Saturday, December 26, 2009

Sense of Place: Headquarters Farm

This place where we live lies at an intersection of many threads of culture, landscape, geology, climate, history, and geography. Passing through the hamlet of Headquarters last weekend, just as the big snow of the season was arriving, I stopped by Headquarters Farm, a rather imposing edifice in this modest place.

To my knowledge, this was never a grand residence, rather a home built by a well-to-do local farmer and entrepeneur. Its construction followed the building of a grist mill, the large stone building on the left in the photo above. The mill was built about 1730, and the house in 1757 by John Opdycke, a well-to-do merchant and farmer. It may be that John never lived in the house. Instead, it may have been occupied by the person he hired to run the mill, and half the house on the left may have been used as a store.

The origin of the name 'Headquarters' for both the house and the hamlet in which it is located comes from an apocryphal story of George Washington using the house as a headquarters during the Revolutionary War. Washington, indeed was in this area during the Revolution, and used a house in nearby Lambertville as his headquarters for a brief time (he was on the run), but never this house.

Opdycke, like many Dutch families in this area, probably owned slaves, who helped run the mill and support the local economy. We don't usually think of slavery as part of the heritage of this part of the US, but it definitely was. Not on the scale later found in the South, but it certainly existed.

So what does this picturesque scene in the New Jersey winter of 2009 tell us about our landscape, and our sense of place? How does our knowledge of the existence of slavery here affect our perception of the landscape and its man-made features? Does it recall the earlier devastation of the culture and the lives of the native Americans, the Lenni Lenape, who formerly called these fields, these hills, forests, and streams their home? How does past shape our understanding of the present, alter our understanding of the the place in which we live? How does it affect our choices in the garden?

(I'm indebted to Marphy Goodspeed's article in the Delaware Township Post for some of the facts in this post.)


  1. Interesting that you post this now, James. On 1/6 a group of design bloggers from around the country are going to jointly post about regionalism, each from their own. You are not more than 30 or so miles from me yet your Headquarters tells a much different story than does my Headquarters (both Washingtonian) in Morris County. Here framed buildings were the architectural archetype and I still equate the the stone you show with Bucks County and the river towns. Regional can truly be as local as local gets.

  2. Susan,
    Thanks for the update on the upcoming joint posting. You make an interesting point about regionalism. Our area has many stone houses, mills, and other buildings, several stone arch bridges dating back to the revolutionary period, even the last wooden covered bridge (public) in New Jersey. I'm delighted to drive through it every time I drive out from the city. Even in our small area, the place where our house is located is noted for Blue Jingle or Jingler (argelite is its scientific name), yet go a mile or two in one direction and the predominant stone is sandstone, exactly the same as the brownstone used to build the facades of the houses in brownstone Brooklyn. We may share a common stone heritage with Bucks County, but our cultures are vastly different.

  3. I am glad that you mentioned the slavery aspect of Headquarters Farm. Most people don't know just how extensive the practice was and that it was not just confined to the South. Even if there were areas were slaves were not part of the history, it colors (or taints) the nations story.

    When we visit my brother in Bucks Co., we can count on extended tours of the countryside, and I always marvel at the use of stone. Where we are in Tidewater, stone had to be imported, so the grand edifices were either of brick or wood.

  4. Les,
    Yes, slavery haunts our past just about everywhere, as does the great American genocide. Even our Pilgrim forebears practiced genocide on a rather grand scale. Our nation was founded on more than righteous words from the Bible. Of course, the genocide came straight from their reading of the Bible. Nuff said.

    I remember your brother lives in Bucks Co. but have forgotten where. Next time you're up here, let me know. I'd like to meet you. I also recommend you visit a little nursery called Paxon Hill Farm north of New Hope. Limited but very unusual selection of plants, and rapidly expanding gardens all around, thanks to Bruce, the owner. A beautiful place.

  5. Thanks for the invite, I don't know when we will be up again. We usually get up there in the summer, so I have no other images but green and leafy. BTW, he lives on the other side of the river in Kintnersville.

  6. I must say, this is one of those posts where the comments got me going. I'm working on a book that explores the natural and cultural nexus of Oklahoma--and this state is far more complicated in both areas than anyone might suppose. OK spans 8 or 9 distinct eco regions, and of course the Native American history is thick, complicated, tragic, and emblematic of how the government (deftly?) manipulated both Native tribes and foreign settlers. James, as for the Bible (I am not a Bible beater by the way), I think we can all agree there is a fair level of moral and ethical truth we could stand to hear more of that's buried in a text of interpretation and translation filtered through too much myth and opinion / ambition. I think most religious texts will reflect this, which is another way in which most religious texts are similar--they all have the same core ideals no one ever seems to recognize, which, as I teach sheltered college students, annoys me to no end (they seem to get more and more sheltered every year, which is perplexing). I'll quit now. Have to go shovel 18" off my driveway after being gone a week and missing the blizzard. Have a good new year.

  7. Les,
    It's just across the river and a few miles up river road. In fact, one of the people who works at Paxon Hill Farm lives in Kintnersville.

  8. Benjamin,
    You've taken on such a massive task I wonder how you don't feel totally overwhelmed. I don't know much about Oklahoma ("corn as high as an elephant's eye"?), but it appears you may have a remedy for that in the making. As for the Bible, I come to it from a childhood raised as a Southern Baptist in Mississippi, so I recognize Bible thumpers by instinct. I don't reject it as a literary (well, far more than literary, a massive socio-cultural-historical) text with undeniable and powerful resonances for vast numbers of people. But I'm tired of its misuse by any fool who knows how to twist any meaning he/she wants out of it, and doesn't hesitate to instruct you, or me, in how we should live our lives thereby. Yes, right now I'm ready to throw the baby out with the bath water.

  9. Forgot to add, good luck shoveling your snow, and have a happy new year.

  10. That's a handsome house. We don't have much in the way of stone buildings around here. That whole slavery thing...that's a big topic. I'm not sure what I'd have to say about that, but it's hard not to think about it when you're walking through Colonial Williamsburg. They used to have a nice exhibit of slave quarters at Carter's Grove Plantation with great interpreters, but now that's closed.

  11. Agreed on all points, James. Live by example, show don't tell as we say in the teaching business. (And after three days the snow is finally off the drive and walk--and no achey muscles!)

  12. Phillip,
    I remember the African American interpreters at Williamsburg from a visit many years ago. It was a powerful experience. I also remember the slave quarters recreation at Carter's Grove. Too bad it's closed (the economy?).

  13. Banjamin,
    Thank you for that response. It's not a subject I can be entirely rational about, except in quieter moments.



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