Journal Opinion August 19, 2015
This is the season of the garden. If they were planted at the right time for the area, gardens are in full production in August. For centuries, families of this area have relied throughout the year on the food they produced in the growing season. Failure to plant and harvest a bounty meant lean months to come, with survival on the line. They were locavores in the earliest sense.
This column describes their crops, especially those grown in the 50 years following the arrival of the first settlers in area towns. It covers the period of self-sufficient farming from settlement to the 1820s. This was the age of homespun.
In his Yankee Kingdom Ralph Nading Hill wrote of that era: “Everything they ate, they grew, almost everything they used, they made; almost everything they wore came from the factory of the hearthside.”
Prior to the arrival of European settlers, natives took advantage of open riverside spaces to grow crops. The Koasek Abenaki who lived along the Connecticut River in what is now Newbury and Haverhill grew what they called “The Three Sisters,” corn, beans and squash. Those crops, augmented by the results of hunting, fishing and gathering, were the basis of their diet. For them, August was the month of the Green Corn Moon.
European settlers began arriving in this area after 1764. Most of them were young families, farmers from established areas in New England to the south. They were drawn to the area by cheap available land and the promise of a new lease on life.
Some settlers were drawn to the open valley areas such as the intervales of the Connecticut River. Others had what historian Charles Morrissey referred to as “a hillside mentality.” They preferred to locate on higher ground. These locations were better drained, freed from flooding and mosquitoes while receiving more sunshine and less morning fogs and early frosts.
The average holding was about 100 acres. Sometimes the men came first, leaving wives and children behind until the plot was established and a cabin built. With their ox teams and plenty of back-breaking labor, these farmers cleared portions of the land. Trees were chopped down or burned, stumps were removed and stones were hauled to build walls. Some worked with only a crude hoe, ax and fire. Crops were planted as quickly as possible.
According to Hill, “A farmer could increase the value of 100 acres eight to ten times with the crops he raised in a few years of diligent labor.” This often allowed him to pay off the debt owned for the land in just a few years. The land was fertile, in stark contrast to the exhausted soil of areas settled earlier.
As soon as there was open space, crops were planted. Indian corn which grew rapidly and abundantly was planted between the stumps of trees. Buckwheat and rye were among the first crops. Wheat, oats and barley came later.
Settlers brought apple tree seedlings with them and established orchards. A portion of the lot was kept as woods for fuel and lumber and for later clearing for crop rotation. Berries were gathered wild or from transplanted bushes. Grass was grown for animal feed. Geographer Jedidiah Morse, writing in 1792, mentioned “Flax is raised in considerable quantities, and the soil is good for hemp.”
Many times, pumpkins, squash, potatoes and other vegetables gathered near the end of the growing season were planted in nearby fields. A fenced kitchen garden, usually tended by the women, was planted near the dwelling for frequently used items. This might include artichokes, beans, peas, lettuce, brassica (cabbage, kale and broccoli) and skirrets. The latter is a type of parsnip.
A good wife would also include herbs in the kitchen garden. Herbs were used for medicines, cooking and for fragrances. Herbs such as mint, lavender, chives, sage and rosemary served more than one of these purposes. Her garden pharmacy, augmented by wild herbs, might include lemon balm, hyssop and yarrow. In addition to the bit of beauty it provided, a flower garden might provide a source of medicines, dyes and fragrances.
Life was never easy for these early subsistence farmers.They faced the normal threats to their crops from rocky soil conditions, blight, pests, wild animals, weeds and the short growing season of the area. Bears were a constant threat to corn crops and wolves to livestock.
From time to time there were extraordinary calamities. Between July and September of 1770 an army of worms descended on the area. A Thetford observer reported that pastures were so covered with worms “that he could not put down his finger in a single spot, without placing it upon a worm.
Called the “Northern Army,” the worms devoured wheat and corn, but left pumpkins, peas and potatoes. The army reappeared in 1781 and when they left there was little food left for the people or their cattle. Piermont residents were saved by rafts loaded with pumpkins floated down from Haverhill and Newbury. The appearance of much larger than normal flocks of wild pigeons offered another food source to those who had lost their crops.
Frosts that came late in the spring or early in late summer and irregular rainfall could have an impact on crops. Inclement weather in 1780 caused the failure of many crops, necessitating “rigid economy and great self-denial.”
Cold weather was not uncommon and winters often “reigned with great severity.” The most unusual weather was in 1816, known as “eighteen hundred and froze to death” or the “poverty year.” After a mild winter, very cold weather visited the area with a severe frost in June and snow and frosts in July and August. Provisions were “dear” and “some people suffered from hunger.” Many had to rely on oatmeal, having “never tasted it before.”
Even in the best of years, food stuff had to be preserved for year-round use. Canning and mechanical refrigeration were unknown until after the Civil War. Local families used a number of methods for dealing with the seasonal cycles of abundance and shortages. These included curing with salt, smoking, pickling and drying. Grains were made into beer or alcohol, apples into cider and brandy, and milk into cheese and butter. Root crops were buried or stored in root cellars. Food was stored in cold spring houses, packed in ice or just allowed to freeze naturally.
These families ate what they grew. Corn and wheat had to be carried to the mill to be ground for flour. For many early settlers getting to mills involved physically carrying grain in the fall and pulling it on hand sleds in the winter. Potatoes were introduced by the early 1800s. At first they was considered fit only for cattle, but later became part of the settlers’ diet either as a vegetable or whiskey or used as starch.
William Tucker’s Hartford history includes the following period menu: “Their customary daily fare consisted of corn food, such as Johnny-cake, porridge, mush, hulled corn, pudding and green corn; buckwheat cakes, rye and wheat bread, bean porridge, hot or cold…potatoes roasted in the ashes, pumpkin pies, and, now and then, a partridge or a squirrel stew.” Beans were referred to as “the old staple” of the area.
The Peacham history quotes one observer “The cellar of autumn would contain three barrels each of beef and pork, twenty of cider, and barrels filled with potatoes, turnips, beets, carrots and cabbages. In the attic would be quantities of dried pumpkins, peaches and apples, various herbs and piles of wool, flax and tow.” Tow was made from the stems of the flax plant. One use was as tinder for starting fires.
There were in each community individuals who held larger plot of land and had the financial assets necessary to live above the subsistence level of their less fortunate neighbors. But the fertility of the land allowed many smaller holders to have wheat to sell along with potash. Crops such as corn and wheat were used as a medium of exchange and bartered for needed items or for payment of taxes and debts. Writing in 1794 Samuel Williams reported “the first crop of wheat will fully pay him for all the expenses he has been at, in clearing up, sowing and fencing his land.”
Soon after the struggles of initial settlement the frontier characteristics described above began to change. Towns began to develop the amenities of established communities. Mills, meetinghouses, taverns, schools, craft shops, stores and even libraries were established in village centers. Transportation was improved and local and state governments began to deal with issues. After the close of the War of 1812 in 1815, the long held fear of invasion came to an end.
After 1810 the state of agriculture in the area began to change. Sheep were introduced in 1811 and the “sheep craze” began. This, along with the beginning of the exodus to more fertile lands in the West, led to farm consolidation. But despite that, the Vermont history Freedom and Unity includes a description of farms in Peacham to show that many farms “remained small in size, and life and labor on them changed little in the first half of the nineteenth century.” It mentions that in 1850 the average farm in Vermont was “139 acres, with 63 percentage of that land improved.”
By 1815 the winnowing mill and bent scythe snath came into use, the iron plow about 1820 and later the horse rake, cultivator and mowing machine. Packaged seeds became available, being sold locally by 1806. Numerous books on “scientific farming” were obtainable. This agricultural revolution led to larger crop yields, but also greater competition from other parts of the nation.
But these changes did not seem to diminish the role of the kitchen garden. “Plenty of vegetables conduce to better health” the Vermont newspaper The Voice of Freedom reported. By the 1830’s books were available showing “the work necessary to be done in a kitchen garden in each month throughout the season including directions for forcing or forwarding vegetables out of the ordinary season.“ Farmer’s almanacs included articles on the latest varieties of seeds, methods of planting and fertilizing crops and tips for their storage. Much was written about the use of manure in gardening.
The Windham County Democrat wrote in 1851 about the “practical view of women’s sphere” that included “time with spade or hoe in hand, in the kitchen garden and fields where cultivation promises harvest time, and there blooming the ripe, rich fruit.”
At Orford’s centennial in 1865, the speaker concluded “We commenced with the pounded corn and the omnifarious potatoe for food, and beechnuts and wild berries for fruit. We end with rich gardens and fruitful orchards.”
As I write this column in the cool confines of my office, my wife Carolyn toils in our gardens “with spade or hoe in hand”. Green beans, tomatoes, peas, summer squash and blue berries are producing steadily and her flower gardens are admired by many. I am the junior partner in this enterprise.
Local grocery stores, farm stands and neighbors are our backup when blight, pests and frost limit our own harvest. Unlike our ancestors they stand in the way of famine and “self denial.”
From these same ancestors we both have inherited the gardening gene. Yearly, for nearly the past half century, we have followed the 1859 advice of the Green Mountain Freeman: “In some sheltered and convenient spot, have a good kitchen garden, where you can go for all sorts of vegetables, and some of the small fruits; nothing will be more economical and few things will add more to the comfort of the family.”