In the early years of Duke Farms, J.B. Duke explored life as a gentleman farmer, raising and breeding cattle and horses and operating a race track on the property. By August 1893, Duke began inviting his New York friends to the estate, which he initially named Raritan Valley Farm.
By the end of the 19th century, Duke abandoned farming and proceeded to construct a great public park on his estate. His decision to open his estate to the public reflects the philanthropic ideals of his father.
Within six years after his initial purchase of land, Duke Farms had become “the Central Park of Somerset County.” Duke’s manipulation of water and landscape abounded with recreational opportunities for the community, such as picnics, ice skating, and gathering wildflowers. Scores of daily visitors enjoyed walking and driving through the park.
However, in August 1915, Duke Farms was officially closed to the public after years of combating vandalism, although individuals still could request and receive access to the property on designated days.
Then, as World War I siphoned off the labor force needed to maintain the property, Duke introduced large-scale agricultural production to the property on a scale that had never been seen in the region, converting his park to farm land to help the war effort.
Using innovative equipment including four tractors, a caterpillar, and the largest thresher ever used east of the Mississippi, Duke’s staff cultivated 340 acres of wheat and rye, 165 acres of corn, 6 acres of hay, and several hundred acres of miscellaneous crops with plans to plant another 700 acres in hay. This work continued into the 1920s when hundreds of tons of hay were harvested.
After J.B. Duke’s death in 1925, his daughter, Doris, inherited the property. Associating Duke Farms with fond memories of her father, Doris Duke made few major changes to the property. Her principal work at Duke Farms included the creation of indoor display gardens and the purchase and restoration of the western farms and farmstead structures.
Doris Duke also was a lifelong environmentalist with a keen interest in conservation. When she died in October 1993 at the age of 80, Doris Duke left the majority of her estate to the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and expressed her wish that Duke Farms be used to drive positive change on a number of key issues regarding the stewardship of the natural environment.
The Duke Farms Foundation was created in 1998 to own and operate the property. Today, the property serves as a regional center for environmental stewardship.