BRIEF HISTORY OF FARMING


When tillage begins, other arts follow. Therefore farmers are the founders of human civilization.” This quote is from Daniel Webster (1782 to 1852). This statement described farmers from the beginning of time, be they farmers in the Fertile Crescent during Biblical times or farmers here in eastern Maine from early days of settlement until after World War Two. During that time most men here were farmers and those farmers produced enough food to allow others to work at other jobs.

The history of agriculture in our towns did not start with our first settlers. They brought with them traditions that had grown over two centuries of European settlement on this continent. This first article will outline those traditions so readers will better understand following articles that will deal specifically with farming in our immediate area. Much of what is written here is based on Clarence A. Day’s History of Maine Agriculture, 1604 – 1860. Other sources are noted in the text.

 

THE AXE AND THE FIREBRAND

From the arrival of the first European settlers until about 1900, the creating of farms from the wilderness was much unchanged and dependent on those two tools, the axe and the firebrand. These steps suggest what was common. Some men had the help of a strong son or two. Some settlers were single, thus with no family to worry about. Some men had no old home their family could stay, they had to feed and house their wife and children while doing the steps listed below.

Year 1 – Cut trees on 5 or 6 acres. The man of the family did this, usually after he had planted the gardens at his old home. His wife and family would tend these crops while he was in the wilderness.

Year 2 – Again the man would come alone, burn the slash, and plant corn among the stumps. He then would build a log cabin and move the family That winter they would live on corn meal plus whatever had been brought from their old home and what could be found such as wild meat.

The first settler in Dover was Eli Towne. In 1803 he went to Bangor to get his wife and 13-month-old child. They walked 20 miles the first day carrying the child and all their possessions. The next day he hired a horse so his wife might ride. The path was so rough they thought it best for Eli to continue carrying the child. After another overnight stay, they started on the final 15 miles. As they approached their home, it began to snow wet flakes. Darkness hung like a shroud over the scene Mrs. Towne surveyed, the small cabin sitting alone in a clearing with half burned logs, wet and black. She turned her head not wanting her husband to see her tears. Page 22 of Settling the Maine Wilderness Moses Greenleaf, His Maps and His Household of Faith 1777 - 1834 by Walter MacDougal.

Year 3 – Next the settler would build his first barn, plant wheat as well as corn and clear another 5 or 6 acres. The farmer’s oxen would pull a new land harrow (all wood) among the stumps to scratch up the soil for planting. We should note that corn and wheat need to be ground to be eatable by humans. This could be done at a conveniently located gristmill or by hand. The early settlers of South Princeton had to carry their grain to a gristmill at Baring.

Years 4 – During this year our settler would add rye to his garden and would plant English hay to be harvested for winter animal feed. English hay was better feed than was salt marsh hay along the coast or meadow hay found inland. Again he would apply the axe and firebrand to more wilderness acres, what was called improving the land.

And so this process continued. After about seven years, our settler would build a frame house that might become the ell of the big house that he might build after a dozen more years. Most farms in our area did not prosper enough to have that big house addition. A bigger barn or a lean-too on the old barn could be added to accommodate hay and livestock. As the stumps were burned away, or dug up, or rotted away, the oxen would drag a brush harrow to smooth the fields. This could be as simple as a log drawn side ways or as complicated as having the log fitted with birch tops (in drilled holes). Harrows with iron teeth were used on cultivated land.

Alan Taylor in Liberty Men and White Indians gives additional views on settlement. Wrestling a farm out of the woods had three advantages; the cost per acre was comparatively low, the soil, especially after a good burn, was fertile, and the settler could expect a few years of freedom from plant parasites. The disadvantages were numerous; coons, crows, wolves, bears, insects and a lack of hay for livestock. Living conditions were poor; half the first homes had no chimneys, most had no beds, and the diet for the first year or two was limited to the point of causing malnutrition.

So why did men and their families choose to suffer these conditions? Our ancestors wanted to become freemen. They despised being day laborers or tenant farmers. They had come from England to America, or from Massachusetts to the frontier because they had no chance of being freemen in their former home place. To be freemen, they needed to own their farm. They also wanted a farm large enough for lots of livestock, which equaled wealth, and to live where their sons to settle near them.

NATIVE AMERICAN FARMERS

European explorers found cleared land with crops growing at places south of the Kennebec River. One such place was at the mouth of the Saco River where corn and beans were grown. At Canton Point on the Androscoggin River about 600 acres was under cultivation. The natives were nomadic; after planting a crop, they would leave a few to tend the gardens while the most would move on to return in the fall for the harvest. The corn would be dried and stored in Indian barns, pits dug in dry soil and lined and covered with birch bark.

FURS – FISH – FOREST PRODUCTS – FARMS

John Winter had gardens on Richmond Island, which is off Cape Elizabeth. In 1634 he reported the following crops: barley, peas, pumpkins, carrots, parsnips, garlic, onions, radishes, turnips, cabbages lettuce, parsley and melons. For livestock he had 70 pigs that ran wild and fed on acorns and clams and some Dutch cattle that the wolves had killed. He had six asses to harrow the ground and some goats. He had the power and authority to execute any Indian that was proved to have killed his swine. John Winter’s farm products were to feed fur traders, fishermen, and loggers.

APPLES

Apples have been grown in Maine since the first settlers. Those arriving from Europe or from Massachusetts often brought seedlings. Some carried seeds; sailors carried apple seeds as an antidote to scurvy. These early apples were not like our eating apples. They were used for making cider, vinegar and feeding to the livestock. In the 19th century, apples became an important commercial crop for many Maine farmers. THE APPLES ARE IN by Patience Plummer Libbey in ‘Washburn-Norlands Newsletter,’ September 2004

EIGHTEENTH CENTURY

In 1704 when Col. Benjamin Church came north from Boston to stamp out the enemy (French and Indians), he destroyed many orchards around Passamaquoddy Bay.

It was in 1719 that the first potatoes were planted in Maine. Scotch-Irish immigrants had brought the seed potatoes across the Atlantic. Merino sheep with their softer wool were introduced about this time.

The Scotch-Irish also introduced flax and the foot-driven spinning wheel. Flax was sown by broadcasting. In fall the plant was pulled, dried, and the seeds thrashed out. The stocks were then soaked in water then spread out till the soft parts rotted. The stocks were again put in dry storage until winter when the women used hatchels to comb out the fiber that was then carded. It was spun on a linen or foot wheel, wound on reels, and warped on the loom for weaving. It was dirty hard work, but the cloth did not wear out.

NINETEENTH CENTURY

The first quarter of the nineteenth century witnessed a lot of activity in out area. It was during the War of 1812 that Eastport and Castine were occupied by the British. Prior to that time herds of cattle had been driven east to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

“Eighteen hundred and froze to death” was 1816. It was also called the year without summer. Some weather observations from around the state: May 24, freezing rain; June 5 & 10, snow; July 5, ice; July 9, corn all dead; August ½ inch ice on pond; Prices of food rose to unheard-of figures – three dollars a bushel for wheat…. Afflicted families turned to milk and raspberries, which thrived. When there was nothing else, they ate clover and stewed roots. Page 27 of Settling Maine Wilderness. Day documents 109 wagons leaving Maine for Ohio that fall carrying 686 people. Emigration from Maine started before statehood. To counter this exodus, in 1817 the Massachusetts General Court opened up 17 townships for settlers, 2 on the Kennebec, 9 on Indian lands along the Penobscot, and 6 on the new road from the Penobscot east. A study of Moses Greenleaf’s 1820 Map of Maine leads me to believe these townships would be present day Lowell, Burlington, Lincoln, Lee, Winn and Webster. The road goes from Passadumkeag to Danforth, then north to Houlton.

A well known farmer informs us that 65 years ago on the 6th day of June 1816, the snow was 6 inches deep in almost all sections of the state. It was so cold that birds froze in June, sheep and cattle died of cold and hunger. No crops were raised. The old people all over eastern Maine remember it as the ‘year of distress.’ The late Owen McKenzie froze his ears that fateful year in June.” From the Machias Union, copied by Gordon Lord.

Statehood in 1820 found 55031 farmers in Maine. We also had an impressive collection of manufactures. 746 saw mills supplied lumber for the domestic market as well as for export. 524 gristmills ground the grain into usable food for the residents. Alexander had a saw mill in 1816 and a gristmill in 1823, each owned by Jesse Stephenson and located at the foot of Stephenson’s Lake (Pleasant Lake). Maine had 149 fulling mills (finishing mills for cloth) and 210 carding mills. These mills saved much labor in preparing wool for the farm wives to use to manufacture cloth and clothing, both important home industries. Maine had 248 tanneries that provided leather for shoes, boots and horse harnesses.

What livestock did Maine farmers keep at the time of Statehood? Each farm had from 2 to 20 Devon type cattle. Calves were born in the spring. During the fall milk was turned into butter for winter food. The common churn was the up and down type. Cattle lived on browse and faired poorly in winter. Some were so weak that they had to be carried outside in the spring. Oxen were prized. They were the draft animal of choice. They would be well fed in winter because they were working in the woods for the farmer. We have read about Daniel Seavey’s oxen in issue

It was in 1817 that Henry Clay of Kentucky imported the first Herefords into the United States. Herefords were superior draft animals because of their great strength, straight backs, stocky legs and thickset build. By 1860, Holsteins and Jerseys were the most common dairy animal in Maine, but farmers relied on Herefords for the yoke. Washburn-Norlands Newsletter – September 2003

Horses were not too common, about one on every third farm. They were used to pull a wagon, to ride and for racing. They were not used in the fields or woods.

There were two kinds of sheep. The native was small, hardy with short fleece and was poor eating. The Merino had fine fleece and tasted better. The decade from 1830 to 1840 was the golden era for sheep in New England. Most work to improve sheep stock was done by gentlemen farmers. They introduced new breeds from Europe, the German Saxon and the British Leicester and Southdowns. By 1860 Maine sheep were producing 33 pounds of wool each, but western sheep were a strong competition.

Swine were long and sharp-nosed. They usually were butchered between 18 and 30 months. One killed in Augusta weighed 1013 pounds at 32 months age. Hens were kept for meat and eggs. Turkeys, ducks and geese were also raised for meat. Most, if not all, of these animals were of no better stock than had been imported nearly 200 years earlier.

Maine farm exports following statehood included black cattle, horses, sheep, wool, butter, cheese, pork, beef, mutton, tallow, cider, beans, apples, potatoes, potash, pearl ash, cloth and lumber. According to Moses Greenleaf, up to 10000 cattle and 7000 sheep were driven to Brighton, Massachusetts in 1827. New Brunswick bound cattle numbered 1500 that year, passing over the border at Calais, Robbinston, Eastport and Lubec. About 500 were driven to Houlton for lumber camp use and a smaller number were sent on the Canada Road to Quebec.

We might note here that the Eire Canal opened in 1825. This canal from the Hudson River to Lake Eire was harmful to Maine in two ways. It made it easier for Maine farmers to immigrate to Ohio and soon it made it possible for grains grown on the rock free plains to flood eastern markets at prices local farmers could not match.

Twins John and Hiram Pitts of Winthrop invented a thrashing machine in 1834. It was horse-powered mill that beat, separated and fanned about 25 to 50 bushels of grain an hour. Cast iron plows, soon to be replaced by steel plows, the horse drawn hay rake and mowing machines reduced the need for hiring outside labor. By 1856 two Perry farmers had mowing machines.

In 1837 our government in Augusta created a subsidy for certain crops. This was called a bounty and was to help farmers compete against the western grains. The Maine bounty paid $87,000 on 1.1 million bushels of wheat and also a bounty on Washington County grown corn for the 1838 crop; only 213 bushels were counted. This one-year program also paid a bounty on mulberry trees for silk worm production. The silk industry was confined to the southwestern corner of Maine.

THE ANNUAL CATTLE SHOW & FAIR OF THE WASHINGTON COUNTY AGRICULTURAL SOCIETY WILL BE HELD IN PEMBROKE – SEPTEMBER 28 & 29 1881

The first known agricultural fair in Maine was in 1819 at Norridgewock. It was sponsored by the Kennebec Agricultural Society, which was started in 1787. Robbinston had a town Agricultural fair in 1857, the same year that the Pembroke Farmers Club started. The Gardiner Lyceum was the first agricultural school in the United States. It started in 1822 and was a two-year school. Tuition was $8.00 per term and board was $1.50 per week. In 1831, the state stopped its annual subsidy of $1000 and the school ceased. The building became Gardiner High School. The Maine State Board of Agriculture was established in 1852. John Kilby of Dennysville was on that first board.

THE ANNUAL WORK CYCLE FOR MAINE FARMERS – A month by month activity guide presented by David C. Smith of UM. This is based on a study of diaries from 1765 to 1930. (note: this cycle represents all Maine and variations for local conditions are expected)

January – Cut wood for home and for sale

February – Continue cutting wood and start hauling it

March – Continue woods work and make maple syrup

April – Plow and plant early crops, prune and graft orchards

May – Plant, then shear the sheep

June – Hoe and cultivate crops, cut posts and rails and erect fencing

July – Hay

August – Continue haying, harvest wheat and rye

September – Harvest potatoes and apples, start making cider

October – Harvest corn and corn stalks, turnips, pumpkins and cabbage

November – Plow

December – Cut wood, clear new land

Year-round on rainy days – Walk fences and make needed repairs, work on the woodpile. Homes used between 10 and 20 cords of wood annually. Manufacturing this wood was a huge task before crosscut saws and bucksaws were used.