History and Sustainability at Duke Farms

Museums, broadly defined, are places where culture and community can come together. They are education-forward and make a meaningful impact upon visitors. In one way or another, museums convey purposive undertones that transcend any base artistic or historical value of what might be on display. Duke Farms—a historic estate in Hillsborough, New Jersey that has been transformed into a public center for land stewardship and natural sustainability—embodies these values and proves that a museum doesn’t always have four walls and a gallery. I grew up just down the road from this obscure institution, frequented the site for organized events and casual strolls alike, and tended a plot in its community gardens with my mother from 2012-2013. Most importantly, however, his place notably informed my imagination of what a cultural institution could, and should be.

PHOTOGRAPH BY Samuel D. Pfister

Duke Farms was formed in the late 19th century when James Buchanan Duke, tobacco mogul and namesake of Duke University in North Carolina, purchased approximately 2,740 acres of land along central New Jersey’s Raritan River. He began to transform the grounds into a lavish personal estate, but died in 1925 before his efforts could be realized. The land passed to his then 12-year old daughter, Doris Duke, who sued her mother for ownership rights of the property, won, and moved there full-time a few years later.

Raritan River
PHOTOGRAPH BY Samuel D. Pfister

Doris Duke continued to develop Duke Farms, completing dozens of stone-and-mortar buildings and laying hundreds of miles of roads and pathways. The estate also became a place of horticultural experimentation. In the late 1950’s and 1960’s, Duke turned 10 acres of the property into Duke Gardens, a glass-house botanical collection that was modeled after DuPont’s Longwood Gardens. Duke Gardens opened in 1964 and gave the public their first glimpse of the estate from the inside.

After Doris Duke died in 1993, the estate fell into a two decade-long state of near closure and naturally became a spot of local legend. A few of the estate’s larger buildings are visible from a small county road that bisects the property, but much of the nearly 3,000 acre farm was unknown to the public and remained shrouded in mystery. First-hand knowledge of the grounds became muddled with rumors, and legends that the old Duke estate was home to scores of dilapidated ruins, miles of artificial waterways, and a menagerie of exotic animals spread across Hillsborough--or so they did in our town’s Middle School. Growing up around this time, I was thrilled to hear intrepid tales from older friends who had definitely hopped the property’s stone wall, explored an abandoned building, and spotted a lion roaming the grounds. At one point, it was even suggested that the clock tower at the coach barn on the north side of the estate was haunted by the ghost of James Buchanan Duke.

Of course, the elaborate fountains and water system, as well as the aged facades, could easily be confirmed by a quick peek over the wall. The zoo of animals from around the world, however, were less believable, until one afternoon, while driving down the highway that bypasses the estate, my sister and I found ourselves stopped in traffic, face-to-face with Princess, one of Doris Duke’s two double-humped camels, who had, earlier that day, escaped from the property and decided to roam the town. Some of the more fantastical stories of Duke Farms may not be so unbelievable after all. Princess, the camel died in 2014 at the age of 27 and was perhaps more widely known for her astonishing ability to accurately predict the outcome of professional football games.

In 1998, management of the property was turned over to the Doris Duke Foundation, which began a 15-year process of redeveloping the estate into a community hub with a mission of education in sustainability and environmental stewardship. Century-old buildings were renovated to be visitor-facing spaces; trails were refurbished; habitats restored; and sustainable infrastructure assembled. Duke Farms reopened in 2012, branded from a place that looked to the past--the grounds were originally constructed to fit an antiquarian aesthetic imaginary--to a place that endeavoured to the future, one that is environmentally just and conscious of its power to engender positive influence in the community.

Arches over part of the biking trails
PHOTOGRAPH BY Samuel D. Pfister

Duke Farms launched with an extensive menu of initiatives aimed at inviting the surrounding communities to participate in the mission of sustainability. Miles of pathways on the grounds are open to walking & biking self-guided tours where visitors can (very literally, without a map) get lost within the protected wildlife habitats. Other formerly active buildings on the estate grounds have been converted to support visitor experience, such as the Orchid Range where visitors can take a peek at the latest horticultural work of the farm, or the roofless hay barn that has been reimagined as a marble sculpture garden. The trails also weave around lush meadows, budding with native plant species, making for an unmatched picnic date locale.

Marble sculpture garden
PHOTOGRAPH BY Samuel D. Pfister

Each year, Duke Farms also facilitates workshops that aim to teach sustainable living; educational tours on nature and wildlife stewardship; lectures from experts on a range of topics, as well as other events. However, sustainability at Duke Farms is not just the message, but the praxis. Some buildings feature green roofs for increased natural benevolence while the aforementioned Orchid Range was refitted as one of the first LEED gold certified conservatories in the world. Elsewhere on the property, a 640-kilowatt solar field, with 3,120 panels on 2.7 acres of the property, supplies 100% of the electrical power needs of the estate and electrical vehicles and bicycles have completely replaced fossil-fuelled vehicles. Even the heating and cooling systems on the grounds are supported by fifty six geothermal wells that use ground temperatures to increase efficiency.

The renovation push also refitted the estate’s horse and dairy barn into a LEED platinum certified Orientation Center, complete with a viewing theater and guide services station, where visitors can screen films on the farm’s wildlife protection initiatives and rent bikes to tour the grounds. Attached to the Orientation Center is the Farm Barn Cafe, a 4 Star Certified Green Restaurant® that serves locally-sourced, organic foods. I’m not shy in the slightest to admit that the cafe is, without a doubt, one of the highlights of Duke Farms. Nothing really compares to hot coffee and a banana french toast bread pudding, doused in whipped cream and maple syrup that was made right on the property, on a crisp Autumn morning. Check out their blog for more of Chef Josh’s recipes.

Visitors can traverse the grounds completely free of charge, although many of the organized and sponsored activities have modest admission prices that support Duke Farms’ operations. (During the current pandemic, the grounds remain open, but facilities are closed. Visitors are, of course, encouraged to adhere to all local safety guidances and check the Duke Farms website before planning a visit).

The ideal day at Duke Farms begins early in the morning. Swing by the Orientation Center nearby the parking lot to pick up a trail map and talk to a staff member to see if there are any unique events going on that day. If you’re in the mood for a stroll, bop across the street where you’ll have access to 18 miles of walking trails that tour you through hidden sites that are scattered across the property. A shuttle to the orchid range is also available for visitors with limited mobility.

If you’re able to get to the heart of the property early enough, you can probably catch a glimpse of some of the Garden State’s harder to spot bird species. In fact, in 2012, the Audubon Society called Duke Farms a “birding hotspot.” A family of Bald Eagles is even known to inhabit the property. Don’t worry. If you can’t see them in person, Duke Farms has installed an eagle cam that lets visitors spy on these raptors from the comfort of their couches.

One of the hidden gems of the estate is the view from the old foundation--the basement infrastructure of an unfinished mansion that rests at the top of a hill overlooking a blossoming meadow. Rumor has it that when his American Tobacco Company was monopoly-busted in 1911, James Buchanan Duke diverted funding from work on his New Jersey property to focus on the development of his North Carolina estate, which was closer to his new business ventures. Construction of his mansion at Duke Farms was abandoned and never completed. The view from the foundation, however, is unparalleled on the grounds. Ornate terraced steps lead down to a field of blossom native plant species that support the estate’s abundant butterfly and bee population.

If, at this point, you’ve walked up an appetite, head back to the Cafe at the Orientation Center where you can fuel up on lunch and a nitro cold brew before catching a workshop on improving soil quality in your home garden. With trails well-interpreted, and tactful signage posted around the grounds explaining Duke Farm’s efforts in natural stewardship, it is difficult to leave the property without having learned something.

Gauging impact is a difficult task for a cultural institution. As soon as visitors walk out the door--be it physical or metaphorical--you never know if your message was received, if your mission was accomplished, and whether people will reflect upon their experience in constructive ways. Duke Farms places visitor impact front and center. Their mission is not sustainability for sustainability’s sake, nor the preservation of only the habitats confined within their property. As responsible custodians of the greater community, Duke Farms mobilizes their virility to breed advocacy in their visitors and to have them propagate their undertaking beyond the stone walls of the estate. That is to say, Duke Farms makes the community they serve a better, more environmentally-equitable place, acting through the visitors they engage.

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Samuel D. Pfister

Samuel D. Pfister is the Collections Manager at the Badè Museum of Archaeology at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California and has always had a passion for history and museums. He graduated from the George Washington University with a BA in Anthropology & History in 2018 and again in 2020 with a MA in Anthropology. You can find Samuel on Twitter @pfister_samuel or at samueldpfister.com