Hunterdon County Historic Alliance Forming

Peter Kinsella and the Raritan local historians’ group invited county residents to a meeting on April 25 at the Raritan Township municipal building to discuss the preservation of Hunterdon’s historic legacies. Six invited speakers presented a broad range of topics under the theme “Hunterdon County: The Future of its Past”.

Theodore Hagios of Flemington discussed key events in New Jersey history from the earliest colonial days, and described the traces those events have left on the ground in Hunterdon. Before William Penn ever set foot in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Mr. Hagios related, he had organized a colony of 234 Quaker families in Burlington. Many of their descendants are still in the area. The colony was subdivided by Quaker interests in 1676. The boundary between the newly created East and West Provinces of New Jersey is marked by Province Line Road in Clover Hill.

Another of Mr. Hagios’ discussions concerned New Jersey’s contribution to the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. At the Convention, large states like Virginia favored a one-house legislature with representation based on population size; small states wanted a second legislative house with equal representation for all states. New Jersey delegate William Paterson proposed a compromise that would serve the interests of large and small states. The Paterson plan was adopted, leading to the creation of the bicameral legislature, which has since remained a model for democratic governments around the world.

Mr. Hagios is an enthusiastic speaker with an engaging sense of history. “I used to refer to myself as an ‘unpublished author’, until one day I made that comment to the head of the Hunterdon County Historical Society, who asked me to write something; so I wrote a treatise on Hunterdon County’s boundaries. Most boundaries existed long before the County was incorporated in 1714. They say old soldiers never die,- they just fade away. Well, the old boundaries don’t even fade away: they’re still there”.

The next invited speaker was Dominick Mazzagetti of Flemington, who writes a local history column for the Hunterdon County Democrat. He came by his interest in Hunterdon history as an undergraduate at Rutgers in Newark. One of his professors was Dr. Hubert Schmidt, editor of the Capner papers, the Revolutionary period correspondence of a Hunterdon County family with their relatives in England. Schmidt was the author of a book entitled “Rural Hunterdon”; he also wrote a column on local history for the Democrat, and edited a book on agriculture in New Jersey. Mr. Mazzagetti is carrying on a tradition of local historians.

Christopher Pickell is an architect with offices in Flemington, specializing in maintenance of historic buildings, as well as a member of the Hunterdon County Cultural Heritage Commission. It happens that the County owns a number of historic buildings, acquired through purchase of open space; the challenge that their maintenance poses for the County was one of the main themes of the meeting. The County has funds for maintenance of County-owned historic structures, but no policy or plan for how to spend them, with the result that the money sits in the bank while the buildings decay.

“The cheapest way to demolish a building is to leave it unheated in winter”, Mr. Pickell said. “The best way to preserve a building is to have it occupied; water does more damage than any other single factor; having a resident in the building is the best way to keep an eye on leaks that develop”. Mr. Pickell’s firm specializes in preservation of historic buildings, and often works and shares information with the New Jersey Barn Company. “Historically, stone buildings were stuccoed for weather protection; during the 1970’s there was a vogue of stripping off the stucco – people liked the look of the random stonework. But that is not the way the buildings looked historically, and it also lets water in”.

As a student of old buildings, Mr. Pickell recognizes that they have “good bones”, and can last a very long time if properly maintained. “Recycling historic buildings is the most sustainable thing we can do with them. When you think of the energy – the carbon – that went into the building, labor and materials, and the carbon that would be required to demolish them, cart them away, and then rebuild something that would probably not be as durable – preserving old buildings makes good environmental sense, while preserving local history”.

Catherine Suttle of the Hunterdon Land Trust Alliance spoke about the preservation of the Dvoor Farm on the outskirts of Flemington and the numerous agricultural, open space and historic preservation projects HLTA has begun there. The property was preserved at a cost of about $1.5 million, with funds from Green Acres, state, county and local governments. The prior owner, Herb Dvoor, still lives in the mansion; there is an operating farm, and across a creek from it, a park which is open to the public. Two years ago a Sunday farmer’s market began operating on the public acreage; the market has been so successful that HLTA plans to add another day later this year. “We would like to operate a CSA – community supported agriculture – from a garden on the Dvoor Farm, but that is still in the future. We would also like to open a state approved industrial kitchen in one of the outbuildings, so farmers can prepare value–added products to sell”.

HLTA is also involved in a stream stabilization project to prevent erosion along Mine Brook, which crosses the farm. In cooperation with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the County, and a host of other agencies, nationally known stream stabilization guru Dave Derrick of the Army Corps of Engineers has been brought in to design and build a riparian buffer to reconnect the stream to its floodplain. Volunteers are called in periodically to help with planting and watering, which makes for a pleasant use of open space.

“HLTA has grown through the acquisition of this property”, Ms. Suttle said. “We were still a new organization when we acquired this property about ten years ago. Through the creation of a master plan for the use of the farm, we considered a variety of uses, such as a performing arts center, that we eventually came to see as incompatible, because of limited demand”. Numerous buildings on the farm are being preserved. The mansion may one day be an office for HLTA.

The next speaker was Michelle Gill, one of the numerous volunteers on whom so many good works depend. She is currently involved in updating the County’s historic assets inventory. The inventory is a component of the County Master Plan; it was last revised in 1979. “We would like to have the revision completed by 2014, in time for the 300th anniversary of the founding of Hunterdon County.” Volunteers are being enlisted to go out and photograph and document the buildings in the 1979 inventory, and perhaps add some not inventoried then. “We know that back in 1979 people sometimes refused to let anyone on their property to take pictures. We are finding that today people are giving us permission to document sites that were left out previously”.

Historical consultant Dennis Bertland spoke on the adaptive economic uses that have been made of historic buildings in the past few decades. Fleming Castle, the oldest building in Flemington, was the first historic building in the County to be restored. It is now part of the scenery that gives Flemington its unique character. Turntable Junction, also in Flemington, was redeveloped as a shopping center in the 1950’s. Prallsville Mill in Stockton was bought by the State in the 1970’s, and now serves as a community center. Various uses including concerts, antique shows, weddings and an annual progressive dinner raise funds that pay for the operation and maintenance of the buildings. “These are some examples of how historic preservation can be a base for economic development”, Mr. Bertland said.

As a member of Preservation New Jersey, a statewide organization, Mr. Bertland is a consultant on appropriate uses for historic buildings on publicly owned lands. “One of the tasks that I hope this group will address is working with the County to find ways to preserve the historic buildings it owns, that makes economic sense for all residents”.

Mr. Bertland was the last of the invited speakers, Mr. Kinsella opened the meeting to public comment, and Stephanie Stevens was the first to speak.

Ms. Stevens is the official Historian for the County of Hunterdon. She has been chairperson of the Hunterdon County Cultural and Heritage Commission (CHC) since 1979. She is a published author of numerous books on the history of Readington Township, as well as a member of the New Jersey Historic Trust and Advocates for New Jersey History. She founded the Readington Township Museums. In 1999 the NJ Legislature recognized her as a “New Jersey Woman of Distinction”. She has been affectionately called “the face of Hunterdon County history”.

At the April 21 Freeholder meeting Ms. Stevens had advocated for using the accumulated funds collected for historic preservation, and using it to maintain some of the many County-owned historic buildings. Alternately imploring and chiding the Freeholders, she made a strong case for historic preservation, but at the April 21 meeting at least, the Freeholders bowed to the more numerous voices for land preservation.

Ms. Stevens is also a Trustee of the Hunterdon County Historical Society, which is celebrating its 125th anniversary in 2010. Not one to lose an opportunity to encourage an interest in local history, Ms. Stevens cajoled the participants in Saturday’s meeting to become members by calling the Society at 908 782-1091, emailing hunterdonhistory@embarqmail.com, or visiting the Society’s website at http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~njhunter/hchs.htm.

Bringing the meeting to a close, Mr. Kinsella asked the public for direction on how to proceed. Volunteers in local government tend to be over-committed, and joining another group with meetings to attend is not always an appealing prospect, however worthy the cause. Still, comments from numerous attendees indicated a willingness to meet again in the fall. One of the goals of the Hunterdon County Historical Alliance may be to comment on how the County could spend its funds for historic preservation. In 2010, the County will be able to allocate funds via grants to nonprofit organizations. Guidelines for where to spend the funds and through which agencies will need to be drawn up; the Freeholders indicated at the April 21 meeting that these should be submitted to County Open Space Coordinator Kevin Richardson. The new HCHA may play a role in this process. HCHA has a webforum for continuing discussions.