Hidden Treasures
Knox Marks the Spot as WNYers
Discover That They Have a New
Place to Enjoy Nature’s Beauty
Right in Their Own Backyard

COUNTRY LIVING: The buildings at Knox Farm preserve the classic feel of its past life as Ess-Kay Farms
Photos by

by Doug Carpenter


There’s a good chance that some of your fondest recollections of childhood are of playing outdoors in the sun… and yes, living where we do, in the rain and the snow, too. But whatever the season, we Western New Yorkers get enormous enjoyment from the beauty with which this region we call home so generously rewards us.

Of course, our search for a place for our children to play, enjoy nature and make happy memories often doesn’t take us any further than our own backyards. But imagine for a moment what it would be like if that backyard was spread out over 633 acres of untouched natural beauty, with trails to hike or ride on and a farm to explore, animals and all.

No kid would turn down an invitation to go play in a backyard like that. And neither
should you.

Home Is Where the Park Is.

When it comes to finding places to play, New Yorkers are fortunate to have a lot of recreational options. Among them are the 176 public parks and 35 historic sites currently operated by the State. Names like Letchworth and Allegany probably come readily to mind.

But while you may think you know quite a bit about those and the rest of the 17 State Parks here in the Niagara Region, what you may not know is that one of the newest is located in East Aurora. You probably never even realized it was there as you drove past it, the same way countless area residents have since the early 1900s.

So here’s a clue. It’s on the other side of a very famous wall. Familiar to generations of Western New Yorkers, this landmark wall on Route 16 runs a good three quarters of a mile along the northeast side of what until July of 2000 was known as Ess-Kay Farms. That’s when it became Knox Farm State Park.

A “Young” Park with Potential.

Ess-Kay Farms was home to three generations of one of Western New York’s most prominent families, the Knoxes. Widely known for their success in businesses like banking and professional sports, the Knox family is perhaps even more highly regarded for their generous support of the arts and other community causes.

It was that same generosity that motivated their desire to ensure that the beautiful place that had so enriched their family’s lives for nearly a century would be protected and preserved for generations yet to come. And that it would be open and accessible to their neighbors, near and far, so that they too might know and love the land.

At a time when a parcel of its size and location would generate keen interest among commercial and residential developers, the Knoxes instead determined that the land’s best chance to remain a wild and natural open space would be as a state park. That decision mirrors the similar thinking that resulted in the creation of Letchworth State Park, which grew from William Pryor Letchworth’s 1906 donation of 1,000 acres to an enormously-popular recreational destination covering more than 14,000.

As Letchworth celebrates its centennial, Knox Farm State Park is just beginning its journey. Having now been open to the public only since 2002, Knox Farm is, as Mary Glenn puts it, “still a very young park,” which we must now nurture. It’s a role she knows well.

The Keepers of Nature’s Legacy.

Now a member of the park’s staff, the special relationship she has with Knox Farm dates back through the many years her family worked with the Knoxes when Ess-Kay Farms was their home. Understandably, her feelings for it and its rich history are deeply personal and protective. It’s the kind of connection she hopes others will develop as they get to know the land.

She fondly recalls how much its former owners enjoyed all that the land had to offer. With Knox Farm’s great diversity, including an abundance of wooded areas, grasslands, meadows and ponds, she says that it was – and still is – “a magical place.”

Part of that magic derives from the mystique that inevitably grew up around a place whose privacy was assured by the presence of stone walls and iron gates. Now, she says, where it was once a place passersby “strained their eyes to catch glimpses of angus cattle and horses grazing in the fields,” now that Knox Farm belongs to everyone, the public needs only to “drive, walk or ride into the park and claim it as their own.” And from her experience, she adds, those who have come to explore it often find that they can’t stay away.

A Once and Future Family Affair.

Bill Purtill couldn’t agree more. And in a way, he’s living proof. As resident Park Manager, Purtill is in many ways an extension of the family tradition that makes Knox Farm such a welcoming place since it’s often his face and that of his charming daughter, Erica, that greet park visitors. In many ways, they exemplify how deeply Knox Farm can move you.

A 14-year veteran of the New York State Parks service, Purtill came to Knox Farm about a year ago and says he realized immediately how unique it is. Its diversity – not only of its ecology but of its activities – makes it a place that can be experienced so many different ways that it can’t help but draw you back again and again.

The park's 633 acres are comprised of a variety of habitats, including 400 acres of grasslands, pastures and hayfields and 100 acres of woodlands, ponds and wetlands. Open dawn to dusk year-round with a $6.00 admission charged only on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays between Memorial and Labor Days, the park offers different options at different times of the year. Visitors can cross-country ski, snowshoe and take nature walks conducted by the National Audubon Society.

Maintained as the Knox family wanted it to be – as natural open space, the park offers rolling meadows perfect for picnicking and miles of winding trails just right for hiking and biking as well as the horseback riding that has so long been a tradition at the farm.

For an aspiring young equestrienne studying both the Western and English styles of riding, life at Knox Farm can only be described as “horse heaven” for 10 year-old Erica Purtill. She and other visitors to the park are understandably impressed with the size of the farm’s original stable complex, which in its heyday boasted 29 stalls.

Keepin’ Them Down
on the Farm.

The stable is just one of 16 structures standing on the farm today, ranging from barns and kennels to residences. Because it’s still so early in Knox Farm’s transition from private estate to public park, the four buildings currently operational for park activities are obviously very busy places.

The former Milk House now houses a Visitors Center, where guests can learn through vintage photographs the story of the park and its place in history. Another furry flurry of activity centers around the park’s resident menagerie, which currently consists of 16 sheep, 6 chickens, 5 goats, 2 rabbits and a 10 year-old llama named Clarissa.

Another must-visit is Knox Farm’s Gift Shop, which specializes in items handmade from fibers collected from the park’s resident flock. The park also sponsors the Knox Farm Fiber Festival, which will be held this year on Saturday, September 30th. It’s just one of a wide range of unique events that take place on park grounds.

These include annual celebrations such as the Knox Audubon Nature Festival and the East Aurora Driving Society’s Carriage Drive – which has been held there for 31 years. The park also hosts polo matches throughout the Summer as well as seasonal soccer games featuring the East Aurora Arsenals and other traveling league teams.

One of the most remarkable features of the park, however, is its 35-room Main House. Dating back to the earliest years of Ess-Kay Farms, the building – which provided welcome Summer escape for all three generations of the Knox family – today has found a new life as an elegant venue available for rent by anyone for events ranging from parties to weddings to corporate meetings.

Hoping the Community Will “Pony” Up.

As Bill Purtill puts it, Knox Farm is “a work in progress.” For example, a partnership between the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, Audubon New York and the Buffalo Audubon Society is transforming one of the buildings in the park into the Knox Farm Audubon Center. As it develops, the Center will house exhibits and provide environmental education programs as well as serve as a base of operations for scientific research into important topics like agricultural habitat management.

Yet even with projects like that and other construction that’s currently underway, the story of Knox Farm’s future is still being written. With such an impressive past to build on, people like Purtill, Mary Glenn and others who love the park feel a strong drive to make sure that it fulfills its potential.

For their part, Purtill’s nine-member staff works hard to ensure that a trip to today’s Knox Farm State Park will be an experience that visitors long remember. But they and the community volunteers who generously donate their time to help maintain and cultivate the park feel that Knox Farm can and should be much more. And they’re actively doing something about it.

The longtime connection between Knox Farm’s history and East Aurora’s rich artistic heritage provides a natural foundation for one of the most exciting of these efforts. Inspired by the irresistible aesthetic appeal of her favorite park structure, noted artist Michele Conley Vogel is mounting a fundraiser to finance the restoration of the greenhouse that was so loved by Helen Knox throughout her years at Ess-Kay Farms.

Owner of East Aurora’s West End Gallery, Vogel recruited fellow artists from a wide variety of backgrounds to create a herd of 15 unique and strikingly-designed lifesize fiberglass horses. When they were completed, they were installed for public appreciation throughout East Aurora and other selected community sites and will be auctioned off at a gala celebration… which she has aptly christened “Trot to Knox”… on September 16th. (See the sidebar story All the Pretty Horses below for full details.)

From Those to Whom Much Is Given…

Like Mary Glenn, Michele Conley Vogel’s family roots run deep in East Aurora. They are both vividly aware of the history of the land that once was a source of quiet fascination but now represents so much more as an opportunity to create and preserve something of lasting value for their entire community.

In many ways, it’s the same sense of duty that inspired the old saying that “from those to whom much is given, much is expected.” Their willingness to share the land they loved with their neighbors shows that the Knox family appreciated that ideal. Now, say Vogel, Glenn, Bill Purtill and the others who are championing community support for Knox Farm State Park, it’s our turn to appreciate the value of what we’ve been given, use it wisely and give back in kind.

After all, that is what you do when you discover treasure, isn’t it?

Knox Farm State Park
437 Buffalo Road
East Aurora, NY 14052 (716) 655-7200

NYS Thruway to Exit 54 (Route 400) Route 400 to Jamison Road Exit Right on Jamison Road
Left on Route 16 (Seneca Street) Park entrance 2 miles on right

NATURE AT YOUR DOOR: The deer stroll contentedly right outside the Main House’s front door.
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FAMILY FARM: Resident Park Manager Bill Purtill and his daughter Erica happily call Knox Farm home.
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SEEING THE BIG PICTURE: The view through the living room window of Knox Farm’s Main House is breathtaking.
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THE FLEECE OFF THEIR BACKS: Gift Shop items come with photos of the Knox Farm sheep whose wool they were made with.
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DYNAMIC DUO: West End Gallery’s Michele Conley Vogel (left)
and Melissa Deck provide the horsepower driving the “Trot to
Knox” fund raiser.
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BARNYARD BUDDIES: Horse handler Tim Utman hangs with big buddy Royal and miniature horse Smidgy.
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LET THE SUN SHINE IN: A successful “Trot to Knox” fund raiser will help restore the park’s classic Greenhouse
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Some other charachters that call Knox Farm home.
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