In the 1980s, West Windsor was rapidly transforming from a farming community into a suburban one. Amid this growth, many centuries-old sites were disappearing. In early 1982, Mayor Douglas Forrester formed the municipal Historical Advisory Committee (HAC) to survey and recommend how to preserve West Windsor’s increasingly-threatened historic resources.
The HAC’s first meeting was on March 10, 1982. Early members included Kay Reed, Ruth Strohl-Palmer, Jeanette Flickinger, Joan Parry, Carol Silvester, Mary Schenck, and Ruth Finkelstein. For 15 months, they worked on several projects - including writing a history of West Windsor, organizing exhibits at local events, oral histories of longtime residents, leading historical tours, and undertaking surveys of pre-World War I buildings. In April of 1983, they published their first Broadside newsletter, which announced the Society’s projects and goals and invited readers to become Charter Members. Subsequent publications over several decades explored local historic neighborhoods, community organizations, lost history, local education, and many more subjects.
The Historical Society of West Windsor’s Certificate of Incorporation lists its five founding signatories: Joan Parry, Kay Reed, Mary Schenck, Carol Silvester, and Ruth Strohl-Palmer. On June 16, 1983, a public meeting was held at the “Castle” - Joan Parry’s house at 96 Bear Brook Road. They met their goal of 100 charter members.
The Castle served as a sort of headquarters in those early days, with annual holiday tours delighting the community. Although the Historical Society originally aimed to move to the historic John Rogers house in Mercer County Park, they ultimately found their permanent home in 1991 when a wealthy cattle farmer named Max Zaitz donated an old farmhouse and two acres of land at 50 Southfield Road to the township for the use as a headquarters for the Historical Society and as a West Windsor History Museum. A subsequent donation included the barn, other structures, and 115 more acres of land. The metal bell next to the farmhouse was dedicated to Zaitz.
The Historical Society’s biggest project was to restore the farmhouse, which also happened to be the boyhood home of member Warren Schenck - husband of Mary Schenck and the last person born there when the Schenck family owned it in the 1900s (they had sold it to Zaitz the early 1970s). A “Restoration Committee” (Co-chairs: Kay/Clifford Reed and Mary/Warren Schenck), other volunteers and community organizations, and the municipal government collectively helped rebuild the “handyman’s special” that was the house and saved most of the rest of the property. In 1994, the mid-1800s “Princeton Junction Parsonage” schoolhouse was relocated from next to Maurice Hawk School on Clarksville Road to the Schenck Farmstead. Enough work had been completed by 1997 to temporarily open the house for the township’s 200th anniversary celebrations. It fully opened in 2002. In the ensuing years, the barn, carriage house, and schoolhouse were reconstructed and opened as well. The windmill was completed in 2018. The buildings were filled with donations from West Windsor community members. Books, photographs, clothing, furniture, farm equipment, and countless other gifts serve as treasure troves for exploring local heritage.
Over many years, the Historical Society spearheaded and participated in community events such as flea markets, auctions, exhibits at the Library/Senior Citizen’s Day/Township Picnic, historic house tours, a Brides’ Fashion Show, and much more. And, of course, the Schenck Farmstead/West Windsor History Museum has been open to the public for tours and serves as the best window into “old West Windsor.”
The Historical Society of West Windsor continues to serve our community. It now maintains active social media accounts, manages booths at local events, works with youth groups on community projects, and publishes monthly columns in the local newspaper. It also keeps the museum open for curious members of the public to explore. It invites residents to help preserve and promote township history. And in 2022, as West Windsor turned 225 years old, the Historical Society led a community-wide effort to recognize our town’s centuries of heritage.
Founded during an era of unprecedented township growth and transformation, the Historical Society relies on local support to maintain its activities. Please consider volunteering for and donating to the Historical Society of West Windsor to help promote education and West Windsor spirit for many more years to come.