10th Anniversary of St. Michaels Farm Preserve
Proves Power of Land to Create Community
Once upon a time, a large, brick Victorian orphanage presided over four hundred acres of expansive farm fields and richly forested land. From 1896 until 1973, children lived at and attended classes in St. Michael’s Orphanage and Industrial School in Hopewell, NJ. After the orphanage closed, the land laid in wait of its fate.
In fall of 2005, D&R Greenway President and CEO Linda Mead received a call from the attorney for the Diocese of Trenton. “He told me that D&R Greenway would have the last chance to preserve this land; otherwise, it would be developed.” A special overlay zone allowed for 1,050 houses and a 30,000 square foot shopping center to be built on the land. The Diocese, who had owned the land since the 1880s when it was purchased for the orphanage, offered to sell it to D&R Greenway for $11 million dollars.
Rising to the challenge, D&R Greenway negotiated the acquisition and went about the business of raising public funds. With $8 Million secured from the State farmland and Green Acres programs, Mercer County and Hopewell Township and Borough, $3 Million was still needed to meet the goal. Through extensive grassroots fundraising events and the generosity of individual gifts, the challenge was met by the deadline of March 15, 2007. It took another three years to complete all the technical work to bring the preservation to fruition. Finally, in January 2010, the land was saved. Over the past decade, D&R Greenway has invested another million dollars in caring for the land and making improvements that include trails, parking lots, signage, a working barn and a sturdy bridge that carries the farm tractor and pedestrians across the Bedens Brook.
In the ten years since the land was preserved forever, St. Michaels Farm Preserve has become a community treasure.
The very process of joining together to save this land created strong community ties. The first action that D&R Greenway took upon preserving the land was to create the Charles Evans Overlook with sweeping views of the landscape. An open space celebration that first June, in 2010, included a community run, a plein air painting exhibit, farm animals and music by the Hopewell Chorus. When the dilapidated barn was razed and a new barn with historic beams was constructed, an old-fashioned barn-raising celebration brought out hundreds of members of the community. Dedication of a new bridge, named in memory of former borough council member David Knights, included a ribbon-cutting and community walk. Since that time, purple martin and bluebird houses, a TravelStorys audio tour and the newly seeded Marchand Meadow in the footprint of the orphanage location provide greater opportunity to experience the landscape and its significance.
Every day, walkers can be seen –with dogs, bikes and strollers – enjoying the six miles of trails that follow old farm roads and extend into the woodlands. Sunny days find parking areas full, even as community residents respect each other’s social distancing needs by wearing masks and providing a wide berth. Friends and families walk together. Birders raise binoculars to watch a pair of harriers flying over the field and to watch the return of grassland birds. Artists set up easels, and poets create prose inspired by this land.
Expansiveness and peace are the Preserve’s natural gifts to its countless visitors in all seasons.
Summer 2020 proved the perfect time to address food security and create a place to grow community connections with new ‘Victory Gardens’ established in the 8-acre fenced field above the red barn. Thirty-two plots were plowed with 10-foot-wide rows in between for social distancing. A source of healthy, local food and welcome fellowship, seven Victory Garden plots were set aside for charity. Led by Corinne Egner and supported by a dozen of the gardeners, boxes of tomatoes, squash, lettuce, sweet and white potatoes and other fresh vegetables were delivered three times a week during the height of the season to Aunt Chubby’s luncheonette in Hopewell. This fresh produce was used in box lunches and to provide bags of groceries to families in need. View the Virtual Event: First Year Harvest: St. Michaels Victory Gardens Showcasing Charity Plots for Food Security, Healing, and Community, here on our YouTube Channel.
Yet another new activity in this 10th anniversary year was the offering of yoga classes on the St. Michaels land by Fyrefly Yoga. Long views of sunsets added to the spiritual nature of the yoga classes.
On Halloween, D&R Greenway provided an alternative to trick-or-treating with a drive-through parade through the farmland. Surrounded by peak foliage, ten ‘floats’ were presented by organizations who gave meaning to the theme, “I Love LAND because….” Victory Gardeners created a scarecrow garden and 170 carloads of families and individuals, young and older, enjoyed a sense of belonging, community and fun as they experienced the parade.
Earlier this year, before the pandemic began, Josephine Allen told how she rediscovered St. Michaels thanks to the preserve, and she shared her personal story with a packed house at D&R Greenway’s Johnson Education Center. Read about her journey here. The youngest orphan at St. Michaels before the orphanage closed its doors, nature was a life-saver for her. As Cheryl Makin’s article in the Bridgewater Courier News attests, “Life has left Josephine ‘Jo’ Allen with many battle scars, but she found healing in the land which once held turmoil for her.” The audience laughed, cried and went away with a story they’ll not soon forget. ‘Jo’ is now a volunteer at D&R Greenway who is happy to tell everyone about the benefits of preserved land.
St. Michaels Farm Preserve has become a community resource, cared for and increasingly expanded over its first decade, thanks to D&R Greenway and its generous donors. Day-to-day management of the preserve and the Victory Gardens benefits from the passion that Bill Flemer brings to his job as preserve manager. D&R Greenway’s stewardship team, under the leadership of Tina Notas, ensures informative signage, attractive entrances and habitat improvements. It takes a village – of staff, volunteers, and donors – to ensure that this land remains a welcoming place for the many people that love it.
Visitors are reminded to make use of the TravelStorys audio tour that, once downloaded to a smartphone, is automatically triggered upon passing points of interest on the preserve. Stories tell of the orphanage and its shrine, the natural features of the preserved land, and the people and community who ensured this land would be here for all generations.
D&R Greenway Land Trust, an accredited nonprofit, is close to reaching a new milestone of 21,000 acres of land preserved since 1989. By preserving land for life and creating public trails, it gives everyone the opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors. The land trust’s preserved farms and community gardens provide local organic food for our neighbors—including those most in need. Through strategic land conservation and stewardship, D&R Greenway combats climate change, protects birds and wildlife, and ensures clean drinking water for future generations. D&R Greenway’s mission is centered in connecting land with people from all walks of life.
D&R Greenway’s Johnson Education Center, home to its art galleries in Princeton, is currently closed to ensure health and safety due to COVID.
D&R Greenway Land Trust, One Preservation Place, Princeton NJ 08540