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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.