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The Essence of Connecticut
What we were and much of what we are is tied up with farming

The melding of native and European farming practices established agriculture in the Colonial period. There is rich documentation of the growth of agriculture in the state and how industry developed hand-in-hand with farming. The state began to export its farmers, first to Vermont and later to Ohio, as farm families flourished and produced more farmers than there was land for. Ultimately, Connecticut developed a farm-friendly legislature that lasted until well into the 20th century. (CONTINUED BELOW)
Walter Woodware
CT State Historian, Asst. Prof. History, UConn

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Connecticut's reputation was built on farming

We live in a state that was shaped from the very beginning by agriculture, by the demands of farming and the need to survive based on agricultural production.  The first thing every settler coming to this state had to do was provide for food for the future.  When people first came to a new town they didn’t build houses, they dug caves and they put little roofs over them. And, they lived sometimes three years in a hole in the ground because they had to get fields planted.  It was a question of survival from the beginning.

Connecticut’s reputation was built on farming for the first two centuries of its life. And in the 19th and 20th centuries, farming and industry went hand in hand in a lot of ways.  They supported each other, and they learned from each other.  

We’re now a time when, both in the culture and in our own lives, farming seems to be less important than it was. Agribusiness in the Midwest has made farming a factory business.  But the essence of what we were and much of what we are, our cultural memory, is tied up with farming. I think this is a pivotal time for Connecticut agricultural and for our sense of the past.  If we want to keep that connection with our agricultural traditions, we’ll be able to do it because we work at it, not because it’s going to happen without a lot of support.  

Melding native and English farming practices

In the early 17th century, you would have seen a farming practice that was in many ways unusual even to the people who were doing it.  The English had come to America and they learned from the Indians; they’d learned a lot.  Maize, Indian corn, was a new product for them. And, planting it was new. The story we learn in elementary school about the friendly Indians teaching the Pilgrims how to plant corn – there’s a lot of truth in it.  Well … the friendly part, maybe not s   o true.  But, the fact that English people were dependent upon Indians to learn how to survive in this new climate is very true. 

On a 17th-century farm, or a farmstead, you would find a kitchen garden, which was pretty similar to what they had grown in England.  But, for the major crops, there would be a big corn field.  And, that corn field would be rows of corn about six feet apart, hilled up. As the corn came up, the English people learned to do something they never did before in their orderly society.  They would plant squash and beans right around the corn hills.  It was a perfect combination in terms of nutrition, and also in terms of production efficiency.  The squash took care of the weeds.  The beans used the corn stalks as poles, and they would get really remarkable production, especially out of soil that hadn’t been worked and overworked for centuries. 

By the second half of the 17th century, the English had taken what they had learned from the Indians and reincorporated it back into their traditional practices.

John Winthrop Jr., who was a Connecticut governor and one of the founders of England’s Royal Philosophical Society, wrote a treatise on corn that he sent back to England so natural philosophers over there could see what they were doing in America. He said that when the English people plant corn now, they use a plow. They plow furrows six feet apart and then they come back and plow crosswise, six feet apart.  And, at every intersection they make a hill.  Later, they come in and plow around the hills. 

What he describes is a farming practice that now combines the efficiency of the plow with the production capacity and efficiency of native farming practices.  And, this is, I think, one of the really interesting things about 17th-century agriculture.  There was exchange and experiment and practicing going on.  And, people learned to make the most of the resources they found here. 

Optimism in the 19th century

We’re very fortunate because at the turn of the 19th century, the newly formed Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences was an organization that was ambitious to promote improvements in agriculture, industry and life using science. The organization sent out a questionnaire to every town in Connecticut that contained an incredibly long list of questions about each town’s agricultural practices, their industry, their population, just about everything you’d want to know. 

In the tradition of Connecticut bureaucracies, the returns trickled in over the next 20 years. We have in these collected reports of what was going on in many Connecticut towns an extensive account spanning two of the most critical decades of transition in the history of the state.

What’s contained in these reports challenges some of the assumptions historians have long held about Connecticut agriculture. For example, historians have said that there was a scarcity of fertile land in Connecticut and in the year 1800. That may have been true, but the reports sent from the towns don’t reflect that.  They reflect a real optimism about agriculture and a kind of admiration for the production capacity of the land.

Connecticut luminary Timothy Dwight traveled around the state. The records he left described Connecticut land as always beautiful, sometimes magnificent.  And, I think that little capsule reflects the feeling of people in the state that they had a pretty good thing.

Another long-standing assumption the town reports contradict is this idea that Connecticut farmers weren’t very good stewards of the land: that they practiced extensive, rather than intensive, farming; that they would lay waste to a field rather than be conscious of continuing to nourish it and keep its productive capacity alive.  What the reports show is that farmers in Connecticut in the early 19th century were very concerned about making the most of the land, and keeping the land productive and fertile. 

One of the great discussions you find among farmers – maybe always, but certainly in the 19th century – is about manure. Manure is big stuff in farming in the 19th century because manure is black gold.  It was the best way to keep land fertile. One of the issues that was a constant concern in the 17th and 18th centuries was how do you collect enough manure to get it out in the fields to keep your land growing?  In the 19th century, what you find in agricultural manuals is instructions on how to shape your cow pens so that they slope toward the middle so that the manure doesn’t drain out, and you get the most manure per cow that you can put back in your fields. 

Timothy Dwight, who was a very astute observer of Connecticut, wrote about the practice in Middlesex County of collecting the white fish when they came in May – I assume that was the shad, probably – and putting them into the fields by the thousands and plowing them back into the soil for fertilizer.  He remarked that the practice produced some of the finest crops that Connecticut had seen.  He also remarked that it filled the air with such a fetter that it disgusted every traveler.  So, imagine riding through Middlesex County on your horse and coming to a field of freshly manured shad – pretty exciting!

One of the questions of the Academy of Arts and Sciences reports was: Do you use horse of oxen to pull your plows?  And, in almost all of Connecticut, and certainly by a big majority, the animal of choice was the ox.  There were very practical reasons why this was true.  Ox was cheaper to care for and they tended to be healthier than horses.  They had a longer useful life.  In addition, when an ox had outlived his carrying capacity, or his pulling capacity, he was a market on the hoof.  There was just everything about the ox could be made into a product, either for use or for sale: tallow, hides, they said good beef was made from ox, and even the horns were useful.  When the horse gets old, you have an old horse. Maybe a pot of glue. 

One place that was the exception to this dependence on oxen was Litchfield County.  There you found that many farms used horses.  Connecticut commentators said that was obviously a wasteful affectation that had been picked up from the Dutch in New York.  And, for whatever reason, horses were used quite a bit in Litchfield County, and it was atypical of the rest of the state. 

Industrialization and agriculture

In Connecticut, at the turn of the 19th century, industrialization is off to a good start.  And it happened in lock step with agricultural development.  Now, in Litchfield County, hilly country, the new towns are the youngest towns in Connecticut.  There is also very good iron ore there, and northwest Connecticut is the home of a very important iron industry, from the standpoint of industrialization. 

Of course, the thing you need to make iron is wood. So there was a significant concern among farmers that the wood was being stripped from the hillsides.  If you add to the demands of the iron furnaces for charcoal, the desire of New Yorkers to be warmed by Connecticut wood in the winter, you can imagine the Litchfield hills being filled with the sound of axes almost all the time. 

Very early, Connecticut farmers reacted to the potential for a wood shortage by becoming significant supporters of the wood lots.  They managed them the way they managed other crops.  They managed them to make sure there would be a continuous supply.  They also, later, managed them for the market. 

Another example of farmers as good conservators it that they raised cattle and pigs and sheep for wool for market and were very conscious of what land was good for grazing and what land was good for tillage.  They were quite selective in how they made use of the land.  They also went to a “fallow field” system in which they would let fields rest for a couple of years and they rotate crop production.

There are some really interesting consequences of this relationship between industrial growth and agricultural development in the early 19th century.  One of the kinds of predictable ones, but things we don’t think about, is the creation of the Yankee peddler. John Greenleaf Whittier has written a wonderful poem about farm boys who work in the farms, spring and summer and fall in the 19th century. After the harvest, they go down to New Haven and they sign up with a merchant, get a case of goods and ship out to Norfolk or Charleston. They spend their winters going around being representatives for these peddlers, who were selling Yankee-produced goods in the south.  For many years this was a common practice, and it’s one of the ways that the Yankee peddler got a reputation for being a Connecticut creation.

Moving on to Vermont and Ohio

For people who owned land, Connecticut was a great place to be a farmer in the 1800s.  The problem was that people in Connecticut, like people elsewhere in New England, took the biblical injunction to be fruitful and multiply seriously.  So, they had a lot of kids.  They farmed by day and procreated by night. And for many of these children, it was clear that there was not going to be enough land in Connecticut for them. You can only divide up a farmstead to a certain point, and then it can no longer support the people who own it. So, what you had happening, even before the 1800s, is people in Connecticut moving out to find new land and to literally transplant Connecticut elsewhere.

Many people don’t know that when Vermont established itself and the Vermont legislature declared it to be an independent entity, their founding document called the state “New Connecticut.” The reason for that is that there was a great deal of out-migration from Connecticut up to Vermont.  People went up the Connecticut River, a natural kind of travel route. Men had served in Vermont during the French and Indian War and in the Revolution.  They thought the farm land was really beautiful and had great potential. 

People like the Allen Brothers, Ethan and Ira, and his three other brothers became land speculators in Vermont.  The result was that for the period immediately after the revolution and into the early 1800s, many people who left Connecticut left for Vermont. They founded towns like Windsor and Vernon: The list of Connecticut-named towns renamed in Vermont, is large. Counties were named after Connecticut counties.  And, of course, many of the early Vermont governors were born and raised in Connecticut.

Until the power of the Vermont winters really hit home, Vermont was the place to go. The tide shifted and people then moved west to Ohio’s Western Reserve and the firelands, the northern half of Ohio.  In the settlement that Connecticut made with the United States giving up its colonial claims to a strip of land all the way from the East Coast to the Pacific Ocean, it reserved two large chunks of land in what became Ohio.  The northeast part of Ohio was the Western Reserve. That was land that was to be given to Revolutionary War soldiers as bounties for their service.  The firelands, which is the land west of Cleveland over towards Toledo, were reserved for citizens of Norwalk, New London and Groton who had their homes destroyed when Benedict Arnold came in 1781 and burned their towns down.

So, there was an incentive for Connecticut people to move into the Western Reserve and the firelands.  Moses Cleveland, who was from Canterbury, made the exploratory journey out.  It was the surveying journey that staked out the land claims for Connecticut.  He named Cleveland for himself, came home, and never went back.  And many other sons of Connecticut families went west. Ohio still prides itself on calling itself the Western Reserve.  When you go to towns like Hudson and Chagrin Falls, you will see that they have “out-New Englanded” New England.  It’s like someone picked up a Connecticut town and moved it 300, 400 miles west.  It’s really quite astonishing how successfully these children of Connecticut were able to replicate the material culture of their former homes and their former lives.

It would be nice to think that the Revolutionary War soldiers were rewarded and they went west and took their claims. However, as often happens after wars, speculators ended up buying many of the soldiers’ claims soldiers for the lands in the Western Reserve.  They bought them at deeply discounted prices during the high inflation after the war, and then they sold them to settlers moving west. The original soldier claim-holders often had to sell off at a deeply discounted price, and if they wanted to go later, buy a claim back at a somewhat inflated price -- because business is business.

A farmer-friendly legislature

As farmers and new industrialists are both benefiting and growing in the new economy of the early 19th century, there’s an active political change that, in the long run, gives farmers a very disproportionate influence on the state legislature – something that continued all the way to 1965.

The political change came about as a result of the Constitution of 1818. That, in itself, is unique, because Connecticut, up until the year 1818, still existed under the colonial charter it had in 1662. While other states after the Revolution had scurried around to make a constitution for a free nation, Connecticut said, “We’ve been doing this for a hundred years already; we’ll just keep what we got.” They changed “King” to “United States” and kept going. 

But, in 1818, for a number of reasons, they called a constitutional convention. One of the consequences of the constitution had significant future import for agricultural interests in the state. This was a change made to the system of representation in the Connecticut General Assembly. What the constitution of 1818 said was: A town existing in 1818 can send two representatives to the Assembly, but any new towns will only be able to send one – unless the Assembly decides otherwise. 

 This didn’t have any immediately startling consequences. But, if you flash forward 70 or 80 years, you have this situation where rapidly urbanizing and industrializing cities have half the representation of earlier and still small towns. This created a legislature that was largely filled by prosperous farmers and largely served the interests of rural land owners. It was a political boon for Connecticut farmers that lasted well into the 20th century.

While this may have worked to the benefit of agriculture during this period, it certainly made adapting to a changing, urbanizing society very difficult for the state.

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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