Thursday, June 9, 2011

Walking on the wild side at Duke Farms

Having run a quick errand and grabbed lunch after the Deserted Village, we weren't quite sure what to do. We were in Somerset County... why not check out Duke Farms in Hillsborough?

For many years, Duke Farms was off limits to the masses, as one of the largest privately-owned tracts of land in New Jersey. It was the home of James Buchanan Duke, the entrepreneur and philanthropist who founded the American Tobacco Company and Duke Power, and endowed Duke University. You may know him as the father of the eccentric heiress Doris Duke. In any case, he started buying Somerset County land in 1893, ultimately amassing over 2700 acres for his estate and a fully functional farm like the one he grew up on in North Carolina. While the land is naturally much flatter than that of his southern home, he hired several landscape architects and engineers to transform his New Jersey property into a paradise of lakes, fountains, statues and scenic roadways. He even built a small-scale railroad to trolley visitors about.

Upon JB's death, the land transferred to his only child, Doris, along with properties in Rhode Island and Hawaii. An appreciator of nature herself, she pretty much maintained the property, and after she died it became the property of her charitable foundation. For a time, visitors could take tours of the Duke home, but today the foundation is working to repurpose the property as a nature sanctuary and learning lab of sorts, with assistance from New Jersey Audubon and other organizations.

Ivan and I visited on a day when the only public program was the self-guided nature tour called Walk on the Wild Side. Driving through the gates to the elegant visitor center, we were welcomed with a laminated map of the open grounds and trails. The docent we spoke with told us that over 200 bird species had been spotted on the property, including more than 130 that chose to breed there. We were asked to make sure to carefully close any of the deer gates we passed through on the trail, to help preserve the understory of the forested areas of the property.

The 1.25 mile trail winds through woods, along a tree-lined allee, and even through the stone walls of an old, roofless hay barn that's been converted to a classical statuary. We also strolled through a research tract being studied by teams from Rutgers and NYU; there were still remnants of old greenhouse structures, making the place look somewhat abandoned, perhaps the signs of a departed civilization, if you have a bit of an imagination.

We heard plenty of birds around and about, even though we visited in the midday quiet period. There's a nesting pair of eagles somewhere on the property, away from the public trail. Hard core birders can sign up for occasional NJ Audubon tours to get into the non-public portions of the farm.

All in all, Duke Farms has real potential as a destination for any nature-focused New Jerseyan: an easy trail for newbies, plus opportunities to learn more from a growing list of workshops for birders, gardeners and the curious. I hope that eventually they reopen the house to tours, too, but I'll be perfectly happy if they continue to keep this tract of land safe from developers, educating people about the need to preserve land in the most densely populated state in the nation.

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