The Landscape at Craftsman Farms

A description of Craftsman Farms isn't complete without including the landscape upon which Gustav Stickley shaped and nurtured his dream. Beginning in 1908, he pieced together 650 acres of abandoned farmland and woodlands in New Jersey's Piedmont region. Noted for its healthful climate, and with the Lackawanna Railroad nearby for commuting into New York City, Morris Plains made an ideal location. The neighboring towns of Morristown and Madison boasted mansions built by wealthy families with acres of formal gardens, statuary and prize-winning livestock, all of which contrasted sharply with the plans Gustav Stickley had for his wonderful experiment, Craftsman Farms.

Stickley's log and stone house gave a “peculiarly sympathetic touch, making it seem at home in the
landscape, a harmonious part of its environment.” A visitor's description in 1913 said, “ The lay of the land in which Craftsman Farms rests, deep in the sunny New Jersey hills, and the fashion of the development of this land permitting its curves, its ridges and its declivities to be preserved rather than flattened into conventional outlines, gives to it and individuality, unique and forceful.” Local building materials and the shape of the land determined how Stickley plotted his property into three categories: land for his home and surrounding cottages, land for his farm and land left in its natural state.

The log house and nearby cottages suited the gentle hillsides upon which they were built. The entrance to Craftsman Farms was a dirt road that crossed the railroad tracks on the eastern-most edge of Stickley's property and wound its way through woods. As the road took its last turn through woodland, it opened up to the engaging view off the log house sitting on a hillside with a sunken rose garden before it. Two small stone piers covered with English ivy invited the visitor to enter the garden and follow its paths past fragrant roses. Toward the stone retaining wall and up the broad stone stairs that led to the upper lawn in front of the log house.

Stickley's naturalistic approach to landscaping didn't discount smooth grass lawns and formal flower beds that gave contrast and meaning to the whole property. For in the development of rough country contrasts are essential to success,” wrote a visitor in 1913. Thus, greenery filled a bed along the front of the log house. Boxwood and arbor vitae interspersed in the gardens and placed along the roads gave a green contrast to summer's colorful plants and winter's bareness. The satisfaction of working in the gardens and the peacefulness enjoyed at twilight provided incentive for their placement in an otherwise natural landscape.

The two cottages situated just to the northeast of the log house, another cottage to the northwest and a garage with workshop above created a small compound of houses for the Stickley family.” I like the houses to be grouped together. It makes life simpler, more friendly,” Stickley was quoted as saying. The cottages faced eastward overlooking the vegetable gardens and beyond to open fields and distant hills. Two pairs of tall stone piers topped with cascading ivy and petunias marked off the dirt road that ran between the vegetable gardens and ended at the field's edge.

The family area of Craftsman Farms was closely integrated with farming. “With the soil responsive to his labors and the nurturing power of sunshine and shower, the man who works upon the soil is, to a larger extent than any other, the master of his own life,” wrote the editor of the Craftsman in 1911. Aligned with the “back-to-the-land” movement, Stickley set out to practice what he preached. To the west of the houses he planted and orchard of peach, apple, pear and cherry trees. The vineyard he established on the hillside to the north of the cottages produced grapes “as lush as any grown in the Loire and Rhone Valleys.” Stickley's herd of Holstein cows grazed in the fields beyond the vegetable gardens to the east. Stickley told his readers shortly after he leased the Craftsman Building in New York City in 1913 that he would truck fresh wholesome milk, eggs, fruit, vegetables and even drinking water from Craftsman Farms to his new restaurant.

The Farms buildings were grouped to the west of the houses on what is today private property directly across from the current entrance to Craftsman Farms. In keeping with the family houses, these handsome buildings were constructed in stone and shingle and included a horse barn, chicken house, cow barn, concrete silo, a stone house and a carriage house.

Stickley converted only 150 of his 650 acres into farm and home use; the rest remained in its natural state. In 1911, he wrote, “We need to go often to the treasury of Nature that we may restore, renew the magnetic force that makes us valuable to ourselves, to others. Nature hives so generously to those who go to her….She heals and enriches, never drains or impoverishes, and is always trustworthy, reliable.”

To the north and northwest of the houses and farm buildings, the land remained wooded. Wood Thrush Glen, the untamed ravine immediately south of the log house, became Stickley's personal bird refuge and ample description of it was given by Gilbert Pearson in 1914: “There were no trimmed-out paths to follow, and often we had to stoop to pass under limbs, and in places were forced to part the bushes with our hands. We waded knee deep in rank growths of fern and jack-in-the-pulpit until we reached the brook whose murmur had lulled us to sleep the night before. There was no stereotyped place to cross it, for bear in mind there is nothing formal in the Wood Thrush Glen.”

After acquiring Craftsman Farms in 1917, the Farny family actively farmed the property for about ten years, keeping a herd of 40 milking Holsteins. They maintained the orchards and vegetable gardens, supplying the Morristown market with cantaloupe and tomatoes during the First World War and for several years afterwards. Eventually farming ceased, and the farm buildings were converted to other uses.

With plantings of exotic trees and shrubs the Farnys created a more formal appearance around the log house. Perhaps the most dramatic change was the dam built at the south end of the sunken garden that created a small pond which they then graced with swans. The rose garden remained for a while but eventually became a vast expanse of lawn. Stickley's wild ravine was tamed with plantings of rhododendrons and other shrubs and flowers, and dams formed the free running stream into two additional small ponds.

In 1969 the Farnys sold 623 acres of Craftsman Farms to a developer. They kept the remaining 27 acres, encompassing the log house, cottages and outbuilding until the Farms was purchased 20 years later by the Township of Parsippany-Troy Hills. An additional portion of the property was purchased by the Township in 2007 expanding the site to 30 acres. The site is now being preserved by the Township and the not-for-profit organization The Stickley Museum at Craftsman Farms, and the essence of Gustav Stickley's landscape remains amazingly intact. The bones of his creation can still be seen in the buildings, the stone wall and stairway and the four stone piers. The rest of his dream survives only in photographs and in one's imagination. The spirit of Craftsman Farms, however, remains.

13 August 2020



August 12, 2020


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