Historic gardens and kitchens are story tellers that recount tales of people centuries ago, of the food they grew and used for nourishment and medicine, of the food servers and of the served, and volumes more. Just ask Charlie Thomforde, the historical horticulturist who tends the Trent House garden. “How people expected to obtain food was part of their worldview,” Thomforde says about the house’s past inhabitants — whose traces seem waiting to speak.
Two upcoming events that celebrate the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the 1719 William Trent House Museum — the house located at 15 Market Street in Trenton was completed in 1719 — will help keep the past talking.
On Saturday, October 18, the Trent House Association (THA) is throwing a lawn party. Trenton mayor Eric E. Jackson and his wife, Deniece Johnson-Jackson, will be present as honorary chairpersons, and the event will be catered by Trenton Social. The $60 per person event is a fundraiser to help the organization maintain its tours and education programs.
Leading up to the party is a free public event: the opening of an archeological dig on Saturday, October 4. The main subject of the dig is a kitchen that had been torn down during renovations in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Built at the request of Governor Lewis Morris while leasing the Trent House from 1742 to 1746, the kitchen had a connecting gangway to the main house. The first floor of the kitchen provided the space where meals were prepared, and the second floor provided lodging for servants and slaves. Today, a century later, an anonymous person has funded an archeological dig in hopes of pinpointing the kitchen’s location and finding artifacts of the people who once worked and lived on the Trent property.
Archeologists from Hunter Research of Trenton say they also hope to pinpoint the original location of Trent’s well. In the process of their research, they might also come upon artifacts from pre-contact Native Americans.
For Thomforde, who grew up in Rome, Italy, the past is more integrated with the present than many people would think.
“Perhaps it was growing up in Italy that made me feel that the past is not all that distant,” Thomforde says. “Italy is a country where people refer to events and people of 700 years ago or 1,700 years ago as if they had heard about them from an elderly neighbor whose grandparents had lived at that time.
“There is a casual appreciation for the past that we don’t have here — a willingness to allow old things, landscapes and practices to persist. In America we value the new — but the unfortunate byproduct is that many people have a casual contempt for the past. New is good, old is bad. So we lose touch with how things used to be. A place like Trent House may allow people to reconnect.”
In Trent’s time meals were prepared in the family home in a basement kitchen. Thomforde says there are not adequate records to prove what vegetables were used in his household, but some of the common crops would have included cabbages, turnips, onions, and sweet potatoes, as well as lettuces, spinach, radishes, and other vegetables. Plants were grown and used for medicine, hygiene, and flavorings.
A few popular plants and herbs used for medicinal purposes include lemon balm, which, among other uses, was steeped in ale to calm “sudden qualms or passions of the heart.” Other plants include lavender, added to soaps and used as an air freshener and as a treatment for 43 different ailments; horseradish, used to reduce swelling and pain; and valerian, used as a sedative.
The current garden, says Thomforde, is the result of planning and hands-on work from Trent House educator Kathy McFadden and docent Walter Ritter around 2003. More recently Mercer County Community College students planted vegetables. While the garden that Thomforde tends today is less than one tenth of an acre, a fraction of the size it probably would have been in Trent’s day — two to six acres or more — it is no less productive. This season the garden produced more than 50 types of vegetables and herbs.
Among the crops are the familiar fare like lettuce, potatoes, squash, and carrots. But some less familiar plants include Good King Henry, similar to spinach but milder; tansy, a plant that is used for flavoring or for medicinal purposes, especially digestive tract problems; and elecampane, also known as wild sunflower, used for skin problems for horses, said to be a remedy for asthma and coughs for humans, and — in early American folklore — said to protect one from witches.
While the garden has its roots in history, it is also something that contributes to today. This past August, with help from THA director Samantha Luft, the garden donated produce to local nonprofit groups, including the Crisis Ministry of Mercer County’s food pantry, which received 79 pounds of vegetables. The Trent House often teams up with Master Gardeners of Mercer County, a group of trained volunteers who provide horticultural programs to local communities. School and camp groups come to the Trent House garden and learn about growing and harvesting vegetables and preparing recipes, including pickling cucumbers and dehydrating fruit. “Kids love to discover vegetables hidden under their leaves … and they get a chance to see where their food comes from,” Thomforde says.
Thomforde adds that the historic registry landmark house also serves the community as a place where children and adults can learn about 18th-century living and about the city’s roots.
Recently appointed Trent House Association trustee Ali Wilson, an executive with Zurich Insurance, agrees and says that he would like to see more school children visit the property and learn about the city’s history. “The Trent House tells us a lot about Trenton, the good, the bad, and otherwise,” says Wilson, an African-American who grew up in Trenton and lives here today with his wife and three daughters.
Wilson, who earned a jurus doctor degree from Washington & Lee University School of Law in Virginia, and a bachelor’s degree from Middlebury College in Vermont, joined the THA this spring.
Acknowledging that Trent owned and even traded slaves, Wilson sees the property as a place where people can come together and talk about the roles that people of diverse backgrounds played in shaping the city.
There could be some people living in Trenton who are descendants of slaves and not even know it, he says. We can celebrate the fact that men and women who were brought to New Jersey contributed to the growth of the city as well as individual households like the Trent House. Their descendants are still here today and thriving. Maybe the Trent House could be a place to open dialogue, Wilson says.
Looking past the era of William Trent, Wilson wants children to appreciate the city’s contributing to the rest of the country. “After all,” he says, “if it weren’t for Washington’s victory at the battle of Trenton, we might still be a British colony.”
Whether William Trent would have sided with the Americans or the British had he been living during the revolution is not known. Decades after his death, his house would be used first by Hessians who would eventually be expelled, and then used by American patriots as a supply depot for Washington’s army.
Trent had emigrated from Scotland to Philadelphia in about 1693. He became a successful merchant and prospered from trade with Great Britain. In 1714 William Trent acquired 800 acres of land in New Jersey and began to build his grand home (Trent’s house) overlooking the Delaware, finishing it in 1719. In 1720, Trent laid out a settlement, which he incorporated and named Trent-Towne (later shorted to Trenton). In addition to his business success, he also did well in politics, becoming a member of the state assembly and a resident chief justice.
On Christmas Day, 1724, William Trent died suddenly from what might have been a stroke. After his death Trent’s house was sold and would be home for several owners and tenants over time, including Governor Lewis Morris for whom the kitchen — the main focus of the dig — was built in the mid 1740s.
The last private owner was Edward A. Stokes who donated the house to the city of Trenton with the stipulations that the house would be restored to its original early 18th-century appearance and that it be used as a library, art gallery, or museum.
While the Trent House is owned by the by the city, today the public educational programs are made possible by the trustees and individual volunteers and groups. Most of the staff had been let go in 2009 when funding was cut by former Mayor Tony Mack’s administration, says THA president Carolyn Stetson.
This year the association has held two main fundraising events in celebration of the 75th anniversary: an ice cream social in June, and recently a presentation by Peter Hatch, director emeritus of gardens and grounds at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and author of “A Rich Spot of Earth.”
Stetson is hoping to hold new events at the Trent House during Patriots Week between Christmas and New Year. The educational garden programs exist thanks to volunteers like the Masters Gardeners and Thomforde.
Thomforde, who lives in Yardley, Pennsylvania, with his family, came to the Trent House with several years of experience starting from his childhood. During his early years he lived on a farm with his parents in Chester County. Later his father, a farmer who became an agricultural advisor, took an international job that took the family first to Iran and then to Rome, the headquarters of the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN, and the city where Thomforde went to middle and high school.
He came to the U.S. for college and graduate school, earning a bachelor’s degree in biology from Swarthmore College and a master’s degree in public horticulture administration from the University of Delaware. Thomforde is the former historical horticulturist of Pennsbury Manor. Today he volunteers for the Trent House, works as an adjunct instructor at Mercer County Community College, and gives lectures throughout Mercer and Bucks counties.
When the archeological dig presentation takes place October 4, the researchers will talk about the treasures they hope to unearth, remnants of the kitchen and the well, tools, and personal belongs. Thomforde is curious about what they might find, but right now he is preparing to unearth treasures of a different kind: beets, kale, radishes, and lettuce.
House and Garden tours, 1719 William Trent House Museum, 15 Market Street, Trenton. Wednesday through Sunday, 12:30 to 4 p.m. and by appointment for school and group tours. $4-$5.
Dig Opening. Saturday, October 4, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Free. 609-989-3027 or www.williamtrenthouse.org.
Trent House Association 75th Anniversary Party, Saturday, October 18, 4 to 7 p.m. $60. Advance purchase required. 609-989-0087 or www.williamtrenthouse.org.