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This article by Euna Kwon Brossman was prepared for the April 20,
2005 issue of U.S. 1
Newspaper. All rights reserved.
History on the Hoof
‘Swing your partner and steal a kiss. Sleigh bells and up before dawn,
fragrance of mint as you herd the cows up from the meadow with the sun
stealing across the Delaware. And church. And spring again. Now, what
else can you think of?" So challenged Inez Howe Howell in a 1974
letter when she donated her 130-acre farm to Mercer County in honor of
her husband, former Congressman Charles R. Howell. Her vision for a
living history farm would capture a way of life that otherwise could
be lost forever, a time capsule that would transport visitors to
turn-of-the-century Pleasant Valley, New Jersey, two miles south of
Included as a centerpiece of her vision was the barn, the community
gathering place of the time, a place where farmers and their families
gathered for threshings, huskings, and quilting bees. "And the barn,"
she wrote, "the rugged old individualist, pigeons in its belfry and
bats too and barn swallows swooping in and out. Because life lives on
other life. Wooden plough and oxen, treasured manure, sowing and
reaping. Harvest Home and fiddling."
Her dream of the barn as the vibrant center of community life, a place
of celebration, tradition, and even romance, is about to come to
fruition with an old-fashioned barn raising that will restore an
historic Mercer County barn on the grounds of the Howell Living
History Farm, a facility of the Mercer County Park Commission. The
five-bay oak frame barn will stand over 41 feet tall and will add
almost 2,000 square feet to the farm’s Visitor Center, the first phase
of which was completed in 2003.
"It’s going to be the gateway into a living history experience that
some 60,000 visitors enjoy every year," says Pete Watson, the farm
administrator. "It will be the heart and soul of the visitors’ center
and the main reception hall for thousands of visiting schoolchildren.
It’s going to be a grand entry to a wonderful park and will help us do
our jobs as interpreters of Mercer County’s history."
Watson admits indoor space has always been tight, especially for
events such as the annual fiddling contest that normally takes place
in August, often at the mercy of cooperative skies. "Husking bees and
celebration, food and dance, what Inez Howell envisioned, that’s
exactly what we would love to happen in this barn," says Watson. While
he says "we’re not going to thresh wheat inside" he doesn’t rule out
the possibility of such celebratory events as weddings, all in a place
that has the additional value of presenting local history.
According to Watson, the barn is a 19th century English-style
structure that once stood on Federal City Road. It was built in 1850
and owned in 1864 by Charles Fish of Hopewell. Mercer County acquired
the barn in the mid-1990s and that’s when the first discussions about
moving the barn to Howell Farm took place. But the structure was in
such a state of disrepair, it was sold to the New Jersey Barn Company,
a Ringoes-based firm that specializes in dismantling, restoring, and
re-erecting antique barn frames. Just last year, the idea of moving
the barn to the farm was reborn with a proposal to use it for the
"It’s especially interesting that we were able to find an
English-style Mercer County barn, almost a carbon copy of the one that
is on the historic part of the farm," says Watson. "We were aware of
the precedent of using existing historical barns to build visitors’
centers. This will allow us to introduce people to the concept of
barns, how they were built, and why they were built the way they
Promising a "once in a lifetime experience," the farm is inviting the
public to help raise the barn on Saturday, May 14. It will be an
old-fashioned event, turning back the clock to use techniques true to
the time. The barn will be constructed from six sections called bents.
One bent will be attached to the existing part of the visitors’
center, but the remaining five bents will be raised with poles, a
technique that was used at the turn of the century. Each bent can be
raised by a crew of 35 people, but can also involve up to 75 people.
The barn-raising is the culmination of a series of preparatory events
that started in February with Logging Day, an opportunity for the
public to fell and haul trees from the farm’s woodlot. The series of
public programs and workshops has also included a chance to roll up
the sleeves and cut posts, beams, rafters, and shingles with a
Thanks to the "BarnPegs" project funded by the Friends of Howell Farm
and a grant from the History Channel’s "Save Our History" program,
local schoolchildren have been invited to make and sign oak pegs.
While many will be invited to take them home, some of those pegs will
actually be used to hold the barn frame together. The children will
write their names in ink, which will then be burned into the wood to
make a permanent marker. Since many of the pegs will be placed up high
where they can’t be seen, there will be a diagram of the barn with the
location of each peg with each name, so that years from now, those
same schoolchildren can bring their children and grandchildren and
tell them what they did to help raise the barn. The Timber Framing and
Blacksmithing Workshops will take place on Saturday, April 30.
The visitors’ center is a capital building project of Mercer County.
The barn’s frame will cost $106,000. That includes materials and the
know-how provided by the New Jersey Barn Company. The contracts to
build the rest of the structure, including siding, roofing, windows,
air conditioning and the like, will be put out for bid this summer.
Of special consideration for restoration are the three distinctive
cupolas on top. When the barn was standing on Federal City Road, they
were used to let air circulate to avoid barn fires that were often
caused by baled hay overheating. These will be decorative and Watson
guesses it will cost as much as $30,000 to make them. Only one
survived when they were taken down at the Fish farm and that one will
be restored. The other two will be re-made from scratch using the
first as a model.
The Friends of Howell Farm will pick up the tab for the cupolas. The
group has been instrumental in helping the county with research and
restoration type projects not funded through the annual operating
budget. An annual family membership costs $35. The group has about 400
members throughout the greater Mercer area who help supplement county
funds. The farm is also fueled by volunteer support. "According to one
table, the average value of volunteer work is about $17 an hour. When
you do the math with the number of high school students, college
students and community members who come out to help us every year,
that gives us an additional quarter-of-a million dollars in
contributed value," says Watson. "That’s an impressive show of
support." The farm does generate revenue in accordance with
turn-of-the-century techniques and economic scale, but nobody farms
this way anymore, according to Watson. "It’s simply too expensive.
Today’s farmers have to be specialized in order to make a profit."
The barn will be a welcome addition to the existing structures. The
farmhouse, the Henry Phillips barn built in 1840, the wagon house and
corn crib are original to the site. The ice house was restored by the
Friends of Howell Farm in 1991 on its original foundation. Other
buildings, such as the chicken house and the sheep barn, were
reconstructed to complete the portrait of the typical,
turn-of-the-20th century farm.
The Howell Living History Farm is one of three living history farms in
the state. The Historic Longstreet Farm is part of the Monmouth County
Park system and the Fosterfields Living Historical Farm is located in
Morristown, in northern New Jersey. The brochure for Howell Farm
invites visitors to join in whatever work and fun is at hand, "whether
it’s cutting ice off a frozen pond, shearing a sheep, planting
potatoes, or making a batch of home-made ice cream." Busloads of
schoolchildren come every year to experience farm life.
Even Hollywood recognized the authenticity of the way of life captured
by the farm. In preparation for the making of the M. Night Shyamalan
movie, "The Village," released in the summer of 2004, the Howell Farm
served as a boot-camp for actors Joaquin Phoenix, William Hurt, and
Sigourney Weaver. Set in 1897, it’s the story of a close-knit
community that lives with the frightening knowledge that a mythical
race of creatures resides in the woods around them. For the actors, it
was a total immersion into the lifestyle of a working farm, and while
they may have been Hollywood stars, they were treated the same as any
volunteer, plowing fields, fixing fences, trimming sheep hooves, and
making animal feed.
Phoenix and Hurt put up a section of the "snake" fence, sometimes
called a "split-rail fence." Farmer Mike Ancona trained Weaver on the
plow. "She watched me do one row and said she was ready. She jumped
right into it," he says.
Ironically, the very charm of Howell Farm, listed on the New Jersey
State and National Registers of Historic Places, is in its
ordinariness, according to Watson, who points out that the history
that it preserves is as common as it gets, that George Washington
never slept here, that nothing was invented here, and that
archaeologists are not looking for ancient bones onsite.
And yet, in its portrayal of a typical, circa-1900 farm of the area,
it is a treasure, Watson writes, because the farming system and the
lifestyle it preserves is an American classic. "Here is a place that
preserves the type of agriculture that fed a nation for over a
century, and that holds seeds, breeds, technology, and ideas that can
and are being used today by scientists, researchers, and farmers who
are working to feed our world’s growing population."
On this day a tractor hums as it digs drainage along Dry Run Creek,
swollen from recent rains. Such modern tools and techniques are used
where safety is concerned, and that includes using today’s veterinary
methods for the farm animals. But in other areas where discretion can
be used, they try to remain true to the history of the time.
In fact, the organic farm movement of today is founded on the
principles of turn-of-the-century farming, says Watson, because they
worked. These techniques include the use of animal manure and crop
rotations. By the years 1890-1910, the time period that the farm
encapsulates, most farmers had already moved from oxen to horses. But
at the Howell Farm, there is a yoke of oxen used to train people in
the Peace Corps who work in countries where the agriculture is still
largely driven by animal power. "It gives our own history an added
value," says Watson. "We’ve helped train over 100 people here for
roles in international agriculture."
International agriculture is something Watson knows something about.
It’s work he did as a member of the Peace Corps and an expertise he
brought with him when he came to the Howell Farm in 1983. With his
roughhewn clothes, short-cropped beard, and twinkling eyes, Watson
looks the role of the turn-of-the-century farmer. He actually lives in
Summit, with his wife, Mary, a children’s book author and illustrator.
They met in 1978 when she did the illustrations for a technical manual
he was writing for the Peace Corps. She now lends her artistic talent
to design graphics and exhibits for Howell Farm. They have two sons,
Kevin, who is 15, and Harry, who is nine. Watson also has two grown
sons, Winston, 30, and Ryan, 27.
As the farm administrator, Watson is charged with keeping the farm on
track, making sure that the operations are affordable, and that the
programs are in the general interest of the schools and the kids. He
is the rainmaker, drumming up extra support, money, and publicity.
He’ll also play the role of the farmer, sometimes getting out on the
wagon to drive and getting out in the field to plow.
Watson was raised in Livingston, New Jersey, in a house built in a
development on the site of Beckers Dairy Farm. "So his cows were
always getting loose and getting in the neighborhood, and it was so
New Jersey in the sense that we got to be on and around that farm. I
remember running around the pigsty and the chicken house. I knew that
it felt normal to climb a fence and try to ride a cow though we were
not all that successful. We were small and they were tall." As a child
Watson witnessed the story that’s been repeated around the state and
is still happening today: farmland being converted to housing, long
tracts of homes where corn and potatoes once grew. "I was part of that
generation that saw the beginning of the end of a lot of different
His family moved to Illinois and he graduated from Glenbrook North
High School in Northbrook. He studied English and education at
Lawrence University in Wisconsin, Class of 1970, and then went into
the Peace Corps. "I was supposed to be a teacher of English as a
second language and was heading to West Africa to teach ESL. They
needed some people who had large animal experience in the agricultural
extension program. Since I had spent summers at the Watchung Stables
in Summit shoveling out horse stalls, I qualified. I received a crash
course in breaking and training oxen for use in small farm
Watson did that for four years and learned to appreciate the farming
techniques used by the African farmers, techniques that were centuries
old. "They were multi-talented in the same way our ancestors were.
They knew how to farm, how to build houses. They produced everything
they needed. They found medicines in the woods. It was nice to be
around a culture that did all that. It gave me a connection to the
land and reinforced my earlier interest in agriculture."
Watson did research on farming techniques, focusing on yokes and
harnesses in U.S. history that could also be used in animal traction
projects in places like Asia, Africa, and South America. "In the
course of doing that research, I realized that living history farms in
the U.S. were wonderful resources. And because my parents were back in
New Jersey, I would see them between my travels, and I became aware of
how many farms there were."
In 1983 Watson took what was supposed to be a short-term job at the
Howell Farm to learn more about horse-powered farm technology from
some of the older farmers in the area. He began as a part-time
assistant to one of the farmers. One year later, he was asked to fill
in when the farm administrator left. The rest, as they say, is
history. Watson has been farm administrator for 22 years and has
helped nurture and grow the program that has made the Howell Farm a
living historical legacy.
Listen, calls one of the workers, there’s a woodpecker nearby, and if
you’re quiet, you’ll hear him. This is the season when spring is in
its full, verdant glory, with daffodils nodding on the hill and the
grass emerald with the heavy rains of April. Molly the cow is 15 years
old, too old for calving or milking, but queen nonetheless, a fixture
planted comfortably in the center of the field, with the new lambs
gamboling around – 17 spring lambs born before Easter. There are 19
ewes, nine workhorses, pigs, and an assortment of milk goats, domestic
ducks, geese and a flock of chickens.
Maggie and Millie are the farm dogs that keep the geese and deer out
of the crops. In the barn a cat lazes about in a patch of sunlight,
looking for all the world like she’s laid the egg that rests nearby. A
farmer, one of the six full-time and ten part-time or seasonal
employees, plows the field for potatoes that will be planted later
this month. The oats and clover are already in, the corn will be
planted in May, and the wheat and rye that were planted last fall will
be harvested in July.
Inez and Charles Howell did not leave any direct living descendants,
nor did they realize their dream of living out their old age on the
farm. "I am giving the farm in memory of Charley," she wrote, "to be
used as a living history farm, perhaps, where the way of living could
actually be tried by visitors, especially children." Today, thanks to
her generosity and vision, her dream lives on, with generations of
families and children traveling back in time to experience the farm
life she loved so much as a child herself.
Howell Living History Farm is on Valley Road, just off of Route 29,
seven miles north of I-95. On Barn Raising Day – Saturday, May 14, 10
a.m. to 4 p.m. – the barn frame will be assembled and raised, and
there will be food, music, and crafts. Free. 609-737-3299
Potato Planting. Volunteers can help plant a crop of potatoes to be
donated to the Greater Mercer Food Coop. Join the crew any time to
plant seed potatoes in furrows opened with horsedrawn equipment.
Saturday, April 23, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Logs to Lumber. Sawn timbers are shaped into barn frame components.
Also a blacksmithing workshop. Saturday, April 30, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Shear Fun. Herding demonstrations with border collies. Also
sheepshearing, wool crafts, and meet the newborn lambs. Saturday, May
7, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Corn Planting. demonstration and seminar. Children help with corn seed
selection, fertilizing, and planting. They can grind and sift cornmeal
for baking and sample freshly made cornbread. Saturday, May 21, 10
a.m. to 4 p.m.
Hayrides. Free horsedrawn hayrides leave every 20 minutes. Saturday,
May 28, 10 a.m.
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