The Chief of Mercer County


The Howell Living History Farm is a 132-acre, mystically green, county park in Lambertville, NJ that makes Anne’s Green Gables look like a patch of grass. It is ran by fellow Jerseyan, runner, and RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer) Pete Watson. The farms that existed in the Newark Pete grew up in are gone, but on Howell Farm, Pete steadily continues this legacy.

Pete studied English, Education, and French at Lawrence University and worked the summers shoveling horse manure at local farms. Peace Corps perceived this to be everything Pete needed to be an Agricultural Extension Volunteer. So, he left for Dahomey, West Africa in 1971 to train locals in animal traction—using draft animals as farm power.

“I went with thirteen other equally un-qualified people. One was a dairy farmer and he milked cows, but he didn’t know how to train them, yoke them, and hook them to a cart.” They got one month of training in the U.S. Virgin islands and three in Dahomey—now Benin.

“My Dad was a city kid from New York. He always talked about how many different languages you heard just walking down the street.” Pete’s Dad appreciated diversity and taught his children to be empathetic and sympathetic. “When I went to Dahomey that is exactly what I found—the Chief in my village made sure everyone ate. I felt an instant bond. That’s how I was raised.”

“Once the French left, Dahomeyans filled all former French positions,” Pete recalls. The ones farming had to produce food for themselves and the ones no longer farming. But, with growing populations, these kinds of pressures still exist. More food has to be grown with less land.

“Howell has 115 deer per square mile and there should be no more than 10,” he goes on. Trenton is not an option.

Post-Peace Corps, Pete met Mary while creating a technical manual for the Peace Corps. She was the manual’s illustrator.

“Togo or not to go—that is the question?” was the tension-breaking question his friend presented to him over beers, struggling between two different kinds of adventures—be the new Peace Corps Training Director in Togo or the Director of an entire park while raising Mary’s 2 and 5 year olds from a previous relationship? Winston, Ryan, Kevin, and Harry are now 38, 35, 25, and 18 respectively. Yes, Pete stayed.

“I’m the farmer. How can I be the Director?” Pete asked in 1985 but the county insisted he give it the old Peace Corps try. Inez Howell gave these 132 acres as a county park in 1974 along with letters describing her childhood here and its value to education. With Pete’s ingenuity, he was able to take the diversity of skills amongst the few Howell staff left and create professional development opportunities through his Intern Program.

Rob Flory never left after his internship—one of many RPCVs looking to upgrade their agricultural skills. People started coming from Ecuador and Kenya to train. They would stay for eight months and Rob, able to speak Spanish and Swahili, set it up through the Multinational Exchange for Sustainable Agriculture.

“These are the kinds of programs that are the first to go,” Pete explains after telling me the internship program is gone. The farm has also educated researchers, teachers, parks and recreation employees, museum students, and organic farmers who know old-school methods are valid.

“But, if this comes through Raven, I’ll be picking that internship program back up soon,” Pete laughs and pulls out a PowerBall ticket.

Same as that Chief, Pete makes sure everyone is fed. The Greater Mercer County Food Bank in Trenton is blessed with potatoes grown on Howell Farms. Food is also given to the aged, disabled, and volunteers. Too, Howell makes maple syrup for the gift shop. Watch out Vermont.

As I peer out into the April rain, something moves toward me. Maggie now stands below watching elementary school kids jump up into the barn. As the children pass through on their field trip, I cheer “Say hi to Maggie!”

Out of 25 bouncing children only one shouts back, “Hi Maggie!” and walks up. “You’re wet,” he giggles continuing to pat farm dog Maggie’s corncobb-dusted coat before skipping off—the next Pete Watson—concerned about others—a father, a farmer, a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Raven Moore is a Cote d’Ivoire RPCV, Japanese translator, and the recent author of “Padre!”

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