Don’t miss all the historical sites and interesting restaurants of this wonderful NJ beach town.
Somers Point, NJ is such a picturesque and historical town with lots of historical sites and delicious restaurants to visit. It is fun to just get in the car and drive the Historic District and see how the town has grown and developed.
I took time out of my walking project in Manhattan after finishing the Chelsea neighborhoods, walking the 13-mile Broadway walk for the sixth time and preparing to do “The Great Saunter” on my own next week to go ‘down the shore’ as we say in New Jersey (it’s never ‘Down to the Shore”, that takes too long).
I had never been to Somers Point, NJ before. It is a small waterfront community across the bay from Ocean City, NJ, which is a popular resort and recreation town. Somers Point is low key with wonderful restaurants and bars, a popular waterfront and beaches on The Great Egg Harbor Bay and beautiful little turn of the century beach homes and a town steeped in history. I read about three historical spots on Shore Drive in the heart of the Historic District and had wanted to visit them.
I was very impressed by the Nicholas Gibbon House when I took a tour one Saturday afternoon. There were no large crowds to deal with and the parking is perfect with plenty of room to move around. The grounds are beautifully landscaped with all sorts of seasonal flowers surrounding the house. When I visited I thought I was mistaken and it was someone’s home. There was a lot of care put into both the exterior and interior of this home.
Nicolas Gibbon was a local merchant who moved to Greenwich in 1730 and continued to live here until the 1760’s. The tour guide explained to me that the townspeople would not let him build a church here (it was a Quaker region) so he and his wife decided to move out of the area. Richard Wood and his family moved into the house in 1760 and lived in the house until the 1920’s. Over that time, parts of the house were modernized and rebuilt. The Wood family later in the generations founded the WaWa store chain.
With the exception of the Nicolas Gibbon’s nephew and his wife’s portraits, all of the furnishings are not originally from the house. The downstairs is set up with a formal dining room and parlor area fully furnished in Victorian era furniture, paintings, rugs and silver. The silver collection of the house is very elaborate and some of the pieces came from the Hershey family of Pennsylvania.
The library and study has rare books that were used for research as well as a working fireplace that was used for both light and heat. Downstairs is the kitchen with a large hearth and all the equipment and serving items for kitchen and dining use for the home.
The tour guide explained to me that during some of the past fundraisers, the hearth was used to cook foods of the time period that were served for events.
Upstairs you have an elaborate master bedroom with all sorts of formal furnishings for a upper middle class family living in the area. What was the interesting part of the second floor of the home was the “Everything Room”, which contained a extensive collection of toys and dolls, Civil War historic items, period clothing, bonnets, top hats and parasols, an extensive collection of quilts and Hair Art which was a Victorian tradition of making art from the hair of the dead.
There was a collection of ‘Sewing Samplers’, which is how young women learned how to perfect their sewing skills which was part of their domestic training for being a housewife.
The collection of the house really gave a glimpse into the lives of people from the 1840’s until almost WWI. How much life has changed but not too much.
Historic Marker outside the home
History of the Gibbon House:
In 1730, Nicholas Gibbon who had inherited more than 3000 acres of land nearby, bought a 16 acre lot in Greenwich on which he built a replica of a London Townhouse he had admired. The brick, fired on the property, was laid in the Flemish Bond pattern brought from Kent, England: this design is achieved by using a red stretcher and blue header producing a definite and attractive pattern. Rubbed brick is a further architectural feature, outlining each door and window opening as well as being used to emphasize the four corners of the house.
The Upstairs bedroom at the Gibbon House (Cumberland Historical Society.com)
The home, appropriately furnished with products of 18th and 19th century atrisans contains a reception hall, a paneled dining room, a formal drawing room and a kitchen dominated by a huge walk-in fireplace in which demonstration of colonial open-fire cooking are conducted.
The walk-in fireplace at the Gibbon House (Cumberland Historical Society.com)
There is a small store on the back porch where post cards, gifts and a fine collection of books and pamphlets on the history of the area may be purchased.
On second floor, in addition to a bedroom, are exhibits of 19th century locally made, rush seated. “Ware” chairs, children’s toys, dolls and clothing as well as Civil War artifacts donated by local families.
On the second day of the Morris County, NJ “Pathways to History’ tour, I was on my way back to Morris County for a second day of adventure. My first stop on the tour was the Ayres/Knuth Farm (The Ayres/Knuth Farm Foundation Inc.), a former working farm just off Route 10.
The main farmhouse on the Ayres/Knuth Farm
Not only was the site open for touring but they also had a mini car show with antique cars and fire trucks owned by some of the members. Seeing some of these Model T Ford’s and Steam Engine Fire Trucks in perfect condition shows American quality motorship at its finest.
What I liked about the farm is that it had been a working farm up until the last fifty years and showed the progression that the farm took in its almost 100 years in the county. The farm itself dates back to pre-Revolutionary War days with the farm being purchase in either 1735 or maybe 1759 by Obadiah Lum. The property itself was settled and developed by Daniel Ayres, who was born in New Jersey in 1778 (The Ayres/Knuth Farm Foundation).
The Ayres-Knuth Farm and the outer buildings
105 acres of land was given to him by his father-in-law, David Garrigus upon the marriage of his daughter, Hanna in 1803. His son, William took over the farm in 1856 upon the death of his father in 1856, changing the farm to add husbandry and fruit cultivation. When William retired in 1896, none of his children wanted the farm and it was sold. Changing hands many times, it was bought by Martin and Anna Knuth in 1906. The farm was taken over by two of their children and it remained in the family until the 1990’s upon both of their passings. In 1996, the Township of Denville purchased 52 acres of the original farm and it is now managed by the Ayres/Knuth Foundation Inc. (The Ayres/Knuth Farm Foundation).
On this clear and sunny Sunday morning, it was fun to walk around the former working farm to see how it developed. Both families learned to modernize and add to the operation. I was able to tour the smaller tenet farmhouse (built in 1895), the barn (built in 1895 (and the various outer buildings like the chicken coops (built in 1895), outhouse (built in 1930) and the Smokehouse (built in 1825). The small well was built in 1797 and was the oldest structure left on the property.
What I found interesting is that there still are tenant farmers on another tract on the property still working the land and the property is protected by grants from Morris County. So, it still is technically a working farm. A lot of care was taken to preserve the farm as is and the volunteers told me that there were plans to fix up the other buildings. The Tenant House needed a lot of work and was run down but the main Farmhouse had been renovated and was closed that day.
Most of the farm has either been sold off or is being utilized but the core of the farm buildings can be toured, and it is interesting to see a working farm in New Jersey that dates back to the 1700’s and was still active until the mid-1990’s. That is longevity. Still is a step back into the past to see how a working farm once thrived along with the changes that came with the development of Morris County in the late 20th century. The area still has the rural feel, and the well-maintained property is a glimpse into our rural past.
The History of the Ayres/Knuth Farm:
(From the Ayres/Knuth Farm Foundation Inc. site):
The Ayres/Knuth Farm has a long history not just in the County or State level but in the country. It is believed that the farm was formed around 1759 but could be as early as 1735. It was located in the Franklin section of Denville. Obadiah Lum purchased 180 acres and built the first forge and sawmill on the Den Brook. Lum purchased the property from Thomas and Richard Penn, the sons of proprietor, William Penn with financing from Colonel Jacob Ford, who owned extensive land including mines in Morris County. Franklin developed into one of the primary agricultural hubs of Denville due to the high quality of soil of the area and proximity to numerous towns with markets where the crops could be sold.
The Ayres Farm was first settled by Daniel Ayres who was born in Middlesex County in 1778. His mother was Anna Jackson, who was the daughter of General Joseph Jackson, who was known as the founder of Rockaway. Daniel married Hanna Garrigus, the daughter of David Garrigus, who was a prominent landowner in Franklin and owner of the Franklin iron forge. In 1803, David Garrigus conveyed 105 acres to his son in law.
Daniel died in 1856 and his son, William Ayres took over the farm. In 1860, he expanded the farm to 300 acres and practiced a mixture of husbandry and a cultivation of different grains. They also raised sheep for wool and cows for butter. He built the existing farmhouse in 1855 and in the 1860’s built the Tenant House for hired hands in the expanding farm. Over time the farm grew to 500 acres.
During the economic depression between 1873-1879, William Ayres adopted to the changes in the market and shifted the focus of the farm to dairying, poultry and vegetable farming. He also sold lumber to the railroads and expanded into fruit cultivation particularly apples, peaches and pears.
William Ayres retired from the farm in 1896 and since none of his children wanted to take over the operation, the property changed hands several times until 1906, when Martin and Anna Knuth purchased the farm and moved in with their five children. They kept the tradition of husbandry and fruit cultivation and a mix of vegetables as a truck farming operation.
The farm faced a lot of tragedies in the 20th Century with the death of Martin Knuth in 1935. Between a destructive fire in 1936 and a lapse of insurance, the barn was not rebuilt. With an economic Depression going on in the 1930’s, the farm was largely reduced to a subsistence-level truck farm operation. Anna Knuth died in 1950 and her two children, Frank and Sue took over the operation. Both remained on the farm until their deaths in the 1990’s. They grew a variety of crops and produced eggs that were sold locally.
The farmhouse was not electrified until the 1960’s and indoor plumbing was never installed. In 1996, a few years after the deaths of Frank and Sue Knuth, the Township of Denville purchased the nearly 52 acres of the original Ayres/Knuth Farm and the property is now managed by the non-profit Ayres/Knuth Farm Foundation Inc. The site now houses a series of historical buildings that is maintained by the foundation that are part of the original farm.
I visited the Silas Riggs Saltbox House on a visit to the Roxbury Township Historical Society during the Morris County’s “Pathways to History” event. The event gave us a chance to visit many different sites in one day.
The Historical marker in front of the house
The Silas Riggs Saltbox House is part of the King Victorian Home & King Canal Store complex it shares with the Roxbury Historic Trust. The Silas Riggs home is a preserved colonial era, Revolutionary War period residence. It is managed by the Roxbury Township Historical Society as a “Living History Museum”, hosting events that bring a sense of the past to those who step inside (Roxbury Historical Society).
The Silas Riggs Saltbox House during the tour
The last historical site on my tour that day, it was also one of the most interesting not just because of the history of the home itself but the care and TLC the site is given by its volunteers and docents. The Riggs home is a place that you feel you have stepped into someone’s home who just left for the afternoon. Many historical societies that I have been to in the past are usually dusty and musty with artifacts thrown here and there. The Riggs home was decorated by lifestyle of the periods that it was lived in.
The volunteers were nice enough to stay open for me and we ended up talking for over 45 minutes on the house and how it was decorated. There was a care in this home as the walls and ceilings were in perfect shape and the home was so welcoming that it did not feel like a museum but more like a tour through someone’s grandmother’s home.
You are welcomed in the front room by an office set up with a large knit quilt and period furniture in a sun filled room that is such an engaging place to be greeted and just talk. The period furniture is in perfect shape and fits the mood of the room.
The front parlor room
To the side of the room is the old office area space where work would have been done and the family would have gathered. The sun-drenched room would have been a bit homier in its day but reflected how homes back then were used for both business and pleasure.
The living room/office of the Silas Riggs house
The kitchen was a reflection of kitchen’s today as the center of the home for not just cooking but socializing. The kitchen was not just a source of cooking but heat for the house. There must have been a lot of family gatherings in this room. The Historical Society during the holidays uses the kitchen for a special “Soup Dinner”, where freshly made soup is made in the hearth along with homemade corn bread. This fundraiser is considered very popular, and you have to sign up early to experience being part of the home’s family. On a cold winter night, this must have been the perfect room to be in. Even today, the kitchen is the gathering spot for all families.
The kitchen hearth of the Silas Riggs house
The bedroom that connected the back kitchen to the front parlor was decorated with period furnishings, clothing from the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. The furniture had a heavy look with dark colors and sturdiness to the items in the room as made by hand and meant to last for a long time.
The volunteers were telling me that many people came to the home and said that they could move in right now. This was the care and detail that has been put into this site. It is not just that the home is a reflection of the period, but it is set up in a way that makes you feel that the family is still greeting you when you walk in the door. The museum is a cheery atmosphere that invites its visitors in for the day.
Architectural historians have said that the Saltbox house was one of the earliest homes built in Ledgewood, NJ in the circa 1740. Saltbox houses are a flat in the front with a central chimney set square in the middle of the roofline. The roofline of a saltbox house is asymmetrical with a short, steep roof in the front and a much longer, sloping roof in the back which accommodates the one-story extension of the home.
While the original owners of the Silas Riggs Saltbox House are unknown, but records indicate that by the early 1800’s, the house was owned by Silas Riggs and his wife, Harriet. Silas was a tanner by trade and supplied the local mines with leather pouches used to transport ore. He was also a contractor for a section of the Morris Canal in 1830. He oversaw the operation of three barges in the area. His son, Albert, ran the nearby Canal Store during the canal’s early years.
The design of the house is of post and beam construction, held together with wooden pegs visible in the second story eaves, the Saltbox house, is so called because of its extended, rear sloping roofline, recalling the design of salt containers of colonial times (Roxbury Historical Society).