By Anya Bochman
Photos courtesy/Sue Schmidt
Sue Schmidt, of Denville, President of the Ayres/Knuth Farm Foundation of Denville, cites her daughter’s fifth grade school project on the preservation of the historic farm as the impetus for her involvement in forming the non-profit foundation. In essence, along with other trustees, Schmidt is involved in writing grants and raising funds to match them in order to pay for the restoration and archaeological exploration of the 200-year-old Ayres/Knuth Farm.
The entire 53-acre area was purchased by Denville Township in May 1996. It has been farmed for over 200 years, an endeavor that continues today on a portion of the acreage. Listed on the National and State of New Jersey Historic Registers, the property has four components.
“The Foundation, as a single purpose nonprofit, leases the ten acres that the farm complex and historic ruins are on and acts as steward of the farm. The farmer’s lease supports the historic designation,” Schmidt explained. “The municipality maintains the soccer fields as a third component of the open space element. Passive recreation is the fourth component.”
The history of the open space area, which houses ten buildings and used to be a functional dairy farm, was meticulously put together using land records and old maps; local historian Fred Dempsey did some of the research.
It is a history that stretches back to the 17th century, when the English took possession of the territory known then as New Netherlands, which included present-day New Jersey. Claimed in the name of King Charles II, the area was conveyed by the monarch to his brother James, the Duke of York, in 1664. The Duke, in turn, conveyed New Jersey to two proprietors, John Lord Berkely and Sir George Carteret. Berkely and Carteret subsequently divided the territory into East and West Jersey and would begin selling off their interests to others.
Carteret died in 1680, leaving his interest in East Jersey (including present-day Denville) to his wife, Lady Carteret. By 1682, executors of Carteret’s estate began selling large tracts of East Jersey to William Penn and other West Jersey proprietors, including John Bellars, as a place of refuge for persecuted Quakers.
The “Bellars Lot,” as it was called in subsequent deeds, covered the area where Knuth Farm is located, as well as other parts of Denville and Parsippany.
As these historic developments unfolded, the area now known as the Ayres/Knuth Farm slowly came into existence. As the proprietors of the land died, their heirs would sell off the acreage in their estates in great numbers. This is how Bellars Lot came into possession of Robert Hunter Morris, the second son of colonial New Jersey Governor, Lewis Morris, for whom Morris County was named.
From Morris, a portion of the land passed into possession of one Jacob Garrigus, whose descendents would eventually come into ownership of Ayres/Knuth Farm.
David Garrigus, the eldest son of Jacob, purchased significant amounts of land in the Franklin area. The heirs of John Bellars re-surveyed the remaining portions of Bellars Lot around the year 1800. By deed in December of that year, David Garrigus purchased from the Bellars heirs 394 acres, which included all of the present day Knuth Farm.
David’s daughter, Hannah Garrigus, married Daniel Ayers in 1800. The first deed specifically pertaining to the area of the Knuth Farm can be found on May 10, 1803, when David Garrigus conveyed the then-105 acre farm to his son-in-law Daniel Ayers.
After that, the farm passed through generations of Knuths and Ayres’; the families maintained a substantial farming operation on Knuth Farm. Local accounts claim that the farm contained one of the largest barns in the area which was used for an on-going dairy operation. The barn burned down in 1936, shortly after the death of Martin Knuth, Sr. Thereafter, the farm and family fell into financial ruin.
Schmidt recalls the Ayres orchard and distillery once being a great attraction for its apple cider.
Surviving children Frank and Susie Knuth were the last family owners of the land, taking ownership of the farm upon the death of their mother, Anna, on January 26, 1950.
The Ayres/Knuth Farm Foundation, Inc. was formed in the late 1990s with the explicit purpose of engaging in activities that focus on the protection and enhancement of the historical, agricultural and environmental aspects of the Township of Denville Ayres/Knuth Farm.
“To support these endeavors, the Foundation raises and directs funds, and organizes volunteer efforts towards the preservation of the historical and environmental components of the multi-use open space facility,” Schmidt explained.
The Foundation receives additional support from the municipality. In 2014, Morris County Freeholders recognized the work done by Denville Township and the Ayres/Knuth Farm Foundation, with assistance from the county’s Preservation Trust Fund, to preserve the property’s historic farm house on Cooper Road.
The freeholders presented Denville Mayor Thomas Andes and Schmidt with a bronze plaque to be installed outside the farm house, to mark the township’s successful completion of a preservation plan, exterior restoration, roof replacement, archaeology master plan, and a heating, ventilation and air conditioning system.
Several years later, in 2017, Morris County awarded the area $149,040 from the historic preservation trust fund for interior restoration work, including repairs to interior finishes, windows, doors and electrical upgrades. The Ayres Farmhouse, which is considered to be the most “complete example” of a 19th century Morris County farming complex, qualified for the grant due to its listing on the State and Federal Historic Sites Register, historic significance and accessibility to the public.
The restoration of the farm will give county residents a window into the life of farming families in the 19th century.
Aside from municipal assistance, the Foundation engages in a number of fundraising events, such as its Annual Tree Sale. Through the first three weekends in December, the Foundation busies itself with the sale of trees and wreaths, a project now in its 21st year. Roping, gingerbread cookies, Peggy Karr glass fusion ornaments, tree stands and light are also available during the event, which is taking place with the support of various local Denville organizations. Described by Schmidt as the “most important” fundraiser for the Foundation, the annual tree sale has been used in the past for exterior restoration grants, such as fixing leaking roofs which threatened the farm’s historical buildings.
The event depends heavily on volunteer work and Helping Hands of Denville, who help unload the trees after they come in, pricing and setting them up.
“We also sell things people have donated to us, such as books, or these ornamental jewel pins which are really popular this year,” Schmidt said.
The Ayres/Knuth Farm Foundation also relies on support from local clubs and service groups. Schmidt cited a number of projects on which the organization was assisted by local Boy Scout troops, who helped restore a chicken coop and covered a dangerous well opening.
“The Morris Knolls Key Club has helped us for 21 years along with our volunteers. Denville Helping Hands has been a tremendous help,” said Schmidt of the annual tree sale. “Morris County SLAP has helped with the tree sale and many other work related activities. A local Boy Scout troop has done several Eagle Scout projects on the Farm.”
In addition to the tree sale, the Ayres/Knuth Farm Foundation was once again part of the annual Pathways of History Tour this fall, an event which involves participants offering free open houses of their historic sites.
The theme this year was the 100th anniversary of World War I, and the Foundation had the opportunity to bring the WWI “Lest We Forget” Mobile Museum from Dallas, Texas for an entire weekend in September. Hundreds of visitors toured the newly restored farmhouse interior and saw over 450 artifacts, videos and posters, while enjoying talks by the WWI curator. The event helped the Foundation raise money for restoration and matching grants.
“This was a new experience, raising money for an event such as bringing the US Centennial WWI museum,” Schmidt said. “Presentations were done in the summer to the Denville Post 390 American Legion and Denville VFW Post 2519. They generously joined other individuals who contributed to fund this event. All this was accomplished in a little over a month.”
Membership in the Foundation runs from January through December, with membership funds being applied to “matching grant” awards. Additionally, membership funds provide seed money for other fundraisers and educational programs.
Donations from the public also help, with many of the funds coming after donors had been to an event hosted by the Foundation. Professional photographers coming on the property are asked to pay a fee, as well.
Currently, the Foundation is nearing completion on a master plan to cover the industrial historic landscaping of Ayres/Knuth Farm. According to Schmidt, the next project will focus on the extensive restoration of the tenant house behind the property’s farm, which will be turned into an in-house museum after its structural issues are addressed.
“It will be a good opportunity for the public to learn how farmhands lived back then,” Schmidt said. “That’s what we’re looking forward to in 2019.”