This was a farm that tobacco built, although you would be hard-pressed to believe that this vast 2,000-acre estate is simply just a farm. Created by J.B. Duke in the late 1800’s, it started out as a purchase of a single farm by the Raritan River. The estate quickly expanded as 40 other farms in the surrounding area were added to the property. In the beginning, Duke Farms was meant to be an actual farm with cattle and horses, but J.B. tried his hand at it and changed his mind, opening up the land as a public park instead.
The landscaping is diverse, ranging from waterfalls to hills to a large number of lakes, with sculptures dotting the landscape almost randomly. This work is attributed to the design firm of Frederick Law Olmstead – the same firm that designed Central Park. Given the size of this place, you will probably want to explore by bike to get the most out of your visit here. On bike, you should probably give yourself 2-3 hours to look around. On foot, you ideally would want to spend half a day here.
The Coach Barn was the first of several barns to be built. It’s clear from the expensive finishes that they were meant to be more than just barns. In fact, they look more like mansions to us ordinary folks!
While the other barns seem to be in good shape, this one is being reclaimed by nature. The old hay barn is now a home for these lovely ladies.
I saw two conservatories, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more to be found elsewhere on the property. This is the major one, called Orchid Range. As you would guess by the name, it housed orchids. J.B.’s daughter, Doris, had a passion for them. The conservatory still has orchids on display today, along with other tropical plants.
Had they completed the mansion, this would have been the view from the backyard.
While water plays a large role in the landscape design, the lakes and waterfalls that I saw were not that attractive – they were covered with green algae! Fortunately, there were plenty of streams where the water ran clear and the trees gave plenty of shade – perfect for a picnic!
Duke Farms is located at 1112 Duke Parkway West in Hillsborough, NJ. It is best to drive there and is about 1.5 hours from the city. However, you can take the N.J. Transit Raritan Valley Line to the Somerville Station and taxi the remaining 1.5 miles to the entrance. The grounds are open 8:30 to 6:00 every day except for Weds, July 4th, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Admission is free, and there is plenty of parking space. No pets are allowed. There are a number of environmental workshops and tours being offered right now – costs vary, and you should register in advance.