Updated: Jun 19, 2019
How the Van Zandts Acquired the Nevius Farm
This is the second blog in the Original Houses of Blawenburg Series. In Part 1 we learned how Peter and Altje Nevius came to Blawenburg and built the first farmstead.
Much of life is happenstance. Unpredictable things happen because we are where we are at the time. Some call it fate, and others say that things that happen were meant to be. The events that led to the transfer of the Nevius farm to the Van Zandts were certainly unforeseen.
Peter and Altje Nevius, original builders of the farmstead, had nine children. Two daughters passed away in childhood, an unfortunate common event in earlier times. There is no trace of what happened to their son, John. It was the custom to pass farms along to sons. The eldest Nevius son, also named Peter, was a very successful farmer who owned 2,677 acres of farmland in Middlebush, New Jersey, Vermont, Virginia, and Kentucky. Imagine taking care of those farms with no modern plows, phones, or trucks! He didn’t need any additional farmland.
The second son, Tobias, preceded his father in death in 1754, so when Peter passed away in 1767, he left the farm to his third son, James.
Meanwhile, Peter and Altje’s daughter, Joanna Nevius, married John Sutphen, a boy whose family occupied part of the Nevius farm. John's parents were immigrants from Sutphen, Holland. They had a daughter, Sarah Sutphen, who also married a local boy, Captain Bernardus Van Zandt, grandson of the patriarch of the Van Zandt family for whom he was named.
The senior Bernardus Van Zandt, the son of Johannes Van Zandt, was the first of a long line of Van Zandts that settled in Montgomery. He was born in New Netherland (New York) on October 3, 1700, and was baptized on Nov. 3, 1700. He was the grandfather of Captain Bernardus Van Zandt, who inherited the Nevius farmstead. He had a large farm along Skillman Road where Captain Bernardus grew up. Captain Bernardus was the son of Nicholas Van Zandt, one of Bernardus Van Zandt’s ten children. (Keeping track of these large families that gave their offspring similar family forenames is a tall order!)
A portion of the original Van Zandt farm became the State Village for Epileptics in 1898. While some of the land on the north side of Skillman Road has been developed for housing, a large portion was placed in farmland preservation and is currently owned by Hunter Farms, which uses it for equestrian events, and Selody Sod Farm. Much of the State Village is now Skillman Park.
It has been said the senior Bernardus shared a pew with one of the Skillmans in New York. He and his family followed the Skillmans to Montgomery and became their neighbors on Skillman Road. Word of mouth was the social media of the 1700s!
The Nevius/Van Zandt home as it looked in 2007. This Federal-style house is not believed to be the original Nevius home. There was another wing on the house on the east side (right side) that was moved behind the house where it has served as an apartment and garage.
Photo shared by Richard Van Zandt
The farmstead was still owned by the Nevius family, when James and his wife, Leah, took over. After Peter Nevius died in 1767, James and Leah realized what a big job it was to maintain an active farm. The Nevius’s had no children and relied on farmhands (and likely slaves, although no record of this has been found) to carry out the chores. James realized that he needed help running the farm when Leah died, so he called on Sarah and Captain Bernardus to manage it.
The transition of this property is captured in Snell’s History of Hunterdon and Somerset Counties (1881), p. 868,
"The marked ability of Capt. Bernardus (Van Zandt) in the management of his farm and the excellent qualities of his wife attracted the attention of her uncle, James Nevius. He had no family and lived alone upon an adjacent farm, and finally, in 1809, persuaded his niece and her husband to leave the old homestead and live with him. He died about two years afterwards, leaving his large farm by “will” to Capt. Bernardus, subject, however, to the payment of certain legacies. (They had to pay $20 per acre to be divided among the remaining Nevius family.) They remained upon the Nevius farm as long as they lived and raised a family of two sons and eight daughters. Attached properties were bought and sold, so that when (Captain) Bernardus took over the property, it contained 190 acres. Bernardus’s sons divided the property after he died in 1850 at the age of 83."
The graves of Bernardus and Sarah Van Zandt in Blawenburg Cemetery.
Left – Bernardus Van Zandt. Died Nov. 7, 1850 in the 83, year of his age
Right – Sarah Sutphen. Wife of Bernardus Van Zandt. Died Jan. 18, 1840 in the 68, year of her age
Photo credit: D. Cochran
When Captain Bernardus died in 1850, his son, John, took over the management of the farm. He is the first of several John Van Zandts to apply his talents to the farm. In a genealogy report, The Ancestors of Two Sisters, John is characterized as intelligent, fond of reading, and well informed. He is said to have had a “second sight” which enabled him to discard his glasses. He was actively involved in the building of the Reformed Dutch Church at Blawenburg (1830) and served as a deacon and elder at various times.
In 1934, his great-granddaughter Frances Van Zandt recalled, “Great-grandfather Van Zandt used to walk to the post office each morning, majestic in a silk hat and carrying his gold-headed cane, a gift of his children at the fiftieth anniversary of his wedding.”
James Nevius Van Zandt Acquires the Farm
John’s son, James Nevius Van Zandt, was the next to take over farming the Van Zandt properties. He purchased a 72-acre farm from Garret Van Zandt north of Rock Brook and added another 100 acres to it from the Van Zandt farm in 1860. He built a brick Victorian mansion just north of Blawenburg.
According to Ancestors of Two Sisters, a grandson (not identified by name) recalls his grandfather’s house. “The plans for the house were made largely or entirely by the grandfather and the bricks used in the building of the house were made there on the farm. In the center of the house there was a stairway at the top of which was a cupola with small windows of blue glass. The boy was sure there could be no grander house in the whole world than this marvelous house where Gran’pa Van Zandt lived.”
The James Van Zandt mansion is now the home of the SAVE animal shelter. The old mansion serves as offices, while animals are housed in a new, separate building. The original cupola is no longer atop the building.
Photo credit: SAVE animal shelter images
In 1905, the property was bought by the State Village for Epileptics and the mansion was used for offices. In recent times, the mansion has been restored and serves as the offices of SAVE animal shelter. The rest of the property has been very active since its farming days, housing the Skillman Training School for Boys for many years and now Montgomery High School.
Snell spoke highly of James Van Zandt’s skill. “He has confined his labors strictly to the cultivation and improvement of his farm, expending time and money in under-draining it, adopting all of the practical modern improvements tending to facilitate the operations of agriculture.”
As we have seen, the Van Zandts had a special talent for farming and would later show prowess in business as well. This talent was the legacy of the Van Zandts throughout many generations. They were recognized as innovators, model farmers, and business owners.
We will pause the Van Zandt story and resume it in January to show how the 20th century Van Zandts added new business operations to the farm. Meanwhile, we will have other Tales of Blawenburg to share.
Blawenburg Fact: Farming in the 1700s and 1800s required much more manual labor than it did in the 20th century. Land had to be cleared using hand saws, hand tools, and horsepower of the natural kind. Building barns and other outbuildings was done without the aid of electrical tools. In other words, farming was hard work!
Looking Ahead: Sinterklaas, A Dutch Tradition in Blawenburg
Brecknell, Ursula C. Montgomery Township, An Historic Community, 1702… Montgomery Township, NJ, Van Harlingen Historical Society, 2006.
Cossairt, Joseph A. Cossart Genealogy. Washington, DD, Bureau of Navigation. www.archive.com.
Snell, James P. History of Hunterdon and Somerset Counties, New Jersey with Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Its Prominent Men and Pioneers. Philadelphia, Everts & Peck, 1881.
Six Original Montgomery Farms Became NJ State Village for Epileptics in The Forgotten Village at Skillman Park. Van Harlingen Historical Society, 2016