HISTORY OF DAVIDSON MILL POND PARK (South Brunswick, NJ 08810)
- Interview with Sterling Warren Tantum Sept 11, 2008 – by Pat Evans
My father, also named Sterling, purchased the farm in 1938 from Joe Cole for $11,500. In those days that was quite a bit of money. He had a 40-year mortgage on the farm, and was worried about how he would pay it off, but World War II came along, and the price of potatoes skyrocketed. He paid the mortgage off in 6 years. Before Joe Cole, Warren & Willard Pierson owned the farm. Joe Cole married the Pierson’s sister. (The Varnez family, off George’s road, owned part of what is now the park. Frank Kuhn, another local farmer and best friends with my dad, lives by the cemetery on Deans Hall Road.)
We had 80 acres of potatoes, all irrigated by the water from Davidson Mill Pond. We were the northern most potato farm. You can’t grow potatoes in the red dirt found north of here. Even though it had been a farm since the 1800’s when the Piersons cleared the land, there were plenty of rocks that we had to remove. The larger rocks, like the kind mostly found by Davidson Mill Pond, were granite from the last glaciers; smaller round stones were found in the field and had to be removed to prevent them getting caught in the equipment. Though my father started out with a team of horses, we soon switched to a tractor and the 3 horses we had were just for riding. We harvested 250 100lb bags of potatoes per acre.
We alternated our potatoes with wheat. We also grew asparagus and 6 acres of corn and a few other things. Always fertilized the asparagus with pig manure--no chicken manure on the potatoes due to the lime in the chicken manure. We had 3 cows that we kept freshened so they would continue to give milk—sold the calves for veal. We had 100 capons (altered gray roosters) which we sold to butchers. We also bought 600 new white leghorns every year. The eggs from one year would pay for the hired man. My father used to say, “If you had one piece of livestock, you might as well have more.” I was the oldest, and from the time I was 10 years old on, I helped at the farm. My brother and sister were my only friends I saw on a daily basis. (My brother became a doctor and my sister a nurse.) I remember my chores were getting the eggs around noon and milking at night. I used to spray the cows with flit to keep the flies off while we were milking so they wouldn’t kick and upset the pail. When I was a teenager I had a black 49 Ford that I would bring up to Riva and dust off so I could cruise New Brunswick. Most of our shopping was in Trenton.
We always had a black family living on the farm. $30 room and board for their own cottage, with a garden, all the milk and eggs they wanted, and one of the 3 pigs we raised. Hansel Walker and Willie Mae were with us for some time. He became the head janitor and the Petty School; Willie Mae still lives in Allentown. Red Collier and Bob Smith were some of the other hired men. During the season, we had more hired men and they stayed in the “men’s house”. Everyone worked hard, and often sang religious music while they worked. It sounded beautiful, almost mystical. One of the men grew cotton in the garden just to show my brother what cotton looked like because we had never seen it.
The farmhouse itself was beautiful. It was over 100 years old when I lived in it. It had an ornate banister leading upstairs, 2 green marble fireplaces, and hand hewn beams. My father put a lot of his profits into the farmhouse. We had a border collie and 4 fox hounds that lived outside under the porch--unless it was bitter cold, then we let them in. There were other buildings as well-- up on the right in front of the house was a pig house and pig pen (gone), a forge/men’s house (gone), and a chicken coop/men’s house (still standing). Then off to the left there was a garage (still standing), wagon house (gone), and horse barn that became a potato grading building (gone). That building was beautiful with hand hewn beams, some of which may have been taken to Olde Town, others perhaps making up fireplace mantels in the area. Then a couple brooder/men’s houses, with a range house further out (all gone). There was a barracks/barn that was further away from the other buildings. It was built there to insure against losing everything if there were a fire or other disaster. (Now the County stores equipment there.) We always had 8-10 female cats there to keep rodents under control. There were 6 wells on the property, none ever went dry.
I built my own home, now the Earth Center/Ranch House in 1957 and lived there with my first wife and son. It has one well out back, 8 feet deep, which is 10 feet higher than those by the former farm house due to the difference in elevation. Because the water table is high, there are French drains in the basement, and a drain in the basement under the center of the kitchen. Water was drawn away from the house by tiles laid underground, draining into a pit located at an angle about 100’ from the on the other side of the road that runs alongside the ranch house. Tiles were also used for drainage throughout the fields to drain low lying areas. The porch has a solid concrete ceiling and floor, originally intended for canned goods. Forty trees were felled with a 2-man hand saw to clear the spot for building.
The original mill dam was made of wood, and when I first came to the farm when I was about 5, the mill dam was gone and the pond was dry. The mill itself was a 3-story building and was burned down by kids. Downstream is Farrington dam, and upstream is Deans Pond dam. The owner of Nixon Nitrates bought up the old mill and built the stone dam. As a philanthropist, he restored many of these structures for their esthetic beauty. The Beans live in the old Mill House now, a big house on top of the hill across the street from the former mill. The original owners of the mill, the Davidsons, were related to John D. Rockefeller who was one of the grandparents on the mother’s side. Rebuilding the dam increased the water level and some residents complained of the water encroaching on their property, so the mill land was donated to the county to curtail a legal squabble .
The farm was sold in 1968 to Public Service. They wanted the right of way for the power lines, which used to be a trolley line between Newark and Trenton. Eventually Public Service gave the land to the county, retaining the right of way for the power lines. Dad paid to keep the lights on in the farm house after it was sold, but sadly, kids burned it down.