Hidden Springs: A Quaker Farm Community in the Mid-20th Century

Technically, my parents did not own a house until after Dad retired, and even then, it was probably mortgaged. For a while they owned shares in the corporation that owned the house we lived in, but mostly they rented living quarters. Dad worked in New York City, so it was important to live where a commute was not difficult or expensive and where the cost of housing was much lower than in the city. So we lived in a part of New Jersey that is not far from the George Washington Bridge for most of my early years.

I was born in the summer of 1937, so I was four-and-a-half years old when Pearl Harbor was bombed; for me, that event led to a most unusual childhood. It happened that the chair of the Department of Far Eastern Studies at Columbia University, Hugh Borton, was called to advise the government about Japanese matters—Japan was his area of specialization. He and his family owned a property near Hawthorne, New Jersey, which consequently became available for rent, and my parents chose to rent it. It had a large house set near the middle of a "farmette," the term we used for the 15 acres of land.

My mother’s father had been very active in the Congregational Church, and my father’s mother had been a church organist, so they set about finding a religious setting where they would be comfortable. The Bortons were Quakers, which may have played a role in what happened. I remember going to several churches, but eventually we ended up attending a Quaker meeting, in Ridgewood, New Jersey, I think. But my parents did not become members of the Religious Society of Friends at the time.

During the years of World War II, people were encouraged to grow as much of their own food as possible. Victory Gardens became quite patriotic, and my parents—having most of the 15 acres available—invited members of the Quaker meeting to garden together. On weekends especially, our farmette teemed with people working and playing together. They even reached a point where they called themselves the "Brotherhood of Amateur Agriculturalists" (BAA). The sharing, working, and learning together created a sense of community quite common in Quaker gatherings.

During the war, people of Japanese descent who had been interned in the Western deserts were permitted to resettle in the East if they had a sponsor, so the meeting decided to sponsor a family. Because our house had the most room, a Japanese American family of four, the Sasaki family, came to live with us until other accommodations could be arranged.

Seeds had been planted—not just in the ground, but also in the hearts and minds of the people who gardened, played, and worshiped together. Thus when the Bortons returned home from the Fairfax, Virginia, area, the BAA discussed the possibility of finding a farm where they could live side by side and continue this community.

My parents responded to an advertisement placed by Henry Babcock, a retired civil engineer whose wife had died; he wanted help caring for his house and his meals. Since his house was large enough for our family of four, he accepted us into his home in White Plains, New York. We all got along quite well, and we marveled at the many important projects with which he had been involved, including the New York City subway system and the George Washington Bridge. He was intrigued by the dream my parents had of reestablishing the BAA.

My parents started attending Purchase (N.Y.) Meeting, the one closest to White Plains, and eventually applied for and were accepted as members. They and others continued to look for a farm that was affordable and close enough to commute to New York City. In the early fall of 1947, a 120-acre parcel of land, complete with a large house, a barn, a carriage house, and a separate two-car garage was purchased by a newly formed corporation, of which our White Plains civil engineer was a major player. He and my family became the first people to move to the large white farmhouse facing a dirt road about two miles north of Neshanic Station, New Jersey. The land had a great deal of shale and many gullies as a result of poor drainage problems. It was not great land for growing crops, but since most of the families that ultimately came to live there had jobs outside the farm, that was not crucial.

Other people came to live there. One of the first was the Paschkis family. Victor Paschkis, a German-born physicist, had left Germany with his wife, Suzanne, and two children when Hitler rose to power. He taught and conducted research at Columbia University, and they had been active in BAA. We created a living space for them in the upper part of the carriage house. Shortly thereafter, Hugh Borton and his family purchased a house and land just on the other side of the dirt road, and they joined in the work of maintaining the farm and being part of the community. His wife, Elizabeth Wilbur Borton (whom we called Buddy—she was a member of the family that founded the Wilbur Chocolate Company, and, as a young girl, she had been the model for the advertising of Wilbur Buds, akin to Hershey’s Kisses), persuaded her sister, Deanne, to come live with us. She was to be the official farmer, for we had purchased animals to provide us with both food and some income. Deanne lived in the big house, along with my family and Henry Babcock, the civil engineer.

At that time, three men commuted to New York, about 60 miles away. They would drive west to Flemington Junction, where they could board a train that had started in Canada and made only one more stop—in Newark— before New York City. They had to leave early in the morning, around 5:30 am, and returned late, around 7:00 pm, but they could sleep or study or read on the train.

Hidden Springs was a name my mother, Rachel, suggested for the group, as the sense of community seemed to provide unseen and unexpected benefits— both spiritually and materially. One of the most important aspects of this arrangement was that each family unit had its own dwelling. During weekdays we lived as separate families, though the women often worked together in the gardens and preserving the food they grew. Chickens became the major source of income, primarily via the eggs they provided. There were a few cows, enough to provide us all with milk and some to sell. We made our own butter. All this meant that there was a need for a farmer, so when Deanne left for other pursuits, we persuaded a couple who had been part of a somewhat similar community in Massachusetts to help us out. We created living space for them above the two-car garage. Thus Clarence and Ruth Carr, and eventually Clarence’s 98-year-old mother, became part of Hidden Springs. The Carrs were the first people to move in who were not Quakers; Clarence had been a Congregational minister as well as a tree expert earlier in his life. The closest Quaker meeting was in Plainfield, New Jersey, about 20 miles away. We sometimes went to meeting there, but we also had meeting on the farm.

Weekends were the time for joint activities— farm work, maintaining or improving the buildings, creating dwelling space for newcomers, and relaxing together with square dancing, charades, and the like. On Saturdays, we gathered for lunch and sometimes dinner. And on weekends, folks from the Hawthorne/ Ridgewood/Glen Rock areas came to visit and work with us to share our special sense of community.

When the Carrs found it necessary to move away, contacts at Columbia University via the Bortons brought us a family of Japanese descent. Ichiro Shirato taught Japanese at Columbia, and he and his wife, Masa, and their son, Hugh—named after Hugh Borton— came to stay with us. Masa was a gifted pianist, and one of our challenges was getting a piano up into the living quarters above the garage.

There were other challenges as well. In the time shortly after World War II, living in a group that included both Germans and Japanese created an unusual interface with the people around us, to say the least. It was strange enough to be part of a small community farm. But the Hidden Springs folks made efforts to be useful members of the larger society. Both my father and Buddy Borton became members of the school board, and all of us supported activities in the larger community such as Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, the fire department, and efforts to create a small library.

As a ten-year-old boy when we moved to the farm, there was a great deal for me to learn and to do, but no one else near my age. I had a brother, older by four years, and the younger Borton child was my brother’s age. The Paschkis children were even older, and they never lived at the farm. There was a boy my age half a mile away, and he had a younger sister. I would walk the mile to the school bus, and they would join me at the halfway point. But for the most part, I was on my own. I had farm chores, helped with the weekend work, and spent time—especially at lunch on Saturdays—with a wonderfully wide range of expertise in the loving adults around me. Victor Paschkis, for example, founded the Society for Social Responsibility in Science (SSRS) in 1949. I can recall him telling us of his visit with Albert Einstein, an early member and supporter of SSRS. Much later, Victor received awards from both the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

In 1942, some five years before the acquisition of the land for Hidden Springs, but about the same time that BAA was sprouting, Clarence Jordan established Koinonia, an interracial farm community in Americus, Georgia. Koinonia (the Greek word for community) still exists (see http://www.koinoniapartners.org) and has spawned many good things, including Habitat for Humanity International. But it also was a direct challenge to the racism of the surrounding area. In the mid- to late-1950s, that racism became quite violent, and Koinonia suffered from various forms of attack. Folks there had heard of our farm, and a few of them came to Hidden Springs to see if a northern version might come about. This plan did not succeed, but for a while, I got to know a few of the Koinonia people.

It is important to recognize that a good part of the impetus to create such a community was to live in a setting where children have a wide range of responsibilities and a breadth of experience. So my parents, Bill and Rachel Wood, became very active in New York Yearly Meeting, where they were involved mostly in leading youth activities, and later they took on additional duties for NYYM. Eventually, by the time my brother and I left home for college and the like, Hidden Springs was not quite the place it had been for my parents. Hugh Borton was called to serve as the president of Haverford College. The commuting became more onerous, and my parents moved to an apartment in New York City. The Shiratos and the Paschkises moved to be closer to Columbia University.

The farm that was the physical location of Hidden Springs was sold in the mid-1950s, but the essence still remains in those of us who live on.

Wood Richard K.

Richard K. Wood, a founding member of Gettysburg (Pa.) Meeting, has been an educator and was an administrator of computing at Gettysburg College. In the late 1950s, he was clerk of the Junior Yearly Meeting of New York Yearly Meeting.