Morgan’s Farm: 20th Century History in Cedar Grove

Morgan’s Farm: 20th Century History in Cedar Grove

By: Kimberly Redmond

 

Once upon a time, much of New Jersey was farmland.

 

At the turn of the century, farming was still one of the main industries in New Jersey.

 

In fact, New Jersey was nicknamed the Garden State in 1876 because of the huge amount of food grown here. Nearly two-thirds of the state was rolling farmland, if you can imagine.

 

One of the last surviving examples of old farm life in New Jersey is tucked away in Cedar Grove, just off Route 23 by the Verona border.

 

Morgan’s Farm and Museum, located near the intersections of Fairview and Pompton avenues, preserves an environment that was once quite common but has now all but vanished elsewhere in Essex County.

 

And, with summer finally in sight, it’s the perfect day trip.

 

The farm and museum, both of which are run by volunteers of the Cedar Grove Historical Society, gives visitors a chance to learn more about early 20th century life, as well as a place to purchase produce fresh off the farm.

 

Known as the Canfield-Morgan farmstead, the 14.5-acre property is one of the last farms in Essex County to survive with a large portion of its original acreage intact.  

 

While there are a few other small farms in the region, many have been unable to resist offers for development, but since 1845, when the Canfield family purchased the tract, it has lost less than five acres.

 

The property includes a 150-year-old farmhouse that features a museum, as well as a barn filled with exhibits.  The grounds also feature gardens, a nature trail, municipal park space and a cemetery with gravestones dating back to the 1700s.

 

Tours of the museum are offered year-round to visitors, groups and schools. Morgan’s also regularly hosts pop-up markets, flower classes, children’s nutrition classes, historical programs, movie nights and concerts.

 

On Saturdays, from June through October, the farm runs an organic produce stand featuring locally grown fruits and vegetables, as well as honey, jam and other items, such as local history books. On May 17, the farm will reopen for business on Saturdays.

 

The farm stand is still relatively new, since planting, growing and harvesting only resumed in 2013 under the guidance of John Ostering and his wife Julie. Farming operations have served as a way to raise funds for the historical society, as well as provide the community a place to buy local and fresh.

 

“We are farming as a fundraiser to support the maintenance of the museum and to continue the legacy of the land. The community has rallied around to support us. They love that they know our farmer and they know exactly where their food is coming from,” said Julie Ostering, who is now president of the Cedar Grove Historical Society.

 

Produce planted for 2019 includes: onions, peppers, kale, eggplant, beans, peas, Swiss chard, lettuce, melon, squash, cucumber, romaine, tomato, radish, bok choy, arugula, corn, scallion, zucchini and berries.

 

This season, the farm stand will be moved into the barn for the first time, Ostering said.

 

“We set up a nice permanent market and we will be able to do business, even in the rain,” she said.

 

Since the property has returned to its farming roots, the community has really embraced the idea of buying locally grown, fresh produce, Ostering said.

 

“People today are looking for fresh, local food that they can trust has no pesticides or GMOs,” said Ostering.

 

Until the mid-1800s, much of Essex County was quiet and rural, even as Newark had already grown into an important rural center. Farms in the area harvested crops such as wheat, corn, oats and potatoes and sold them in Newark for a profit.

 

In Cedar Grove, the Canfield family was among the earliest farmers in the township, known for having a good social and economic standing, as well as for selling excellent produce in the nearby city markets.

 

Farming remained a big business in New Jersey until just after the Civil War. After the construction of railroads and the Homestead Act of 1862, which encouraged people to go west for land, the state’s farm economy began to see a downturn.

 

As the area became suburbanized, it became more difficult to be a farmer. High land cost, along with rising taxes and labor costs, posed a challenge, but being nearby to ready markets made farming a potentially profitable occupation.

 

Many farmers adjusted how they did their jobs and shifted their production to farming fruits, vegetables, poultry and other “direct to consumer” produce.

 

The Canfield family continued to raise longtime staples, such as corn and pigs, but also grew market produces, like tomatoes, melons, berries, apples and peaches, which they trucked to Newark markets by wagon a few times a week.

 

In 1910, J.W. Morgan, an English immigrant and advertising executive that worked in New York City, purchased the property.

 

Jean Jaeger, Cedar Grove’s township historian, said Morgan wasn’t that interested in farming, so he hired Benjamin Canfield, whom he bought the property from, to manage the farm for him until the Morgan children were old enough to work the farm.

 

“One of the reasons the Morgan’s bought the farm was to get away from Montclair, where they lived for many years, because they did not want their children growing up in a city,” Jaeger said. “But, Mrs. Morgan put the children in a pony cart each day to take them over the hill to Montclair to go to school. She also did all her shopping in Montclair.”

 

After J.W. Morgan took over the farm, it continued to supply markets in Newark. Seven years later, Courtenay Morgan started running the farm just before his father’s death and by 1935 the farm became more focused on making local sales.

 

Courtenay Morgan remained on the property and continued to operate the farm until just before his death in 1985.

 

Over the years, he declined offers to sell his farm for development, a fate that many other farms in northern New Jersey have since experienced.

 

But growth in the state has put farmland at risk.  Between 1982 and 2007, New Jersey has lost 27 percent of its agricultural land to development. The decline has slowed in recent years, however, thanks to zoning changes, favorable tax policies for agricultural production and right-to-farm legislation, according to non-profit organization New Jersey Future.

 

In New Jersey, agriculture is the state’s third largest industry, behind pharmaceuticals and tourism, generating more than $65 billion annually.  

 

New Jersey ranks second in the country for production of culinary herbs and blueberries and has more horses than the state of Kentucky.

 

Seventeen percent of the state – or 715,000 acres – remains farmland, a designation that ranges from nurseries to orchards to horse farms to livestock farms and produce farms, according to the Farmland Information Center, a non-profit.

 

About 80 percent of farms are involved in crop production, growing apples, blueberries, cranberries, peaches, tomatoes, strawberries, potatoes, corn, hay and soybeans. Livestock production also occurs on a decent amount of farms in the state.

 

Garden State residents love their farms, nonetheless. A state Farm Bureau poll found that 85 percent of residents believe farms should play an important role in New Jersey’s future. The same amount of residents said they go out of their way to buy local produce and visit local farms.

 

Had Courtenay Morgan not bequeathed the property to Cedar Grove, Ostering said it most likely would have been developed by now.

 

When he decided to deed the land to the township, he did so on the caveat that it be preserved as a scenic and historic resource. In correspondence on the matter, he noted: “This interesting land should be kept free of extra buildings forever.”

 

For the last three decades, the historical society has worked to maintain and preserve the property and its legacy. Proceeds from the farm stand and museum are used to support the property, as well as educational programming and scholarships.

 

The historical society is always seeking volunteers to come pitch in at the farm or the museum, Ostering added.

 

“If anyone would like to help, we would love to have them!” Ostering said.

For information on joining, visit www.cedargrovehistoricalsociety.org. Morgan’s Farm and Museum is located at 903 Pompton Avenue in Cedar Grove. For more information, visit www.MorgansFarm.org. To inquire about tours, call 973-239-5414.

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