who by day works as a medical assistant at a doctor’s office, also runs the museum’s pottery studio. She started doing ceramics in 2013 as a hobby. “It’s something that always interested me from when I was a lot younger. I finally had the opportunity to try it,” she says.
She takes classes in Flemington at Kissimmee River Pottery studio with John Fulwood and makes bowls, cups, jugs, and jewelry using a throwing wheel and other techniques. She does demonstrations when the museum is open, and the items she makes are available for sale, with the museum getting a percentage for allowing her to produce the items there.
Phil, 63, works full-time doing ground maintenance in Flemington, where he is originally from. Having played bluegrass music as a hobby for 45 years, he thought it would be a good way to draw more visitors. He hosts informal monthly jam sessions where musicians of any skill level can come and play music with him and other volunteers and visitors.
Phil plays guitar, and other musicians typically play guitar, banjo, or mandolin. They bill it as a bluegrass event, but they also like a lot of ’70s-era pop and folk music and are willing to try any type of music that a visitor wants to hear or play. Visitors are given sheet music for a collection of songs that the group regularly plays.
Phil, whose father worked at a State of New Jersey inspection station and his mother worked for the school district, says he started playing cello and trombone in high school but also had a bluegrass band at the time. He was in a group that played one Sunday a month on the Black Western Train between Flemington and Ringoes. “It was just for free. It was just for the fun of it,” he says. He adds that he has been in two other bluegrass bands over the years.
Phil and Sue have two sons, ages 40 and 37, who live in the area and visit the museum often.
“My wife and I are very much into what this is about and what they have here. We’ve always had a very low-key lifestyle. It’s down-to-earth, very simple and plain. We visited here years ago and were very impressed with all the things that they have here, the way it’s set up, the way it’s done. It’s all volunteer. I wanted to volunteer at that time, but raising two sons and working full time, it worked out for us to be able to do it now because I do live here.”
Holcombe Jimison Farmstead Museum, 1605 Daniel Bray Highway (Route 29), Lambertville. 609-397-2752. Open May through the last weekend in October, Sundays 1 to 4 p.m. and Wednesdays 9 a.m. to noon. $5 suggested donation. For more information: 609-397-2752 or www.holcombe-jimison.org.
For more information about the jam sessions or to RSVP — recommended if you’d like to play with the group — email Phil Thatcher at firstname.lastname@example.org. Jam sessions are held from May to October on the third Sunday of the month from 1 to 4 p.m.