Just north of downtown Augusta on Jackson Street, an unassuming gravel driveway leads to a site with a story that has been centuries in the making, even predating the town of Augusta.
Inside a historic barn, Ellen Knoernschild stands behind the counter overlooking shelves of fruit preserves and apple butters she has made herself. It’s Sunday afternoon, and the last few families are trickling toward the parking lot with freshly picked pumpkins and purchased preserves.
For over 50 years, this has been Ellen Knoernschild’s weekend routine for more than half of the year. However, this year marks a special milestone for her and her family. Sept. 24, 2021, was the 200th anniversary of the family’s farm, Centennial Farms. The farm has been both an economic means and treasured heirloom for seven generations of Knoernschilds since the 1850s.
The plat for Centennial Farms, which wouldn’t receive that name for another 140-plus years, was initially made in 1831 for Leonard Harold, a Virginia man who was among the party who traveled with Daniel Boone to the region in the early 1800s. Harold purchased 360 acres, including the farm, from the federal government — one of the first plats purchased in the newly formed state of Missouri — and began building a home. Ellen Knoernschild proudly displays a copy of the original land deed, signed by Harold and President James Monroe, inside the historic barn.
“This is where it all started,” Ellen Knoernschild said.
Harold began growing tobacco and other crops on the land. As per the Missouri Compromise, owning slaves was legal in Missouri, and Harold owned enslaved Black people as part of his tobacco operation. The tobacco-drying barn built around then has been torn down, but the foundation remains and is part of the present barn. The Leonard Harold Home, a log house built around 1835, featuring a stone chimney, glass windows and walnut and oak walls, is still standing and has been restored.
Harold sold chunks of the land over the next three decades, including the land that in 1855 was incorporated as the town of Augusta. In 1850, records show he was the third-wealthiest man in St. Charles County.
By 1854, he had sold his remaining 60 acres to a Bavarian immigrant named Christian Knoernschild, who raised grain and livestock, established vineyards and was among the founders of the Augusta Wine Co. According to local folklore, he was known throughout town as the man with a long white beard who drove a white horse and usually had a white dog with him. More than 150 years later, Christian Knoernschild’s great-great-great-great-grandson, 6-year-old Keegan Wright, enjoys playing in the pumpkin patch when he visits the farm with his family. Keegan’s great grandmother, Ellen Knoernschild, and her late husband, Bob, are the fourth generation to own the historic farm, and the fifth and sixth generations help out each season. Ellen Knoernschild’s grandson Gabriel Wright, Keegan’s uncle, is the farmstead manager.
A homemade poster displayed inside the barn proudly summarizes the lineage. Christian Knoernschild’s son Edwin purchased the farm in 1913, which by that time had gained nearly 100 additional acres due to the Missouri River changing course in the late 1800s. The family sold pieces of land over the years but always maintained the farm and historic house. In 1960, Edwin Knoernschild’s son Arnold purchased the farm and continued raising cattle, hogs and corn. In 1967, the farm changed hands again, this time to Arnold Knoernschild’s son Bob and his wife, Ellen.
Bob Knoernschild had grown up on the farm since his birth in 1935, and he always knew he wanted to inherit it one day. He first met Ellen at a school square dance, and although she had grown up in St. Louis, she said she was intrigued by the idea of living on a farmstead.
“I had never been on a farm before. ... They had a gas tank in a little house up here, and I thought it was an outhouse,” she said, laughing. “But I’d always wanted to grow apples.”
Bob and Ellen Knoernschild were the ones who added the market and harvest picking, which opened the already century-old farm to the public for the first time. The couple planted strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, peach trees and apple trees in the late 1960s. They also briefly offered select-your-own Christmas trees, and Ellen Knoernschild remembers crawling around on the ground among the pine trees to pull weeds when she was more than eight months pregnant with the couple’s first child, Christina. They later welcomed a son, Karl.
The couple built an addition to Leonard Harold’s log house, which Christian Knoernschild had first expanded with a brick addition in the 1850s, and moved in to raise their family. Ellen Knoernschild still resides in the home today.
In 1976, the farm was designated a “Centennial Farm” in honor of the American Bicentennial Celebration that year, and the University of Missouri Extension also recognized it as a century farm, a Missouri farm that remained in the same family’s ownership for more than 100 years. Bob and Ellen Knoernschild liked how the title sounded, and they decided to adopt it as the farm’s official name.
In 1994, the family celebrated another landmark honor when Centennial Farms was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
At its peak as a pick-your-own and produce market, the farmstead was selling about 96,000 pounds of peaches each season — more than 2,000 bushels — and welcoming more than 2,500 children annually for tours. The strawberry fields covered more than an acre, and September and October usually offered apple-picking, hayrides, pumpkin patch explorations and more to up to 600 patrons per day.
For the past few years, the roughly 65-acre farmstead has focused mostly on apples and pumpkins and has seen smaller crowds, around 300 on a busy day. Many of these people, Gabriel Wright said, have their own rich histories with Centennial Farms that go back 10, 20 and even 30 years. Bruce Alioto, of St. Louis, brought his two children here every year for decades.
“They used to throw apples at each other,” he said, laughing. “They loved it.”
His son, Joshua, has since passed away, and the whole family felt his presence Oct. 2 when they visited Centennial Farms with Bruce Alioto’s 2-year-old grandson, Stone Alioto-Adams.
“Bringing him here is really special,” Bruce Alioto said as Stone smiled from the wagon he was riding in.
For Gabriel Wright, the farmstead, which he also grew up on, makes him think of his late grandfather Bob, who passed away in 2018, and his late mother, Christina, who passed away in July. She made many of the farm’s decorations, which pop up each year like old friends and include everything from generic Halloween characters to the cast of “The Wizard of Oz.” She also made the wagon displaying pumpkins and mums that greets guests from the moment they come around the corner. He said that because she loved the farm so much, he knows she enjoyed seeing her children grow up and love it, too.
“We were kind of lost this year,” he said. “We were missing her, but you have to keep on trucking.”
In a story seen before on this plat of land, the next generation of Knoernschilds — Gabriel Wright’s wife, Hayley, and his sister-in-law — took up the reins, handling the decorating and mums duties that had been Christina’s. Hayley Wright also manages the farm’s Facebook page at facebook.com/CentennialFarmsAugustaMissouri. Gabriel Wright said they are grateful to be involved in the historic homestead.
“When I was younger, I didn’t think about it much, but as I got older, I realized how special it is that this barn and the house are still standing, and we have this property after all these years,” he said.
Of his wish to become full-time manager of Centennial Farms, he later added, “Especially after (Grandpa) passed away, I realized what needed to be done. I like working here. Grandma’s a pretty easygoing boss.”
To that, Ellen Knoernschild laughed warmly.
Over the years, the family has rejected offers to sell their remaining land, including most recently from Washington native and developer David Hoffmann, Ellen Knoernschild said. The family’s main reasoning, she explained, is a strong desire to keep the farmland in the family for generations to come.
“This is a family farm,” Ellen Knoernschild said, “and I just think it’s important for it to continue.”