Thursday, December 8, 2011

Down on the (1890s) farm in Holmdel

One of the perils of being in a relationship with a Civil War buff is the "Six Degrees" syndrome. You know ... you see or hear a family name that's shared by a war notable, and the first response is, "I wonder if they're related to....."

Six degrees, more or less, brought us to Holmdel's Longstreet Farm a few weeks ago. Ivan had been to the surrounding Holmdel Park in the past, and figured there had to be some connection to Confederate General James Longstreet. Everyone does, of course, have some connection to New Jersey. Why not Lee's right-hand man? A visit sounded good, especially following a particularly non-productive morning of prospecting new birding sites in eastern Union County.

Once off the parkway and past a defunct Lucent Technologies/Bell Labs site, we were pleasantly surprised to find a small working farm nestled in the middle of a country park. Historic Longstreet Farm has many of the bells and whistles necessary to a 19th century agricultural operation just before the start of mechanization: a vintage farmhouse, barns, outbuildings, land for crops and livestock, all well tended.

The visitor's first stop is a small farm building with exhibits that set the stage for the rest of the visit, explaining farm life during the time period the Longstreet place was in business. Having settled there in the early 1800s, the family originally owned all of the land that's now Holmdel Park, renting tracts to tenant farmers who planted, tended and harvested grain and potatoes.

From there we went straight to the farmhouse. Like many older houses of the time, it was built in several stages, the oldest dating to the late 1700s. I was a little surprised to find that the entire house was furnished to reflect the late Victorian era of the 1890s, with wallpaper and other appointments carefully reflecting patterns of the period. A costumed volunteer explained that their research and donated artifacts had led the county to choose that point in time, and I had to agree that it makes the Longstreet home rather distinctive among historical sites in the state. So often you see homes presented in the Colonial style, even when they were occupied clear into the 20th century. And even with the later timeframe represented, it wasn't hard to determine where the 1790 addition began. Since they'd elevated the ground floor rooms to accommodate a cellar below, the rooms in the 'new' part of the house were a few feet higher than the adjacent rooms in the older portion.

Plenty of Longstreet family portraits are hung throughout the house, which led Ivan to ask about the potential connection to the Confederate general. Only a distant relative, we were told; the family had come from Holland in the 1600s and one branch had split off and traveled south to live. Even without the military connection, though, the family had some pretty formidable members, including Mary Ann Longstreet, who was born in the 1820s and lived in the house well into her 90's with her nephew, who was apparently a bit of a dandy, judging from his belongings. Mary Ann's photograph indicates a stern personality who wouldn't be crossed. The house stayed in the family line until it was donated to the county in 1967, but the arrangement allowed Longstreet heirs to live in the house until the last one died in 1977.

We found the house to be a lot more interesting than we'd expected, and the remainder of the farm had its charms, too. Of special note to early American farm purists, the Longstreet barn is one of three remaining 18th century true Dutch barns still in existence in Monmouth County. A large flock of roosters and a guinea fowl or two live in a reconstructed chicken house, with a few escapees clucking around the farmyard for good measure, crowing to their hearts content. And two enormous work horses were in their paddocks in the 1860's era stable, bringing to mind the famous Clydesdales. No doubt they pull the plows in season, but they seemed pretty well rested when we were there.

Given it was the last weekend in November, the crops were in, but we were promised a cow milking demonstration if we stayed until 3 p.m. Longstreet Farm hosts special farm-themed events throughout the year. Whether you've got kids in tow or are just looking for some afternoon time on your own or with someone special, stop by the farm for a nice diversion.

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