‘Pole Farm’ remembered in Mercer Meadows plans

Thousands of telephone polls once covered the 800-acre site in Lawrence known affectionately as the Pole Farm, and while they are long gone, the Mercer County Park Commission plans to commemorate the site’s history as a telecommunications hub with a collection of telephone-pole inspired shelters and dioramas.

Though the new pole design won’t be used to transmit any international calls as the structures once did in the mid-1900s, they will be part of the ongoing effort by the Mercer County Park Commission to unite three open space properties as part of the Mercer Meadows project.

A diorama in the pole farm already depicts the setup of the AT&T tract and how it connected calls with the rest of the world, and construction is also underway on several shelters alongside the park trails, designed in the likeness of the telephone poles and structured to shade several outdoor benches.

Park Commission executive director Kevin Bannon said a collection of trails, maps, historical signage, dioramas and bird blinds are additions that are set to link the pole farm, Rosedale Park and additional surrounding preserved open space together as Mercer Meadows.

The natural terrain is home to a variety of birds, such as wintering short eared owls, American Kestrel, American Woodcock and Northern Harrier. Other wildlife like the Northern black racer snake and red fox also inhabits the area.

“It’s one of the best birding areas in the region,” Bannon said. “It has a great habitat that people really appreciate, and we wanted to keep that natural setting.”

The pole farm is a significant piece of history not just in Lawrence, but in the U.S. For almost 50 years, the land had been an international communication hub, the center of a new, groundbreaking technology for making overseas telephone calls.

“The idea that you could pick up the phone and call someone in Europe was just amazing,” Lawrence Township historian Dennis Waters said. “They built what was, for a time, the largest telephone station in the world. It was really quite remarkable and an important piece in the history of the technology in this area.”

When AT&T shut down the pole farm in 1975, there had been talk of selling the land to a developer for the construction of apartments. But public opposition to the proposed project eventually propelled the county to step in and purchase the land.

Other changes in the Mercer Meadows project included the Park Commission’s move into the Hunt House, located along the Lawrence Hopewell Trail, from its previous headquarters in Trenton. Maps and signs will lead the way through the Lawrence Hopewell Trail, which is about 90 percent complete, Bannon said, and also through the Twin Pines Trail and Maidenhead Trail.

But the signage will also provide facts and stories about the history of the land and the wildlife there.

“We’re providing a really passive recreation area, but we’re also not losing the history,” Bannon said. “We’re making sure as generations go through there, they’re learning about the history of the property.”

Waters began studying the history of the pole farm in 2009. His research included time spent perusing the AT&T archives and speaking with individuals who remembered the farm. Until he began his research, Waters said, there had only been bits of pieces of information available about the landmark operation. The pole farm had been a “high-tech technological marvel of the world at the time,” he noted, and yet it wasn’t something that was widely researched or remembered in Lawrence.

AT&T had purchased the plot of land, which was mostly located in Lawrence with a few sections in Hopewell, in 1928 at $140,000, which is equivalent to about $1.7 million now. The first four transmitters were built that year, and in 1929, the first channel to London went into operation.

Though the first call overseas had already been transmitted through a pole farm in Maine, the Lawrence station used short wave radio technology, allowing multiple calls to be made at once. Previously, the Maine station’s long wave radio technology could only transmit one call at a time.

Individual antennae—each of which occupied about 10 acres—were used to transmit calls to different cities, primarily in Europe, the Middle East, and parts of North Africa and South America. Calls were transmitted out of Lawrence, and responses were received through another location in Netcong.

The technology was available to all households in the U.S., but was extremely costly. A three-minute call to London in 1930 would have cost $30, equal to about $360 now. Because of the expense required for each call, operators were extremely conscientious about connecting individuals to their destination. To connect with someone overseas required correspondence between several local and international operators, sometimes taking up to an hour before a connection was made.

The pole farm reached the height of its operation in the late 1950s and early ’60s. Its highest traffic year was 1963, with more 16,000 calls per day. About 90 workers were employed at the property in its peak time, most of whom were engineers that maintained the poles and antennae around the clock, as the pole farm stayed open 24 hours a day.

“The stuff was a lot less reliable than what we have today, so there was always a need for maintenance,” Waters said.

The engineers mainly worked inside the buildings, Lawrence resident Bob Hullfish recalled, and they were local men who lived in the surrounding area. Hullfish, 72, has lived most of his life within a mile of the farm, first as a kid on Van Kirk Road, then later when he moved to Cold Soil Road near his business, Bob’s Garage.

The landscaping around the buildings was mostly kept clear, but the rest of the property was left to grow somewhat freely, Hullfish said. A fence separated the two buildings from the surrounding land, and during the WWII years, guards often patrolled the fences, as the property provided the major communication link to information about the war overseas.

The allure of the technological significance quickly wore off for Hullfish, who said he and his friends often used to sneak onto the property to hunt pheasants.

“It was off limits, but you could hit the corners,” he said.

Between the poles and around the buildings were hundreds of acres of empty land, which AT&T and later, Mercer County, leased out to farmers.

“It was an enormous tract of 800 acres with all these poles, but in between the poles there was nothing,” Waters said, noting that the unused land was leased as farmland, though farmers would have to maneuver tractors in circles around the poles.

But in 1975, AT&T finally shut down the pole farm site, after the emergence of communication satellites and underwater cables eventually surpassed the short wave radio technology. At the time the pole farm closed, only one circuit was still in operation, transmitting calls to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

AT&T razed the property, knocking down two buildings and thousands of towering telephone poles. But on the Hopewell side of the property, one pole was left untouched, stretching to nearly 90 feet tall, and remains standing today.

The pole was spared at the request of Charles Bryan, whose family had operated a dairy farm on the property before, during and after the existence of the telephone poles.

Bryan, 89, had wanted the pole because it would act as a lightning rod, keeping his own home safe in the open landscape. Later on, the pole also became a roost for hawks.

The Hopewell resident had been three years old when his family moved from Hunterdon County, where his grandparents were farmers, to the pole farm property in 1927. His home had originally been located on the farmland before it was eventually removed; in 1951, Bryan moved to the opposite side of Federal City Road, where he still lives today.

In his work on the farm, it had been difficult to navigate around the telephone poles, Bryan said, and the job was often more expensive, time consuming and dangerous.

But despite the struggles that came with the land, he said it was interesting to be so close to the groundbreaking technology of the time. His son Paul had been extremely interested in how the technology operated, and before Paul left for college, the farm’s engineers—many of whom Bryan had befriended over the years—led him on a tour and explained how the program worked.

Bryan said the last remaining pole also stands for a significant reason.

“It’s the only thing left on the place that was a memorial of what they were doing there,” he said.

Some plans for the pole farm, including the pole farm diorama and Twin Pines Trail, have already been completed. The majority of additional work to transform Mercer Meadows into an open space recreational facility is expected to be finished by summer. The Park Commission is also working to convert the farm fields to wildflower fields, which will support and also attract other birds and wildlife, Bannon said. The change is set to take place over the course of the next few years.

To Bryan, the changes in the Mercer Meadows project are a welcome tribute to the site’s once paramount accomplishment.

“I think that’s interesting,” Bryan said. “It’ll preserve the memory of it. It’s well worth it. Most people had no knowledge what was going on over here, none at all. That’s why the name ‘pole farm’ came about. All they saw was poles.”

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