New Open Space with Unique History in Belle MeadPosted on June 12, 2017
Montgomery Township has closed on a new tract of open space in Belle Mead near the Sourland Preserve. Known as the Skillman / Hillmont property, the purchase was completed May 23rd with funds from Township Open Space Trust Fund, in partnership with the NJDEP Green Acres Program.
Mayor Ed Trzaska commented, “We are thrilled to close on this new open space acreage. It adds to the 800 acres of protected land surrounding Lubas Park. One of our core governing principles is to protect Montgomery’s rural character. Over the past several years, we have preserved over 600 acres of additional open space, including authorizing funding to purchase 170 acres in 2016 alone.”
The tract consists of 13.5 acres of woodland on Broadway and Rt. 601 and has views of the Sourland Mountains. It is adjacent to 800 acres of open space including the Broadway fields, McKnight complex, and Lubas Field. It is also very close to Somerset County open space, including the Sourland Mountain Preserve & County lands formerly owned by Carrier Clinic. This acquisition preserves forest habitat and wetlands and also providing for possible future expansion of recreational facilities in the vicinity.
This vacant land has an interesting history due to what was not built there. This land is a conglomerate of a large number of small residential building lots (20 ft. x100 ft.) created on paper in the late nineteenth century by land owner Charles H. Cook. Cook was a pottery manufacturer from Trenton who promoted Belle Mead as a factory town with healthy country air for the working class. Manufacturing plants were to be built along the railroad on Reading Blvd. According to a
Van Harlingen Historical Society document, promoters ran free excursion trains from the city to convince potential factory workers to buy the nearby lots on non-existing streets on time-payment plans for a few dollars down. While a few small factories were built and Reading Blvd. is still home to some commercial uses, there was never industrial use on the large scale envisioned. One better-known manufacturer was Belle Mead Sweets, makers of fine chocolates, which closed up shop in 1904.
So what ever happened to the lots sold for factory worker housing? Necessary residential improvements were never built for the neighborhood and almost all buyers lost their lots to tax foreclosure in the Great Depression. Over many years, Dix Skillman, who was an attorney and active citizen of Montgomery, set about buying up many of the undeveloped individual lots to rejoin them. His widow, Virginia Skillman, recently agreed to sell the multitude of tiny lots to Montgomery for preservation. The ‘paper road’ rights-of-way, still visible on tax maps, will be vacated. Stone pillars, marking the planned entrance to the city that never came to be are still visible.
The Dix Skillman / Hillmont property was purchased by Montgomery from Mrs. Skillman for $382,500.