Thursday, March 31, 2011


Through the years many changes have taken place in Vermont Agriculture; the sheep industry was just one of those.  In last week’s blog posting, I discussed the reasons for the decline in the Merino sheep industry in Vermont.  The industry spanned a number of years, from the beginning of the 1800’s well into the early part of the 1880’s, with breeding stock being sold around the world, but that too eventually came to an end.  Transportation and production costs, the end of industry protective tariffs, and competition from distant locations all contributed to this collapse. Even in these early years Vermont farmers demonstrated a great ability to adapt to change.  The chart below captures some of the specific time periods of these changes:

                           Approximate Timeframes for Vermont Agriculture

                                    Product                            Timeframe

                                     Grains                              1790-1820
                                     Sheep and horses             1820-1850
                                     Cattle raising                    1830-1870
                                     Butter and Cheese            1840-1915
                                     Fluid Milk and Cream     1900-
                                     Maple                               1760-

                            (From “Studies in Vermont” by Robert Carter)

These changes happened over time due to many different factors although economics played a major role.  The early settlers practiced diversified and extensive agriculture as a means of livelihood for their families and their farms.  Most of what the early farmers grew was used on the farm.  Only the excess produce was sold or bartered to buy those necessities that could not be raised.  As urban areas grew and demand for products increased the farmers responded with increased production of farm products.  With the opening of the Champlain and Erie Canals, and then the railroads, their products could more easily reach distant markets.  These transportation modes also opened farmers up to more competition from those markets in other parts of the country.   For example it is stated, “by 1826 the State was importing 15,000 barrels of flour per year”.  Before this time, flour in the state had been made exclusively from Vermont grains.  Now having seen the loss of being the major grain-producing region of the Northeast, they were not only not exporting grains but were having to import much of what they used.  Vermont farmers had also seen the dire economic realities as western beef and wool, as well as grain forced a change in the production in Vermont of these commodities to other products of value such as butter and cheese.


One can find an example of the type of diversified production in the types of crops grown and livestock raised, practiced by most Vermont farmers on family farms in the diary of Roxanna Watts.  Her diary, in the year 1866 from Peacham, Vermont,  (see Roxana’s Children) records activities on the farm;  “sugaring in the spring; planting oats, wheat, potatoes, beans in May; shearing sheep and “drawing muck”—spreading of manure in June; harvesting hay in July and August and cutting oats and wheat; In September cutting corn, picking apples, and marketing sheep and lambs.  In October and November, husking corn, plowing and picking and drawing stone.   All this in addition to the daily chores.”

An additional example of this diversification can be found in The History of Vermont (Crockett, Vol. 3).  It states “in 1850 Vermont had 29,763 farms with an average value per acre of $19.09 (which in today’s dollars would be approximately $550.00 per acre).  In the State there were 146,128 milch cows (notice the spelling), 154,143 horses, 1,014,122 sheep, and 66,296 swine.  During this time, the following agricultural products were produced in the state:  12 million pounds of butter; 9 million pounds of cheese; 3.4 million pounds of wool.  Other products included: 2 million bushels of corn; ½ million bushels of wheat; 2 million bushels of oats; 42 thousand bushels of barley; 176,000 bushels of rye; 209,000 bushels of buckwheat; 105,000 bushels of field beans; 5 million bushels of potatoes 866,000 tons of hay; $315 worth of orchard products; 20 thousand pounds of flax; 288,000 pounds of hops; 260 pounds of silk in cocoons; 6 million pounds of maple sugar; 5.697 gallons of maple syrup; and 249,000 pounds of honey.  In the Fourth Report of the State Board of Agriculture in 1877 it is stated “ that 90% of what is consumed is raised in the State of Vermont.  The State exports 50% of its oats, 80% of its potatoes, 2/3s of its butter, but imports 40% of its flour and 50% of its meats.”

The above diversity of production in early Vermont agriculture illustrates that farmers have always realized that their existence depended and still depends upon their ability to adapt to the pressures of changing economic times.

Some interesting happenings from this period of the 1800’s:

  • The legislature in 1835 passed an act to encourage the growing of silk.  The State Treasurer was authorized to give a bounty of 10 cents for each pound of cocoons “raised or grown.”  Some, but a very little was grown in the years 1835 through      1850.
  • In 1829 “Fairbanks Brothers added a new line of business, the purchase and preparation of hemp.”  Due to the inaccurate method of weighing this product, the brothers invented the platform scale, which became their business.
  • Intoxicating liquors were an issue during the early part of the 1800’s according to documents (see Crockett History of Vermont, Vol. 3).  It is stated that cider brandy as well as corn and rye whiskey were made in large quantities.  There were said to be two hundred distilleries in the State of Vermont with many towns having one or more. In 1810 alone there were 125 distilleries in the State making 173,000 gallons of apple brandy (U.S. Census of 1810). This period came to an end with the Temperance movement with legislation in 1852 that prohibited the manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquor as a beverage but ‘permitted its use for sacramental purposes.”
  • Horse raising and trade was an important agricultural activity in the early years according to records.  For example, “Randolph and Royalton furnished many to export and to the driving-horse trade.  The cheaper grades being sold as streetcar horses.  Mule colts were also raised for the West Indies sugar trade.” (See Rural Vermont, A Program for the Future).
  • Hops was an important crop in the 1800’s as well.  According to data, by 1850 Vermont was second to New York in production.  That represented 8% of U.S. production (see History of Hops in Vermont).  Eventually this industry, due to economics, moved westward as well.
  • The legislature of 1779 required each town to care for the poor, and this was based upon the “poor laws of England.”  Poor farms were established throughout Vermont.  The intent was for these to become self-sufficient with crops sold as income, with labor coming from those sent there as being poor and paupers. (See  The establishment of these farms also demonstrated the importance of agriculture to local communities.

Blogger’s Comments:  Over time Vermont farmers have always shown an ability to adjust to changing economic conditions, and this was especially true with the decline of the Merino sheep industry.  There was a slow progression after that time to dairy farming with more specialization in butter and cheese production.  Next week’s blog posting will begin with information on how that specialization came about and what influenced the growth in butter and cheese production in the State in the mid to late 1800’s.

Sources and References for this week’s blog posting:

  • Vermont, A History of the Green Mountains by Edmund Fuller, State Board of Education, Montpelier, 1952
  • Remember the Poor”(Galatians 2:10): Poor Farms in Vermont by Steven R. Hoffbeck, the Vermont Historical Society, Vol 57, No. 4, Fall 1989.
  • Climate, Cropping, and Society in Vermont, 1820-50 by David Demeritt, Vermont Historical Society, Vol. 59, No. 3, Summer 1991.
  • Freedom and Unity, A History of Vermont by Michael Sherman, Gene Sessions and P. Jeffery Potash, Vermont Historical Society, 2004.
  • The Vermont of Today by Arthur F. Stone, Vol. 11, Lewis Historical Publishing Co. Inc., NY, 1929
  • Vermont, A Guide to the Green Mountain State, 3rd Edition Revised, Edited by Ray Bearse, Houghton Miffin Co., Boston, 1968.
  • History of Vermont by Walter Hill Crockett, Vol. three, The Century History Co., Inc. NY, 1921
  • Reports of the State Board of Agriculture:  1874, 1877, 1889-90.
  • Rural Vermont, A Program for the Future, The Vermont Commission on Country Life, 1931.
  • Studies in Vermont, History, Geography and Government by Robert M. Carter, Carter and Co., St. Johnsbury, 1937
  • The Road Less Traveled: Rural Northern New England in Global Perspective, 1815-1960, A dissertation presented by Christopher Harris to the Department of History In partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy In the field of History.  Northeastern University, May 2007.
  • History of Hops in Vermont by Jeremy Perkins, a paper.
  • Vermont Railroad Timeline, Freedom and Unity, Vermont Historical Society
  • Roxana’s Children, The Biography of a Nineteenth-Century Vermont Family by Lynn A. Bonfield and Mary C. Morrision, University of Massachusetts Press, 1995

Last week’s trivia question:  What was the first railroad chartered by the Vermont legislature?

Answer:  The first chartered railroad was a line from Rutland to Whitehall, New York in 1831.  It was never built.  The first built was the Vermont Central in 1843 (see Vermont Railroad Timeline, Vt. Historical Society).

Trivial question for next week:  Which town in Vermont became the butter capital of the world in the latter part of the 1880’s?

Edition 5, April 1st 2011

Thursday, March 24, 2011


The sheep industry transformed Vermont and New England’s landscape.  The Merino sheep grazed on the hills and in the valleys and became known worldwide for their fine wool.  Today the hills of Vermont are dotted with many old cellar holes and stonewalls that date back to this thriving period.  One can also see many of the old mill building sites that still exist throughout New England.  These mills played an important role in the woolen industry during the years between 1810 and 1870.  It was here that the wool was processed into finished goods.  Much has been written about this period and can be found in town records, Historical Society documents, and other material.  What brought about this change from subsistence farming to industrial agriculture, and in particular to the sheep industry, is the subject of this weekly blog.   (A question that might be asked is how do these events of the past relate to what is happening in our Vermont and Northeast dairy industry today?)

WILLIAM JARVIS, Former Consul to Portugal and resident of Wethersfield, Vermont:

In some books William Jarvis has been called an “evangelist” for the Merino sheep, or an early “Ben and Jerry’s” of the sheep industry.  His history, both as Consul to Portugal and eventually as a resident of Weathersfield, is well documented.  In reading the material written about him, it is clear that he was a well established business person from a very prominent Boston family, very well connected in the highest levels of government.   Jarvis had an early business failure, but with the help of his father he re-established himself.   He went on to create and run a successful international trading firm, and in this capacity he became very well connected with government officials and business leaders throughout Europe. Because of these connections, President Jefferson appointed him Consul to Lisbon Portugal.

Why Merino Sheep? 
The Merino sheep had been bred for their fine fleece and were the sheep of the “hills”.  For many years they had been protected by Spain from export as a way to sustain the price of fine wool.  However, with the invasion of Spain by Napoleon, there was concern about the plight of the prized sheep.  Jarvis took advantage of this political and military unrest, and his connections in 1809 to ship some of these prized animals to the Untied States.   While he was not the first to do so (a Colonel Humphreys, Consul to Spain, seven years earlier had shipped some to his farm in Connecticut and also to a farm in Westminster, Vermont), he was the first to become an advocate for their advancement in the U.S.  According to information published in 1879 by the Vermont Merino Sheep Breeders Association, some 15,767 Merino sheep arrived throughout the East Coast from Spain for the period of 1810-1811.  Boston had twenty-nine vessels carrying a total of 2048 sheep; New York had 52 vessels totaling 9,349 sheep; Philadelphia had four vessels totaling 389 sheep; other ships went to Norfolk, Virginia, New Haven, Connecticut; Portland, Maine; and Providence, Rhode Island. (When he shipped the sheep he sent some as a gift to Jefferson).

Why Did Jarvis Come to Vermont?
According to historic information, Jarvis actually was looking for a location in Virginia to bring his sheep, but he had an uncle and a cousin that lived in Claremont, New Hampshire. They suggested a farm across the river in Weathersfield, Vermont, which Jarvis purchased upon his return from Spain.  It is stated that he brought approximately 3500 sheep to Weathersfield along with shepherds, and dogs as well as other animals.  He purchased and cleared additional acreage around this farm and soon became known as a “ zealot” for the advancement of the Marino sheep breed in the United States.  In addition to raising the sheep, he traveled around the country speaking to the merits of the Marino and their wool.  He even employed a network of merchants for selling wool, and became a part owner and investor in a textile mill in Quechee, Vermont.

What Fueled the Sheep Craze? 
The war of 1812 and the Jefferson embargo raised wool prices to $2.50 per pound as imports were blocked, and trade paralyzed.    Mills needed product and the fine fleece of the Merino’s were in great demand.  While Vermont had sheep before this time, and woolen mills too, the wool was not the quality of the Merino.  Jarvis helped fuel the supply by lending money to farmers interested in establishing flocks and providing technical assistance. (The bloodline from his flock became the foundation of the Vermont Merinos).   This period of unrest with Britain also fueled a manufacturing independence streak in the United States, especially when the war ended with the Treaty of Ghent in 1814 and British manufactured goods, especially cotton and woolen goods flooded the U.S. markets.   With significant pressure on Congress and from our own Vermont delegation, and with pamphlets on the need for a tariff written by Jarvis to high-powered friends, the Tariff Act of 1823 came about.  This act gave new life to the production of fine wool.  It is said, “that manufacturers went from county to county offering large prices for fine wool.”

The hills and valleys of Vermont were ideal for the Merino Sheep, where grass was said to be “ king.”  Many towns in Vermont had at least 1,000 sheep according to records, and Addison County had the greatest number.  By 1840, the Town of Shoreham was the home to 40,000 sheep.  Vermont was the sheep capital of the world by this time with 1.6 million sheep.   It is said, “it was the Vermont soil, Vermont climate, and the Yankee skill” that made the state an ideal place for this industry to thrive.  “The Merino sheep breeders of Addison County have achieved for themselves…an enviable reputation and the whole world has come to buy of them and fabulous prices have been received.” Vermont and the Merino sheep industry were captive, however, to tariff regulations and international events and western and international competition.  With pressure on the reduction on these protective tariffs, the price of wool dropped from 57 cents per pound in 1835 to 25 cents per pound in late 1840.  This downward pressure on prices resulted in two thirds of the State’s sheep being killed between 1846 and1850.

This was not the end to the period of fluctuation in prices or the role of the Merino sheep in Vermont.  The Civil War increased, for a time, the demand for wool for uniforms and cloths as the South had been cut off as a supply source.  Also, Addison County became known for their breeding stock, which was sold around the world for good prices. The decade from 1860 to 1870 was one where Vermont farmers sent many sheep to Western States, carload after carload from the best flocks.  This export is said to have decreased after western wool growers began to feel the impact of the tariff reductions in 1883.   Nevertheless, Vermont farmers had achieved great success in the breeding of these animals.  For example, each sheep on average yielded three times as much wool in 1870 as they had in 1840.    At the International Exhibition in Hamburg, Germany in 1863, a Vermont Merino took two first prizes as having the heaviest fleece and longest wool of any of that class exhibited.

What led its Economic Decline?
Vermont’s position as a leader in producing some of the finest wool from the Merino sheep ended.  This was due to many factors including tariff protection changes, western and international competition, and the cost of producing sheep on smaller farms and acreage.  It was said that it cost from $1.00-$2.00s per head to produce sheep in Vermont versus $1.00 to 25 cents per head in the West.  Also, any system of small flocks, such as those in Vermont, could not compete, under a reduced tariff system, with the large flocks in Australia and Argentina that could include as many as 100,000 to 400,000 sheep.   The Merino sheep period changed Vermont’s landscape, it’s culture, and it’s agricultural and manufacturing industry.  It would take some time for the dairy sector to bloom.   Sheep did not have to be milked each day and thus required less everyday attention.  Probably one of the best summaries of the agricultural economics of this period is from the Vermont Merino Sheep Breeders Association in 1879, “no farm stock except Merino sheep has been affected by such extraordinary seasons of favor, amounting to mania, when prices have been enhanced to such extraordinary fictitious values, when large numbers without qualifications or due consideration have embarked in the business of breeding them, until by the action of some unfriendly legislation it would immediately follow depressing prices…until…flocks of Merinos…crushed out and threatened with annihilation?”

How Does the Sheep Industry of the 1800’s Compare to the Dairy Industry of Today? 
There have been those who have compared this period to what is happening in dairy sector today.  The continuing westward migration of dairy production with very large dairy farms in several western states; an antiquated pricing system that results in wide pricing swings when national production greatly exceeds supply; lower cost of production on many western farms with subsidized water and power; a tariff system that helps protect against large imports from other countries that has been subject of WTO and bi-lateral trade negotiations to allow freer trade from lower cost of production countries like New Zealand; and dependence on Congress for changes to provide more economic equality and opportunities for Northeast dairy farmers. While there may be some similarities in this regard, I submit that differences now exist to include an interest in local and regional food production; increased costs of transportation in bringing product from more distant markets; the recognition by many that value added product production with products that meet consumer needs is the future, as well as the need for greater diversification on the farm.  This recognition has resulted in the growth of farm-based and other specialty cheese and product production. Vermont also is a state that benefits from livestock agriculture that can convert grass to meat or milk, as history has demonstrated over time that grass is truly “king”.  Also, Vermont farmers’ access to nearby markets and the renewed interest in local and regional foods is an encouraging trend given other similarities with the Merino sheep industry of the past.

ANSWER TO LAST WEEK’S TRIVIA QUESTION:  Who was the Governor from Southern Vermont that was a farm implement inventor and the first President of the Vermont Agricultural Society?

It was Governor Fredrick Holbrook of Brattleboro who served as Governor in the early 1860’s.  He invented the Holbrook Swivel Plow, considered to be one of the great improvements of the day.  Governor Holbrook was also a friend of President Lincoln and an early advocate for an agency to address agricultural issues at the federal level.

THIS WEEK’S TRIVIA QUESTION:  When was the first railroad in Vermont chartered by the Vermont legislature?

Sources and References for this Blog update:

  • History of Vermont by Walter Hill Crockett, Vol. 3, The Century History Company, Inc. N.Y. 1921
  • Vt. Historical Society, An era of change, 1820-1850, William Jarvis and the Merino Sheep Craze
  • Past Times: Stories From The Sheldon Museum “Lambing Time” March 2008 by Jan Albers, Ex. Director Henry Sheldon Museum, Middlebury, VT.
  • History of the First National Bank of Orwell, Vermont
  • Town of Weathersfield History
  • The Life and Times of Honorable William Jarvis of Weatherfield by Mary Pepperell Sparhawk Cutts, Nabu Press, 2010
  • The Bleat of the Sheep, The Bark of the Tree; Vermonters and Their Landscape, A View From the Archivist, Delivered Mar. 31, 2001, Vt. Landscape Conference, Fleming Museum, in Vermont History, Vol. 70; Winter Spring 2002
  • Spanish Merino Sheep, Their Importation from Spain, Introduction into Vermont and Improvement Since Introduced.  Vol. 1, Published by Vermont Merino Sheep Breeders Association, 1879.
  • Reports of the State Board of Agriculture for each of the following years: 1872, 1874, 1877, 1878, 1887-88, and 1888-89.

            Edition 4, March 23, 2011

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


As towns were created, it placed more demands for food and related products on the nearby farmers.  What the farmers did not need for their families was transported to nearby markets as well as those further away.  Local stores often bartered with the farmer for staples such as salt, coffee, tea, and other products. The storeowners then took those excess supplies and bartered for those their store supplies that could not be purchased nearby.  Home spinning and weaving still took place with home grown flax and wool.  It is documented that "grain, potatoes and livestock were transported to markets in Montreal, Quebec, Troy, Albany, and Boston."  Significant exports between 1800-1804 were potash, pearlash, whiskey, pork, beef, wheat flour, grain, butter, cheese, lumber and horses.  Prior to 1830, dairy was still only a small portion of farm income and production was very rudimentary with cheese and butter being made in the house. 

It is said that farming in the "West section of Vermont became specialized before that in the Eastern side of the State." This was due to the lay of the land, the fertility of the soil, and the proximity to the markets. The growing of grains in the Champlain Valley was a very important industry before 1820 and the grains were either distilled locally or hauled to markets in Albany and Troy.

During this time and up until the railroads, "drover" drives of livestock to markets were very common.  Professor James Dean of The University of Vermont in the Atlas of Vermont for 1808 wrote "12,000 to 15,000 head of beef cattle were driven from the state to the Boston market."  Other documentation also indicates the importance of these drives.  "Prior to 1850 and the maturing of railroad transportation, southeast Vermont and southwest New Hampshire benefited from being major transit zones.  Every autumn, many tens of thousands of sheep and cattle, horses and pigs, turkeys and geese would be driven to market.  Many followed the Connecticut River Valley to Greenfield, Springfield, and Hartford.  Even more would continue across Cheshire and Hillsborough Counties in New Hampshire to Worcester, Lowell and Boston.  As many as a hundred thousand animals a year would pass through Keene, New Hampshire in herds of 200 to 400 animals.  Moving ten to fifteen miles at best per day, it might take three or more weeks to make it to Brighton Market outside of Boston.  Many drives also went through the Champlain Valley to New York either on foot or via the Champlain Canal down the Hudson." 


As towns became established, industry that supported agriculture began to spring up across the state.  These industries included blacksmiths, tanneries, gristmills, carting mills, saw mills, foundries, starch mills, and other establishments. Histories of local towns, found in historical society collections as well as local libraries, give us information on these early industries.  Water from rivers and dams were a major source of power and so most of these industries were located close to water sources.   In the Gazetteer and Business Directory of Chittenden County Vermont for 1882-83, one can find the history of some of these mills for each Chittenden County town.  For example, in Jericho, Horatio B. Barney's carding-mill was built in 1819;  Shelburne Falls with durable waterpower had one flourmill, one sawmill, one shingle-mill and a blacksmith shop.  Every settlement had at least one mill. These support industries contributed to the further commercial development of agriculture within the State of Vermont.


Transportation networks, both roads and water, became essential for the further development of agriculture as well as the development of industry and trade.  Road building is said to have begun in the late 1700's with private turnpikes chartered by the Vermont legislature.  One such example was the Windham Turnpike Company.   The company was incorporated in 1799 and built a road for travel between Brattleboro and Bennington.  They were permitted to erect five tollgates. Private turnpikes, such as this, were in use for approximately forty years at which time they became part of the highway system.  These turnpikes eased the way for stagecoaches that took travelers and commerce to distant markets.  Many towns prospered along these routes.

The growth of commerce grew rapidly between 1790 and 1814.  During these years canal and water travel became as important as overland means.  In Bellows Falls a canal was begun in 1792 that "was built with English Capital".  It is said that by means of flat-bottomed boats on this canal, a large freight business was done for many years between Hartford, Connecticut and Bellows Falls, Vermont.  "These boats were 72 feet long and 11 1/2 feet wide and when loaded carried 30 tons and had a draw of 2-3 feet of water.  It took approximately 3 days to get to Hartford."  Also important to the western side of Vermont was the commerce that took place on Lake Champlain. “Before 1792 Burlington was largely a forest. There were no wharves, and goods brought in sloops were landed in scows, with the exception of casks of liquor and molasses, which were floated ashore."  Because of its position on the lake, Burlington soon became a flourishing center important to the state’s economic growth. With the completion of the 64-mile Champlain Canal in 1823 Burlington’s commercial importance was enhanced greatly.  This waterway connected the Hudson River to Lake Champlain and provided a means for travel as well as commerce. Other canals were proposed across Vermont and so this time became known as the "canal craze period”. 

References and Sources for Information:

* “Studies in Vermont, History, Geography and Government”, by Robert M. Carter, St. Johnsbury, 1937
* Vermont Genealogy at
* Agricultural Policies in Vermont, 1860-1945 by Edwin C. Rozwenc, Vt. Historical Society, 1981
* History of Vermont by Walter Hill Crockett, Vol. 2, 1921
* Gazetteer and Business Directory of Chittenden Country, Vt. For 1882-83 by Hamilton Child
* Rural Vermont, A Program for the Future, The Vermont Commission on Country Life, Burlington, 1931
* Atlas of Vermont for 1808 by Professor James Dean, UVM
* “The Road Less Traveled by: Rural Northern New England in Global Perspective, 1815-1960”.  A dissertation presented by Christopher Harris to the Dept. of History in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the field of History, Northeastern University, Boston, May 2007
* Fifth Report of the State Board of Agriculture, 1878
* A Stitch in Time: Townshend, Vermont: 1753-2003
* Canals of the Connecticut River, Vermont History at
* Rhymes of Vermont Rural Life, Second Series, Daniel L. Cady, 1922, The Tuttle Company, Rutland, Vt. 1922  (see Rhyme on "A Vermont Drove of Cattle." Page 100)

Comment by Blogger:  The early settlers and farmers understood the importance of local and regional markets.  Improved methods of transportation allowed better access to these markets, through roads and river, lake and canal traffic.  This was before the west had opened up and before railroads were established.  In the next blog I will focus on the man William Jarvis whose import of prized Merino sheep transformed Vermont’s regional agriculture and supporting industries.  Who was this leader and what did he do to help transform agriculture in Vermont and the region? What led to the economic collapse of this important agricultural enterprise?  What can be learned from this period that might apply today?

Trivia Question:  Which Governor from Southern Vermont was President of the Vermont Agricultural Society and a farm implement inventor?


Tuesday, March 8, 2011


On last week's blog I posted the major timeline for Vermont agriculture for the 150 years from 1791 to 1941.  As I do more research, my interest throughout the whole period is the tipping points or reasons that major changes in Vermont agriculture and thus the use of the landscape took place over the years.  Clearly, some of the changes are due to international events, regional and national interests, other economic influences, and of course the people and their leaders.

This week I am commenting on the period from 1791 through 1808, or the period in the timeline "Transition from Settlement Clearings to Farms".  Much has been written about this period and is available from the Vermont Historical Society, in town historical material, and from other sources to include journals.  My interest is to focus on what led to the increased migration of white settlers to Vermont; why they came, and what they did after they came relative to agriculture and use of the landscape.


With the Treaty of Paris in 1763, England won the continent.  With this, France lost their authority over Canada, and northern lands were now open.  The lands were open, cheap, and accessible and of good soil fertility which was lacking in Southern New England.  The settlers of Vermont were hardy, accustomed from childhood to the use of axe and gun, and eager and full of ambitious purpose to found homes and communities of their own.   A large portion the settlers came from Connecticut and Massachusetts.  Of 85,072 population reported in 1790, approximately 81,200 were of English origin and 2,600 Scotch.  These two comprised more than 98 percent of the total population of the State. Between 1780 and 1800, the population of Vermont increased from 30,000 to 150,000.  (Ref. and Source:  History of Vermont, Vol. 1, by Walter Hill Crockett, 1921.)

Comment from State Board of Agriculture Ninth Report, 1885-1886: "My father used to say, one generation to clear the land of trees, the next generation to remove the stumps and level the land, and the third generation to work in the production of crops."

In 1796, while in England, Ira Allen wrote a letter to the Duke of Portland describing Vermont's resources:  "The soil with a little cultivation supplies inhabitants with all the necessaries of life in abundance, such as wheat, oats, rye, beans, barley.  They have no necessity to introduce foreign grasses, where every hill and valley affords abundance of herbage spontaneously, and every plain, permitted to remain a few months untouched, becomes a meadow.  The woods also produce other fruits in great plenty some of which you are obliged to pamper in your hothouses in England.  Our climate is mild, our soil fertile, our inhabitants industrious, our provisions abundant and cheap, and it is our determination to avail ourselves of these blessings and to hand them down at least unimpaired to our children."  (Ref. and Sources:  History of Vermont, Vol. 1., by Walther Hill Crocket, 1921; and Vermont Its Resources and Opportunities by Walter H. Crockett, Pub. By Provisions of No.71 of the Acts of 1915 of the General Assembly of the State of Vermont.)


After clearing of the land, a few crops between stumps were raised.  Corn was a stable crop along with beans, pumpkins, turnips and parsnips, a few potatoes and wheat, barley, and buckwheat.  Also, a cow and pig were often secured.  As soon as a regular system of agriculture could be established, sheep were kept for wool and considerable flax was raised.  Much of the economy at this time was barter except for the selling of "salts."  The manufacture of "salts" was an important item with the early settlers.  This product was made by burning hardwood trees to ashes, (clearing the land), and boiling the lye from the ashes.  These 'salts" were sold to manufacturers of pearlash, used in making soap, glass and other products.  The market value ranged from three to five and one-half dollars per hundred pounds, and was one of the few products that could be sold for cash.  Much of the product was exported to England.  Many a family has been saved from great suffering if not from actual starvation by the sale of "salts." In 1791, Vermont exported more than 1,000 tons of potash to England.  (Ref. and Source:  History of Vermont, Vol. 1, by Walther Hill Crockett, 1921)


Potash is the residue remaining after all the water has been driven off from the lye solution obtained from the leaching of wood ashes.  Pearlash is then made from the potash by baking it in a kiln until all the carbon impurities are burned off.  The fine white powder remaining is pearlash.  Potash and later pearlash were valuable items of the export trade to England.  Peddlers would travel from village to village collecting potash made on the farms.  For many, this was the only cash value received all year. (Much has been written about the impact on the ecology and environment of the state due to this rapid deforestation.)  England was keen on this product, as they had depleted their own timber resources.  They sent experts and manuals on potash making to the colonies to encourage production and even provided tariff incentives. England needed soap to wash the wool from their sheep prior to product manufacturing.  (Ref. and Sources:

Note:  Samuel Hopkins of Philadelphia, Pa (Pittsford, Vt.) received Patent No. 1, on July 31, 1790 for an improvement "in making potash and pearlash by a new apparatus and process."  President George Washington signed the Patent.  This is said to be the first industrial chemical and is the first Patent granted.  (Ref. and Source:

Blogger's Note:  As we discuss agriculture today and the influence that events elsewhere have on food production and supply, it is hard to ignore even the influences in prior times.  What if there had been no Treaty of Paris and the French and Indian Wars had continued? What if England had not had the need for potash and pearlash from the Colonies? Even as we discuss local food systems today, it is impossible to ignore the influence that regional markets and national and international forces have on Vermont’s working landscape.

In next week's blog I will discuss some of the local agricultural commerce that began to take place as settlements and better transportation modes were established.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Timeline of Changes in Vermont Agriculture

Ceres, the Goddess of Agriculture
sits atop the golden dome
of the Vermont Statehouse

Sources:  Migration from Vermont by Prof. Lewis D. Stilwell, published as Vol.V. No 2, N.S., Proceedings of the Vermont Historical Society, and to Rural Vermont, the report of the Vermont Commission on Country Life 1931.  Information from the Vermont Yearbooks of Agriculture.

Period 1791-1808-Transition from settlement clearings to farms.  Crops and livestock chiefly for family use, with some export of wheat and beef.  Boom days in migration to the state.

1792-The horse Justin Morgan, forebear of the great Morgan breed, brought to Randolph from West Springfield, Massachusetts by the owner whose name he came to bear.

Period 1808-1820-Beginning of commercial sheep raising.  Banner years for wheat crop, with yields running to 40 bushels per acre.

1811-Spanish Merino sheep brought to Weathersfield by William Jarvis, Consul General to Portugal from the United States.

1814-Wheat, $3.00 per bushel.

1816-"Cold Season," "Eighteen-hundred and froze to death"-Practically no crops.

1819-Four county agricultural societies organized.

Period 1820-1845-Great days of sheep industry in Vermont.  Saxony Merinos introduced.  Horse breeding flourishes.  Black Hawk, Messenger, Hambletonian, as well as original Morgan strains, make equine history.  Introduction of iron plow and other improved equipment.  Decline of wheat production.  Potatoes used for starch and whiskey.

1820-Soils begin to show need of rebuilding.

1822-Opening of Champlain canal connecting Lake Champlain with Hudson River provides outlet for Vermont butter, cheese and lumber to New York City and intermediate points.

1824-1825-Hessian fly causes great damage to grain, followed by disastrous grasshopper outbreak.

1840-Sheep number 1,681,819, all time high for the state.  Had increased from 495,000 in 1830.

Period 1845-1870-Heavy decline in sheep raising for wool.  Interest in breeding pedigreed stock.  Blooded animals shipped to Argentine, Australia, and other far points.  General mixed farming.  Building of railroads opens wider markets, cuts transportation costs on products, and raises value of farms along lines.

1846-Removal of protective tariff on fine wood cuts price to 25c per pound.

1849-1849-More than one third of sheep slaughtered or sold out of state.

1850-About ten fold increase in butter and cheese shown by census as compared to 1840 figure.  Beginning of "Butter era."

1845-1870-Dairy cattle displacing cattle raised for beef.

Period 1870-1900-Heyday of butter production in Vermont.  Large potato acreages, and varietal improvements.  Home apple orchards.  Maple sugar rises from status of home use commodity of less cash value than cane sugar to that of marketable delicacy.  Improvements in commercial fertilizers.  Rise of the agricultural fairs and associations.

1871-First Grange in New England organized in St. Johnsbury, July 4th.

1872-State Board of Agriculture established, State Grange organized, and Vermont Dairymen's Association organized (first in U.S.).

1875-1878-Green Mountain potato originated by Alexander at Charlotte.  Other important varieties originated in Vermont during period were the Snowflake, Delaware, Improved Peachblow and Gold Coin.

1877-Peak in Vermont potato production.  47,000 acres.

1880-Rapid development begins in creamery manufacture of butter.  St. Albans great butter center of country.  "Butter trains to Boston."   Note first butter train by Vt. Central Railroad began running with ice, once each week between St. Albans and Boston in 1854.

1886-State law passed creating Vermont Agricultural Experiment Station based upon recommendation of State Board of Agriculture. Note statement from State Board of Agriculture on need for such a Station.  "These Stations have proved of so much value in Europe, and similar institutions have done such satisfactory work in our own country, that is has seemed exceedingly desirable that the State of Vermont having agricultural industries somewhat peculiar to herself, should accept the advantages which such a Station promises."

1892-First four year student in agriculture graduated from University of Vermont and Vermont College of Agriculture which was established as result of Land Grant College Act sponsored by U.S. Senator Justin Morrill of Vermont in 1862.

1899-First farmer cooperative creamery established in Shelburne, Vermont.

Period 1900-1920-Transition from butter and cheese to fluid milk marketing.  Developing of educational and regulatory work in agriculture.  Trend toward specialized farming.  Large commercial apple orchards planted.  Beginning of motorized farming.

1902-Legislature creates Board of Cattle Commissioners; changed in 1906 to one cattle commissioner; in 1912 to Livestock Commissioner.

1908-Office of Commissioner of Agriculture set up in lieu of Board of Agriculture.

1910-Act passed creating Vermont State School of Agriculture, Randolph Center.
Note:  T.G. Bronson of Hardwick, Vermont, and a noted Jersey breeder and Chair of the House Agriculture Committee in 1910 was father of bill creating State School of Agriculture in Randolph.

1913-Extension Service of University of Vermont and State College of Agriculture established, with country agent system.

1914-Certification of seed potatoes begins in Vermont under Commissioner of Agriculture.

1916-"Leased Car" decision of Interstate Commerce Commission gives more favorable freight rates to Vermont dairymen shipping to Boston.  Strong impetus to fluid milk sale.
Note: before this decision rates from Chicago to Boston were cheaper than from Vermont to Boston.

1917-Commissioner of Agriculture made also Livestock Commissioner.

1917-Testing of cattle for bovine tuberculosis begins on basis of cooperation between state and federal governments and owners. 
Smith-Hughes Act increases agricultural teaching in High schools.

Period 1920-1941-Continued expansion of fluid milk industry.  Cooperative dairy organizations as bargaining agencies and many cooperative creameries build.  Improvement in sanitary regulations.  Development of large poultry and turkey farms. With flocks of many thousand birds.  Maple products on high plane.  Improvement in marketing through establishment of grades and standards for farm products.

1920-State Farm Bureau organized.

1927-Division of Markets established.

1927-Great flood, November 3rd, causes tremendous loss to land, buildings and livestock.

1936-Vermont declared modified accredited state by U.S. Department of Agriculture in bovine tuberculosis control program.

1938-Hurricane September 21st, sweeps down thousands of sugar maples and damages buildings.