Caretakers of the Land
Phillips Family (1737-1860)
In 1732, Joseph Phillips, a house carpenter of Maidenhead (Lawrenceville), New Jersey purchased 125 acres of land in Hopewell Township from the executors of the estate of William Bryant who had purchased the land from Daniel Cox.
On March 29, 1737 blacksmith John Phillips of Hopewell purchased the same 125 acres in Hopewell from Joseph Phillips of Maidenhead. It is suggested that John and Joseph were related, perhaps brothers. John's original farm included much of what are now the Howell Living History Farm and land bordering Pleasant Valley Road to the east of Hunter Road. John's house was probably located near the site of the 1890 Pleasant Valley schoolhouse and near the family cemetery that John established. John owned this and additional adjoining properties for 52 years. He died in 1789 leaving the farm to his son, Henry, who enlarged the land holdings.
In 1789 John Phillips died and bequeathed to his youngest son, Major Henry, "the Plantation on which I now dwell." During Henry's ownership, he and his brothers probably established their own farms on the family property. Henry lived in the house just up Pleasant Valley Road from the schoolhouse that is today known as the Birum house. During this period it is likely that the real beginnings of what is today Howell Farm occurred. It is likely that the oldest, stone section of the farmhouse was built for Henry the Younger while Major Henry continued to occupy what is today the Birum farm house. Any other early buildings, including a barn, have not survived. A stone wall or foundation found under part of the horse barn during restoration in 2001 may be related to one of the early buildings from this period.
In 1805 Major Henry Phillips died intestate and four sons, including Henry the Younger, became the collective owners of his 225 acres. Probably each had a de facto inheritance of part of the property. During his life, Henry Sr. had amassed extensive land holdings and his inventory showed him to be a man of substance.
In 1809 a deed transferring 79 acres and 6 perches of the original family farm to Henry the Younger was recorded beginning his 51 years of ownership. The three other brothers received title to their farms also. The farmstead with its two-story stone house with one room on each floor, now the oldest section of the Howell Farm house, was begun by either the elder Henry or his son. The younger Henry added the wagon house and the original two sections of the barn about 1840.
About 1840 Henry Phillips the Younger built the original two sections of the barn some 30 to 40 years after he acquired the farm and about 15 to 20 years before his death. The barn was therefore built during his full maturity and strength and suggests that he was continuing to prosper as a farmer. The first two sections were an English three-bay working barn for grain processing and a four-bay horse barn. It may be during this time also that the frame eastern portion of the farm house was built.
In 1857 Henry Phillips died intestate, leaving his heirs to hold the property jointly for three years.
In 1860 John Phillips, an heir of Henry Phillips the Younger, placed the farm in Orphans Court as part of settling the estate by selling the property. This allowed a number of heirs to share in the proceeds of the sale whereas they could not share in dividing up the property. In the previous generation there had been enough land to give each son a farm of his own. Now, such a division would have resulted in farms too small to be profitable. As a result of this sale Charles Miller became owner of the now 125 acre farm.
Miller Family (1860-c1901)
Charles Miller owned the farm for at least 36 years, making few changes to the barn but perhaps adding the cupola and the tracks for handling loose hay. During his ownership the pond, ice house, and corn crib were built.
The period 1870-1890 was a time of agricultural depression and many farms deteriorated. In an oral history interview, Wilmer Hunter recounted that he had heard comments in his youth that Miller had mismanaged the farm. At one time he did not provide enough fodder for his horses for the winter. He eventually lost the farm in a Sheriff's sale in 1896 when he failed to make the payments on his mortgage. At the sale, the farm was purchased by Paul M. Tulane, of Trenton, whose family had held the mortgage since 1888. Tulane had no intention to live on the farm but purchased it in order to protect his investment. At this time the farm began a period of absentee ownership and occupation/operation by tenant farmers.
After the death of Charles, his son Benjamin became operator of the farm. Benjamin apparently had some mental difficulties and the farm may have declined during the three or four years he was responsible for it. Among other things, Benjamin ran afoul of the law for forgery and spent some time in jail in Trenton before being paroled.
The year before the farm was sold out of the family, a neighbor couple, Amos and Rachel Williamson, moved to the farm as caretakers. About 1901 the farm was purchased by blacksmith A.B. Coleman of Titusville as an investment.
While the farm appears to have been prosperous under Charles Miller in the mid-19th century, there seems little doubt that the farm deteriorated in the last years of the century and the opening years of the 20th century.
A.B. Coleman (c1901-1909)
Between 1896 and 1913 the farm went through several changes in ownership and tenant farming. Tenant farming often results in deterioration of farm structures and exhausting of the soil. While some tenants may hope to one day purchase the farm and treat it accordingly, most merely take what they can get from the farm and put little back, wearing out the land and allowing the buildings to deteriorate. However, it was during this time period that the cupola may have been added to the horse barn and the track for handling hay was put into the roof peak of the horse barn. The large hay-handling door was cut into the peak on the south end of the horse barn sometime in the late 19th or early 20th century. The diagram above shows the Henry Phillips Barn as it appeared during the period interpreted by Howell Living History Farm.
The first tenant appears to be Charles Miller himself although he may have continued to own some or all of the land. He continued to live on the farm until his death in 1898. After the death of Charles his son, Benjamin, was apparently the tenant or owner. Benjamin had a number of problems, including landing in jail for forgery, and the farm deteriorated. In 1901, local brush maker Amos Williamson and his wife, Rachel, moved to the farm to take care of Benjamin and essentially be caretakers of the property. About this time the farm was purchased as an investment by Titusville blacksmith, A.B. Coleman.
In 1902 the tenant of Coleman was Alfred Rogers. In 1903 Rogers sold his farm equipment and moved his family west. However, they returned in about three months and may have resumed residence on the farm. In 1905 J. Hart Smith who had been living just above Harbourton became the tenant and worked the farm until 1908 when he left to be the supervising farmer at the county poor farm. Edwin Blackwell from Washington's Crossing then came to the farm as tenant and was followed by Wilson T. Leming in 1909.
Leming Family (1909-c1919)
In 1913 Wilson T. Leming family purchased the farm, having farmed the property as a tenant since 1909. This began a new phase of owner/occupant farming and the establishment of the farm as a dairy farm. Wilson Leming owned the farm until 1917 and his son, James, owned it until 1920. During this time prosperity returned to the area and owners began to rebuild farms. Sometimes old structures were torn down and new ones put up, but some older structures were rehabilitated instead. Charles Miller, and the subsequent tenants, apparently left the barn in good enough shape that its new owners decided to rehabilitate it and convert it to dairy operations. It was during this period that the over 200 foot deep well was built on the farm.
Cromwell Family (1920-1948)
In 1920 the farm was purchased by Xenophon Cromwell. Xenophon and his son, Hart, operated the farm as a dairy farm. In the 1940s, Hart further enlarged the barn by moving two bays of an older barn to attach to the west end of the barn. Because this barn was narrower, a one story shed was added on the barnyard side. These two expansions were made to accommodate the increasing size of the Cromwell herd.
In 1920 Xenophon Cromwell purchased the farm and owned it until his death in 1939. Cromwell had been living in Pleasant Valley for a number of years renting the adjoining farm on Pleasant Valley Road to the east - the property now known as the Birum farm. In the 1920s Xenophon enlarged the barn, to accommodate a larger dairy herd, by filling in the north east corner area where the original two sections of the barn formed the "L".
In 1940 ownership went to his son, Hart, who owned the farm until 1948. The Cromwell's continued to work a dairy herd and also developed a milk delivery route in Hopewell Borough and Lambertville. During World War II the Henry Phillips Barn was greatly extended and remodeled to accommodate an enlarged dairy herd. Two bays of an early barn from a nearby farm had been moved in the early 20th century and set up a little northwest of the Henry Phillips Barn. In the early 1940s Hart Cromwell moved this old barn again to extend the original working barn to the west. He also added the shed on the south side of this addition and rearranged and extended the stalls for the cows. Despite these improvements he did not continue to farm the land himself after World War II.
Suydam Family (1948-1962)
In 1945 Thomas and Lucy Tyler of Ontario, Canada rented and moved to the Cromwell farm to raise a herd of dairy goats. In 1948 Hart Cromwell sold the farm to John Sicak and the Tylers continued to rent it from him. A year later the farm was sold to Walter Suydam who continued to rent it to the Tylers until they left in 1953. The Tylers reconverted the barn for their dairy goat operation and made changes necessary to meet state requirements. A small room at the south end of the horse barn was used as a milking parlor for the goats and a milk house was built at the southwest corner. This milk house was demolished in 1980.
In 1953 the Tylers left the farm and owner Walter Suydam took out many of the facilities added for the goats and put in stanchions for a standard dairy herd. This may also be the time when the concrete floor was put in. Walter Suydam became the last owner/operator of the farm.
Howell Family (1962-1974)
In 1962 Charles and Inez Howell purchased the farm but did not live on the property. A series of tenants worked the farm until June 1975. The last tenant used the farm to raise beef cattle. During this final period of tenant operation the farm structures, including the Henry Phillips Barn, were badly neglected and poor methods of animal husbandry were employed that exacerbated the problems.
In 1974, after Charles passed away, Inez gave the farm to Mercer County in his memory. Howell Living History Farm exists today because of this unique gift to Mercer County. Inez Howell's vision for what the farm could be, especially for children, is expressed in her letter to the County given below. Thirty-two years after the date of her letter and twenty-two years after the opening of the farm to the public, a look at the many programs of the Farm shows how her vision has been grasped and developed by the Mercer County Park Commission and the Farm staff.
March 10, 1974
I am offering the farm as a gift to Mercer County in memory of Charley. To be used as a Living History Farm, where the way of living in its early days could not only be seen but actually tried by the public, especially children - milking a cow, gathering eggs in a homemade basket- helping to shear sheep, carding wool, spinning and weaving.
A farm has always been a great place for exploring. Perhaps 4-H groups and others could help people learn by actually doing. There could be tree plantings, riding a donkey, cleaning out a stable, and saving the manure to go back into the earth. Girls can do most of these things too. There would be ploughing and sowing and canning and pickling. And don't forget rainbows and swinging on wild grape vines.
Could volunteers build the way they built in the early days with similar tools? And let the public watch and lend a hand?
Older people could teach the young how to sew a fine seam, or find hickory nuts to crack with a stone on the hearth, or find wild herbs for curing the miseries, or just go off fishing with a hickory stick pole. And what grandmother doesn't like to rock the cradle with her toe while her knitting needles and her spinning wheel prepare for winter?
And the barn: 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 fiddlers - 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 slanting across the Delaware. And church. And spring again.
Now what else can you think of?
Inez Howe Howell
Mercer County (1974-present)
Between 1975 and 1984 the farm was prepared by the Mercer County Park Commission, assisted by volunteers who later organized as the Friends of Howell Farm, for opening to the public as a living history farm. The milk house built by the Tylers for their dairy goat operation was demolished and the interior was reconfigured to meet the needs of interpreting farming in the period 1890-1910. During this decade, buildings were stabilized, a collection of farm equipment was gathered, a survey of the barn structure was completed, and preliminary plans for barn preservation were drawn up.
On December 1, 1976 the Farm was listed on the New Jersey State Register of Historic Places.
On May 2, 1977 the Farm was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1978 the Friends of Howell Farm was incorporated as a non-profit group to assist the Mercer County Park Commission with planning for and operating the Farm.
In 1980 Howell Living History Farm became a member of the Association for Living History, Farm, and Agricultural Museums (ALHFAM). Also in 1980 the Osage orange hedgerow along Valley Road was reestablished. A mid-19th century wagon house was moved to the Farm from the former Tindall farm in West Windsor, New Jersey. In 1983 this became the Farm's sheep barn.
On June 9, 1984 Howell Living History Farm was opened to the public on to provide visitors with experiences of life on an 1890-1910 family farm of the region.
In 1985, in its first full year of operations, Howell Farm hosted 21,500 visitors. One third of the visitors were schoolchildren who were able to participate in hands-on farming activities. During this year, the farm orchard was re-established in its original location along Hunter Road in memory of William Mount of Princeton.
Between 1985 and 1990 the full-range of historically accurate tillage, planting, harvesting and processing operations were established at the Farm.
In 1987 the Farm received state and national attention when staff and interns assisted New Jersey Governor Tom Kean in breaking ground for the New Jersey Museum of Agriculture using an Angus steer Kean won in a bet on Super Bowl XXI. This steer continued to receive training as an ox and lived out his life on the Farm, where he was known as Giant.
In the 1990s restoration plans for the barn were completed, preliminary projects such as asbestos removal were carried out, and fund raising began.
In 1991 the ice house was restored by volunteers with funding from the Friends of Howell Farm. A memorial stone was dedicated in memory of the donors of the Farm, Charles and Inez Howell. The Pleasant Valley Rural Historic District, of which the Farm is a keystone, was formed and listed on the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places.
In 1993 the Farm played host to a regional conference of the Mid-Atlantic Association of Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums (MAALHFAM).
During 1994, in the 10th year of public operation, 45,000 people visit the farm, including 11,000 school children. 11,220 hours of work towards farming, programming and restoration projects are contributed by volunteers.
In 1995 the annual ice harvest made the cover story for New Jersey Outdoors' winter issue. The ice was 13 inches thick and was thick enough to allow one of the draft horses to be used in cutting the ice. The Institute of Museum Services (IMS) awarded the farm a grant to assess its collections. The first Howell Farm website was created by volunteer Dana Kruser.
In 1996 four acres along Hunter Road were purchased by Mercer County from Lowell Hunter. These acres had once been part of the farm but were sold to Hunter's father in 1905. The New Jersey Historical Commission awarded the Farm a grant to document 25 horse drawn farming operations.
In 1997 fund raising towards restoration of the Henry Phillips Barn was augmented with the creation of a four-acre cornfield maze with the help of the American Maze Company. The maze design depicted the Henry Phillips Barn. This project helped the Friends of the Farm raise $27,400 to be used towards the barn restoration. The maze has become an annual event and has since risen over $350,000.
In 1998 volunteers constructed a new chicken house whose design is representative of the farm's time period. Funding was provided by a grant from the New Jersey State Poultry Association.
In 1999 funding for a 5,000 square-foot Visitor's Center was approved by Mercer County and a design was created by the Princeton architectural firm CUH2A. Membership in the Friends of Howell Farm rose to 350. In November the Farm hosted its second regional MAALHFAM conference. This conference focused on barn restoration and was a kick-off event for the restoration of the Henry Phillips Barn. A focal point of the conference was the raising of a small barn just north of the Henry Phillips Barn. This small barn was needed to provide a home for the Farm's oxen, their equipment, and food since they would be displaced by the barn restoration.
In 2000 volunteer Larry Kidder created a new website for the Farm that features a virtual tour of the Pleasant Valley Rural Historic District. Longtime volunteer and former member of the trustees of the Friends of the Farm, Dorothy Washburn, was hired as curator with a matching grant from the New Jersey Historical Commission. A Grant from the Garden State Historic Preservation Trust Fund of $28,000 was received to begin work on a new master plan for the Farm.
In 2001 the Kleio Club of Pennington presented the Farm with a check for $10,000 in memory of club member Jean Errickson, as a contribution towards restoration of the Henry Phillips Barn. Restoration of the Henry Phillips Barn began on April 7 when restoration mason Tom Livingston began work on foundation repointing. On May 9 ground was broken for the visitor center by County Executive Robert D. Prunetti using a Deere-Syracuse walking plow pulled by workhorses Blaze and Frank. On June 8, Howell Farm oxen Bud and Jake moved into their new quarters in the small barn raised in 1999.
In 2002 the 15 acre Birum property adjoining Howell Farm was acquired by Mercer County.
On April 24, 2003 the ribbon was cut by Mercer County Executive Robert D. Prunetti to officially open the new visitor center. In June the Farm, along with four other New Jersey historic sites, was host for the 32nd Annual Meeting and Conference of the Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums (ALHFAM). Also in 2003 Mercer County acquired 35 acres from Joe Tesauro, land formerly part of the Smith Farm across Valley Road from Howell Farm.
In 2004 Mercer County acquired the former Pleasant Valley school house at the corner of Hunter Road and Pleasant Valley Road.
On May 14, 2005 the historic Charles Fish Barn was raised during a public program with the assistance of the New Jersey Barn Company. This barn is now part of the visitor center.