D&R Greenway Land Trust is announcing to the community its most recent preservation success: the final 20 acres have been acquired that complete its St. Michaels Farm Preserve in Hopewell. Funding came from Mercer County’s Open Space Program with about 2/3 coming from several generous private donors. More than $600,000 was raised to purchase the land, which serves as the pedestrian entrance to the property.
The St. Michaels Farm Preserve was created in 2010 by D&R Greenway and local citizens who rose to the occasion and donated their personal funds, together raising $11 million, as an alternative to an immense development that would have destroyed the small-town character of Hopewell Borough. With the new property, the St. Michaels Farm Preserve is now expanded to over 400 acres.
“We have had our eyes on preserving this parcel since we closed on the first transaction with the Diocese of Trenton,” said D&R Greenway Vice-President Jay Watson. “The Diocese could have sold it for development. It was our persistence that put us in a position to complete the deal.”
The property will be used for passive recreation, says Watson, and a group of advisors will be assembled to properly honor and care for the space, which was the site of the St. Michaels Orphanage from 1897 until the building’s demolition in 1973.
“Many may not remember that the Diocese kept these 20 acres from the original acquisition with the intention to build a parish house on this site,” said Linda Mead, President & CEO of D&R Greenway. “When they decided to divest themselves of this property, it was only natural that it become a part of our preserve and a special place to honor the many children who lived here for nearly a hundred years.” Mead continues, “D&R Greenway has become known for our ability to act quickly to raise the funds that enable preservation in times when public funding is reduced. We are all so grateful to those that stepped forward to enable this legacy.”
There are historic remnants and artifacts D&R Greenway plans to preserve to help tell the story of the children who once lived on the property. “We hope to engage a landscape architect to create a park-like setting where visitors can contemplate nature,” said Watson. “This part of the preserve will become a place for healing and reflection.”
The 20-acre open space parcel will serve as a transition from Hopewell Borough to the farm preserve and includes a tributary to Bedens Brook. D&R Greenway will clean up the site, conduct an inventory of the trees and enhance the pedestrian entrance and setting as funds become available to support the vision.
“This acquisition adds to the St. Michaels and the larger Hopewell Borough greenbelt, a priority project in the County’s Master Plan since 1995,” said Mercer County Executive Brian M. Hughes. “In total the greenbelt provides close to 600 acres of preserved land that protects spectacular views of the Hopewell Valley and the Borough, as well as protecting environmentally significant open space for the region.” D&R Greenway has protected an additional 700+ acres on the north side of the borough that extends the greenbelt.
St. Michaels Farm Preserve is managed by D&R Greenway as a community resource with active farmland, native plant meadows, trails and green space. Sheep, kestrels, purple martins, bluebirds and pollinator meadows ablaze with wildflowers create a magical wonderland that draws walkers, nature lovers, photographers, filmmakers and community members.
The story of the St. Michaels property began at the end of the 19th century. As urban areas grew, the Catholic Church rose to the crisis of providing homes for orphans and children living in abusive situations, according to local historian Jack Koeppel. The Catholic Diocese of Trenton built the St. Michaels Orphanage to address the problem in the Trenton area. Koeppel told the story to a packed house at D&R Greenway’s Johnson Education Center recently, “Try to envision a crowd of 10,000 who came to attend the groundbreaking in 1896, with a parade of 3,000 people marching from the Hopewell Train Station to the site. Orchestras played, choirs sang and officials delivered in-depth speeches on the subject of child welfare.”
Another parade along the same route occurred in 1898 for the dedication, with marching bands, choirs, and drum and bugle corps from all over the state.
Ex-heavyweight champ of the world Jack Dempsey visited the orphanage, mounting the steps to address an adoring crowd as the band played. “I suppose you are all planning to be someone worthwhile when you grow up,” he told them. “Whether a firefighter, doctor or lawyer, success depends on clean living. Do not smoke or drink, and be obedient to those who have charge of you.” He shook the hand of each child and distributed candy into every hand.
The facility operated until 1973, housing more than 400 children at its peak. “I am sure that stories and images will continue to be discovered about this property, and we will capture, honor and share them as appropriate,” says D&R Greenway Vice-President Jay Watson. “This is a story much larger than the 20-acre parcel. This land has been a fixture of the community for well over a century.”
Visit D&R Greenway Land Trust at the Johnson Education Center, 1 Preservation Place, Princeton, to learn more about protected lands you can enjoy in central New Jersey and how you can become involved in preserving Land for Life. www.drgreenway.org