22 February 2021

The Belle Mead Farmers' Cooperative Association (1920 - present day)

Long before the Belle Mead Co-Op was Hillsborough's "go-to" store for all of your home, patio, and garden needs, it was the Belle Mead Farmers' Cooperative Association - supplying Hillsborough and Montgomery farmers with fertilizer, feed, and anything else for operations both large and small. In 2020, the Co-Op celebrated its 100th anniversary. Here are some things you might not know about the Belle Mead Co-Op and how it got its start.


11 July 1985 Home News - 
Ignore the caption,
 the Co-Op is proudly in Hillsborough Township

Belle Mead as a place did not grow organically but rather was a planned community centered around the railroad. Real estate developer and entrepreneur William B. Van Aken bought over 1,000 acres of property along the proposed route of the Delaware and Bound Brook division of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad in the early 1870s. He donated the land for the original grand 3-story railroad station and by the middle of the decade, trains were stopping at Van Aken Station. When Van Aken's planned industrial community halfway between New York and Philadelphia didn't get any traction, he sold the property to US Senator John R. McPherson - who decided to abandon the industrial development plan and instead started a large-scale farming enterprise that he named Belle Mead (probably NOT named after his daughter).

The home of JVD Bergen at Maple Lane Farm, circa 1939

One of the people who was likely pleased by Senator McPherson's decision to go into farming was JVD Bergen, Sr. He ran Maple Lane Farm on Township Line Road and lived in the circa 18th-century house that was built by Reverend Peter Labagh of the Harlingen Church. By the 1880s the railroad had run a spur to the large hay press at the intersection of Township Line Road and what was then called the "Princeton-Somerville Road", and in 1890 Bergen contracted with the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad to construct a second spur right to his corn crib. As can be seen in the plan below from the 1890 contract, there was also a cattle pen along the spur.

Plan from the 1890 contract between JVD Bergen
and the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad
(Collection of Gillette on Hillsborough)

For decades around the turn of the last century, farmers would bring their hay by wagon to the corner of Bergen's farm where it would be compressed and baled by a machine powered by a horse turning a jackscrew in the cellar of the barn. The bales could then be easily loaded on railroad cars to be transported to markets. In the other direction, farmers could receive rail shipments of feed and fertilizer at the same location. 

2008 aerial view from the Belle Mead Co-Op website.
The buildings at an angle to the railroad tracks
 are a reminder of the long-gone railroad spur that once served the Co-Op

It was the desire for better and cheaper fertilizer that was one of the main objects of organizing the Belle Mead Farmers' Cooperative in the fall of 1920. Somerset County farmers realized they could use their combined purchasing power to get a better deal. The Co-Op would be owned by the members with any profits being shared. The original incorporators were John A. Drake, Harlingen; Charles N. Hoagland, Princeton; and Peter A. Garretson, Belle Mead. In 1923 they were one of the eight purchasing associations that joined to form New Jersey's first statewide cooperative. It was also in that year that the Co-Op added a mill to the operation for farmers who were growing their own livestock feed. Processing and mixing grain for feed is a service that continued right into the 21st century. Beyond commerce, the Co-Op became "the Club". A place for area farmers to hang out and fraternize away from the labor of the farm.

The Somerset County Book Mobile visits the
Belle Mead Farmers' Picnic, 1938

One of the first things the Belle Mead Co-Op became known for was helping to revive the Farmers' Picnic of the olden days which hadn't been held for many years. The first new picnic was in August of 1921 at Miller's Grove. A county-wide affair, that first picnic included not only lunch (including lemonade, candy, popcorn, and saltwater taffy!) but also speakers from the Belle Mead Dairymen's League, the State Grange, and the State Department of Agriculture, as well as demonstrations, games, and a big brass band. The Co-Op continued as the main sponsor of the picnic for many years.

16 March 1953 Courier News

The first major change to the operation of the Co-Op came in the spring of 1953 when, for the first time, goods were made available for sale to the general public with the opening of a "farm-and-home" showroom. They were ahead of the curve here as Hillsborough and Montgomery were still a couple of years away from the massive suburban growth that was to come in the late 50s and 60s.

23 April 2009 Courier News

In 1998 the Belle Mead Co-Op expanded its property by purchasing eight acres of the old JVD Bergen farm and a couple of smaller lots in order to expand its landscape supply business. In 2001 the Co-Op changed legally from a Farmers' Cooperative to a Limited Liability Company. This became necessary because, under the Farmers Cooperative act of 1920, the business was obligated to distribute dividends to all of its patrons - something that was unfeasible with a retail store.

A quarter of a century ago, longtime Co-Op manager Kevin Lyon was quoted as saying, "There's a lot of new construction in the county and there are potential opportunities there...we used to grow crops and took care of that. Now we grow houses and we're taking care of those people." That's as true today as it was in 1997 and probably foreshadows another successful 100 years for the Belle Mead Farmers' Co-Op.

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