J.B. Duke’s vision for Duke Farms was to create a wonderland of seemingly natural vistas out of the rolling farmland of Hillsborough. He transformed the land with the Raritan River, streams and brooks into a spectacular park incorporating its own watershed serving nine lakes, waterfalls and 35 fountains. The majority of the landscape design and implementation at Duke Farms took place in two phases: 1899 - 1905 and 1905 - 1911.
1899 - 1905
The development of Duke’s park proceeded at a rapid pace during these years. The design sources for this period remain obscure. James Greenleaf (1857 - 1933), a member of the firm of Frederick Law Olmstead, the esteemed designer of Central Park in New York, probably deserves the attribution. Greenleaf, who became known for his massed conifers, credited Duke with giving him his start in landscape architecture at Duke Farms as a “Landscape Engineer”. Many of the design elements you might find in Central Park and North Carolina were presented in the landscape at Duke Farms, from rolling hills, streams, waterfalls, lakes to grand, enticing vistas.
By the early years of the 20th century, Duke’s park appeared complete in every way. A 1903 article in Town and Country magazine noted that “the whole panorama of woodland, rolling valley and winding river now form a landscape scheme that for original design and decorative treatment may find few counterparts.”
By 1905, Duke had completed feats including the construction of a reservoir, five lakes, and a series of carriage drives winding through the property, punctuated by well houses, pergolas, early fountains and stone walls. This focus on aquatic features in the landscape demonstrated his passion for water elements, including hydropower, yet also qualified the property as a significant contribution to what we now call a “Lagoon Landscape.”
1905 - 1911
The second phase of activity at Duke Farms was marked by a radical shift in scale and approach. J.B. Duke’s tastes changed to encompass more formal landscape effects and objects, consistent with a more worldly outlook brought about by the international extension of his business and frequent European travel.
In addition, Duke divorced his first wife, Lillian McCredy, and married Nanaline Inman, a widow from Georgia, in 1907. Her social aspirations, as well as those of his brother Ben, placed Duke in eastern seaboard circles that valued formal European design as a marker of elevated taste.
The symmetrical layout of the terraces, the newer bridges with their Renaissance revival urns and balusters, and the distinctive Fountain Terrace (now gone) located south of the residence indicate this new direction. Nevertheless, the appeal of the picturesque aesthetics remained and use of the signature boulders that characterize Duke Farms continued.
During this time, Duke retained Horatio Buckenham, an English landscape gardener and engineer credited with the ultimate landscape design at Duke Farms. Major projects included the excavation of additional lakes and the construction of a new pumping house and filtration plant.
1925 - 1993
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 protected the property from rapidly encroaching development and added acreage to the estate by acquiring additional farmland in the 1960s and 1970s. While Doris did not expound upon her father’s design, she did manage the landscape for decades, and made decisions to upkeep or at times to disallow certain systems. Many of the fountains and even the filter house were adequately maintained, most likely due to the high expense.
Upon her death in 1993, Doris Duke stipulated in her Last Will and Testament that Duke Farms serve to protect wildlife, as well as be used for agriculture, horticulture and research, inspiring today's mission of environmental stewardship.
1998 - Present
Many of the habitats that Doris desired to protect had been ravished by invasive flora and fauna. The Duke Farms Foundation is regenerating the habitats at Duke Farms to promote a diversity of native plants and the range of wildlife that depend on them. Humans benefit as well - healthy habitats provide us with clean water, fresh air, and other valuable resources.
Woodlands are being regenerated by replacing non-native invasive trees with native species. This ensures a healthy species-rich ecosystem that can support wildlife. More than 200,000 native plants have been propagated in a native nursery from seeds collected on the property, and over 300,000 native plants have been planted in the landscape in the last few years.
In order for species diversity to be successful, management of disproportionally populated Canada geese and Virginia White-tailed Deer has been necessary. As a result, more than 30 threatened and/or endangered species now call Duke Farms “home."
Edge habitats, areas of smaller woody plants between mature woodlands and open meadows and grasslands, are being created. These improved edge habitats will provide shelter and food for wildlife.
Acres of high-maintenance lawns have been converted into sustainable pollinator meadows of native grasses and wildflowers.
New methods of growing crops and raising livestock are being used for higher yields and for best management practices that maximize the survival rates for native pollinators and grassland birds.
In 2010, Duke Farms and the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, entered into an agreement to help ensure the restoration and preservation of approximately 528 acres of wetlands along the Raritan River and other areas of the property through the Wetlands Reserve Program and the Emergency Watershed Protection Program.
A Community Garden that opened in 2011 provides space for people to plant flowers and vegetables utilizing organic growing techniques. In 2012, the garden expanded to 420 plots.
Duke Farms is currently the site of numerous research projects, including a conservation study of threatened birds on agricultural grasslands, invasive plant species removal methodology, eastern bluebird nest box monitoring, grassland restoration best practices, carbon sequestration in New Jersey forests, pollination biology of native restored wildflower populations and restoration of the American chestnut tree.
The property also serves as an educational center where visitors can learn about land stewardships and sustainability practices, both on the large-scale for professionals and the small-scale for homeowners.