by Sue Schmidt, The Ayres/Knuth Farm Foundation
October 10, 2023
Top photo courtesy of The Ayres/Knuth Farm Foundation
Located in the present-day Township of Denville, the Ayres/Knuth Farm is listed on the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places as an example of a complete farmstead and 19th-century agriculture with ten, unaltered, original structures. The Ayres family owned the property for approximately 90 years and built most of the remaining buildings, the oldest being the ca 1825 stone smokehouse. The core of the farmhouse is documented to have been built in the 1700s, but not much is known prior to 1803 when Mrs. Ayres’s father David Garigus transferred the 105 acres to her husband, Daniel. Of the buildings built by the Ayres was the famously large dairy barn, office barn, chicken coops, tenant house for farmhands, spring houses, cisterns, and an industrial complex of mills operated by two powerful streams on the property. One of the mills was known as the Billy Ayres Distillery. Billy Ayres’s vast connections throughout the local community brought farmers from all over the region with their produce to make and purchase Apple Jack, cider, and Peach Schnapps.
The property changed hands several times from 1896 to 1906, not selling directly from the Ayres to the Knuths, who operated the farm for another 90 years and are credited with adding the corn crib, outhouse, and garage to the site. Although Martin and Anna Knuth had owned another farm in Rockaway Township (now part of Denville), they were not originally farmers, but business people. Their dairy farming success could be demonstrated by their collection of carriages, horses, and Civil War memorabilia, which were all lost in 1936, when, according to newspaper accounts, a lightning strike caused a massive fire that burned the barn to the ground. Scars of the fire can still be seen on the garage and chicken coops today. Martin Knuth died that same year and the Knuth’s children, Frank and Suzie, lived with their mother on the farm. A new, smaller barn was constructed and the farming operation was scaled down.
In 1996, the Township of Denville, using Morris County Open Space Trust and matching funds, purchased 52 acres of the farm and an additional 20 acres were donated or purchased around it. The property has several components with active farming supporting the historic designation and recreational opportunities that blend into the historic farm. Since 1998, the property has been managed by the Ayres/Knuth Farm Foundation, Inc., a non-profit organization charged with preserving the site and interpreting its place in Garden State agricultural legacy.