Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Howell Living History Farm: Farming in Pleasant Valley

Howell Living History Farm: Farming in Pleasant Valley
Written by NJ Historian

A short distance from the Delaware River in Mercer County is a lush valley with rolling hills, gentle slopes, and babbling brooks known historically as Pleasant Valley. Coming from Route 29, the two-lane country road leading to the valley is lined with farms, barns, split-rail fences, and an abundance of wheat, corn, and other farm products. With an agricultural history dating over 200 years, Pleasant Valley and Howell Living History Farm transports visitors to a time when local farmers hoped for rain (but not too much), a good summer harvest, and the most favorable market conditions in order to keep the farm, animals, and his family sustained through the winter, right before the next spring season.



Pleasant Valley is an agricultural oasis located east of the Delaware River and south of the Sourland Mountain ridge, about twelve miles north of Trenton. Before Route 29 was carved out along the rocky cliffs of the Delaware River near the border of Mercer and Hunterdon Counties and before railroads and canals existed, roads were carved out along a more gentle slope to the east, passing by acres of luscious forest, meadows, and pastures. As early as 1732, a man by the name of Joseph Phillips, a carpenter by trade from Maidenhead, now Lawrenceville, New Jersey, purchased 125 acres of fertile land in Hopewell Township. In 1737, John Phillips, a blacksmith who was possibly related to Joseph Phillips, purchased the land. A home was most likely constructed near the present-day 1890 Pleasant Valley schoolhouse. John Phillips died in 1789 and the farm was acquired by his son Henry. Henry enlarged the property and his sons eventually built homes for their families in the Valley, of which the Birum House and possibly the stone section of the Howell Living Farm farmhouse was constructed during this period. The farm stayed in the Phillips family until 1860, when the 125 acre parcel was sold in Orphans Court to Charles Miller.

Charles Miller owned the farm for at least thirty-six years. During his ownership the pond, ice house, and corn crib were constructed. Miller lost the farm in 1896 at a Sheriff's sale for delinquent mortgage payments. It was purchased at the sale by Paul M. Tulane, of Trenton, who held the mortgage on the property since 1888. Tulane rented the farm to tenants. In 1901, the farm was purchased by blacksmith A. B. Coleman of Titusville, as an investment. Coleman rented the property to Alfred Rogers between 1902 and 1903, J. Hart Smith from 1905 to 1908, followed by Edwin Blackwell from Washington's Crossing for one year, and Wilson T. Leming in 1909.

The kitchen garden, wagon house, and equipment shed at Howell Living History Farm.
Wilson T. Leming rented the farm until he purchased it in 1913. He established a dairy farm and operated it as such until 1917. It was then owned and operated by his son James until 1920. In 1920, the farm was purchased by Xenophon Cromwell, who had previously rented the adjoining farm on Pleasant Valley Road. He and his son, Hart, operated the farm as a dairy farm. Xenophon passed away in 1939 and ownership was transferred to his son in 1940. Hart owned the farm until 1948. Hart made a number of improvements to the property and barns but only farmed until 1945. That year Hart rented the farm to  a couple from Ontario, Canada, Thomas and Lucy Tyler. The Tyler's raised a herd of dairy goats.

Hart Cromwell sold the farm in 1948 to John Sicak, who sold the property to Walter Suydam in 1949. Throughout the changes in ownership, the Tyler family continued to rent until 1953. Walter Suydam converted the farm back to a dairy cow business and became the last owner/operator of the farm.

In 1962, Charles and Inez Howell purchased the farm from Walter Suydam. They rented the property to a number of tenant farmers between 1962 and June of 1975. In 1974, shortly after Charles passed away, Inez donated the farm property in honor of her husband as a working farm where families could come together and spend the day learning about farm life, participating in farm chores, and experience what was once a common sight in New Jersey - the family farm. Since then, Mercer County has fulfilled Inez's wish and operates the farm as a teaching tool for students and families alike. Using old-fashioned tools and techniques, the farm operates as it would have over one hundred years ago.

The farmhouse at Howell Living History Farm.
Today, Howell Living History Farm is a pristine example of farm living between the years of 1890 and 1900. Set back from modern conveniences, visitors are transported back in time during their walk from the parking lot and visitor center to the farm itself. This enables visitors to take in their surroundings and momentarily leave the modern world behind as they walk along a dirt and gravel path, crossing a small stream by either fording it or walking across a wooden bridge, and then up along the lower pasture, filled with sheep. In the distance are barn-red buildings of many shapes and sizes, representing different needs and periods of construction.

The largest building at the farm is the Phillips Barn. The barn visible today was built in various sections between the 1840s and 1940s. The original sections of the barn were built by Henry Phillips. The sections were built to form an "L". One section was a three-bay English barn possibly used to house horses and livestock. The other section was also a three-bay English barn used for grain processing and storage. Architectural historians believe that around 1900 the cupola was added to the horse barn. In the 1920s, the void between the two adjoining sections was constructed to accommodate dairy cows and permitted movement between the barns without going outside. The 1940s saw more growth in the dairy business and necessitated the need for an expansion. An older barn frame moved from another farm in the area was attached to the end of the barn used for grain processing. A small shed was constructed along the edge of the moved barn to increase its width and two smaller additions were built to accommodate a milking parlor and a milk house. Today, the barn looks much like it did in the 1940s and is currently under restoration. 


The Phillips Barn at Howell Living History Farm.
The stone and frame farmhouse on the property was built over the course of many years, as additional space for growing families was needed. The original portion of the farmhouse dates to circa 1800 and was built by the Phillips family. This three-bay, two story home suited the family until 1830 when a two-story, three-bay frame addition was built on the eastern side of the home. This addition in effect added what seems like a second home to the original space. Looking singularly at this addition, it was a side-hall plan. But when combined with the existing stone structure, it created a home with a center hall plan. In July of 1860, the Miller family enlarged the home. Structural evidence demonstrates that a small, two-story structure from some nearby location was moved to the farm and set against the north side of their house (rear). This section of the house would eventually be turned into a kitchen. During restoration in June of 2010, historians discovered a filled-in window frame that was covered over when the rear addition was attached. The plaster-covered framing contained historic "graffiti" and offered some clues about the house's history. Written on it was the words, "Pennington, N.J." Charles Miller and his wife were closely associated with Pennington although it is not the nearest town and were buried in the Pennington Presbyterian Church Cemetery. In addition, lines from a poem published by Thomas Haynes Bayly in 1836 appeared, numerous names, and the date July 21, 1865, which is possibly the date when the two houses were combined or may represent another important, but undocumented event in the family's history.

The lines from Bayly's poem:
Yes, yes, of all this the remembrance will last 
Long after the present fades into the past.

Other outbuildings at the farm include:
  • A brooder, which is used to raise chickens, 
  • A sheep barn, which was moved to the site in 1981 from another local farm, replacing an earlier building on the property.
  • An ox barn. Oxen are used to move equipment around the farm and demonstrate animal power. While there is no evidence of oxen at this farm, oxen were kept at another farm on Hunter Road in the early 1900s.
  • A chicken house, which is a reproduction of a common design and is located near the site of the one that existed in 1900. 
  • A two-story wagon house dating to the mid-1800s. The upper floor was used for grain storage.
  • A corn crib designed to hold one year's worth of corn.
  • and an ice house, built during the mid-1800s, shortly after the man-made pond was constructed at the farm. The ice house is capable of holding about twenty-five tons of ice. The ice was probably used for shipping the farm's milk and milk products to market.
Howell Living History Farm carries on the ideals set forth by Inez Howell when she gifted the property to the people of Mercer County. Interns, volunteers, and farm employees operate the farm as it traditionally would have in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Traditional techniques such as hand-powered tools and animal power may seem out of the ordinary or inefficient in today's technologically advanced world, but at this farm, it's just another hard day's work that yields the bounties similar to those of our agriculturally-minded ancestors.


Additional photos of my trip to Howell Living History Farm on Pinterest


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