Duke Farms, a 2740 acre estate of woodlands, meadows and gardens near Hillsborough in northern New Jersey was once the residence of one of America’s richest families. Now, it’s a public park dedicated to promoting environmental sustainability, offering an oasis of tranquillity in one of the country’s most populous states.
Frankly, I knew nothing about the farm’s gilded history, a history that started when tobacco magnate J.B. Duke established the estate in 1893. Our visit to Duke Farms verged on spur-of-the-moment: earlier in the week I had read about a New Jersey farm where you could hire bikes for the day. Having been ensconced in the concrete jungle for the past month, that one sentence was all the encouragement I needed to escape the city for spring flowers and fresh air.
Fifty minutes after setting out in the car, we turned off the highway and into a seemingly different world, a world that offers – in the words of the New York Times – “a priceless peace and quiet.” While I love the adrenaline buzz of a big city, the calm of the countryside soothes my soul (I am, after all, an islander), and within minutes of arriving at Duke Farms I was giddy with childlike delight. Flowers! Fresh air! Greenery!
People were walking, jogging, pushing prams and biking on the 22 miles of paths and trails that weave their way through the estate. There’s a free shuttle that drives visitors to some of the main sights, but for us, it had to be the bikes – at five dollars per person, hiring bikes was, as the American’s say, “a no-brainer” for a day of fresh air and fun.
After a long, cold winter, the colours that were bursting from every corner were a delight to behold. Green grass, bright buttercups, dusky pink magnolias, tall trees starting to bud: after seeing nothing but concrete for a few months, it felt like a feast for the eyes. We cycled through it all with the sun our faces, stopping here and there to delve into the cultural heritage of the farm.
When Doris Duke, the only child of tobacco magnate J. B. Duke, died in 1993, her instructions on the fate of the farm were vague, only mentioning that it should be used in some way to promote conservation. It wasn’t until almost a decade after her death that Duke Farms as it is now was born, opening in 2012 as a free park that encourages visitors to become stewards of the environment. Cars and dogs are banned from the park, educational programmes promote sustainability, and everything from the buildings to the lakes are maximized to reduce the carbon footprint of the estate.
By all accounts Doris was quite the fan of orchids, and used her glass greenhouses to grow varieties of plants from around the world. The ornamental Orchid Range dates from the early 1900s and looks almost out of place in a landscape full of grass and trees, but it plays an important role in the sustainability objectives of the park. We had a quick peek at the flowers, but on such a gorgeous spring day it seemed wrong not to be outside, and within a few minutes we were back pushing the pedals.
Our exploration on two wheels took us past statues and fountains, over bridges that wouldn’t look out of place in Central Park, and up hills that took some serious effort to climb (in my case, at least!). We paused for sustenance at the Great Meadow, making sure that everything we opened went back in our bags: Duke Farms operates on a policy of sustainability where anything you take into the park, you take back out again.
The Great Meadow was meant to surround J.B. Dukes’ sprawling 80,000 square foot mansion – a mansion that was never completed. Some say the decision was related to the court-ordered dissolution of the American Tobacco Company, but whatever the reason, after the foundation was finished in 1911, construction stopped.
Reclaimed by roots and trees, the Old Foundation has an eerie appearance, not unlike the pet cemetery located on a hilltop above one of the park’s many lakes. (Although with pet names like Binky, Baby the Camel, and the seemingly unloved Puppy No. 12, it’s hard not to break the spooky spell with laughter).
Four o’clock is when Duke Farm’s showpiece takes place each day: the turning on of the Great Falls. It’s a showpiece we very nearly missed, as we mistook a mini waterfall a few hundred feet away for the roaring falls – we did wonder why we were the only visitors in the whole park waiting patiently for the spectacle to start!
The history was intriguing, and it would be fascinating to learn more about the green initiatives underway (we had a brief look inside the old farm barn, which has been restored into a eco-friendly orientation centre), but the best part of a day at Duke Farms is the joy of being out in nature, appreciating the sights, sounds, and smells of the countryside. This is of course all part of the sustainable plan: if we experience nature first-hand, the hope is we’ll be more likely to take action to protect it.
History, eco-initiatives, or countryside idyll: whatever your interest, you can’t go wrong with spending a sunny day at Duke Farms. For me, it was the perfect, revitalising spring escape from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Duke Farms is located in Hillsborough, NJ, and is open Thursday to Tuesday, 8.30am-6pm. Entry is free.
What do you think of Duke Farms? How do you like to spend your spring weekends?