In New Jersey, Old Slave Quarters vs. New Homes
Dith Pran/The New York Times
Elaine Livingston and Bill Klimowicz belong to a group fighting to save a farmhouse where slaves lived.
By J. COURTNEY SULLIVAN
Published: March 25, 2007
SOUTH BRUNSWICK, N.J. — By the New Jersey Turnpike, where the state’s rural past runs into mammoth warehouses, a tug of war is taking place over the fate of a farmhouse built in 1713 with its cramped slave quarters over the kitchen still intact and a where a Revolutionary-era spinning wheel and a bill of sale for a young black girl were unearthed in the basement.
For the past two years, residents here have been trying to save one of the state’s last historic farmhouses and its trove of artifacts while opening a window even more on New Jersey
’s Southern sympathies before and even during the Civil War.
“There’s nothing in any museum that recognizes slavery in New Jersey. That’s why this farm is so important,” said Elaine Livingston, a horse farmer here and a member of the Eastern Villages Association, a group fighting for the farm’s survival.
A retired shop teacher here and another member of Eastern Villages, Bill Klimowicz, drives a couple of miles down Davidson Mill Road to the Van Dyke farm once a month and plants a fresh American flag by each of the two cemeteries at the property’s edge. He can still remember the day in 1960 when he first went there after an elderly neighbor told him a Revolutionary War soldier and his family were buried there.
“I told all my friends,” he recalled. “We would ride our bikes over after school sometimes and just stare at the soldier’s tombstone. We were mesmerized.”
But it was while he and the association members were trying to hold back development — first a warehouse complex and now a swath of new houses — that they learned the gravestone might represent only a small part of the land’s historical significance.
The 229-acre property, bordered on the east by the turnpike, was deeded to the Van Dykes, a Dutch family, in the 1690s. Behind the farmhouse sits an original carriage house, a 19th-century barn and a slave burial site.
The current owner is a man named William Pulda, who bought the property in 1950s from the Van Dyke family. A caretaker family has lived on the farm for nearly 35 years, and local farmers lease the fields, where they grow soybeans and corn.
Two years ago, Mr. Pulda agreed to sell the land to a developer, Joseph Morris. Their contract gave all legal rights to the property to Mr. Morris, who immediately announced a plan to demolish the existing buildings and put up the warehouse complex.
But in February 2005, Mr. Morris unsuccessfully appealed to the town planning board to allow him to rezone the property, and now he says he intends to build a 76-unit housing development instead.
The Van Dyke farm is a rare remnant of a time when New Jersey was a major agricultural center, largely because of the thousands of slaves who cleared forests, started farms and worked the land.
In 1800, there were 12,000 to 14,000 slaves in the state, which might account for why New Jersey and New York were the only Northern states that did not move to end slavery during the Revolutionary War.
A local historian, James Shackleford, says that when he was researching slavery in South Brunswick he found documents in the archives at Rutgers University
about a young slave named Amy and other slaves who lived on the Van Dyke farm.
He said the documents also showed Amy gave birth about every two years, with the slave owner apparently aiming to add slaves to his household. The importation of African slaves was banned in the 1780s.
The slave quarters in the farmhouse — where Mr. Shackleford estimates 10 to 12 people lived — consisted of two bare, wooden rooms, each about the size of a walk-in closet, with the original tiny windows and doors still intact, as well as a trap door leading to the kitchen.
“When I first saw them, I was dumbfounded,” Mr. Shackleford said of the quarters. “I looked at those walls, those doors, the starkness, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is the real thing.’ ”
For now, the association is clinging to the hope that someone will buy the farm and preserve it. Last year, Preservation New Jersey, a private, membership-supported group, put the farm on its list of the state’s 10 most endangered historical sites. Several state and local agencies have looked into the prospect of saving the property, but so far none of them have made an offer.
Last May, Mr. Morris, the developer, met with township officials and representatives from the state’s Green Acres Program, which provides financing for open space, farmland, and historic preservation. At their urging, Mr. Morris filed an application for preservation, which stated that for the right price — he was asking about $25 million — he might sell the land to the state.Dith Pran/The New York Times
The farmhouse, on property bordered on the east by the New Jersey Turnpike, was deeded to a Dutch family.
“The state agreed to appraise the land and then give us a figure,” said Frank Petrino, an attorney for Mr. Morris. “If the figure made sense, Mr. Morris was willing to continue the process.”
But the state never completed the appraisal,
according to Ralph Albinir, director of the Middlesex County Parks and Recreation Department, because state and local officials could not decide who should conduct it.
By the time the county was ready to move forward about six months later, Mr. Albinir said, Mr. Morris withdrew his application.
“He is a good businessman — he’s always willing to listen to an attractive offer,” Mr. Petrino said of his client, Mr. Morris. “But it’s my impression that there’s not a lot of money at the state level for land acquisition.”
But a spokesman from the Green Acres Program says the Garden State Preservation Trust has $86.8 million in its Green Acres Fund and an additional $84.6 million designated for farmland preservation.
“Everyone just seems to be standing back and waiting for someone else to make the first move,” Mr. Klimowicz said.
“I don’t understand it — plenty of places in the area have been bought for preservation, and certainly none of them had this many qualifications,” he said.
In the early 1980s, developers started buying up property on the east side of the turnpike between exits 9 and 8A, slowly at first, and recently with more zeal.
Farms have begun to disappear as the warehouses have crept closer and closer to the turnpike, which itself was expanded to 10 lanes from six along the stretch there in 1990.
“There used to be so many beautiful farms on the other side of Davidson Mill Road,” said Jean Dvorak, a high school English teacher who has been fighting to save historical and natural resources in the area for 20 years. “Sometimes when I drive along it now I just cringe. The Van Dyke farm is the proverbial line in the sand, and the state and local government must make sure that no one crosses it. Otherwise, a valuable piece of our history will be lost forever.”