The State Village for Epileptics was located where Skillman Park is today, adjacent to Blawenburg, just north of Rock Brook. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the village was a large community of 1600 patients with epilepsy and up to 500 people who attended them. In this blog series, we will tell the tales of the State Village and its successors, the New Jersey Neuropsychiatric Institute, and the North Princeton Developmental Center. Part 1 will show how and why the State Village came into being. Part 2 will look at how the self-sustaining village operated in its early years through an interview with Dr. Dan Pullen, who grew up in the State Village and later worked there with his father as a dentist. Parts 3 and 4 will share what life was like at the village in the words of those who lived there and those who lived in and around Blawenburg.
In the Beginning—the Eugenics Movement
To understand why the State Village for Epileptics was built and why Montgomery Township became its home, we have to look at the thoughts and trends about epilepsy in the latter part of the 19th century. Epilepsy is a neurological disorder that causes people to have seizures. Approximately 1% of the population has epilepsy. There was a belief at the time that people who had epilepsy and other “deficiencies” were genetically predisposed to them. The belief at the time was that people with epilepsy should be separated from the regular population so they wouldn’t do damage to others. They also believed that “deficient” people should be kept from reproducing.
Eugenics had roots in England. Francis Galton was an English intellectual who studied many fields, including math, science, and psychology. He was a half-cousin of Charles Darwin, whose work on evolution we still debate today. Galton became interested in the work of animal breeders, who were trying to create animals with desirable traits. He extended this idea to humans and wrote about it in his 1869 book, Hereditary Genius. He said just as we can “…. obtain by careful selection a permanent breed of dogs or horses gifted with peculiar
powers of running, or of doing anything else, so it
Francis Galton would be quite practicable to produce a highly gifted
race of men by judicious marriages during several consecutive generations.”
Galton coined the term eugenics and defined it as “the science of improving stock, whether human or animal.” Said another way, eugenics referred to the selective breeding of animals and people to prevent future generations from carrying forward their undesirable traits. The word eugenics comes from the Greek words eu for “good” and genics for “birth”. He felt that by applying principles of genetics and heredity, we could create “good births” to improve humans.
This movement came to the United States near the turn of the 20th century. Charles Davenport, a chicken breeder, became interested in applying eugenics to his farming interests, then he extended his theories to humans. He teamed up with Harry Laughlin, a science teacher and principal, to promote eugenics. They believed that pauperism, mental disability, dwarfism, promiscuity, and criminality among other human “deficiencies” could be stopped by selective breeding. They incorrectly saw all these human conditions as problems related to heredity. In their thinking, the world would eliminate its worst problems by restricting the “undesirable” people from procreating.
Newspaper article from Sunday Oregonian, Portland, OR, 1913
The difference between the movements in the England and the United States was clear. In England, the focus was on selective breeding to carry positive traits forward. In the United States, it was to eliminate negative traits by preventing them from being carried forward genetically. This translated to the reproductive control of many poor, uneducated, disabled, and minority people.
What started as an academic theory quickly became a social movement that captured the attention of legislators. Before long states were enacting laws in support of eugenics. Indiana enacted the first sterilization law in 1906, and soon after, 28 other states enacted similar laws. People were surgically sterilized or institutionally sterilized. 64,000 people throughout the country were surgically sterilized over time. Those placed in an institution were kept from reproducing. In 1923, Oregon passed a law enabling these practices on people deemed "feeble-minded, insane, epileptic, habitual criminals, moral degenerates, and sexual perverts."
The eugenics movement peaked in the 1920s and 30s, but some of its practices continued until the 1960s. Not surprisingly, the Nazi movement of the 1930s and 40s embraced eugenics and enacted it with the mass murder of millions of people who threatened the creation of a master race. The rise of Nazism reduced the popularity of eugenics in the United States.
The State Village for Epileptics
In the late 1800s, a prevalent belief among the medical community and others was that epilepsy was a hereditary disease. It was thought to be incurable because there was no known treatment for it at the time. Consequently, this condition was often exaggerated, and people began to fear epileptics, especially when they had seizures. Epileptics were shunned by society and forbidden from attending school or religious services and mixing with the community. They lacked education and trades, and they often ended up in institutions for the mentally ill or poor.
By 1898, the State of New Jersey’s Department of Health concurred with the prevailing theory about epileptics and its effect on future generations. They also felt that epileptics needed to be treated better under the control of the state.
The Department of Health authorized $15,000 to purchase land and begin building the institution. There were several criteria that guided their search for land. According to Walter Baker’s A History of the New Jersey State Village, the new facility had to:
1. be located within 25 miles of Trenton.
2. be near a railway.
3. be secluded, not near main roads
4. have a good climate needed for the health
of residents. Posters supported eugenics
5. include a self-supporting farm.
6. have separate housing for men and women.
The then-sparsely populated Montgomery Township met these criteria, so between 1898 and 1920, the State purchased six farms encompassing 1097 acres to build the State Village.
According to an article in The New York Times, the State Village for Epileptics “opened in 1898, when Acting Gov. Foster M. Voorhees signed a bill into law establishing the State Village for Epileptics. The village was designed to be a self-sustaining agrarian community, where epileptics could live together in a wholesome environment, learn trades, receive medical treatment, and leave behind the almshouses, insane asylums and even prisons to which they had been consigned in the past.”
New York Times 1898
The village began with one farm and only seven patients the first year. The 187-acre Maplewood Farm, which was located on the north side of Burnt Hill Road near the bridge, was purchased. As the State Village expanded, Maplewood became the home of the Superintendent. By 1920, five other farms were purchased to expand the village land to 1097 acres.
The State Village was described in the New York Times in as, "Built on farmland bought by the state, the sprawling grounds included a farm with chickens, cows and pigs; fields for growing fruits and vegetables; a power plant; a firehouse; and even a sprawling theater where the residents staged operettas like "The Pirates of Penzance."
As we will see in the next blog, the State Village functioned very well for more than 50 years providing a safe and productive environment for its patients. As time when on, new realizations about epileptics led to changes in the village population. Some of the reasons these changes took place include:
Genealogical studies of the families of epileptics showed that there was very little genetic transfer of the disease within families. They further realized that instead of being insane or deficient, epileptics were quite normal and capable people.
The eugenic theories on which the village was based were falling into disfavor in the 1930s and 40s.
Budget restrictions because of the Depression led to lower wages for workers at the village. They worked long hours, often 10-12 hours per day, six days per week. This made it difficult to retain quality employees.
New medicines were being developed, giving epileptics fewer and more controllable seizures.
By 1949, the State Department of Health initiated efforts to reduce the number of epileptics at the village. They opened clinics around the state for epileptics whose seizures could be medically controlled. Only the severe cases were brought to the village for evaluation and treatment.
As more patients returned to their families, the State Village had to change its mission or close. By this time there were over 100 buildings serving hundreds of patients. They opted to for a mission change, and in 1953, the State Village was renamed New Jersey Neuropsychiatric Institute. Some more serious epileptic patients remained, but the “Institute,” as locals called it, began serving patients with a variety of other needs – various mental illnesses, drug addiction, alcoholism, and more. Fewer of the new patients were able to do the work previously done by epileptic patients and more work fell on the staff to keep the grounds, do the laundry, cook, and provide the trades needed by the community.
By 1983, the State Village had another mission shift. It decided to narrow its scope to patients with developmental disabilities, cerebral palsy, and other neurological disorders. Several new cottages and a school were built to support group living and help patients acquire an education.
By the mid-1990s, more patients were able to live among the traditional communities, and institutionalization was falling out of favor. In 1995, Gov. Christie Whitman declared the North Princeton Development Center surplus property. This sounded the death-knell for the facility. In 1998, 100 years after the State Village began, its last patients were transferred to other facilities, and the buildings on the grounds were shuttered. Brad Fay, then president of the Van Harlingen Historical Society referred to the demise of the North Princeton Development Center campus in the New York Times, “"In the preservation world, the term is 'demolition by neglect.'"
Smalley Hall in the early 1900s
Indeed, the property quickly went into decline while Montgomery Township and the State negotiated its sale. People were generating ideas for how to use the buildings. A theater group wanted to use Smalley Hall, the 1000-seat theater, for productions. Then-mayor, Louise Wilson, envisioned a town cultural center. Weird NJ magazine promoted it as a ghost town in New Jersey.
Humans assisted in the deterioration of the campus with break-ins and destruction to the interior of the boarded century old buildings. Arsonists also found it to be an interesting target. An iconic 19th century ice house on the lake was burned. Similarly, there were fires in Lakeside and Maplewood, the 18th century home of the Superintendent which was slated to become the home of the NJ Epilepsy Foundation.
Most of the acreage of the State Village was sold. Part of the James Van Zandt property which had been developed as the Boys’ Training School in the 1960s, was sold to the Montgomery Township School District for the new high school. The school in the village and 12 acres surrounding it were sold to the school district and became the Village Elementary School. Land along Skillman Road was sold to Selody Sod Farm and Hunter Farms, an equestrian show center, under farmland preservation. The Van Zandt property was sold to SAVE animal shelter. The State of New Jersey retained the original farm and land east of Burnt Hill Road, but it is no longer functioning as a farm.
By the time the sale was consummated, all the buildings were in disrepair and asbestos laden pipes snaked throughout the property. In 2007, Montgomery Township bought the property from the State of New Jersey for $5.95 million. They tore down the buildings, removed/remediated the underground asbestos threats, and built a new dam for the Sylvan Lake. This came at a high price tag, over $15 million additional dollars.
By 2011, the township decided to recoup some of its losses and sold the remaining property to the Somerset County Park Commission for approximately the cost of the cleanup and dam replacement. The new owners removed the new dam and reduced the lake to a stream, a continuation of Rock Brook. They worked with the Open Space Committee in Montgomery to build a 2.2-mile trail and other features in the new Skillman Park.
As you walk around the tranquil park with its old trees and shrubs, it’s hard to believe that so much happened in that large facility throughout the 20th century. Other than the road system and the State Village cemetery, there is little to show that this was once a large institution. It’s even harder to understand how the medical community dealt with people with difficult conditions in the days before modern medicine. Things are not perfect today, but many people with conditions formerly thought to be incurable are able to function well in society thanks to the medical improvements that have happened over the past hundred years.
1. David Weeks, the second Superintendent of the State Village and a proponent of eugenics, is buried in Blawenburg Church Cemetery.
2. The State Village achieved its goal of being self-sufficient. All the services needed were supplied by the professional staff and the patients. Patients learned skills that helped them run the laundry, cook meals, serve the professional staff, shoe the horses, and much more.
3. Orchard Road got its name because of the many fruit trees on the State Village property. There was an abundance of peach trees in the early years of the village until a peach blight killed many of them.
Baker WC. (2005) A history of the New Jersey state village for Epileptics. Van Harlingen Historical Society, Belle Mead, NJ.
Bruder, Jessica. "The Ghost Town Next Door," The New York Times, February 6, 2005.
Epilepsia, Volume: 51, Issue: 7, Pages: 1107-1119, First published: 01 July 2010, DOI: (10.1111/j.1528-1167.2009.02486.x)
Norrgard, K. (2008) Human testing, the eugenics movement, and IRBs. Nature Education 1(1):170
State Village sign – The Chalice, Newsletter of the National Blue Family
Francis Galton picture - Oil-painting, G-Graef, London, National Portrait Gallery, 1882
Perfect baby – Multiple Internet sites
Healthy seed poster - Multiple Internet sites
Newspaper clip - New York Times, 1898
Smalley Hall - postcard
Skillman Park sign - https://twp.montgomery.nj.us/skillman-park/
Copyright © 2021 by David Cochran.All rights reserved.