Back in the day, most of Connecticut farmed
Connecticut is not an agricultural state, but it’s had a very
important agricultural history because in the earliest years,
most of the people were farmers, about 90 percent when the first
census was taken 1790.
Farms in 1790 were quite diversified, they weren’t specialized
the way they are now. People had some cattle, they also had some
sheep, perhaps, they also had hogs, they had chickens and they
had the whole range.
And then as we get into the middle of 19th century,
instead of 90 percent of the people being engaged in
agriculture, you’re already down to about 45 percent of people.
And the figure drops very, very fast.
When the railroads come in you have refrigerated cars that
also come along after a while and this changes agriculture
appreciably because food can be shipped from one area to another
and areas can begin to specialize and with all of this
technology, it took fewer and fewer people to do the work on the
farm and the farms could also get larger and that in a very
simplified way is why today we probably have less than 5 percent
of the population feeding the whole country, if not a better
part of the world.
So we begin to get changes and also we begin to get more of
the specialization that starts to develop – dairy farms and
The farms change also because we are getting into the era of
technology at that time as well.
But even after the railroads came in and food products could
be shipped, Connecticut still had an important role in
agriculture. It was one of the leading states in the production
of shade-grown tobacco, for example. And for many years
Connecticut was one of the leaders in the Northeast in the area
of poultry production.
There have been a lot of changes in agriculture in the 20th
century from post-World War II that have occurred in that
period. For example, while perhaps some of the dairy farmers
have declined, there has been an increase in horses and even as
you drive around the countryside, you see sheep. Connecticut
used to be a huge sheep producer back in the days, 200 years
ago, because people had to grow sheep for wool.
And in recent years it has been a very important state from the
standpoint of the production of bedding plants. The nursery
industry and the florist industry and all of these things are
parts of agriculture.
A typical day in the life of a Connecticut farm
The typical day was quite similar to what it is for farming
today. A lot of the work was done by hand. The cows, maybe a
dozen needed to be milked, in those days probably twice a day –
morning and evening. And then after that was done, the milk had
to be dealt with – either made into cheese or butter.
A lot of the milk was made into cheese and a lot of it was
exported to cities and other communities where farms did not
And the women of the farm were doing their part too. They
were perhaps working on treating the cheese, because it needs to
be treated as it sits on shelves. They had all the role of
tending the gardens and doing the spinning and the weaving and
all that sort of thing.
Then it all starts over again in the evening when the milking
has to be done again and so on. And there is no let up, there
is a constant cycle.
In the summertime there was the hay to do, there were the
crops to till and so on.
Hay was cut with a scythe. Until you started getting
horse-drawn mowing machines and hay rakes for example, and that
was a great boon to the farmer, when that occurred. Before
that, the hay was cut by scythe. You often had a team of men
working together, cutting rows of hay.
And then all of this hay had to be turned over so it would dry
properly and then of course it had to be raked by hand. And as
I said before when the hay rakes came in it was a very useful
device because instead of raking up 2 ½ feet to 3 feet wide with
a rake, you had a hay rake that could do about three times or
four times that width. That was a great boon.
Agriculture education and research expands
The land grant college movement began in the 1860s and this
meant that the state colleges could develop programs in teaching
a scientific agriculture. And Connecticut’s agricultural
college started in 1881, which was later than many.
But that is another factor that changes agriculture
considerably, is strong teaching programs in the agriculture,
but also strong research programs of agriculture. You have the
research, the teaching and then in 1914, with the Smith Lever
act, you get the extension service which is when you began to
get the county agents, for example, and the extension
specialists at the University, who would go out and work with
farm men and women and children through the 4H Club program.
This was another way that agriculture and home life and all
aspects of life were greatly improved.
As technology develops, also the breeding of better farm
animals comes along at that time.
The expansion of horticulture
Connecticut has always had a pretty good horticultural
industry. Connecticut has cold winters, but we also have a
pretty high percentage of sunny days in the wintertime compared
to some other parts of the country. And so Connecticut became a
big producer as did Massachusetts and all of Southern New
England in the production of cut flowers.
Carnations for example, survive very well at a cooler
temperature, but need as much sunlight as possible. And so we
always have a nursery industry. But then after the Second World
War, there is a big upsurge that comes forth with regard to
gardening as a hobby. I can remember reading an article in
Newsweek in the ‘60s that stated that it was the number one
hobby for many people. And with this you get an increase in the
bedding plant industry. By bedding plants, I’m talking about the
plants that you purchase in flats in the spring like pansies and
zinnias and petunias. And today Connecticut is a big
As an area becomes urbanized and you get a lot of house lots
and a lot of individual gardens, that increases the demand for
this sort of thing. And so that is why that happened. It is
sort of ironic, we are losing a lot of farm land and we need to
be concerned about that, especially as we project into the
distant future. And not only is agriculture important from a
dollars-and-cents point of view, but it is also important from
the standpoint of open space, open land: it gives the rural
character that we characterize to this part of Connecticut.
As an area becomes urbanized, a lot of things happen. The
park movement develops also, which began in the middle of the
1850s. Hartford’s Bushnell Park, for example, is the first
public park purchased with public funds in the nation. And of
course Central Park was developed at basically the same time and
several other parks too. So that with urbanization you get
things like parks and street-tree development and planting.
An extremely important part of life and it’s very heartening to
see more monies being spent by the average homeowner on things
like bedding plants, perennials, and cut flowers. Those are all
important for the quality of life.