Duke Farms, in Hillsborough, Somerset County, marked its 114th year with a $45 million transformation that turned the sprawling landscaped gentry-farm created by a tobacco tycoon — and home to the world’s richest socialite, Doris Duke — into a 2,740-acre home to a diverse variety of plants, wildlife, and environmental initiatives. As the advertising for one cigarette used to say, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”
While not royalty in the traditional sense, the Dukes were rich enough to live like royalty. The founder of the farmstead was James Buchanan Duke, born in 1856 and one of the sons of the W. Duke, Sons and Company, in North Carolina’s tobacco country.
J.B — or Buck — Duke (that’s him above with daughter Doris) excelled in product marketing and production and was a pioneer in using mechanization to produce cigarettes. In the 1880s he moved to New York City to promote tobacco retailing, increased his family’s organization’s fortunes, and established the American Tobacco Company in New Jersey, where he found more favorable terms to incorporate.
By the end of the 19th century, his company was a world leader and he was one of the wealthiest men in the nation.
J.B. followed his accumulation of wealth with an accumulation of more than 2,000 acres of farm land along or near the Raritan River in New Jersey. He employed $10 million of his fortune — and the assistance of some of the nation’s leading architects and landscape designers (including a member of Frederick Law Olmsted’s company) — to create the fabled estate that featured sculpted hills, nine man-made lakes, scenic meadows, 35 ornamental fountains, woodlands, 54 bridges, 10 waterfalls, gardens, greenhouses, an electrical-power plant, several miles of stone walls, and more than 2 million planted trees (including several thousand imported from Europe). It’s been called the largest privately owned tract of land in New Jersey.
With an egalitarian gesture, Duke opened his emerging estate to the public to enjoy the grounds and horticulture greenhouses in 1899. Vandalism, however, would halt the practice 16 years later. The estate was hidden from public view for nearly 50 years.
In 1912 he had his only child, Doris Duke, who inherited most of her father’s $300 million estate when he died in 1924. Other portions of J.B. Duke’s fortune were placed in endowments to support various interests, including Trinity College in North Carolina, now Duke University.
Doris Duke, as one writer observed, “traveled the globe, accompanied by an ever-changing entourage of husbands, lovers, and hangers-on, but few real friends. Educated in some of the best boarding schools, Doris spoke nine languages and was twice married, the second time, for just one year, to an infamous playboy from the Dominican Republic. Among her follies was Doris’s questionable adoption, at age 75, of a 35-year-old dancer she had grown close to spiritually and artistically. This ‘friend’ was eventually disinherited when Doris decided that she, too, was no more than another gold-digger out to gain a slice of her fortune.”
Duke also developed an interest in orchids, horticulture, agriculture, environmental issues, and a philanthropic spirit. In 1958 she and the Horticultural Society of New York transformed one of her estate conservatories into the “Garden of Nations,” an elaborate display featuring 11 garden and thousands of plants that represent different countries or global regions. Duke reopened the estate in 1964 for the public to visit the exhibition. Portion of the grounds continued to be open for decades.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s Doris Duke purchased surrounding property and participated in farm conservation projects.
In 1993, Doris Duke died from a morphine overdose at the age of 80, with a criminal investigation following to determine if her doctors and butler had murdered her. The butler had been named co-executor and was accused of squandering estate money and questionable behavior.
Despite the intrigue and controversy, Duke’s last will and testament clearly stipulated that her estate become the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and that her farm be used “to protect endangered species of all kinds, both flora and fauna . . . and for agricultural and horticultural purposes, including research.” The farm became a foundation of its own in 1998.
In order to make the benefactor’s wishes a reality, 200 acres of the farm opened for tours in 2003; however, three years later the Duke Farm Foundation board of directors decided that the farm should “be a model of environmental stewardship and to inspire visitors to become informed stewards of the land.”
A 1,000-acre portion of the estate reopened last year to show that vision. Today’s visitors — in addition to enjoying 18 miles of hiking trails and 12 miles of bicycle paths — have the opportunity to learn about and experience current trends in environmental initiatives.
The latter includes active research that explores agriculture practices that support both farming and native bird species, removal of invasive species, and restoration of native grasslands and wildflower populations.
Interactive exhibitions and displays share additional information, and restored or new facilities adhere to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards and put theory into practice.
Visitors, however, may be most satisfied by having the opportunity to explore New Jersey and America’s past through encounters with the architectural and landscape elements that span a century. They includes the Orchid Range greenhouse, the first ornamental building constructed on the property, designed circa 1903 to house palms, potted trees, ferns, and orchids; the abandoned Hay Barn, an outdoor sculpture gallery initiated by Doris Duke; and the mansion foundation, another abandoned property that overlooks the centerpiece of the farm’s habitat regeneration efforts, the Great Meadow.
Duke Farms is open every day from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., except Wednesdays, Thanksgiving, and Christmas Day. Admission is free. There are no formal tours, and Doris Duke’s residence is not open. Tram transportation is available from April 1 to December 1. A cafe is on the premises. More information is available at www.dukefarms.org.
Just one word of warning: Duke Farms is a smoke free environment. Now that is a green transformation.