The LHT has been hard at work on a history project – identifying over 30 historically important spots along our 22 miles of trail that each played an outsize role in our region’s early days. From early settlements and mill sites to technology hotspots and transportation hubs, these sites help tell the story of Mercer County.
An archaeological dig at Howell Living History Farm in Hopewell, courtesy of Hunter Research
The LHT’s Historical Signage Project wouldn’t be possible without Hunter Research, Inc., a historical research consulting group founded by archaeologist Richard Hunter, a longtime resident of Hopewell Township and trustee of the Hopewell Valley Historical Society, in 1986. Hunter Research, based in Trenton, is conducting research for the project and will design, fabricate, and install the signage. In addition, Hunter Research works on preservation and restoration, archaeology, regulatory compliance, education and outreach, and have a hand in nominations for the National Register of Historic Places. Locally, they’ve worked with the Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park, the Louis Kahn Bath House in Ewing, the Trenton Ferry Historic District, Morven in Princeton, and at various sites within the Trenton Capital Complex. We spoke to historian Patrick Harshbarger, Hunter Research’s vice-president.
Richard Hunter, courtesy of Hunter Research
Patrick Harshbarger, courtesy of Hunter Research
LHT: The work you do is fascinating, and it seems like something that might fall under the radar of many people, can you explain a little about what you do and what organizations like Hunter Research do? And how and why Hunter was founded?
Hunter Research: Hunter Research is a Trenton-based private consulting business that specializes in historic preservation and cultural resource management. Its dozen or so professional staff provide expertise in history, architectural history, archaeology, preservation planning, exhibit development and historic interpretive signage. Much of our work is conducted for public agencies (federal, state, county, and local), private institutions, and non-profit organizations, and in many instances is driven by the requirements of state and federal historic preservation legislation. The company was founded in 1986 by Richard Hunter, an archaeologist and historical geographer, with the intention of providing professional services in these areas.
LHT: How does a person get involved in this type of work? What was your career path like?
HR: Involvement stems from having a passion for history and a desire to make history relevant in today’s world. Professionals in this field go through college studying history, anthropology, archaeology, geography, and related disciplines and move on to jobs in the public and private sectors (government agencies, museums, large architecture/engineering firms and smaller private concerns like ours).
It’s probably fair to say that those of us of a certain age were lucky enough to stumble into our jobs in the 1970s to mid-1980s. At that time, cultural resources management as a professional service was in its infancy, in large part due to strengthening of the nation’s historic preservation laws and regulations. Today, it’s a more established career path with degree programs set up to give students exposure to the field. In our region, the University of Pennsylvania (Historic Preservation), Rutgers University Camden (Public History), and Monmouth University (Anthropology) offer relevant degrees. Most of our staff graduated from one or more of these programs.
LHT: Where do you look for the historical information and archival imagery for a project like the LHT’s historical signage project? How does that process begin? How is information verified?
HR: Information is in libraries, archives, public agencies, local historical groups, and increasingly online. In the case of the LHT project, local sources – knowledgeable residents, local historians – are critical. Verification of information comes from use of multiple concurring written sources, primary archival references and professional judgment.
LHT: Is this project unique in any way? Mercer County is rich in history, but you’ve worked all over the country – how is this area different? What is access to historical documentation you seek out like here versus in other areas you’ve worked?
HR: The project is unusual in focusing on developing cohesive history content for a hiking/biking trail that is not in itself a historic route. We’re working with Douglas Scott, a talented graphic designer with sensitivity to history. He’s assisting us to craft a “family” of signs that are unique to the LHT. There is an art to creating historic interpretive signs so that the words and a variety of historic images and maps work together to tell the story. The idea is that the signs create a point of interest for an audience of LHT recreational users. So, we want the signs to convey a feeling of traveling through a landscape that has evolved over time. The signs need to be relatable to users who are out on the trail for recreation and fun.
LHT: Are there any stories you’re particularly proud of unearthing or verifying? Any projects that really stand out?
HR: Assuming this means LHT-related? Sometimes it is the more recent history that surprises and appeals most, since it is often easier to relate to, e.g., Arctic Parkway and early 20th-century development of roads. The Province Line is a fascinating and complicated story of tracing straight lines across the landscape as early Europeans carved up territory for their own benefit; you can follow this down to the present day and to local subdivisions. Even today, the Province Line still exerts a profound influence on land ownership and governmental definition.
Installation of signage at Central Park’s Seneca Village site, courtesy of Hunter Research
One signage project that stands out for us is our work for the Central Park Conservancy in Manhattan. There we helped Conservancy staff create a family of signs on the topic of Seneca Village, a community that formerly existed in and predated the park in the area of 85th Street and Central Park West. Seneca Village’s 225 residents, about two-thirds of whom were Black, were evicted in the mid-1850s when Central Park was established. The houses, churches and school were leveled to create parkland. The story of the village was largely forgotten until it became of interest to archaeologists and scholars in the 1990s. We think the signs prompt visitors to think about the park’s beautiful landscape in a different and very topical way. In a similar vein, one of the signs for the LHT is on the history of Lewisville, a small Black community in Lawrence Township that has been of interest to local scholars. Like Seneca Village, Lewisville had its origins in the early decades of the 19th century as Blacks, some of whom had been freed by New Jersey’s abolition laws, acquired small landholdings and congregated in what were mostly segregated neighborhoods.
LHT: What would you say are a few of the must-see historical sites in the general area, especially slightly off the beaten path sites, our readers may not already be familiar with?
HR: Well, we’re a little bit biased, but we think Trenton really doesn’t receive its due when it comes to its historical resources. The Trent House and Old Barracks are exceptional sites and illustrate the depth of our area’s history going back to the early colonial period.
Petty’s Run archaeological site in Trenton, courtesy of Hunter Research
We’ve developed a series of outdoor signs interpreting Petty’s Run Archaeological Site, a rare colonial steel furnace that stood next to where the New Jersey State House was later built in Trenton. Hunter Research dug the site, which was deeply buried and lost, and had the opportunity to run a highly successful public archaeology program too. It may be the only permanently interpreted archaeology site on a capitol grounds in the nation.
Kahn Bathhouse in Ewing, courtesy of Hunter Research
Another off-the-beaten path site is the Albert Kahn Bathhouse in Ewing Township. It’s an icon of Modernist architecture. Kahn enthusiasts from around the world visit – we’ve encountered busloads from Germany and Japan – yet it’s practically unknown to locals.
For a unique experience, nothing beats Howell Living History Farm in Hopewell Township. Their philosophy of encouraging visitors to participate in activities typical of farm families in 1900 makes for some great fun, especially interacting with the farm animals. The living history approach naturally prompts conversations about how everyday life for everyday people can change in just a few generations.
LHT: Please share any words of advice or encouragement for history buffs exploring the LHT.
HR: These signs bring home that history is all around you in countless little and often unappreciated ways. It nourishes a cultural connection to the landscape in a very tangible way.