30 October 2014

"A Man Called Van Aken", Part Three

When Jeremiah, "Uncle Jerry", Rusk stepped off the train for his first visit to Belle Mead Farm in the summer of 1889, the newly minted United States Secretary of Agriculture, long time Wisconsin congressman, and three term governor probably wasn't expecting to see anything special.  Apart from his Civil War service, where he rose in the ranks from major to brevet brigadier general, he had spent most of his life in the Midwest where farms, even innovative ones, were plenty.


"Jeremiah McLain Rusk - Brady-Handy"
by Mathew Brady - Library of Congress Prints and Photographs
Division. Brady-Handy Photograph Collection.
He was greeted at the three-story, telegraph-equipped station by two gentleman - the farm's proud proprietor, United States Senator John R, McPherson, and the farm manager, New Jersey Assemblyman Jacob Klotz.  That past winter Klotz had dutifully returned to the assembly to vote his boss to the senate for a third consecutive term, now he was back at the farm ready to show it off.



Belle Mead station circa 1908

Boarding a carriage waiting behind the station, the three men started off on their tour.  McPherson explained that he had purchased the property several years previously in a foreclosure sale when real estate developer William B. Van Aken's cash-flow and marital problems forced him to abandon the industrial city he envisioned for the site.  It was now the millionaire senator who was the beneficiary of the railroad line secured by Van Aken, as well as the hundreds of thousands of dollars in land improvements instituted by the entrepreneur.



Rear of Belle Mead station, circa 1910
As the carriage drove out from the station and headed for the Somerset County countryside, Uncle Jerry got his first look at what he later described as "the finest cattle farm in the Eastern States."  But Belle Mead Farm comprised more than just a prize-winning dairy herd.  Spread out among the dozen farmhouses - including the senator's own "country home" - and the dozen enormous barns, were 10,000 peach trees, hundreds of other fruit trees, 100 acres of oat, 100 acres of wheat, a science-based chicken operation, and a game preserve.


1909 map of Belle Mead Farm.
West is at the top of the map, and the "macadam road" - Rt. 601 today -
should actually be to the north (right) of the station.

According to a contemporary story from the Reading Eagle, "Rabbits, ducks, partridges, guinea fowls, carrier pigeons, and domestic animals of every description abound in the woods." The secretary was astounded to see quail and plover "flying in all directions".


Heading west from Belle Mead station
For the wealthy senator who had made his fortune in the cattle business, and had even patented a design for an improved railroad cattle car, money was no object in assembling a herd for his new farm.  In the preceding four years, determined to have the best dairy operation in the country, McPherson purchased only the finest pedigreed Holsteins and Jerseys from across the United States and Europe.


Secretary of Agriculture Jeremiah Rusk (middle-ground left)
 and Senator John R. McPherson (middle-ground right)
 at the Belle Mead herd dispersal auction, 1891

Klotz was especially proud of DeBless, the "queen of Belle Mead", who produced forty quarts of milk a day, double the production of most good milkers - and there were plenty of other champions in the 300 strong herd.  Cows grazed on hundreds of acres of Kentucky Bluegrass - McPherson was the first to cultivate it in the North - and benefited from the enormous quantities of corn being raised for fodder, as the gentleman farmer was the first in the country to use the ensilage process.


Senator John R. McPherson's "farmhouse" at Belle Mead

As the men made their way back across the nearly 1300 acres to McPherson's finely-appointed farmhouse, the senator enthused about his upcoming trip to the far west where he hoped to pick up more cattle, and maybe even get into the racehorse breeding business.  Neither man knew that they would be together again less than two years later for the auction which would disperse the entire herd, or that William Van Aken would soon be seeking his revenge.


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