VTFarmLife  

 

 

      It is my purpose in this paper to contrast the mode of farm life and farming fifty years ago with the present, noting some of the improvements made since, and their lessons to us, that we may keep in mind the cost of the privileges we enjoy, and the bitter experience of our fathers in self-denial, and profit thereby. 

      In the older settlements of Northern Vermont fifty years ago, the more substantial framed house had taken the place of the pioneer's log cabin mainly. The farm buildings were cheaply constructed, with no pretension to ornament outside or inside. There were no carpets or curtains, no painted floors or wall paper, to grace the farmhouses of those days. A floor and ceiling well scoured with sand, white and clean, was the pride of the mistress of the house. It is related that in the old Pavilion, at Montpelier, on the occasion of the visit of Gen. Lafayette to the capital of our State in 1825, the proprietor borrowed three carpets to carpet a suite of rooms for him and his son, -- the only carpets in town, and Montpelier had been the State capital seventeen years. 

      The housekeeping arrangements on the farm were very simple and economical. There were no articles for show merely; no expenditure was made for furniture that was not necessary for the family. The table for common use was of pine, and a drawer underneath for the knives and forks and iron spoons. No table-spreads were used common; the bare table, if white and clean, did not need an apology. The chairs were bottomed with elm bark, nicely twisted and wove in, or of split ash called basket stuff. 

      For warming the houses the open fireplace was in universal use, for there were no stoves. For the benefit of the boys, I will give a description of the way the boys of fifty years ago carried in the night's wood. Provided with a hand sled, the boy would first roll on to it the back log, one and a half or two feet in diameter and four feet long; open the door into the kitchen; get the sled and its load on the run, with such momentum as to carry it across the kitchen floor; roll off the log in the usual place at one side of the fire place, on the floor; return to the wood-yard for the back stick and fore stick, and again two or three loads of split wood -- all of this green wood, and snowy at that. After supper father would draw forward the coals and ashes from the back of the fireplace, roll in the back log, and bank up in its front with ashes; place andirons in front. On these the fore stick, on top of the back log the back stick; put on the kindlings, and pile on split greenwood. Shortly the fire would burn and roar, and send out its ruddy heat. After the supper things were put away, with the family gathered around this fire, a more social looking picture can hardly be imagined of a cold winter night. The only drawback was the fact that one must turn around often, as one side would be too warm, while the other was too cold. About such a fire, all of the cooking and house work was done. From the crane with its hooks and trammels, were suspended the various cooking utensils. Here the dinner pot was boiled, the doughnuts fried, and the bean porridge made, for this pioneer dish still formed an important part of the family food in winter. The potatoes were frequently roasted in the hot embers on the hearth. The warm biscuit and short cake, either baked in tins set up facing the fire, or baked in the bake kettle, with hot coals under the kettle and on the cover; the sparerib, whole, was suspended by a cord from the mantel at a proper distance from the fire; the twist of the string would keep it turning, being basted occasionally, that is, seasoned water from the dripping pan underneath dipped up on to it, it was literally roasted. In process of time a tin baker was made, open in front, with slides on which to place articles to be baked, and this placed on the hearth, open side to the fire. This was a great acquisition to the kitchen, as almost any baking could be nicely done in it. The large baking of the week was done in the brick oven, and woe to the man who failed to provide finely split oven wood, and a plenty of it, and dry. This was the extent of the care of the master for dry wood. 

      The dress of the male and female members of the family were entirely home spun and home made. In summer tow and linen constituted the entire cloth for the wearing apparel of the family, with print dress to wear on dress occasions, the flax raised, dressed, spun, wove, and made up at home. From the first of March to July the principal labor of the women and girls on the farm was hackling, carding, and spinning the product of the flax; and from July to January their employment was spinning and weaving, frequently carding by hand, and coloring, for winter wear; and the itinerant tailoress came to the house, and made the men and boys' garments, of the sheep's grey, literally so, for it was a mixture of black and white wool as it grew upon the sheep. In the absence of a black sheep, the wool was colored with butternut bark. 

      The out buildings were cheaply made. A 30 x 40 feet barn could then be built and finished for one hundred to one hundred and twenty- five dollars, single boarded, and it certainly had one economical feature: there was no need of any especial means of ventilation; with cracks between the boards three fourths of an inch the stock were in no great danger of suffocation of a cold windy night. 

      Stock on the farm were allowed to graze on the mowing fields until June; and then there being a deficiency of pasture lands, they were turned into the forest to pick up such scant herbage as they afforded through the summer, until late in the autumn, As a consequence cattle came to the barn in poor condition. The hay on the new lands was coarse, with many bushes in it, cut late in the season; the hay was harsh and woody. In winter it was the common practice to turn the cattle into the yard early in the morning, to remain and be fed there through the day. Under such treatment the stock literally came to grass in the spring, "spring poor." 

      The farming tools were poor and of rude construction, and with the exception of the cart and harrow all of the farming tools of an average farm might be carried upon the shoulders of a strong man the cart with its wooden axle and wooden felloes, was a clumsy apology for such an implement now, so with the harrow and plow. The old Dutch wooden plow, the whole of wood excepting the point and a few thin slips of iron upon the outside of mold board, used among the stumps and roots of the newish lands, with the plowman's ideal of cut and cover, it served only to make a piece of green sward look dirty. In their haste to get out the stumps and smooth down the land and raise grain to pay debts, farmers plowed large tracts of land in that manner, croping two or three years without manure, and in seeding to grass, gave very scant measure of seed, and year after year this system of depleting the land was continued. Under such a system of cultivation we should suppose that but little could be raised, but the lands were rich in vegetable mold, the accumulation of ages, and farmers of any thrift raised enough for home consumption, and some to spare: Wheat was raised in abundance previous to 1823 or 1824, and there being no foreign demand for it, it was the hardest grain to sell from the farm. Merchants in their grain demands frequently stipulated that they should be paid in any merchantable grain except wheat. One large farmer in this county, who was a mill owner, had such an accumulation of wheat as toll and otherwise, that he fatted four yoke of large oxen with it, and in winter constructed a large sled, killed his pork, and with the four yoke of oxen drew it to Boston, and sold the lot. About the year 1824, perhaps, the Hessian fly attacked the wheat, and for a few years there was no wheat raised in Northern Vermont, and rye, barley and corn was the only bread used here. The ravages of the Hessian fly were confined to only a few years, and again wheat was raised extensively in this section. 

      Before the completion of the canal through the State of New York there was no flour brought from abroad. Money was a cash article in those days. About the only product of the farm that would sell for cash was salts, made from ley of ashes made in burning timber and clearing land. Large tracts of wood lands in this and adjoining counties were felled to make ashes for salts; and, in consequence, today there is a great deficiency of wood land on nearly all the farms in this region; and it becomes a question worthy of our attention, whether on many of these hillsides and hilltops the growth of timber should not be largely encouraged. An average farmer now handles more money than then, for then the trade was in barter, All notes given were to be paid in neat stock or grain, School taxes were collected in grain, and the rents of the school and ministerial lands also. Many farms were sold, and notes given, payable in neat stock, grain, good horses; or potato whiskey, in early day’s, in all these towns. Potatoes were raised year after year, until some of the land was literally worn out, and the potatoes made into whiskey. It is said that in this town of Peacham there were thirty-five whiskey distilleries at one time, whose smoke blackened and whose spirit cursed this whole region. Spirit in some form was upon the breakfast table, carried into the field at eleven o'clock, at every training, raising, husking, log rolling bee, and sheep washing. It was as free as water, and was provided for the guests, the minister and his wife included. At ecclesiastical councils the bill for brandy and loaf sugar was one of the inevitables. On election day the new governor furnished a table on the common, with liquors free for all. In those days of whiskey some thought that at seventy cents a gallon it was cheaper than corn to subsist a family; at least they were more careful to provide the whiskey than corn. But this state of things alarmed some philanthropists, and in due time the temperance reformation commenced; and as it progressed there was more thrift among farmers, and they were not content with their slipshod manner of farming. 

      Improved plows were soon invented. The Messrs. Fairbanks, of St. Johnsbury, commenced to make cast iron plows in 1826, which came into general use, being a long stretch ahead of the old wooden plows. In 1830 the same company commenced to manufacture scales, which took the place of the old even balances. The necessity of such an invention grew out of the hemp speculation. The hemp proved a failure, but the scales were a success, their sales having reached near thirty millions of dollars. Farmers began to turn their attention more to dairying for profit, and keeping sheep for profit; and then began a new era in the farming interest in this section. Farmers had money with which to transact business, instead of barter, and with the increased facilities of transportation by rail there has been a ready market for all the products of the farm. 

      Since 1840 improved farming implements have been multiplied in every department of farm and household labor. Now, horse flesh and sinews take the place of human muscles in all kinds of field labor, in threshing, sowing, hoeing, mowing, stirring the hay and raking. The horse is the best man on the farm; and in the kitchen, in the washing, wringing and the working of the butter, machinery comes to the relief of woman; and in matter of the family sewing, machinery has come at her bidding; and the foot power that once spun linen from the “distaff " now constructs the needful garments for the family wear. 

      Mr. President, I have learned that there is no royal land to success in tilling the soil, The diligent farmer who will study the capabilities of his soil, and adapt his system of culture and his selection of crops to that end, is the successful fanned. If daring is his business, study into it, make it a specialty, don't be turned aside by little obstacles; if butter bears a low price, make it better and more of it; make such butter as the best consumers want and will have. Produce more, buy less, sell as much as possible to the consumer, buy of first hands as much as possible, and I predict that old Caledonia county, always standing in the front rank for the butter product of the dairy, will never fall behind in that respect. 
 
 

Source: Fourth Report of the Vermont Board of Agriculture for The Year 1877, by Henry M. Seely, Secretary of the Board; FIFTY YEARS OF FARM LIFE IN NORTHERN VERMONT, AND ITS LESSONS, pages 91-95, presented by Henry Blake, of Hardwick, VT on Friday morning, February 2, 1877 at the Sixty-First Public Meeting of the Vermont Board of Agriculture held at Peacham, Vt. 

Prepared by Tom Dunn, June 2002