Farming in Perspective from the Archives

“American Agriculturist” sign on one of Waterford’s historic barns. Courtesy Beth Kanell.

The “small but mighty” Waterford Historical Society relies on many archives to build an understanding of history’s effects on the people of this Connecticut River Valley farming town. Dairy farms face immense pressures, and there is a sense of mourning around the loss of each one. Waterford once had farms along every road, but now has only two dairy farms producing milk, although the surge in diversified land-based plant and animal tending gives us hope that the old bumper sticker “Farms Keep Vermont Green” will still apply in the future.

Identifying the historical details of our farms is challenging. In 1860, the U.S. Census provided a tally of agriculture for each state by county, and Caledonia County, where Waterford is, showed 32,300 sheep, 11,582 “milch” cows, 3,736 working oxen, and just one animal in the category of “asses and mules.” The county reached third in the state for butter production (1.3 million pounds that year) and a respectable amount of hay, but sadly low amounts of barley, buckwheat, orchard products, wine, cheese, and hops; however, it ranked fourth in the state for clover seed, something that may not even be sold in Vermont today.

Hamilton Child’s 1887 Gazetteer of Caledonia and Essex Counties actually listed the town’s residents individually with their farm assets. So we know that West Waterford postmaster Amos Carpenter farmed with 3,000 “sugar trees,” 35 Jersey cows, 20 head “neat cattle” (beef cattle, dairy heifers, and bulls), and five horses. Sheep still appear on the list, though their numbers had dwindled from before the Civil War; the town’s apiarist, George Felch, had 27 swarms, and Stephen Hastings bred and sold Poland China hogs.

For individual production after this, Waterford relies more on family archives. A particularly rich one is held by the Lee family, which backed up its rich paper holdings with digital scans stored on two different servers. What a great pairing of historic documents and modern caretaking! Bertha Lee’s detailed records of her farm’s milk production actually give figures for each cow, by name.

Bertha Lee’s cow-by-cow milk records. Courtesy Waterford Historical Society.

Over the winter, our town’s history laborers gather to sort donated material into accessible labeled folders for the group’s archives. This past February, a yellowing typed document in a stack of donated “papers” suddenly provided a fresh wave of detail, thanks to the work of the noted WPA, the Works Project Administration. Now we know that in 1935, before World War II, this farm community’s 212 farms from 1850 (before the Civil War) had dwindled to only 97, but by consolidation, since the number of acres farmed remained about the same. The tables give us solid information on livestock, their products, and crop production compared over the years, data that we never had before.

Table of production figures of various crops. From “Agricultural Trends in Waterford Vermont”, published in February 1940 by the Agricultural Extension Service, University of Vermont and State Agricultural College “as a report on Official Project No. 665-12-3-56 Conducted under the Auspices of the Works Project Administration.”

Now when we consider how farming thrives in our town, we have real numbers to work from—numbers that came to us from sorting those overwhelming boxes and bags of worn saved paper, with a team ready to be surprised and excited.

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