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The Wisdom of 'Whit' Davis
A historic farm that helped win the American Revolution

John Whitman Davis, known to everyone as ďWhit,Ē is proprietor of one of the oldest farms in the state. Located on a gorgeous plot of land bordered by Long Island Sound, the Stanton Davis farm was established in the middle 1600s by Thomas Stanton, the interpreter general for the crown colonies of New England.

The farm and its homestead have survived nearly 400 years, producing a variety of crops through centuries of change. Today the Stanton Davis Farm serves as a reminder of what farm life was like back in the day-- way back.

The Davis family has sold development rights to about 250 acres and has plans to turn the old farmhouse and its amazing collection of antiques into a museum.


Whit Davis
Owner, Stanton Davis Farm


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Salt hay essential to early farmers

During the Revolutionary War the farms were all provision farms around here, but I think we are probably one of the last ones still operating under the same family. Iím the last commercial salt hay harvester in Connecticut. 

What you are looking at here are ďThe Continental Marshes,Ē so named and deeded in the Stonington Town Hall. They used to come down, my ancestors did, and mow this marsh by hand with a scythe and rig it up by hand, and it was hauled up to the farm and stacked. 

When Washingtonís supply trains came through from New York to Boston, they had a campground out here in Center Groton.  The scouts would notify the farms that they needed fodder Ė corn and hay for 100 oxen.  And then the farmers would load it on their ox carts and take it there and restack it. The guards would stay there to guard the scouts and the haystacks because the British sympathizers from Norwich would come down and burn the haystacks. And so thatís where they got the name of  ďThe Continental Marshes,Ē Ďcause it went to supply the Continental army, wagon trains and supplies.

Most of the early settlements along Connecticut and Rhode Island were on the coast because of the salt marshes. They were used by all the farmers or anyone who had a cow or two, or 30 or 40 cows, or beefers, or any kind of livestock. If they didnít have this salt marsh, it was a dead issue. You just could not survive without it. There was no way.

Where do you go to get grass seed to put in the big field of hay?  If you went backcountry you had no place to buy grass seed, like at the garden centers today.  And this was just here for the taking.  It grew by itself and you can mow it every year. You didnít have to plow or harrow, seed or fertilize -- it was here.

You couldnít grow corn enough. You had to tear up the ground and harrow it and plow it. Plow and harrow. And weed it. And take care of it. And hope that the raccoon and the crows didnít eat it all up, and the wild turkeys. With the marsh, all you had to do was just go cut it. And that was worth a lot.

It was all done by hand work, It was all hand scythed and hand rakes and hand pitch forks. It was pitched onto wagons, ox carts, and taken up to the barns, if you had a barn. I donít know what year it was but in the mid to late 1880s they came along with a horse-drawn mowing machine.

There were five varieties of this marsh grass.  Three of them are very good and excellent livestock feed, and the other two varieties go for mulch. And they use it for bedding for the cattle and livestock. 

Harvesting salt hay a delicate task


Salt hay is a crop, and some people think that you do damage to the marshes by mowing them. Well, you probably would if you went in the soft spots with the heavy equipment. But I got a little tractor and I drive in it mostly when the ground is either frozen or very dry. In the wet places I wait until the ground is frozen. Then there is no problem. 

But we use a small tractor today on the marsh because itís light. We donít want to do any damage Ė we think a lot of our marshes. 

I bought a small John Deere 650. Itís a 20-horse, four-wheel drive. It has weighted tires the calcium liquid in the tires. I had that drained out so it would be lighter. I have a six-foot cutter bar that goes on there, a circle bar, and thatís what I mow with.

We donít go out there with the bailers or anything. Youíd get stuck. So we pitch it all by hand, the old-time way, and bring it out onto the meadows here and pitch it off again into rows. Then we take our big tractors and go through with our tethers and shakers and dry it, then re-rake it, and bail it.

It goes to the nurseries. This last year I shipped 100 bales out to Fisherís Island this past spring. And this is part of our income, when we can get it. I have 1,000 bales that are ordered every year, but last year due to the weather Ė ice and snow and the marshes frozen Ė they only got 300 bales. 

We get all the hay we can and we have about eight acres of vegetables including squash, broccoli, lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, green beans, the flat Italian beans and sweet corn.

Resisting developers, protecting the land

Iíve worked here on the farm since I was able to walk.  Seven days a week.  We used to grow dairy and beef cattle here, and we had our work teams of horses and had some Morgan horses, saddle horses, at one time, and sheep.  But weíve gone out of the livestock business because if it doesnít pay, it doesnít stay.  

My family, weíve worked hard and resisted developers right up Ďtil today. And pressure was on pretty heavy. So I turned to the state. I went to the Abalonia Land Trust, which has several thousand acres around here, and I gave them the best prime piece. That was the key to the whole area, right across this stitch here. So the Abalonia Land Trust owns that piece there, but I kept the mowing rights for as long as we remain a farm.  Well, thatís a pretty good deal.  I got 257 acres in it, but I didnít put the house in it. 

Well the way itís tied up with the state it canít be built on, and it can only be used for agriculture. So if it passes out of the family, than it can only be used for hay, corn, cattle. If anyone wanted to go into vegetable business they could. They could put in a nursery, or a winery, a vineyard, but they canít build houses on it.

We are kind of proud of our old farm here.  Even though it doesnít look too good today, nevertheless. Weíre short of help so we do the necessary things to keep going.  Itís just something that I wanted to preserve for the town and for the state.  Itís disappearing so fast.  I go out to the country and I see a four-acre field thatís being built -- three, four houses on it.  Nice, flat, fertile land, there it goes. Once itís gone, itís gone.

Theyíre not making any more land, and I figure that the land is here for us to use and survive on, not to destroy. So I made up my mind that they arenít going to build here. I kind of like to preserve things as they were.

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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