Van Kirk clay pipe probably pre-Revolution

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  • This clay pipe was found in the basement of the Van Kirk Homestead in beds of soft, dry, preserving soil under old floorboards. Photos by Nancy Madacsi

  • Glenn McNamara holding the pipe he discovered in the Van Kirk Homestead with his grandfather, Don Earl on August 18, 2017.

SPARTA — Thousands of pipes bowls have been found at historic sites throughout America resulting in extensive research on the origins and patterns of the pipes to help establish and/or confirm the age of the sites at which they were discovered. Research indicates that the clay pipe discovered in August at the Van Kirk Homestead is an English clay tobacco pipe. The pattern, fineness of the bowl construction, two part mold and, most importantly, the small bore size are indicators that this piece dates from between 1750 and 1800. It was probably imported prior to the beginning of the Revolutionary War (1765 to 1783) since there was an embargo on British products through that period. While only one pipe has been found at the Van Kirk Homestead, its significance to the history of the Van Kirk family and the age of their homestead is extraordinary.

The piece was found by Glenn McNamara and his grandfather Don Earl in the basement of the Van Kirk Homestead in beds of soft, dry, preserving soil under old floorboards.

Thomas Van Kirk and his wife settled in Hardyston (now Sparta) around 1775 and bought a large piece of land for farming. When he arrived, he built a log cabin, the remains of which were discovered behind the homestead several years ago as the land was excavated for a new septic system. Thomas was a blacksmith, farmer, justice of the peace and one of the original 1786 founders of the Presbyterian Church of Hardyston (now Sparta) along with his neighbor, Robert Ogden.

Creating a farm in the late 1700s from the woods was a daunting task. The land had to be cleared of trees and fields created, all by hand and hard labor. Building the homestead itself was no easier. A hill of glaciated sand and gravel had to be shoveled out to create the site for the home. Rocks found as the fields were used to build the foundation. The trees were hand-hewn with broad axes to form beams and siding or as fuel in fireplaces. As the walls of the foundation were erected, they provided a protected area that could be used as a work area. Progress was slow, but the Van Kirk’s were under pressure to move out of their original log cabin into a more permanent structure since their first child was born in 1777. The house had to be completed as soon as possible.

Prior information placed the age of the Van Kirk Homestead’s completion and occupancy at between 1790 and 1800. The discovery of the pipe bowl plays a major role in redefining its age which has been re-assessed to be earlier, perhaps as early as 1780.

For over 235 years, Van Kirk descendants lived here as farmers and educators. Their loyal commitment to church, local and county government, and military service helped shape the community we know today. The homestead remained in the family until the Sparta Board of Education purchased the farm in 1996 from Clayton and Marilyn (nee Van Kirk) Mull to build a Middle School. The Sparta Historical Society was able to acquire the homestead in November 2013 and it opened the Van Kirk Homestead Museum as its home in September 2014. Since then, the museum has experienced tremendous growth and is regionally recognized for the quality of its exhibitions, collections, educational programs, and level of professionalism.

The Sparta Historical Society is located at The Van Kirk Homestead Museum at 336 Main Street (Rt. 517, use Middle School Driveway), Sparta. The museum will be closed from January through March 2018 preparing for its new year’s spring exhibit called “Birds, Bugs and Bats: Our Farmers’ Helpers”. Stay tuned for our historical lecture presentation scheduled for Thursday, March 8 at the Sparta Presbyterian Church at 7PM. Further details or group reservations, call 973-726-0883 or Email:

Technology funding has been made available in part by the NJ Historical Commission through the County History Partnership Program, as administered by the Sussex County Arts & Heritage Council.

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