Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Last Farm Standing: Littell-Lord in Berkeley Heights, NJ

Last Farm Standing: Littell-Lord in Berkeley Heights, NJ

Sometimes being last is a blessing. For the Littell-Lord Farmstead in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, being the last standing farm in the community meant that if it was not saved, this suburban towns agrarian roots would be just a mere memory. Built prior to the American Revolution, this now eighteen acre property represents the last remaining vestige of a small agrarian complex that held out against the pressures of redevelopment and increasing suburbanization in the twentieth century.

The property in which the Littell-Lord farmhouse stands today was acquired in the mid-eighteenth century by Andrew Littell, a farmer and weaver by trade. Littell built a small home on the property, believed to be a three-room structure with a half-story loft above around 1760. The earliest available written record of a residence on  Andrew Littell's property is contained in the 1771 Road Records of Essex County. The home is also clearly marked on Simeon DeWitt's map, circa 1780. The loft would have originally been accessible by a ladder or winder staircase. A large corner fireplace (later removed) would have been the main source in this main keeping room. A lean-to kitchen with a large open hearth for cooking was built on the adjacent wall, sharing the same chimney. The open hearth was eventually bricked over and a wood burning stove was installed, but the outline of the original opening and arch can still be seen. There are future plans to restore the hearth and reopen the brick. A cellar was constructed under the main room of the home. Utilizing a natural spring that ran through the property a fieldstone and brick spring house was built. The spring feeds a pond on the property.

Andrew Littell, born in 1718, lived in this home with his wife Mary (1725-c. 1815) and their seven children. Of their children, Ephriam Littell is most notable. In May 1778, Ephraim left home to join the Continental Army. He served in the 2nd Regiment of Light Dragoons for at leas two years. Andrew died in 1790 and the property remained in the Littell family until 1817, when it was sold to John Tilyou, a farmer. Tilyou's grandson, Moses Frazee, inherited the property in 1840. In 1845, the property was purchased by James Bryson of Newark. In 1853, Egedius Vielbig purchased the home and surrounding property. Vielbig, who had lived in New York City, was part of the wave of German settlers who came to Berkeley Heights (then New Providence Township) during the middle of the nineteenth century. During these years the home was expanded to a third bay which allowed the construction of a side-hall staircase to the second floor, replacing the small, narrow staircase built adjacent to the lean-to kitchen.

One of the original rooms in the Littell-Lord Farmhouse, where the corner fireplace once existed.
In 1867, the property changed hands once again and was purchased by Mary Ann Townsend (Estes) Lord. Lord was a descendant of a prominent Massachusetts family. She was married to Charles Wait Lord. In addition to this property, they also had a home in Brooklyn, New York. Charles Lord was employed as a commission merchant in New York City and employed laborers to work on the farm, which was then called Spring Farm. Lord commuted daily to his job in New York City, a trend of many wealthy merchants and business owners who moved out to the "country" of northern New Jersey. He was able to commute to work daily on newly established rail lines from northern New Jersey to Jersey City. Lord's neighbor, James B. Carter, of the firm of Kent, Tucker and Carter, manufacturers of rope, bags and related materials, also commuted to the city from property he had purchased in 1867. The Carter property, adjacent to Spring Farm, was called Bonnie Burn. In 1911, that property was purchased by Union County to serve as the location for Runnells Hospital.

During the Lord's ownership of the house, the house was altered to include two first-floor parlors with two bedrooms above. The wall separating the two rooms was eventually removed, transforming it into one large room. An L-shaped porch was also built, but subsequently removed in the twentieth century due to decay. Before the end of the nineteenth century, a small one-story alcove with a slightly-pitched flat roof was built off the parlor, composed of five windows, including one with an upper sash in a diamond pattern. A new home on the property, called the "Grandmother House" was built in the carpenter Gothic style around 1880. Records seem to indicate that this home was built for Ms. Lord's mother and other visitors to the property. Local tradition reveals that the Lord family children were privately tutored in the home. During the Victorian period, a one-and-a-half story summer kitchen with a board and batten exterior was constructed. The building was moved in the twentieth century from its original location on the property and converted into a garage. Its chimney and fireplace were removed.

The Victorian parlor addition at the Littel-Lord farmhouse, added circa 1870.
However, by 1884, the Lord family moved to Europe for almost two decades, living principally in Munich, Germany. While the family lived in Europe, Spring Farm was farmed by tenants. Tenant farming continued after the youngest son of the Lord family, Ellis, returned to the United States to study law and manage the family property. Ellis moved to Spring Farm during the 1920s with his wife and small daughter, Elizabeth Constance, and commuted to his law and real estate offices in New York City. Ellis died in 1944. During Ellis' ownership of the home, a bathroom was added on the first floor at the back of the house and two gabled dormers with windows were added to the second story.

The fieldstone spring house at the Littel-Lord Farmstead.
Ellis' daughter acquired the property and her husband Harrison Wemett, who worked in New York City, transitioned the property from a working farm to timber cutting and the boarding of horses, a family interest. Elizabeth Wemett, who was orphaned at nineteen, fought to keep the farm and the horses, but yielded to the pressures of development. The eighteen acre tract was to be subdivided for thirty one homes. As the last farm in Berkeley Heights, concerned members of the community sought to make government leaders aware of the travesty of losing their last large open space parcel with a mix of architecture dating to before the American Revolution. The town government applied for Green Acres funding in 1975 to purchase the property and preserve the buildings. A large barn near the corner of Horseshoe Road and Mountain Avenue was deemed unstable and demolished. Once the transaction was completed, work began immediately by volunteers to stabilize and convert the old farmhouse into a museum and meeting space. Once the first round of improvements were completed, the farmhouse opened to the public on September 7, 1980.

Despite a good fun for over twenty years, interest in local history has waned and many original members either moved away or passed on. Once again, the farm is on life support. With just a few dedicated members bringing the history to life at a few open houses each year, the old farmhouse barely breathes life. This dedicated core of about six members keep the dust from settling for too long on the furniture, fulfill research requests, look for grants, and give tours. As all historic sites age across the country and the next generation is more interested in technology, who will be there to ensure that these treasured tokens of the past will be staffed, funded, and maintained? Next time you stop by your local museum, take the time to see how you can help - maybe a few hours of your time to give tours, perhaps you have marketing or trade skills, or you can contribute monetarily by taking a membership in the society. Whatever you can do, no matter how big or little, the next generation of historians will thank you.

Additional photos of my trip to the Littell-Lord Farmstead on Pinterest

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