Corrections or additions?

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

visitors’ center.

"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.

Next Story

Corrections or additions?

This page is published by

— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.

Facebook Comments