farm oxen

Agriculture and farming has a long tradition in the Upper Valley and throughout Vermont. Until tourism became an economic engine for the area and the state, farming was the major industry. Even in places such as Hartford, Quechee, and Woodstock – where mills, transportation, and trains drove the economy – farming played a critical role in the lives and survival of early Vermonters. Orchards, grain fields, and livestock once covered the terrain and still play a major role in the lives of the residents and visitors to the Green Mountain State.

farm oxen

A team of oxen was essential for tilling the rocky soil of Vermont; some farmers still use oxen today.

In his book The Natural and Political History of the State of Vermont, founding father of Vermont, Ira Allen, accurately describes the state’s people, and farmers, and their ingenuity in the following manner: “I am really at a loss in the classification of the inhabitants – they are all farmers, and again every farmer is a mechanic in some line or another, as inclination leads or necessity requires. The hand that guides the plow frequently constructs it.”

Interestingly, one of the first industries utilizing farm products to create a profitable product was the distillery business. Prior to 1800, many distilleries operated in the state, including several notable examples here in the town of Hartford. These operations produced potato
whiskey, rum, brown ale, and cider brandy. A major Hartford distillery was owned and operated by Thomas King and F. Leavitt, producing potato whiskey. This distillery reached its zenith during the War of 1812, when demand for the product soared. Unfortunately, after the war’s conclusion, the price for their distilled spirits dropped dramatically causing the distillery to fail.

Apples and cider making – much as they are today – were an important part of Vermont’s early FARMING – continued from page 1 farming history. Settlers to Vermont found apple trees in abundance and established orchards. In the late 1700s and early 1800s though, the cider itself was not often the end product – distilled products such as cider brandy filled that role. Farmers needed a higher value for their crop than the cider produced, and the distilled products made from cider fit the bill.

Eventually, societal mores put a huge dent in the distillery market. As the Temperance Movement gained momentum, the market for the hard versions of cider took a hit. The local apple growers adjusted with the times, and apples became a desired commodity for livestock feed.

Nothing is new under the sun, as the saying goes. Currently, in the wake of the craft brewing industry, small distilleries are popping up around Vermont. Two local ones following the tradition of making hard spirits are the Vermont Spirits Distilling Company of Quechee and the Silo Distillery in Windsor.

It’s hard to imagine now, but the growing of grains, particularly wheat, was once a major part of Vermont agriculture. In the early 1800s, Vermont was one of the largest wheat producers in the newly formed country. Wheat farmers in the hills and fertile river valleys such as those of the Connecticut and White Rivers supplied the large eastern cities with large amounts of the grain.

farm haying

Haying in Vermont was needed to supply livestock feed, but was difficult work by hand in the 19th century.

By the 1820s however, a system of canals, primarily the Erie Canal, opened up the western farms to the eastern markets. Cheaper and easier to grow in the western fields, the Vermont wheat producers were not able to compete, and wheat farming began a decline in the area.

What was becoming popular in Vermont at the same time was the raising of livestock. Sheep farming in particular became an important part of Vermont’s agriculture economy, and had its beginnings right here in Windsor County.

In the early 1800s, area farmer William Jarvis brought a large herd of Merino sheep from Portugal to his Windsor County farm. The sheep prospered and wool from the Merino sheep became highly desirable. From 1820 to the 1840s, sheep farming grew dramatically in the state, with the estimated sheep population in Vermont increasing from roughly 500,000 to around 1.7 million head. During this time, manufacturing of wool products grew, with Quechee’s Dewey’s Mills being a major player in that industry. At one point during this era, Vermont was the second leading state in the US in wool production.

Again, as happened with the grain industry, new transportation systems led to the decline in the Vermont wool producing business. Train transport in the 1840s – which opened up the Upper Valley and particularly White River Junction to the rest of the nation – also opened up
access to the western states and territories. There, huge sheep farms producing cheaper wool, which made its way to the eastern mills, lessened the demand for Vermont wool.

It’s interesting to note that about this time, Vermont farmers attempted to produce another product used in cloth and fabric making – silk. Promoted by the state, farmers imported silkworms in an attempt to build an industry. The venture failed dramatically, as the silkworms could not adapt to the region’s climate.

As sheep production declined, beef and pork production – always a factor in the Vermont’s agricultural industry – rose in its place. Again, over time, large western producers of beef and pork transported their products eastward, driving prices down and adversely affecting Vermont farmers.

It was then, about the time of the Civil War and afterwards, that Vermont’s famed dairy industry blossomed. Cheese and butter were sought-after commodities, and dairy farmers in the area turned to production of these goods to supply hungry consumers.

A local innovation in the 1870s helped area farmers get their products to the larger markets – the building of the Woodstock Railroad running between Woodstock and White River Junction. Along with serving passengers and Quechee’s growing mills, local farmers benefited by being able to ship their products and livestock by train to the markets along the East Coast. Train transport also allowed for the shipping of livestock from other regions to the area.

farm creamery

The creamery at Billings Farm & Museum

Though much in demand, butter and cheese production was very labor intensive and required additional investments in equipment. Butter production, for example, required separating the cream from the milk, and the traditional methods farmers used in that process were not
efficient. New equipment such as mechanical cream separators became a necessity for farmers. Eventually a new form of business, the creamery, took hold, buying raw milk products from farmers and turning those into finished goods. A major local player in this arena was the West Hartford Creamery. Beginning in the 1890s, by 1920 the West Hartford Creamery was a thriving operation serving the region’s dairy farmers.

As other regions of the country competed with Vermont dairy farmers for the butter and cheese market, shipping raw milk to urban areas became a vital factor for the local dairy business. Fluid milk made its way from places such as the Upper Valley to the big urban centers of Boston and New York in the 1890s and afterwards.

With large herds of livestock to care for – be it beef or dairy cattle – there has always been one very important factor that farmers must consider… that being winter-feed. Cattle can graze for part of the year, but with Vermont’s tough winters, farmers must take in feed for their herds. That made hay production a critical part of farming in Vermont, past and present. A very labor-intensive chore, over the decades, equipment manufacturers have come up with many devices to assist farmers since the old days of sickles, hay forks, hand rakes, and
wagons pulled by oxen.

No discussion of historical farming in our region is complete without mentioning the Billings Farm of Woodstock. Billings Farm – founded in the 1870s by Frederick Billings, a noted financier, rail magnate, and president of the newly established Woodstock Railroad – was the epitome of a modern farming operation. Billings, incidentally, was born in Royalton, Vermont, giving evidence of his wish to return to his home state after making his name and fortune elsewhere. Desiring to make his farm state-of-the-art and a showcase for modern farming, Billings hired George Aiken of Scotland to manage the farm. Aiken brought in and raised exceptionally fine animals including a herd of Jersey dairy cows, and was at the forefront of establishing modern dairy farming.

Billings Farm, which had its own creamery, grew to cover nearly 1,000 acres, and was managed by Aiken from the 1880s until his death in 1910. It continued to operate in private hands until 1968 when it transferred ownership to The Woodstock Foundation. In 1983, the Billings Farm and Museum became operational. Today, visitors to the farm can tour the farm manager’s house, grounds, and barns, and view the working livestock that populate the farm. Additionally, museum visitors can get an up-close look and feel for what farming was like over 100 years ago in Vermont, and how it has changed over the decades.