The enterprise begun in 1956 by Frederick Peech, and located in the township's Palermo section, just outside Ocean City, is considered by local dealers to have been a catalyst in creating an "antiques alley" along Route 9, also known as South Shore Road.
The area, a popular rainy-day destination for tourists, is home to many of Cape May County's 40 antiques shops, officials said.
Witnesses say embers flew into the sky for hours after the inferno that engulfed the 176-year-old post-and-beam structure was reported by a neighbor around 1:40 a.m. The fire's glow could be seen from more than a mile away.
"The house was fully engulfed when we arrived . . . fire coming out of every window," said Chief Jay Newman of the Marmora Volunteer Fire Company, one of eight departments that responded.
Newman said it took more than an hour to bring the fire under control and hours more to locate the body, which was found near a living room fireplace. Authorities are trying to determine the cause of the blaze.
State police have not confirmed the victim's identity, but neighbors and friends say it was Frederick Peech's son Henry, a reclusive furniture restorer. Police confirmed that Henry Peech, 50, had been the sole occupant of the property. His 89-year-old father died about a year ago and his mother, Carlotta, lives in a nursing home, according to a family friend. A brother resides in Pennsylvania.
Henry Peech was "very shy, but very talented. He worked with his father for many years . . . a very talented furniture restorer and artist," said Arthur Schwerdt, a certified appraiser who has owned nearby August Farmhouse Antiques for more than 30 years.
Schwerdt credits the Peech store - which township records list as the Four Fields Antiques Shop, but which bore no signs of that name - with spawning an interest in old objects and restoration in an area that had long suffered from a tear-down mentality.
By the 1970s, "old Fred Peech" - as he was known - was the go-to guy for preservationists who needed period furniture and other pieces to gussy up restorations of Victorian homes and bed-and-breakfasts in Cape May.
Schwerdt's partner, Larry Damato, was always struck by how Peech's unassuming shop was "chock-filled" with treasures - the sort of finds that make the Keno brothers of Antiques Roadshow fame salivate.
Eighteenth-century Queen Anne tables and desks were often stacked atop one another. Scattered about were mahogany-legged wing chairs waiting to be reupholstered and Windsor chairs in need of a good dusting. Nineteenth-century Eastlake settees and secretaries were displayed cheek by jowl. And in the barn was a collection of those "bottles and devices," relics of a time past.
Frederick Peech was the most tenured antiques dealer in the area, Damato said.
"And the family certainly had an eye. This is such a shame, so shocking to everyone that knew them."
Contact staff writer Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or email@example.com.