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Connecticut’s Agricultural Heritage Shaped its Growth
Many factors played into the transition from family farming

Connecticut, like the other New England states, emerged from a society that was based fundamentally on an agricultural economy. Family farms eventually began selling surpluses, and improvements in transportation and technology led to market-oriented selling. The story of how Yankee ingenuity influenced these changes is fascinating. Emigration, immigration and the growing ethnic diversity of the state are also part of the story of how working the land made us what we are today.   (CONTINUED BELOW)

Bruce Clouette
Historian, Public Archaeology Survey Team

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Up from agricultural roots

Connecticut, like the other New England states, emerged from a society that was based fundamentally on an agricultural economy. Throughout the 17th century, the 18th centuries and much of the 19th century, most Connecticut people were farmers.  Even people that weren’t full-time farmers did some farming: A shoemaker would have a cow and a horse, and would have a few acres that he’d plant. So, our heritage is firmly based in our agricultural past.

Before urbanization and industrialization became a part of Connecticut life, the farms, for the most part, were pretty small, family-based farms. Fifty to 150 acres would be typical, and the acreage could be widely scattered.  Oftentimes, a farmer would have some gardens immediately adjacent to the house, along with some hay fields nearby. But he’d also have some discontiguous fields, some wood lots, somewhere else. 

In the colonial period and going into the early 19th century, the town commons were typically were used for grazing animals, particularly sheep and pigs, in addition to other community functions. There were officials in town called hog weaves and haywards whose job was to regulate animals grazing on the commons. So originally the town green was not an ornamental park. It was an important part of community identity and an expression that it was an agricultural community.

The early Connecticut farms were basically subsistence farms, not market-oriented. Most of what they raised was consumed either by the family itself or within the near community. Much of the effort went into raising feed grains:  hay, oats and corn that would be fed to the animals, animals being raised either for meat or, especially important, to provide draft power. 

In addition to what they consumed, every farm family tried to have something that they could sell. Surplus dairy in the form of cheese and butter was especially important in the 19th century.  If they were close to a city or if they were close to a rail line, they might have some cash product in the form of vegetables and, increasingly as the 19th century went on, they marketed cream through the railroad network. Many eastern Connecticut farmers, for example, set up dairy co-ops through which they could pool their cream together and make it into butter and then ship it out on a rail line to far away markets in New York, Chicago even.

Yankee ingenuity drove technology changes

Most Connecticut farms did not see engine-based tractor mechanization until after World War II. Up until that time it was all horse-drawn machinery or even hand labor that provided most of the energy on Connecticut farms. 

Actually, agriculture in Connecticut has undergone a lot of technological change, with many innovations, going back probably further than you would think.  By the 1750s people were thinking about how to improve agriculture, how to increase the fertility of the soil and so forth. 

Connecticut farmers have always been attuned to technological developments that would increase their productivity.  Connecticut writer Jared Elliot’s book “Notes on Husbandry” was all about how you could be a better farmer. He suggested a lot of things like gathering up seashells and burying them for a year, and then exhuming them and spreading it over your fields to lime the fields. And there were all kinds of advice about liming and manuring and so forth. 

Another good example: How do you harvest your grain? For years, grain was harvested with a hand sickle. You’d bend over, cut the grain carefully and lay it down. Then in the late 1700s something called the cradle, or cradle scythe, was introduced. It was like a hay scythe but had a wooden basket-like attachment that allowed you to mow grain just as you had mowed hay.  And that was a major innovation.  Instead of stoop labor, it became walking labor.

We think of the Yankee ingenuity, right?  Yankee ingenuity was applied to a lot of different things and one thing it was applied to was farm implements. A good example of something that was invented in the very early 1800s was the threshing machine or fan, as it was usually referred to.

This was a hand-cranked device that allowed you to separate the so-called wheat from the chaff.  It worked with a big fan that blew the grain around causing the lighter material to fly off through one opening and the grain through another from which it could be collected. So, you had an age-old threshing practice – throwing the grain up in the air in a basket in a windy place and waiting for the chaff to blow off – that was replaced by a mechanized way of threshing that made much faster.

The mechanical ingenuity that characterized early America continued to alter the way farming was done.  Improvements in ploughs were constant, improvements in cider presses, improvements in ways of mowing hay. 

In addition to the hand scythe, by the end of the 19th century, there all kinds of horse-drawn mechanisms that would assist in farm work. In place of the hand scythe, you could get a sidebar mower that you could pull behind a horse and cut hay.  Instead of spreading manure with a shovel and a cart, you could get an actual manure spreader that was pulled behind a horse or two that would consistently distribute the manure over the field.

So the first stage of mechanization on Connecticut farms was these hand-cranked machines that assisted the farmer. The second stage was the horse-drawn machinery that substituted for hand tools in all kinds of farm tasks, from harvesting to setting down the manure. Then, the third stage, which we’re really still in, now, is the tractor-based forms of mechanization.

The results of mechanization

The result of all these advances was that the farmer could produce more product in less time. But there are two sides to that.

Mechanization requires a higher level of investment. So mechanization always occurs first with the farmers that have the financial resources to undertake it.

The areas of agriculture that mechanized earliest and that become most thoroughly mechanized were those raising high-value crops. Tobacco farming in Connecticut precedes general farming in mechanization by twenty or thirty years.  Vegetables are a somewhat higher value than general-purpose farming, so they’re the next to mechanize. And finally it comes down to the general-purpose farm.

Also, larger landowners with more resources are able to mechanize sooner. So there’s always a leading edge to it. Once you are able to invest a certain amount in your farm, you can become more market-oriented.  You can raise the crops that are going to bring you in that cash.  So there’s a direct relationship between investment in mechanization and market-orientation. And it’s not a linear thing; it’s a circular thing. Once you become more market-oriented and can get the cash crop, then you can invest further in mechanization.

In Connecticut, as throughout New England, you had growing urban populations. You had industrial towns and commercial cities also evolving as significant industrial bases. And Connecticut cities grew very rapidly in the 19th century. Virtually every Connecticut city had one or more points in the 19th century where within a 20-year period, the population doubled in size. We today can’t imagine the amount of urban growth that was occurring. 

Connecticut cities are growing because they are sucking people in from the countryside – so-called internal migration. They are also growing because people are coming from abroad. The engine of that growth, of course, was industrialization and the jobs that were created by industrialization. 

So, in addition to sustaining the worker population, the cities helped to sustain the countryside as well by providing a market for surplus agricultural goods. That’s why you find the more market-oriented agriculture adjacent to the city. In East Hartford, for example, people are specializing in vegetables where they never had before. You find that each of these cities becomes a little known, as it were, for more market-oriented farming.  Another thing that happens is people begin to put more acreage and more effort into fruit culture, apple orchards in particular, because there is a market for it. 

The second aspect of industrialization, of course, is transportation. You can’t be market-oriented if all you have to get your goods to market is a muddy road that’s barely passable half the year. The story of market agriculture in Connecticut is largely tied to the improvements in transportation. In the early 19th century where there is an improved road, a turnpike going through an area, the people close to that turnpike have additional opportunities. When the railroad goes through, the people that are close to railroad stations have improved opportunities.

The whole state highway system of Connecticut was primarily brought about by the agitation of organized farm interests. The so-called “Good Roads” movement really led to the state taking responsibility for the road network.  And that was purely to get the stuff from the farm to the railroad station so that you could export it.

Exporting people to farm and beyond

Connecticut, rural Connecticut, has always been a great exporter of people. It started in the 1760s when the upper Connecticut Valley became available for settlement. And the first migrations out of Connecticut were to New Hampshire and Vermont, which seems a little strange because we don’t think of New Hampshire and Vermont as being prime agricultural land. It’s the same rocky soil, the same hilly soil that we have here. 

Basically what the upper Connecticut Valley offered was more land and cheaper land when land was becoming scarce in Connecticut, land was very cheap in the upper Connecticut Valley. Then when upper New York State became open for settlement, a lot of people moved there. Then, of course, the next step was the lands of the Midwest – Ohio, Illinois, Indiana. By the 1820s or so, emigration was a constant thing.

But citizens bemoaned the movement out of Connecticut – people leaving the churches, schools and the community life of Connecticut and setting off for God knows what. The Midwest was pictured as this vast, Godless wilderness where anarchy prevailed. They had this bizarre view of life as they knew it ending, really, because of out-migration. 

Agriculture has always been tremendously economics-driven. If land was a little cheaper somewhere else, people were going to move.  If land was a little better somewhere else, people were going to move. And that’s just the way that it happened. 

I did some research recently on an archeological site in Mansfield. There was a farming family there around 1820, or 1830 with a number of sons. One son went into manufacturing and became a textile manufacturer.  Another moved to New London and became a merchant. Another went to upper New York State and took up better farmland there. Only one son stayed to farm the land in Mansfield.

So that was what was going on in that period. People were moving to better farmland, moving into other aspects of the economy, moving into the cities, into industry. It was only a remnant of the original farming population, really, kept Connecticut farms going from the 1820s on.

New farmers and ethnic assimilation

The constant out-migration from rural Connecticut meant that the remaining farms were increasingly perceived as economically marginal, not really representing tremendous opportunity for the future. As a consequence, a lot of Yankee families around 1900, and perhaps even earlier than that, were amenable to selling their farms. For many European buyers, what to Yankees seemed an economically marginal operation represented a real opportunity compared to what they had back in Europe. 

So, especially beginning around 1900, the European migration that filled Connecticut cities also transformed the countryside. That’s really the immigrant story: The immigrants, by taking over these farms that had been owned by Yankee families, gave them one or two more generations of life. They sustained Connecticut agriculture for many years – I would say from 1900 to really the World War II period.

In parts of the Hartford County we find a lot of Polish farmers settling, becoming involved in raising potatoes and other crops that are suitable for those bottomland soils there. In Ashford, there’s a tremendous number of Slovaks. 

In some areas of Connecticut, large numbers of Italian families were able to settle on the farms that to the Yankee families seemed marginal. Oftentimes there was a specialization. In Hebron and Glastonbury, you find fruit farms that Italian-American families were particularly active in giving new life to.

In the part of eastern Connecticut centered on Colchester, there’s a big in-migration of predominantly Eastern European Jews. There were several generations of successful dairy farmers, egg farmers. They formed agricultural co-ops that are still with us today. 

Speaking of ethnic diversity, we’ve sort of lost sight today of the fact that typically a rural Connecticut town in the 19th, early 20th century might have an African-American population that as a proportion was two to three percent of the population, which in many cases is greater than the proportion today.  And so when we’re looking at pictures of farming in the past, it’s not uncommon to find a black face or two among those harvesting corn or doing any of the typical agricultural tasks that occurred in the past. 

There was large tenant farmer-based agriculture in parts of the state.  But equally typical would be just African-Americans who had maybe smaller holdings than their white, Yankee neighbors but they would be undertaking the same sort of agricultural life as well, either as small, independent proprietors of farms or as farm laborers on other farms. 

And remember, in the 19th century particularly, the distinction is not all that great.  A person might have his own farm and then he would hire out the labor of his sons to other farmers or even hire out his own labor to neighboring farmers.  So the distinction between owner and farm laborer was not the distinction between farm laborer and farm owner was not as immutable as we think of it, say, in the rural south.  It was a more fluid thing so that a farm laborer; a young man might work as farm labor for a certain point in his life and then get to the point where he either inherited or could purchase a farm of his own. 

The commercial agriculture of central Connecticut brought some other ethnic groups into Connecticut.   First was the recruitment of Puerto Rican workers for the tobacco fields and then, more recently, Jamaican farm workers throughout Connecticut where there are tree nurseries, Christmas tree farms and orchards. 

There’s been a lot of migration from the islands. Agriculture has always been characterized by labor crises.  You need a lot of people at certain times and not too many people at other times. This is one reason why the general-purpose farm works kind of well for a family because you can always be doing something. You’re plowing, you’re planting, you’re cutting hay, you’re cutting ice in the winter, whatever.  For the commercial operation it’s a little trickier because you really want people to harvest that tobacco. You may want people to plant it.  But in the mid-stage, you don’t need that many people taking care of it.  So how do you adjust to that, to those labor demands? One of the ways that commercial agriculture does it is with relatively poorly paid labor, often migrant labor.

The two Connecticuts

I think that for many of us the identity of Connecticut still is the rolling farmland. But some people think of Connecticut as that highly developed residential area, Fairfield County, part of the New York metro area. As recently as the 1930s, though, Fairfield County still had the same aspect as eastern Connecticut. In fact, the Merritt Turnpike that was built from New York City through Fairfield County was originally intended to be a scenic experience of farmland. You’d go up and down the hills of the turnpike and you’d see open fields and animals grazing. Today, of course, it’s entirely suburban development, and the scenic experience of the turnpike is the woods and the beautiful plantings that line it, as opposed to farms.

Still, I think all of us in Connecticut cherish the farmland that’s remaining – the open fields, the animals, the sounds of chickens and cows. But to survive, agriculture has got to be more than scenery. It’s got to be economically viable too.  If we do cherish this as ambience, we’ve got to make sure farmers have all they need to make their farms economically viable. They can’t be a theme park we drive through.

Copyright 2008 SimonPure Productions, LLC

Working the Land: The Story of Connecticut Agriculture
is a Co-Production of
SimonPure Productions and Connecticut Humanities Council

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