For several decades Caryn’s grandparents owned a chicken farm. They stopped raising chickens further back than Caryn’s memories take her and sold the property about 30 years ago when they retired. I have heard stories about the farm, but never had a chance to see it. So on a glorious Saturday afternoon we impulsively headed deep into the heart of central New Jersey searching for a small glimpse into the past.
It had been a long time since she had been there and the only bits of information at hand were the name of the town and one of the roads which bordered the property, plus something about a weird intersection. You may think in this GPS infested age town and road names would be enough. Thinking – that will screw you every time. Oh sure, we found the town and road easily enough. Although the exact location of the farm was a mystery Caryn insisted she would know it when she saw it. I looked at the fields of corn with no distinctive landmarks and put my faith in the power of her conviction. I asked if she was sure the main house was still standing since, you know, one old landmark would be helpful. She was 98% sure which to my way of thinking is not 100%.
Farm fields and bright blues skies. ‘Bout as good as it gets.
We drove. Nothing resembled a house from the 1930’s unless that house looked like a corn stalk. I was assured it did not. The only ones we passed were on sub-divided farmland in developments with names like “Pheasant Run” and “Quail Nest.” I am sure when the first earthmovers rumbled across this newly residentially zoned land the pheasants ran like hell. I also wondered who buys these enormous houses which are close to nothing, not even each other. Do these people have jobs to which they must commute? Not everyone has won the lottery, so of course someone must work and some of those workers must commute. I am all in favor of owning a lovely house in a lovely setting, but if you spend most of your time in your lovely home sleeping and not watching the pheasants run or the quails nest…
The miles passed until the road changed names, not an encouraging sign. We circled back, this time paying closer attention to the non-existent landmarks. No old homes, no weird intersections, no nuthin’. It became increasingly obvious the moment had arrived to phone a friend or, in this case, her dad.
“We’re looking for the farm. The house is still there, right?…Good…Where are we? Right by the old library…Yes, we just passed that little Italian restaurant…The lasagna? No, I’ve never had it. Maybe we can stay on topic?…Yes, we’re on Old York Road…What’s that?…Which Old York Road? There’s more than one?…You don’t say. Why would they do that? There are four streets in the entire town. It’s not like all the street names were already taken. Didn’t they realize how confusing that would be?…Yes, I know you didn’t name them. It was a rhetorical question. Anyway, you’re saying we head east to the other Old York Road…What’s that?…No, I’ve never had their eggplant parm either.”
suddenly there it was
Newly directioned we trudged along until suddenly there it was, the house where her grandparents once lived and the land they once chicken farmed. As promised the house hugged the road near a weird intersection. Feeder roads shot off at 45 degree angles to the right and left, but not quite across from each other. (The road to the right was the other Old York Road.) The main road faded left just beyond this cockeyed intersection. An aerial view of this configuration would reveal a misshapen arrowhead on a curved shaft.
The house was tucked in one underside of the arrowhead. It stood out in bold relief from the eerily similar homes which now dot the landscape, looking as if it saw time marching by and defiantly gave it the finger. A detached garage and well house stood to the rear and side. We kept a respectful distance as she marveled at how little had changed since her summery youth. Meanwhile I snapped away with my camera, anxious to capture of bit of her past in the present.
“Here comes someone,” specifically a woman with the determined gait of purpose. She shouted and waved her arms, but her words were lost in the 100 yards which separated us. At the speed she was moving she probably arrived before the words did anyway. “Can I help you?” Her voice telegraphed the unmistakable suspicion which accompanies any question directed towards a person with a camera. Especially when they are using it on what a fussbudget may label “Private Property.” Caryn seamlessly stepped in and explained her family’s connection with the house and property. Funny how a common history can shatter barriers.
home to 121 chickens
She and her husband now own the land which includes the original house and accompanying structures, plus a new home they built several years ago. They rent out the old house, grow some vegetables, and raise some chickens. The resulting produce is sold at a roadside stand. They spoke of expanding the chicken coops. Caryn’s grandparents had two coops, each 121 feet long, and raised thousands of chickens. They want to rebuild the operation back to something comparable. In a bit of serendipity their small coop currently has 121 chickens. They also plan to restore the old house, updating the interior while retaining the established look of the exterior. That was nice to hear. We are often too quick to tear down the past.
We chatted for a while longer. They brought us up to speed on local farming politics (insular) and Caryn shared news about her grandmother (still with us at 96). We left carrying a box filled with fresh tomatoes, corn, eggplant, and a dozen brown eggs (“from our Rhode Island Reds”). The food was delicious, but not as satisfying as learning that some folks still find value in what came before them. Who expected a small glimpse into the past would result in such a warm feeling about the future?
The rear of original house is in the center, the garage to the left. To the right take note of the road sign illustrating the “weird” intersection.
The farm stand where current produce, including fresh eggs, is sold.