The Matthews' Life as Farmers in a Changing Landscape
By Lea Florentine
— Donald “Don” W. Matthews III and his wife Patricia Ann “Pat” have lived a lifestyle in Montgomery Township that is vanishing fast — as farmers.
While farming is often glamorized by pencil pushers and millennials with trendy community supported agriculture ventures, the Matthews know the raw truth of it.
Don, 90, could tell you stories about being out in the fields in all kinds of weather to care for the family dairy cows. When he was 15, for example, he was struck by lightning.
“We had just baled hay when a storm came up. Trying to cover the hay with canvas, I went under the electric fence as lightning hit it, and hit me on my back. I felt myself falling back,” he recalls.
His next memory was surreal. “I’m looking up at the sky. My arms and legs were straight up in the air. I thought, ‘Am I dead?’”
“I can still see it as if it was yesterday,” Don says.
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The electric bolt also followed the fence into the barn where the cows were. His father, who was inside, said there was a lot of noise when the bolt rattled the stanchions which held the cows. Don adds, “Every cow went down flat.”
Don’s mother had been looking out the window when he got hit and came over screaming.
She called the doctor, who asked if Don was moving. She answered that he was. The doctor replied, “Well, if he’s alive and moving there’s nothing I can do.”
Don notes, “I had a big burn on my back.” The cows were uninjured.
Many in town know Don from his 20 years of service on Montgomery Township Committee; and for his tenure as mayor.
He is still a member of the township planning board, where he works to defend and preserve open space. The couple recently sold development rights to their farm so future generations can enjoy its beauty.
Most his life, Don has been a Farmer. His family had been dairy farmers in Sussex County since the early 1800s, until his grandparents’ entire herd had to be destroyed after it tested positive for tuberculosis in 1929.
When Don was 11, his family moved to a 220-acre farm in Pennington and raised Holsteins. Through 4-H, Don met Pat; her family raised Guernseys on a nearby 100-acre farm. Both farms were powered by draft horses.
During World War II, fighter pilots would practice dive bombing over Don’s farm. He recalls lying on his back to enjoy the show. “I’d see them go straight up completely out of sight. They’d roll over on their wing and come straight down toward me and then pull up at the very last minute. The noise was unbelievable.”
Don planned on attending Rutgers University until his father asked him to stay and help run the farm. After Don and Pat married, they began looking for a farm of their own.
The Matthews toured a 269-acre gentleman’s farm, but the $125,000 price tag was out of their league.
After investigating the Matthews, the gentlemen who owned the farm (C. V. O’Brien) asked them to raise $40,000 within a year to prove they were earnest. Working day and night on nearly a thousand acres of local farmland, they raised the funds.
O’Brien dropped his price and the Matthews took out a loan to pay an additional $35,000 for the farm.
Don and Pat raised 50 Holsteins, corn, beans, wheat, soybeans, and 100 acres of hay, which they delivered to local farms. Don says, “I planted every tree that is on the farm in the 1950s.” He also restored the interior of their 1890s-era barn with cypress. Dances were held there every May for 50 years.
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Over time the dairy herd increased by more than half, and the farm stretched from Harlingen to Bridgepoint.
The Matthews’ children, Donald and Leslie, were born. They grew up swimming and ice skating on the farm’s pond. However, times were changing. Don’s son, Donald, was one of many called to serve in the Vietnam War, who wrote home to their parents, “I don’t want to be a farmer.”
Dairy prices, in decline since World War II, plummeted with competition from farms in the South. During a milk strike in the mid-1960s, Don had to dump milk. Then there were plans to build I-95 right through Montgomery to connect the NJ Turnpike to Route 287.
And, what is now Quakerbridge Mall in Lawrenceville was first proposed on 100 acres south and west of the Belle Mead train station. Don and Pat began looking for a farm in New York State.
One autumn night, Don and Pat awoke to hear loud cracking noises in the cornfield across from their house. All the cows had escaped and were hiding in the tall cornstalks.
The Matthews spent an exhausting night trying unsuccessfully to herd the cows. As dawn approached, Don had to begin milking the cows as they returned to the barn. He reconsidered his decision to be a dairy farmer.
Don’s entrepreneurial neighbor told him, “Sell your cows and come work with me.”
The Matthews sold the dairy cows and all but ten acres of the farm and Don began working for Mid-State Filigree Systems. He still works five days a week as vice president of operations.
Throughout the years, the Matthews family has come together on the farm. Daughter Leslie was married in the farm’s historic barn, and a niece and a nephew were married near it.
Every fall, the family gathers for a bonfire. Before Christmas, several family members hang a huge wreath on the silo. Leslie found the wreath at an after Christmas sale, marked down from $2,000 to $200.
At a recent gathering, the family celebrated Don’s 90th birthday with fireworks. With so many memories on the farm, he and Pat felt compelled to preserve its agricultural heritage and scenery for the people of Montgomery in the years to come. ■