Monday, February 17, 2020

Clearing Brush at Veblen Cottage

We could have had a javelin throwing contest, with all the sticks piled on the Veblen Cottage grounds, or studied the arc the branches made as we tossed them over the fence, as Veblen did with projectiles when he led a crew of mathematicians during WWI that helped improve understanding of ballistics.

But our main task for a Sunday afternoon was to clear years of accumulated brush from the cottage grounds. The easiest and most rewarding thing to do with it all was to toss it over the fence. Fortunately, the land on the other side of the fence is part of Herrontown Woods as well, and the resident wildlife will still have the benefit of cover the brush affords while we clean up the cultural landscape around the farmstead Oswald Veblen used as a study.

The workday was catalyzed by Rose and her mathematician husband Martin, who contacted us about volunteering. Thanks to friends who joined in: Kathryn, Victoria, Marian, Andrew and John.

The results exceeded our expectations. Most of the branches had been from Japanese maples that, though pretty in the fall, had begun to spread into the surrounding woodlands.

A surprise find under all the brush was the remains of a persimmon grove, whose distinctive chunky bark is still recognizable on the fallen logs. This is the second persimmon grove discovered at Herrontown Woods. The first is located halfway down the trail to the parking lot, and still has some living trees.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Princeton Council Votes to Lease Veblen House and Cottage to FOHW

On Monday, Jan. 27, many supporters of the Friends of Herrontown Woods gathered at Princeton council chambers for a public hearing on Ordinance 2020.2. The palindromic arrangement of the digits would have pleased mathematician Oswald Veblen, but even more pleasing was the contents of the ordinance--language that would allow FOHW to lease and begin repairing and utilizing the Veblen House and Cottage. Already two hours into the meeting, with an agenda that looked like it would stretch far into the night, council members' faces brightened as the lease ordinance came up for discussion. A number of supporters of FOHW--Steve Hiltner, Inge Regan, Pallavi Nuka, Andrew Thornton, and Clifford Zink--rose to speak, telling council what Herrontown Woods and the Veblen buildings mean to them. Kip Cherry listed some of the highlights of Oswald Veblen's influential career. When public comment was complete, council members David Cohen and Mia Sacks praised the work of the Friends of Herrontown Woods. Even before being elected to council, Mia Sacks played an important role in rallying support for our efforts to save Veblen House. Council voted unanimously to pass the ordinance. 

Below is the text from comments by FOHW president, Steve Hiltner:
First I'd like to express gratitude for the work that David Cohen and Marc Daschield put in as we developed the lease over the past year. It was a pleasure to work with you, and I look forward to more interactions as we move forward. I also want to thank all of the supporters on council and in the community, the angel donors and other contributors who have stepped forward and have shown a belief in us and our work, the board members and all the other volunteers with the Friends of Herrontown Woods who have helped us reach this point where our nonprofit can at last have a formalized arrangement for repairing and utilizing the Veblen House and Cottage for the public benefit.

We are a small organization, formed seven years ago. I like to think of us as the Little Engine that Could, because we stepped into a void that no local institution, government, or existing nonprofit was willing to fill. Back in 2013, Herrontown Woods--Princeton's first nature preserve, donated by the Veblens 55 years earlier--had been abandoned. The nature trails were impassible, the buildings boarded up and overgrown. Into that void stepped a few of us volunteers, in particular Kurt and Sally Tazelaar, who made the trails passable once again. Now, the buildings that the Veblens donated along with the land await our focused attention.
Some people may ask what value a couple old houses out in the woods could possibly have for the community. The Veblen House has been boarded up for 22 years, the Cottage for 60. We sometimes think of buildings as contrary to the goal of open space, but in fact they can be complementary. Where do people who love open space gather? Think of Clark House at the Battlefield, Mountain Lakes House at Mountain Lakes, the Johnson Education Center at Greenway Meadows, the Updike Farmstead.

All of these examples of how a historic building can complement open space are, by the way, on the west side of Princeton. On the east side of Princeton, it's a different story. We can be grateful that more than 500 acres of open space have been preserved in eastern Princeton, yet no functional building is available to complement that land. That is what the Veblens were trying to provide when they donated the buildings so long ago, and that vision is what the Friends of Herrontown Woods now wants to see realized.

I like to think of the Veblen House and Cottage as two riddles that have sat quietly in Herrontown Woods all this time, waiting to be solved. They have so many stories to tell. As we research the history of the houses, the people who lived in them, and the eras they were built in, they are becoming like a Magic Schoolbus that can take us sailing back to distant times and forgotten worlds. They are our windows into the past, and can teach lessons that will carry us into the future.

As we maintain trails and repair the buildings the Veblens left behind, we see ourselves as setting a stage at Herrontown Woods, for exploring nature and history, for learning and artistic endeavors, for social events, or for solitude and quiet contemplation.

In 2017, Princeton council stepped up and helped us save the buildings from demolition, and we thank you for your support now, as we begin finally to put these buildings on the positive trajectory they have patiently awaited and so very much deserve.

Stephen K. Hiltner, president, Friends of Herrontown Woods

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Public Hearing on Veblen Lease Monday, Jan. 27

The Friends of Herrontown Woods is encouraging supporters to come to council chambers this coming Monday, Jan. 27, 7pm, for a public hearing on Ordinance #2020-2, "authorizing a Lease with the Friends of Herrontown Woods Pertaining to a Portion of Herrontown Woods also know as the "Veblen" Property."

 The initial lease is for five years, with the expectation of a longer term lease to follow as FOHW develops and implements rehabilitation plans for the Veblen House, Cottage, and grounds.

The lease, the product of a yearlong negotiation, comes twelve years after botanist Stephen Hiltner happened upon the abandoned Veblen House while conducting a plant inventory of Herrontown Woods. In 2013, Kurt and Sally Tazelaar joined him to reopen the nature preserve's long neglected trails. They formed a nonprofit the next year, gained supporters to help fight off Mercer County's attempts to demolish the buildings in 2017, and convinced the town of Princeton to take ownership of the preserve. While waiting to gain an official arrangement with the town through the lease, volunteers have been clearing invasive species, sprucing up the grounds of the House and Cottage, and keeping the buildings secure until they can finally be put to the uses the Veblens envisioned nearly fifty years ago.

The meeting will be in council chambers at town hall, 400 Witherspoon Street, beginning at 7pm.

FOHW Begins 2020 With Front Page Article

2020 began auspiciously with a January 1st Town Topics front page article entitled FOHW Volunteers Look Forward to Veblen Property Lease.

The article quotes Mayor Liz Lempert, who described Herrontown Woods as “one of the jewels of Princeton’s park system,” which “had gone mostly untended for decades. We’re very fortunate to have the enthusiastic volunteers of the Friends of Herrontown Woods, who have already done extensive and exceptional maintenance work on the network of trails and stream crossings.”

As FOHW prepares to sign a lease with Princeton to begin rehabilitating the Veblen House and other structures left to the public trust long ago by Oswald and Elizabeth Veblen, we look forward to adding to the ways the buildings can complement the hundreds of acres of preserved land along the eastern Princeton Ridge, and making them one more component of the Veblens' wonderful legacy in Princeton.

As stated in the Town Topics article:
“We’ve come to treasure being a part of Veblen’s legacy, and we want to tell people about it and about what one person can do,” Hiltner said. “Veblen saw the connections between geometry and woodland trails, between intellect and nature.”
In an example of remarkable serendipity, the article was noticed by an advocate of "dry stone walling" who lives on an island in Ontario and does daily searches for cultural heritage sites around the world. She then contacted a friend who grew up in Princeton and now builds stone walls in Vermont. The friend contacted us, came to visit, and gave us insights into how to repair walls in Herrontown Woods, including the horse run in the photo.

Remembering Daniel A. Harris

The Friends of Herrontown Woods mourns the loss of a great environmental force in Princeton, Daniel A. Harris, who died on Dec. 26 at the age of 77. A distinguished professor and poet, Daniel became active in local causes after retirement from Rutgers, advocating on issues ranging from civil rights to open space protection.

As stated in an obituary in PlanetPrinceton, "With his wife, Jane Buttars, he founded Save Princeton Ridge, which succeeded in limiting development on the Princeton Ridge in Princeton and in contributing to the creation of the Princeton Ridge Preserve."

Daniel was featured in a Princeton Magazine article entitled Uncommon Princeton Citizens for Common Causes, which describes how he, his wife and others were able to reduce the size of developments on the Princeton Ridge to protect additional acreage. Daniel combined a gentle demeanor with an iron resolve, and worked tirelessly to achieve his goals, using his writing skills and talent to make his case.

As the first individual to send a donation to the Friends of Herrontown Woods, soon after we received official 501c3 status back in 2014, Daniel would often send emails of congratulations when we took a step forward. After we successfully fought off attempts by Mercer County to demolish the Veblen House and Cottage, Daniel cheered us on:
"Wonderful news for you and all your colleagues who won a big victory for Princeton and laborious volunteerism. Bravo! I hope you feel really satisfied by your big win."
We will miss you, Daniel. Thanks for your spirit, your devotion, and a legacy of adding hard-won acreage to the protected land along the Princeton Ridge, which will remain in perpetuity for all to enjoy.

A celebration of life service will be held at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 26 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Princeton.

Thursday, December 19, 2019


It's been another year of moving FOHWard at Herrontown Woods. The lease we negotiated with the town for the Veblen House and Cottage awaits town ratification this January. We built a new trail and continue to restore existing trails and habitat. The botanical garden is growing into a sea of wildflowers. A girlscout troop and other volunteers contributed to improvements in the grounds and signage. Ongoing research is expanding our appreciation of the vision and pioneering spirit that helped Oswald Veblen achieve so much in the world and our community.

Please support our work, and join us out at Princeton's first nature preserve.

  • Completed negotiations with Princeton to lease the Veblen House and Cottage, beginning early in 2020

  • FOHW volunteers continue to care for 220 acres of public land at Herrontown Woods and Autumn Hill Reservation
  • A very wet spring prompted many trail improvements towards making trails useable year-round
  • Constructed a new trail through 7.5 acres of sloping woodland donated to Princeton in 2018 through FOHW’s initiative
  • Botanical Garden: With ongoing care, we are transforming a forest opening into a sea of native wildflowers and grasses to feed summertime pollinators, with 100 native plant species.
  • Collaborating with Town on control of invasive species

  • Keeping buildings secure and dry
  • Evaluating structures in preparation to begin repairs in 2020
  • Converting window covers to shutters to expedite window repair.
  • Redirecting runoff away from buildings and into attractive raingardens
  • Grounds around house and cottage mowed, maintained, invasive plants removed, paths installed.
  • Nurturing an edible forest of pawpaws, hazelnuts, butternuts, persimmons and plums.

  • Girlscouts Cadette Troop 72905 installed interpretive signage telling the history of the Veblen House and Cottage
  • Designed and produced educational flip cards for nature adventure backpacks available at the Princeton Public Library
  • Ongoing research and website posts about nature and the fascinating history of Veblen House at, and
  • Renewing connections with local schools
  • Regular nature walks led by area naturalists
  • Hosted our second annual Oswald Veblen Birthday BBQ in June. 

  • New board members and some particularly engaged friends of the preserve are adding their energy and expertise to FOHW’s work.
  • Had our second board “retreat” to develop strategic planning

  • Additional progress towards our initial goal of raising $100,000.

Thanks to all who have contributed to making these achievements possible.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Creative Reuse at Veblen House

Creative reuse is central to nature's vitality, and a central theme in our work at Herrontown Woods, where houses and a nature preserve, generously donated long ago for public use, had been left to languish for lack of care and attention.

As a formal lease moves towards town ratification early in 2020, we've been doing some small fixes at Veblen House and grounds, as part of our stewardship of the property. Most of the invasive species have been cut back, reopening vistas of the stonework and gardens. Some small berms and swales have nicely diverted surface runoff away from the house to feed raingardens. In preparation for last summer's Veblen Birthday BBQ, we expanded parking simply by cutting back vegetation that had long disguised the original width of the gravel driveway.

More recently, we collected lawn signs after the fall election and have used them as shingles to repair the wellhouse, which had lost its roof over the years. A few scavenged boards and the lawn signs were all that was needed to put the well house right again.

One of our board members, Peter Thompson, contributed a couple rainbarrels that are now catching runoff from gutters we added to the roof of the garage. Since there's no running water as yet at Veblen House, the collected rainwater will be handy for watering new plants during next year's growing season.

Also near the Veblen House, we've installed a leaf corral that holds leaves, but also has a critter-proof central cylinder that can hold food scraps. Once the corral is filled, the leaves will disguise the food scrap composting and provide insulation to speed decomposition. Earthworms and other decomposers rise up from the ground and into the leaves and food scraps to do their work. No turning of the contents is required.

The leaf corral, called a "Wishing (the Earth) Well" because it looks a bit like a wishing well for leaves instead of coins, made a good conversation piece at the end of our autumn nature walk.

Here's what it looks like with some snow and some leaves, which surround and disguise the inner cylinder of food scraps, brought by one of our board members who lacks a home compost bin.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

A Walk in the Woods

Auspicious weather and a nice turnout made for a lovely fall walk through Herrontown Woods this past Saturday.

We started with a brief tour of the botanical garden next to the parking lot, where storms in recent years have knocked down the grove of white pines, leaving a gap in the forest. Last year, FOHW volunteers rescued this gap from a host of invasive species, and this year's rains fed a robust wave of weeds that had to be subdued. These interventions have made room for 100 native plant species, including sun-loving wildflowers like ironweed and Joe-Pye-Weed that feed pollinators in the summer when the forest has little nectar to offer. Shrubs already growing in the preserve, like blackhaw Viburnum, serviceberry, alternate-leaved dogwood, and wild azalea, are also benefitting from the additional sunlight and protection from deer that they get in this managed forest clearing.

Some sights photographed were these edible berries of blackhaw Viburnum

and some leaves of white oak that looked like they'd had paint spilled on them.

Deeper in the preserve, the blooms of witch hazel came as a surprise. As so often happens, people are more familiar with the spring-blooming asian witch hazels that are grown as ornamentals on Princeton campus and elsewhere, while the less-encountered native blooms quietly in local woodlands in the fall.

The remnants of a bird's nest looked like a beard. We walked up onto the ridge, past the boulder field, and made a stop at the cliff. There was talk of fire's historic beneficial role in woodlands, how the boulders came from igneous upwellings rather than from glaciers, which didn't make it this far south, and the past logging that can still be seen in the multi-trunked trees that originated as stump sprouts after a tree was cut down long ago.

Afterwards we headed to the Veblen House grounds for some refreshments, more conversation, and some tree climbing. Thanks to all of those who came and added to the enjoyment of the walk.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Fall Nature Walk, Saturday, October 19

On Saturday afternoon, October 19 at 2pm, join us for a Nature Walk in Herrontown Woods. The walk will be led by botanist Stephen Hiltner. Meet in the main parking lot, down a short street across Snowden Lane from the entrance to Smoyer Park. We'll check out this year's crop of wildflower seed in the phoenix garden, do some leaf identification along the way to a scenic overlook, then gather afterwards next to Veblen House for refreshments and conversation.

Rain date if needed will be October 26, same time.

In the photos, sweetgum leaves and a boulder lifted high by the rootball of a toppled tree.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Thanks to the Gert Volpp Family and Friends

A year ago, I had not heard the man's name, but now every time I encounter a father walking with his kids along a trail in Herrontown Woods, I think of Gert Volpp. After doing post-docs alongside Nobel Laureates in chemistry, he and his wife Ching moved to Princeton in 1963. The Veblens had donated Herrontown Woods as Princeton's first nature preserve only six years before, and Elizabeth Veblen was still living next to it in what we now call the Veblen House. The Volpps started a family, and before long Gert began bringing his kids to Herrontown Woods for hikes. Many others who grew up in Princeton remember the Volpps, and that time in the 60s and 70s when Herrontown Woods served as the primary destination for Princetonians wanting to immerse themselves in nature.

When Gert died earlier this year at the age of 88, his daughters and son remembered those days and asked friends of the family to contribute to our Friends of Herrontown Woods nonprofit in his memory. They appreciated that our group of volunteers had adopted the preserve in 2013, reopening trails that had all but disappeared for lack of maintenance. Thanks so much to the Volpps and their many friends from around the country who have now given more than $4000 to help us maintain the trails and create interpretive signage!

Gert was an avid hiker who loved adventure, and I can't help but think that the boulders of Herrontown Woods reminded him of his many hikes in the Alps. He left behind a wonderful collection of stories from his life, called Opa Stories, with adventures, quiet humor and life lessons, beginning with his childhood in Germany. Much of it can be read online at the link.

The obituary, pasted below, tells of a remarkable life and loved ones. It's fitting that Gert has a brother named, Kurt, given that Kurt Tazelaar has been the main force in restoring and improving the trails at Herrontown Woods.

Born in Lörrach, Germany, in July 1930, he was the second son of the late Anna Zeller and Otto Volpp. He received his Ph.D. degree summa cum laude from the University of Basel with a doctoral thesis on the structure of the African arrow poison ouabagenin (“Zur Konstitution des Ouabeginins”) under the direction of Nobel Laureate Thaddeus Reichstein. He arrived in the U.S. in 1958 to begin a five-year postdoctoral fellowship in chemistry at Harvard University, where he engaged in a total synthesis of colchicine with Nobel Laureate Robert Burns Woodward. At Harvard he met Ching Yuan, a postdoctoral fellow working with Nobel Laureate Konrad Bloch. The two were married in Oxford, England, where Ching, originally from Beijing, had a second postdoctoral fellowship with Sir Ewart Jones. They settled in Princeton in 1963, where they raised four children. Gert lived in Princeton for 55 years.
In 1963 Gert began a 38-year career at FMC Corporation, serving as Director of Commercial Development, Research and Development, Agricultural Products Group from 1978-2001. He traveled worldwide negotiating contracts with research laboratories for insecticide research and development. Initially focused on Japan and Western Europe, he extended the purview of FMC’s negotiations to Australia, China, Korea, India, and Eastern Europe. He held patents in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, France, Spain. Switzerland, Uruguay, the United Kingdom, Belgium, South Africa, the Philippines, Romania, and the Soviet Union.
He was predeceased by his wife Ching, and is survived by a brother, Kurt Volpp of Mosbach, Germany; a sister, Helga Reichel Kessler of Rheinfelden, Germany; three daughters, Sophie and Leti of Berkeley, Calif., and Serena of New York City; a son, Kevin, of Wynnewood, Pa.; and seven grandchildren, Daniel, Anna, Thea, Julia, Daphne, Nico, and Liliana.
Gert was an avid hiker, and loved hiking in the Alps. He spent his 80th birthday hiking in Yosemite. Until the birth of his children, he enjoyed piloting both small planes (the Cessna 182) and gliders. For his 86th birthday, he went paragliding, jumping from the Elfer mountain near Innsbruck, Austria. He was also an excellent storyteller, and a member of the memoir writing group at the Princeton Senior Resource Center, where he began his memoir, Opa Stories.
In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Friends of Herrontown Woods ( in his memory.
The Friends of Herrontown Woods is grateful for donations as we work to bring Herrontown Woods back to its former natural and cultural glory, including renovation of the Veblen House and Cottage.