Duke Farms: Once a Private Estate, Now a Birding Hotspot
A sudden burst of blue flashes above the purple and yellow meadow, and then the six-note call of an indigo bunting trills from high in the trees. Seconds later, a bold wichity wichity wichity sounds from the nearest bramble, where a common yellowthroat is hiding. A red-tailed hawk wings silently overhead.
This is Duke Farms, the rambling estate of the late Doris Duke, newly opened to the public in May. Open meadows, tree snags, lakes, and marshes make Duke Farms a birding hotspot, well worth the short trek from nearby New York City, Philadelphia, or the surrounding suburbs. New Jersey Audubon designated the site an Important Bird Area, and 331 different species have been seen on the property.
Twenty-two miles of trails provide glimpses of both natural habitat and remnants of the immense estate. In total, the estate spans 1,100 acres of grasslands and agricultural lands, 950 acres of woodlands, 400 acres of floodplain habitat, and multiple lakes.
The most memorable part of Duke Farms is the way history punctuates its wild places. A sweeping staircase cut into a hillside leads to a wildflower meadow. Trees sprout from the ruins of a two-story basement, all that remains of a large unfinished mansion. Behind the foundations, native plants cascade down a wall into what was once a grand fountain, now overgrown.
Duke Farms is the legacy of James Buchanan Duke, also known as “J.B.” or “Buck” Duke. He was the second son of Washington Duke, tobacco tycoon and benefactor of Duke University.
Born in North Carolina in 1856, Duke and his brother took over the family business in 1880’s. Under Duke’s strong leadership the business grew rapidly, eventually dominating the American tobacco industry.
In 1893 Duke purchased 357 acres along New Jersey’s Raritan River. During the following years he added to his initial purchase, eventually creating a massive 2,200 acre estate. Between 1893 and 1916 Duke transformed this land into Duke Farms, adding rivers, a reservoir, five lakes, over 2 million trees, barns, mansions, greenhouses and conservatories, carriage drives, fountains, and gardens.
Duke’s daughter Doris was born in 1912 to his second wife, Nanaline Holt Inman. An only child, Doris was 12 years old when her father died in October 1925. Half of J.B. Duke’s $300 million estate was left to the Duke endowment, and the other half was left to Doris.
Doris led an unusual life. Nicknamed “the richest girl in the world,” she debuted into society in Newport, Rhode Island at the age of 18. Four years later, she married her first husband, James Cromwell. She worked as a foreign correspondent for the International News Service, and lived in Paris to write for Harper’s Bazaar. After divorcing James in 1943, she married Dominican diplomat and notorious playboy Porfirio Rubirosa in 1947. They divorced four years later.
Like her father, Doris enhanced Duke Farms throughout her lifetime. She transformed one of the conservatories into the Garden of Nations, where 11 separate gardens featured thousands of flowers organized around different countries and regions. The 60,000 square foot garden was one of the largest public indoor gardens at the time.
Doris died in 1993 at the age of 80. A lifelong lover of the environment, she wrote in her will that Duke Farms should be used “to protect endangered species of all kinds, both flora and fauna . . . and for agricultural and horticultural purposes, including research.”
Duke Farms reopened to the public this May, and visitors now have access to 1,000 core acres of the estate. The mission of Duke Farms remains true to Doris’s wish: To be a model of environmental stewardship in the 21st century, and to inspire visitors to become informed stewards of the land.
Mornings and weekdays are best for birders and other visitors seeking a solitary stroll through the grounds. Attendance picks up in the afternoons, especially on weekends. A tram service is available to shuttle visitors into the heart of the property.
The Orientation Center, a large renovated barn near the parking lot, is worth a quick stop before you head out into the property. The center has restrooms, water fountains, and a café (open 11am-3pm) with a small selection of sandwiches, snacks, and drinks. There is also an educational display about the farm’s history and wildlife, including a short video.