For the last four months, one Hopewell Borough resident has assembled motivated locals and professional historians alike to preserve the vast history of the Hopewell area. Together they created the Hopewell Valley History Project, a collective effort to gather and digitize valuable artifacts of Hopewell Valley.
Hopewell history has been in the air, according to Doug Dixon, board member of the Hopewell Valley Historical Society.
Shortly after If These Stones Could Talk: African American Presence in the Hopewell Valley, Sourland Mountain and Surrounding Regions of New Jersey was published in November 2018, the book’s authors Elaine Buck and Beverly Mills presented a number of lectures and drove up an interest in local history. Over the summer, the Hopewell Public Library hosted an architecture tour and a garden tour of Hopewell—registration for both events was full.
So Dixon, along with fellow residents, started digging in, and they have been uncovering the history of Hopewell Valley ever since. They banded together and created a solution for their frustration that there’s valuable information about their town lying around that nobody knows about.
“As we’ve collected stuff, we also started visiting places, going to the state archives, going to the township offices, shooting text maps from 1915,” Dixon said. The group was sharing the digitized items among themselves when they decided to make the collection available to the public “because it’s fun, it’s interesting and it’s sort of stupid to reinvent the wheel.”
Dixon has worked in the computer technology field for over 20 years, specializing mostly in digital media. He was employed by companies like Sarnoff Corporation and Intel before taking on independent contracts with the United States Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground. Now, Dixon is using his tech skills to make the Hopewell Valley History Project user-friendly so local residents can contribute to the site without requiring prior digital literacy.
The project’s digital archives include historic e-books, pamphlets, tax maps, aerials, cultural studies and postcards. Local residents, friends and neighbors of Hopewell Borough along with the Hopewell Public Library, Hopewell Museum, Hopewell Valley Historical Society, New Jersey State Library, and New Jersey State Archives have all participated in the project to date. The digitized findings are broken down into three levels of reference for easy viewing. Along with the archives themselves, the site features guides and detailed stories referencing the artifacts.
In addition to the project’s website, Dixon and other volunteers have made paper copies of archives so the public can search through them without ruining the originals, like photo booklets published in 1897 and 1909.
The volunteer group is looking for people who are interested in their house or their family history. They’re looking for residents or prior residents who have historical items in their basement or attic. Dixon and his neighbors share concern about what happens when people move away or pass on; their historical documents go with them and the history is lost. The history project has led to friendly neighborhood visits and discussions, when residents invite one another over to share stories while sifting through old family photos and documents.
Some of Dixon’s favorite finds include fire maps from the early 1900’s. “If you wanted to buy fire insurance, the insurer had to know how flammable your house was and how flammable your town was,” said Dixon. “So if you want to know if your house existed around this time, you can try to locate it on these maps along with the aerial maps that Mercer County and the state of New Jersey shot as early as 1930.”
Dixon notes members of the historical society and borough residents who have conducted cultural studies for the township and the state for decades. They’ve contributed maps and studies on Washington Crossing State Park, Hopewell Train Station and the land around it to the project.
He also notes Elizabeth “Betty” Gantz who wrote a series of Hopewell Valley News columns and turned it into the book, Hopewell’s Past, published in 1987. Gantz donated the book to the Hopewell Library and Hopewell Museum and it’s been sitting on a shelf ever since, according to Dixon. People didn’t even know it existed so Dixon scanned it and posted it on the project’s site—with Gantz’s son’s permission—so people can enjoy it.
“All this work this woman did all those years ago lost and now it’s available,” said Dixon. “It’s just so exciting.”
Right now, Dixon and neighbors are working on organizing and digitizing historical postcard collections with images of houses, streets and buildings from every angle in Hopewell Borough. They’re sorting the files and tagging the images by street address so the public can virtually walk down the street and enjoy pictures of the houses over time.
The project has been well supported by the work of Richard Hunter, president and principal archaeologist of Hunter Research, Inc. based in Trenton.
“I appreciated that Doug’s project would be of immense value to local residents—a one-stop ‘free’ shop for all types of historical information about the Hopewell area, available and easily accessible to all who care to find out about such things,” he said in an email.
Hunter, president of the Hopewell Valley Historical Society, co-authored the book published in 1990, Hopewell: A Historical Geography alongside Richard Porter. He has provided otherwise hard to find maps of Hopewell Valley to the project that his research firm digitally compiled over the years.
The Hopewell Library, Hopewell Museum and Hopewell Valley Historical Society have all sponsored a wide range of local speaking events for residents to attend. Talks have covered the history of the local railroad and subsequent “frog wars” between Mercer and Somerset County railroad lines over 100 years ago. They’ve covered Lenape life in Hopewell Valley and the games tribe members used to play. Speakers have presented the history of Mercer Meadows and its section of pole farms built by AT&T in the early 1900’s to provide international calling from the U.S.
But without digital collections like the Hopewell Valley History Project, “manuscripts are packaged up and archived on a shelf, the papers are filed away in a drawer, and the talks recede into memory,” read the project’s site, in part. So the joint effort to preserve local history has been well received by residents.
When he’s not working on the project, Dixon and his wife take their grandchildren to the same local park they used to take their kids to. Now, not only does Dixon remember the days of Hopewell Borough when his kids were little, he remembers references of the town way before his time there—he can picture the baseball field that used to exist around the corner and how the land has since filled out with rows of houses over the years.
Dixon said people move to the Hopewell area because they love the feel of it and they love the architecture.
He and his neighbors might consider taking detailed photos of the streets, houses, and buildings of Hopewell today so people can appreciate them 100 years from now.
Maybe the future residents of Hopewell Valley won’t have to work so hard to locate them because of all the hard work Dixon, fellow residents and historians are doing to digitize them so they can live on forever at everyone’s fingertips.