Farming the Mountains

Long ago pastureland?

Maybe I’ve watched too many time-travel films, but I day dream about visiting past times, just to discover how that world looked— or smelled  — or just felt.  Written records, images, landmarks: these are our only conveyances to the distant past.  But they do provide some answers, or at least ground our imaginations.  

The federal government, desperate for tax revenue, in 1784 conducted a thorough valuation of the possessions of every American family.  The minutes of Mount Washington town meetings begin in 1796 and have mostly survived the centuries.  Agricultural censuses date back to 1850.  

Another valuable source of info about early farm life in the South Taconics I discovered through a kind of fishing expedition.  Herbert Keith, a Mount Washington landowner, in 1915 published a history of the town — valuable, but slim.  Yet when I tracked down his papers and notes, at the Berkshire Historical Society, I discovered genealogies of every early inhabitant, stories about them, detailed summaries of schools, Post Offices, Town Meetings.  Keith apparently travelled to Boston and hand-copied fifty-some pages of correspondence between the General Court and early settlers.  Digging through the pages and pages of notes (all in crisp cursive) left me feeling I’d met a kindred spirit.  How satisfying to, in a sense, pick up where he left off over a hundred years ago, and put his work to use.

All these, along with general accounts of American daily life, allow a plausibly detailed answer to what I might have found if I could walk back down the years to, say, 1784 or so.

In that year one hundred seventy seven white people lived in Mount Washington — and zero “blacks.”  (But the comparatively wealthy Johannes Spoor, a few miles away, owned two “Negro wenches” and a “mulatto man named Joseph to be free at twenty five years of age.”).  

Mount Washington in 1784 had:

39 acres of “field meadow”

84 acres of “English and upland mowing” (this refers to imported varieties of grass).

150 acres of “tillable land”

161 acres of “pasturage”

578 acres of “other unimproved land”

1, 191 acres of “unimproveable land”

My walk back landed me on a mud road, studded with stumps. Let’s say it was summer.  A battered log house rose a few yards away, with no other buildings in sight. Children spilled out of the house, most of them wearing gowns of rough linen: one kid, then two, three, four. Pigs slept in the trampled, muddy yard amidst wood chips, boards, and grass tufts.  A few dusty windows allowed light into the house.  In the yard, a woman kneaded clothes, up to her elbows in steaming water.  Below a window rose a pile of trash.   The air smelled like smoke and manure.  In the distance, as if they moved to a common tune, a row of men swung scythes: snick snick snick,  The sweet odor of fresh hay reached my nose.

I walked on. A ram crossed the road, then a herd of grunting hogs. Two men approached, moving heavily and slowly, swinging muscular arms and swaying side to side.  They spoke to me with nasally accents, vaguely British to my ears.  After looking me up and down, they bowed.  Their shirts were stiff with dirt and sweat and stained brown with tobacco juice.  

At their invite, I followed them into another log house.  A “baby napkin” (diaper) dried by the fireplace.  A little girl stared at me for a moment, then curtsied.  Imitating the men, I washed my neck and forearms in a bucket of cold water. Not wanting to seem impolite, I accepted their offer of chew, and followed them in spitting a stream of juice towards the greasy floor.  A cup of cider followed, which made my head start to swim.  

18th century farm kitchen

The light falling through the one window near me was dim and full of dust.  In the corner, a woman in a long skirt hacked at stretched-out flax fibers with a swingling knife. Small cuts dotted her hands, but long sleeves concealed her forearms. Nearby, a butter churn rose and fell under the reach of a younger woman.     

The men and I chatted about local issues, such as the difficulty in attracting a minister to town, until they fell into a loud dispute about the ownership of a particular free-ranging boar who had broken a recently built fence.  I tried to excuse myself, but the men insisted I share a meal with them.  From a spot near the hearth, one man lifted a bowl filled with a dense, sand-colored liquid, onto a table consisting of four legs supporting a half-log.  The other handed me a spoon, and we took turns ladling corn mush into our mouths.  My thirst was quenched by a sip from the shared water bottle.

I thanked them for dinner, and followed the road outside as it gradually became a footpath.  Off to the side of the road, a framed house rose — one story, only about twenty feet wide.  A little girl in a smock sat on a stump, studying my every move.

In less than a mile, the footpath faded until I had to shove aside laurel branches to make my way.  I sat, and the hemlocks and red oaks let me feel I’d returned to my century.  But in the near distance, seated atop a broad stump, a wolf watched.


Back at my desk, in the 21st century, I can attempt a larger perspective.  First of all: when was mountain land first cleared for crops and pastures?  Simple question, vexing answers.

1690, is an answer that other local historians have offered. This is based on the Bull Petition, a document that helped begin the boundary wars of the 18th century, in which unhappy tenants of Robert Livingston’s estate tried to convince the Massachusetts government to annex their land, and free them of the burden of Livingston’s rents.  The farmers signing the petition resided on a tract that began “at the top of the first great mountain west of Sheffield in line between this province (NY) and Connecticut, from thence running west in said line five miles and three quarters to the east line of (Livingston) Manor, thence northerly as line of said Manor runs, about eight miles to the south end of a hill called Verdrebick Berg, thence east four miles and a half, thence southerly to the first bounds.”  Without trying to guess where “Verdrebick Berg” was, it sounds like this land corresponds — roughly — to the South Taconics.  A census lists the year of settlement of each individual farm, and the first recorded dates are in 1690.  So the first farms in the Taconic were established in that year.  No?

Maybe not.  In subsequent missives relating to the battle with Livingston, this tract is referred to as “Tachgkanic.”  “Taghkanic” is also labelled clearly on a 1714 map of Livingston Manor, as a cleared area between Roeliff Jansen Creek, and neatly delineated mountains.  Also, consider what Ov. Partridge, a surveyor assigned to assess these lands, had to say: 

“They (the lands) lie on a small river or brook which heads in Taucaunuck Mountain Runs northerly and southerly some miles the most valuable lands are in the possession of some twenty families more than half the lands mentioned in said petition are upon the great Taucaunuck Mountain which is very high and impassible many miles together the other lands except what are under improvements as above are chiefly white oak rock oak hills some of them pretty good other of them are mean and poor.”   

So Partridge makes it clear that only half of Taghkanic lay in the mountains.  Common sense suggests that the valley half would be farmed first: why venture into those “high and impassible” mountains unless the better land was already taken?  So yes, Henry Brasee, Christopher Brasee, John Hallenbeck, and Abraham and Richard Spoor had all “cultivated” the land there starting around 1690, but they were likely farming in the area that’s now Copake village.  (Spoor is buried in the Copake cemetery beside my house.)  Many of the names listed on the petition had only been tilling their soil for one to three years; were these families settling the mountain valley where East Street and West Street now run?  

Also: the 1751 Bull Petition records that “Taghkanic” farmers were cultivating a total of 772 acres.  The 1784 tax valuation document records only 434 acres of cultivated land.  The obvious explanation for this disparity: much of the acreage tallied in the Bull petition was not in Mount Washington, not in the mountains at all.

And: Herbert Keith believed the first settlers arrived in 1690.  But in his own detailed genealogies, the earliest farm dates only to 1735.  

  That’s a lot of explanation for a straightforward guess: farmers did not settle the Taconics until the first half of the eighteenth century.  Keith believed that by 1757 there were about 200 settlers in the Taconics.  By 1800, the census shows 291. The height of population was reached in 1840: 438.

How did they earn a living, once the land was occupied?

There are no direct records of crops grown, until the 1850 Federal Agricultural Census.  But it seems fair to assume — given some other “sideways” evidence — that the 1850 numbers reflect longstanding practices. 

In 1850, mountain farmers grew a lot of potatoes (“Irish” potatoes, not sweet.)  5,248 pounds, to be exact, grown by 28 listed farmers.  (Later in the century, the Goodale family originated several kinds of potatoes, and got a yield of 300-700 pounds per acre.) They also grew quite a bit of “Indian corn” and oats.  Those oats must have helped feed the cows, who produced 6,603 pounds of butter and 5,011 pounds of cheese.

Zero bushels of wheat grew in the mountains that year, and only 581 bushels of buckwheat, and 213 of rye.  This seems paltry, but jibes with a scarcity of gristmills.  Samuel Dibble built one near Sky Farm around 1757, and his son built another in 1795 along City Brook; there may have been another along Bash Bish brook, but an 1830 map of the town shows no gristmills at all.  In the early 18th century, Captain Ashley ran a gristmill / cider mill in Sheffield.  That’s not far as the crow flies, but early farmers were not crows, and Sheffield would have been far away over punishing roads.  That 1755 petition to the Massachusetts General Court describes Mount Washington as “separated from Egremont and Sheffield” by a “long and steep precipice” which is “at some seasons wholly impassable.”

A Taconics gristmill might have looked like this

Most common farm animals?  In 1784, sheep and goats: 115 of them six months or older. There were also:

99 cows 

81 swine

68 horses and mares

29 “neat cattle” (bulls?)

13 oxen (four years and up)

9 colts

Not a great amount of animal flesh, but it’s worth noting that in 1780, to support the Revolutionary cause, Mount Washington raised two men — and 3100 pounds of beef.

Minutes of the earliest Town Meetings suggest a lack of fences to contain these creatures.  In 1796 and 1799, complaints were recorded of stray horses breaking into “enclosures”; in 1802 11 sheep invaded an “inclosure.”  One of the earliest Town Meeting recorded a list of identifying marks for each resident’s livestock; for example: “Samuel Dibble mark is as follows viz a crop off the left ear and a halfpenny and a halfpenny in the underside of the right.”  Every early Town Meeting established the exact season when rams could roam free: “Rams shall not go at large from the tenth of September to 10 December.”  In 1798 “hog constables” were voted into office.  

And every year, “fence viewers” were voted in.

If in 1784 sheep were among the most common farm animals in the Taconics, they likely became dominant within a few decades.  The reason? Napoleon Bonaparte! 

What does a five foot seven inch French Emperor have to do with the Taconics?  His invasion of Portugal in 1807 broke the Portugese monopoly over Merino sheep, a breed with exceptionally ample, soft, and valuable wool.  With the Lisbon government in exile, the American consul, William Jarvis, was able to import 4,000 Merino to his farm in Vermont.  War and tariffs crippled European imports, and suddenly New England farmers could make substantial profits from Merino wool.  Not only were wool prices high, but sheep could be raised on marginal land: just the sort of thin-soiled, rocky acres so abundant in the Taconics.

Nineteenth century image of Merino sheep

Like all economic booms, this one was fragile and transient.  Wool production peaked around 1840, but soon after that year overproduction, competition from other regions, and erosion from overgrazing punctured the bubble.

This bubble left a far more lasting legacy than most, however: a sight familiar to any walker in the northeast woods, a mass construction project that some have compared to the pyramids — stone walls.  An 1871 survey counted 252,539 miles in New England and eastern New York, enough to circle the earth ten times.  Wood was scarce, stone abundant; the walls served as boundary markers and, often with the assistance of poles X-ed across the tops, kept one man’s animals separate from his neighbor’s.  

Those walls remain the best evidence for the impact of sheep on the Taconic landscape.  I haven’t been able to find any livestock numbers between the hundred and fifteen “sheep and goats” in 1784 and the 444 sheep recorded in 1850’s agricultural census.  But if today, for example, you hike from the State Forest headquarters towards Alander mountain, into what’s always been one of the more remote corners of the mountains, you’ll find well-built stone walls, complete with openings for gates.  Or follow the South Taconic trail north of Prospect Hill, along another steep and stony ridge, and you can see the old barriers running just east.  If you had a vague thought that the walls once bordered cropland, look at the size of the stones.  A wall along a crop perimeter will contain many of the small stones farmers wanted out of their fields, but a pasture wall is built with the thick, heavy rocks that weary me just thinking of the work it took to raise them.

So it seems likely that, if your time machine carried you back to the Taconics around 1830, the reach of the open fields would surprise you. This land would have been particularly vulnerable to erosion, however, and once the thinning soil could no longer produce grass, it would have been quickly abandoned back to the forest. Those 444 sheep in 1850 are likely close to the peak number.  Chestnut, always common in the Taconics, probably then became even more dominant, due to its ability to sprout quickly from stumps.

If today I needed a winter coat, or kitchen dishes, I could drive my gas-powered automobile thirty minutes to Goodwill in Hudson, and choose from rooms full of cheap goods.  But the 1752 will of Johannes Spoor — owner of about six hundred acres a bit north of the Taconics — passes “one plush coat” on to his son Abraham.  Some of the items also deemed worthy of record in 1752 included one “old iron pot” 13 spoons, 2 bells, 2 horseshoes, one barrel, a cane, a hammer, an adze, and eight books.  Looking back from a 21st century world overbrimming with stuff, it’s hard to imagine the simplicity of 18th century farm life.

Eighteenth century farm tools

Another example: in 1784, there were six “dwellings” in Mount Washington.  How could this be, with a population of 177?  Because there also stood 28 “log huts worth less than five pounds.”  (So a “dwelling” must have meant a framed house?)  Quick math gives an average of five people to each log hut or dwelling, certainly a credible number in those days of large families. But of shops, tan houses, “distill and sugar houses” there were none.  (There must have been cider presses, as 49 barrels were produced in 1752, but they likely were horse-drawn.)  Seven barns existed.  

The image creeps into focus of a small community and a hard life.  In the entire town (before the sheep boom at least) only 434 acres were of any use to farmers; “unimproveable” land totaled twice as much. Take a look around today, and this makes sense; most of Mount Washington consists of steep rocky ridges well suited for chestnut oaks and pitch pines.  An 1839 description records soil “intermingled with rocks” and “fit only to support shrubs of from one to four feet high.”  But there was a “good supply of timber, most of it chestnut, used for fences and charcoal.”

Keith recorded an old story that seems to capture the hard essentials of pioneer life in these mountains. John Dibell and his son, John Junior, settled the land that eventually became Sky Farm in 1757.  They arrived together, but the father left his son to spend the winter in a log house with “a bull, yoke of oxen, and a cow.”  The son “employed himself getting out timber for the home which he soon after erected.  Towards spring, the bull, from lack of food, became quite weak and while lying down one cold night the young man, fearing he would freeze to death, built a fire around him. This brought the bull to his feet and, being too weak to stand, he fell over into the fire and was burned to death.”

Little margin of error, for our forebears.

The impact of farming on the Connecticut end of the mountains is easier to assess.  That’s because there seems to have been so little!

Not because the land was any less fertile, not because of less population pressure, but because of the central event in the history of the Taconics: the discovery of iron ore.  In 1728 surveyors sent to pin down the borders of Connecticut’s northwestern lands found this crucially valuable metal, and immediately the land in Salisbury (then Weatogue) gained value.  An 1803 historical speech describes early eighteenth century Salisbury as “wild, thinly inhabited, exposed to the inroads of savages” and states “It was thought a great, and even hazardous undertaking to move here from older settlements.”  But land speculators and businessmen were undeterred: when the lode at Ore Hill was discovered in 1731, John Pell and Ezekiel Ashley bought one hundred acres.  Thomas Lamb, the busiest early investor, controlled five thousand acres by 1732.  Since iron forges and furnaces demand vast amounts of wood, it’s likely that some of this land lay in the Taconic forests.  It seems that in the Taconics’ southern end, the iron dreamers got there first, and forestalled extensive farming in the mountains.  

There are records of settlers along the edges: a gristmill and sawmill on Riga Road about 1740,  the Skinner and Hutchinson clans farming the area near Lion’s Head in 1743,  the Everts on Belgo Road in 1748, Joseph Bird below the peak that still bears his name, also 1748.  Salisbury was incorporated in 1741, and one later historian allows that at that time there “may have been some settlement at Mount Riga.”  Samuel Brinsmade established a farm on the east slope of Mount Riga in 1752, and in that year Nathaniel Jewell built a gristmill at the outlet of Sage’s Ravine.  By 1756 the town’s population was about 1100.  

But an iron forge — not a gristmill — was built at Mount Riga in 1781.  Julia Pettee, town historian and descendant of iron masters, believed charcoal burning began in the mountains around 1750.  One further bit of evidence that iron activities, not farming, ruled the Taconics: in 1783, Salisbury put a bounty on wolves.  They apparently “infested the mountains.”

An 1853 map of Salisbury plainly shows extensive individual landholdings in the southern, lowland sections that dwindle going north, until nothing but forest is seen for miles around Mount Riga.  In later years, after the Mount Riga furnace failed, and most of the workers moved on — then there’s evidence of small scattered farms in the area. But it seems that agriculture had little impact on the land, because iron had such a massive impact. 

Iron held some sway to the north as well.  The 1784 tax valuation records for Mount Washington, while documenting extensive farming, also establish that in that year, 1,090 acres belonged to “non-residents.”  Who in those days would wish to own land they didn’t live on — unless they were logging that land, for timber and charcoal?  Mount Washington proprietors’ deeds (the claims of original settlers) often mention a “coal bed” or “coal pit” as boundary markers.  Early deeds establish that by the 19th century, three men owned 3,217 acres of land in Mount Washington: Luther Holley, Samuel Coffin and Joseph Pettee, all founders of the Mount Riga iron furnace, which went into blast in 1762.

So, from the beginning of settlement, the fate of the South Taconic ecosystem was tied to iron.  As years went by, the emblematic tool of the region was less and less the plow, and more and more the ax.