NOTE: As with all Mr. Local History retrospectives, we often update the post when we learn stories and are sent photos from our community. We will continue to grow this piece as information becomes available.
Many people may not know that the 12 acre pocket of land on the corner of Main Street and Peapack Gladstone Road has served as the crossroads of Far Hills going back farther than the towns formation in 1921. The Borough of Far Hills is home to the J. Malcolm Belcher Fairgrounds. This park setting is host to numerous events such as the VNA Rummage Sale which occurs bi-annually, the Annual Spring Egg Hunt, there are basketball courts and a swing set for children of all ages, on one side of the Fairgrounds is the beautiful trout stocked Raritan River and around the perimeter is a well maintained track used for running and residents find enjoyment in walking their dogs in the area.
Meet J. Malcolm Belcher
- Born: September 26, 1887 in Newark
- Mr. Belcher had a brother Dr. Harold Belcher (NYC). He and his wife had two sons, James M. Belcher (Far Hills) and C. Russel Belcher (Houston) and a daughter Mary W. Pemberton (Rosemont, PA).
- Secretary, Jersey Cattle Association of New Jersey
- Owned the Hamilton Farm Milk Route – 1939-1945
- World War I veteran
- Mr. Belcher was Mayor of Far Hills from January 1938 until December 1965 (28 years) and then became a member of the Recreation Commission.
- 1982 – Mr. Belcher’s memory continues in Far Hills as the Far Hills Fairgrounds that he had worked so hard to acquire finally was named in his honor in 1982 to the J. Malcolm Belcher Fairgrounds.
- October 11, 1986 – The Township Committee of Far Hills voted to name a road in his honor. They named Belcher Lane . The road connects Layton Road near Liberty Corner Road running parallel to Route 287.
- Died: October 12, 1987 16 days after celebrating his 100th birthday.
Sunnybranch and Moggy Hollow
Parents: Zachariah and Kate Fuller Belcher – bought 200 acres in Far Hills in 1895 when the area was still part of Bernards Township. They purchased the land from the Wyckoff family and named the farm Sunnybranch Farm. The Belcher’s sold the Sunnybranch Farm property in 1905 to Walter and Kate Macy Ladd which was renamed Natirar.
After the Sunnybranch Farm sale, the Belchers moved on down the road a few miles and purchased 153 acres off Liberty Corner Road, approximately where 287 crosses Liberty Corner Road. They named the farm Moggy Hollow.
What became a dairy farm actually had a history of it’s own. Moggy Hollow, as the farm was named, is actually known as the pond left at the end of the Passiac Glacier during the ice age. The farm is now part of the Leonard Buck Garden in Far Hills along with its gardens and 18 rock foundations from glacial times.
Scientists say this pond which is the remainder of Lake Passiac was the largest glacial lake in New Jersey and was once 30 miles long and 10 miles wide with a depth of 240 feet. J. Malcolm Belcher and his partner Paul Span had to travel to Europe to purchase their cows.
“Paul Span and I got the cows (for the dairy farm) from the Isle of Jersey (UK). The trip had some of the biggest waves I’ve ever experienced.J. Malcolm Belcher about his trip to the Isle of Jersey to get his “Jersey heffers.”
Paul and Malcolm brought back over 100 cows which became the foundation for the Hamilton Farm milk route until 1945 when Hamilton Farm closed. He kept a few cows for himself but sold off the remainder to Morristown’s Farmers & Consumers. But he didn’t like the price they offered so he sold them to Carl Shirley of Bernardsville.
Moggy Hollow was later donated from Belcher to the Upper Raritan Watershed Association (URWA) back in 1967 which is now part of the Leonard Buck Gardens in Far Hills. 17 acres are in Liberty Corner and the rest are in Far Hills. The Buck Gardens are managed by the Somerset County Parks Commission. At the time, the land donation was valued at $75,000. The lakes disappearance left the Great Swamp but the lake went from Little Falls to Liberty Corner.
Far Hills Fairground History and Ties to Belcher
Mr. Belcher’s memory continues in Far Hills as the Far Hills Fairgrounds that he had worked so hard to acquire finally was named in his honor in 1982 to the J. Malcolm Belcher Fairgrounds.
Here’s a look back at some of the historic moments of the fairgrounds property as it has held a central role in the history of Far Hills leading back to before it was part of Bernards Township.
- Grant Schley developed the field in 1904 developing an athletic field. Horse and dog shows, baseball games, carnivals and fairs. In 1910 Schley founded the annual agricultural fair. Then in 1930 Schley held an annual fair to benefit the local Visiting Nurse Association.
- 1906 – The fairgrounds and its structures were built in 1906 by Grant B. Schley, who owned the nearby Fro-Heim estate, the present site for the Far Hills Race Meeting.
- 1921 – Far Hills was actually part of Bernards Township until seceding in 1921. Rising taxes led the 200 residents of Far Hills to decide to separate from Bernards Township and to incorporate as a Borough. The local property tax rate jumped from $2.72 in 1919 to $3.53 in 1920.
- 1940 – VNA held it’s VNA spring sale on Saturday, May 4, 1940 at Schley Hall on the Far Hills Fairgrounds.
- In 1947 the Fairgrounds was 21 acres and had 4 buildings and a grandstand.
- September 8, 1947 – Mayor Belcher convinced Far Hills to put forward bid to purchase Fairgrounds from Schley’s Far Hills Land Corporation under the direction of E.B Schley, President of FHLC and son of Grant B. Schley. The objective was to make it a public park. The effort was spearheaded by Mayor J. Malcolm Belcher and Councilman William Skillman.
- September 13, 1948 – The Far Hills Borough Council finally votes to close out its option and purchase the 21 acre fairgrounds tract for $7,500, far under the current market value, according to the Far Hills Land Corporation.
- 1948 – Mayor Belcher and the Township Council closes out the purchase of the 14 acre tract on behalf of the borough for $7,500.
- 1948 – The Far Hills Steeplechase was held on the fairgrounds in October 1948.
- On August 30, 1951 the Lions Club of Far Hills dedicated a new pavilion and presented it to Mayor Belcher. The pavilion replaced the previous one that was destroyed in a windstorm in November 1950. The pavilion cost over $5,000 to construct. The site was the host to the Lions club annual model airplane meet.
- 1958 – Somerset County 4-H Fair Association held fair at Far Hills Fairground.
- In May 1979, Far Hills Borough requests to tear down due to vandalism. The mayor called the vandals “two legged termites”. The stands had been present back to 1895 according to J. Malcolm Belcher chair of the Fairgrounds Committee in 1979.
- 1979 – The VNA held their rummage sale there in 1979 and the Somerset Hills Garden Club sponsored an annual plant sale on the grounds along with boys baseball and girls softball games, jogging, and fishing. The Morris and Somerset leagues played baseball in the evenings.
- In 1982, the Far Hills Borough council voted to change the fairgrounds name to the J. Belcher Fairgrounds.
- 1990 – Mayor William Layton receives bids to restore the Fairgrounds structures. A roof estimate of $35,000 was considered and the VNA stated they would help “foot the bill.”
- In March 1994, the Bernardsville News had a story about the Kiwanis Club proposing to move Basking Ridge’s Labor Day Kiwanis Fair to the Far Hills Fairgrounds. The permit was denied, and in July 1994 the fair was cancelled.
- 2018 – A much-anticipated regional shopping tradition for over 90 years, the VNA Rummage Sale returns to the Far Hills Fairgrounds on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, October 5, 6 and 7. Proceeds from the sale help provide home care, hospice care, adult day and caregiver assistance services, including important and innovative programs uncompensated by Medicare, Medicaid or private insurance. Flu shots (18 and older) will be available at the VNA information tent Friday and Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. The cost per flu shot is $25 and is free for those covered under Medicare Part B (card required for verification.) No Medicare
- 2019 – On the third day of the Visiting Nurses Association of Somerset Hills rummage sale at the Far Hills Fairgrounds Sunday, both the regular and supplemental parking lots were so flooded it wasn’t safe for people to park, organizers said. “Weather conditions and lack of parking cancelled the event,” said Patricia Neill, co-chair of the annual event.
And as they say…..the rest is history.
- Did you know there is also a Sunny Branch Road in Far Hills? Yes there is.