Agriculture (1771 – 1875)

Small Self-Sufficient Farms

From the History of Poultney: “Prior to 1825, the farms were not large; from 50 to 100 acres seemed to satisfy nearly all, though a few owned a larger quantity. The lands were then cultivated with far less care and labor than now; yet they produced bountifully. The vegetable mould which had been accumulating for ages from the forests recently cut away was sufficient to bring forth any crop in abundance. The farmers raised all their own bread stuffs; and it is not probable that for the first half century after the settlement, any inhabitant of Poultney ever saw a barrel of flour.

Wool & Flax

“Nearly every farmer kept a few sheep, the fleeces from which were carded, spun and woven by the wives and daughters for bedding and garments for winter wear. In the latter part of the 18th century, carding machines began to appear and were regarded as greatly labor-saving. The wool sent to these machines were first picked and greased, then rolled up in a sheet or blanket, bound or pinned together with thorns from the thorn-tree, and carried generally on horseback to the carding machine, as there were no one-horse wagons in town prior to 1814. The wool was then manufactured into rolls, sent home, and there spun and woven into cloth.

“Every farmer was expected to raise a patch of flax sufficient to provide his family with clothing for summer wear. The best piece of ground was usually selected, and prepared in the best manner; and when the crop was matured (usually about the first of August), it was pulled up by the roots, and spread carefully and evenly on the ground, and when sufficiently dried, was bound up in small bundles and put under shelter till harvest was over. Then it was taken out, unbound and spread evenly on a piece of clean grass ground, and there subjected to sun and rain until the stalks were sufficiently rotten to become brittle, when it was again taken up and housed.

“In the winter, the flax went through the process of dressing. The process consisted, first, in breaking, then in swingling. Young men of 1875 would not know the old flax brake, and swingle-stand and knife, so familiar to their fathers. The flax, when dressed, was handed over to the good housewife, then hatcheled, which separates the tow from the flax, or fibrous parts. The flax was wound upon the distaff for the little wheel, and the tow carded and spun on the large wheel.

“In spring, every farmer’s kitchen was ornamented with quantities of linen yarn hung up on its walls, and in summer with woolen yarn. The farmers’ daughters, healthy and robust, would vie with each other in their spinning and weaving, and when together in the afternoon or evening, their conversation was upon their domestic duties, as there were then no pianos or melodeons to engage their attention.

The Iron Plow

“During the first half century after the settlement of the town (1771 – 1821), there were few changes worthy of note in the mode of farming. The same farm implements first in use were kept in use, with very little change or improvement, until after 1820. The clumsy wooden plow, which was manufactured everywhere a third-rate blacksmith could be found (almost any man could do the wood work). About 1825, a plow with an iron mould-board was offered for sale in Poultney for the first time. It had been introduced in New York and the Middle States some years prior to this time, and was gradually working its way into use.

“The farmers in Poultney and vicinity for some time would not buy it; they said it would break – it might do on western and southern lands, where there were no stones, but it would never work among the rocks and stones of Vermont – they were sure of that. But after a time, some farmers, after much urging, were induced to try the iron plow. One after another saw its superiority, and before 1840, the old wooden plow was among the things of the past.

Mowing Machine

“In 1825, if on some pleasant July day we had visited the meadow of some prosperous farmer, we might have seen some six or eight stalwart men enter it at seven o’clock in the morning, with scythes ground, ready for a day’s work. Some one of the number would “set in”, the others would follow, and in due time they would “go round a piece” of five, six or eight acres. Each would go forward in his turn, and thus they would chase each other around until noon, or until the grass on the piece was cut down, not forgetting at each round to stop and take a drink. Rum was then in every hay field.

“If we had visited that same meadow in the summer of 1873, instead of six or eight men coming in at seven o’clock, we might have seen one man, with a span of horses drawing a mowing machine, first introduced about 1855 and in general use in Poultney by 1865, very coolly enter the meadow about nine o’clock. He, too, would go round a piece, and cut it by noon, only once or twice leaving his seat on the mower in the time to get a drink of water – no rum.

Sheep Mania 1824 – 1835

“Improvement in breeds of live stock commenced about 1824, first in sheep. Hitherto, the object seemed to have been to grow a little of everything that was needed for home consumption; the principle in the farmers’ economy was “to do everything within themselves.” The tariff of 1824 [supported by Poultney resident and U.S. Congressman (1820 until his death in 1831) Rollin C. Mallery, a strong advocate of protectionism] produced quite a change in farming operations – not only in Poultney but throughout New England. Under the effect of this tariff, sheep-raising and wool growing, in a very short time, came to be regarded as the most profitable branch of farm husbandry. Then it was that the first specialty in farming was adopted.

“Blooded sheep were imported, introduced among the farmers, and soon there was a mania in this business. Then it was that the farmers began to enlarge their farms, that they might make more money in wool growing. As fast as one farmer “caught the Western fever”, his neighbor would buy him out, and the purchaser would add to his stock of sheep. Thus we were de-populated, and the West settled. In less than ten years after the sheep mania commenced, sheep husbandry became less profitable, and the farmers began to turn their attention to dairying, which had come to be regarded as the more profitable of the two.


“Up to the year 1835, or about that time, no other cattle but the native breed had been raised or kept within the town. These were described as ‘gimlet-handle-shaped bodies, with ewe-necks, and heads like a hammer.’ In the year 1837, William L. Farnum and Joseph Joslin spent a week in the examination of various herds in Bennington County, Vermont, and Washington, Rensellaer (sic) and Albany Counties, New York, and finally purchased a two year old Durham bull for $400. The ordinary price of animals of that age, at that time, was from eight to ten dollars. Few at first had any faith in this enterprise and many were the sarcastic remarks gratuitously offered in regard to it; but in a few years the native cattle had shared the fate of the wooden plow – they were gone.


“For many years after settlement, there was little use made of fertilizers. Manures accumulated about the barns and premises, and tradition has it that the barns were often removed after the manures had so accumulated as to be in the way, as the barns could be removed at less expense than the manures. The first time that plaster was used as a fertilizer in the town was in 1826. A farmer had been reading an agricultural paper, published at Albany, which was then the only agricultural paper published in this section of the country, and in that he found the use of plaster recommended. He determined to try it, and with his oxen and cart went to Whitehall in the spring of 1826, purchased and brought home a load of plaster.

“After spreading it on that portion of his land which he desired to, he had a pail-full left. That he might test it to a certainty, for the benefit of himself and neighbors, with the pail-full he wrote his name in large letters upon a conspicuous piece of grass ground. Very soon his name distinctly appeared. The increased growth and color of the grass showed the name plainly as far as the ground could be seen, until the grass was mowed. This settled the question in favor of plaster as a fertilizer in Poultney.

Dairy Associations

“Associated dairying was introduced in Vermont about 1864. A stock company was formed in Poultney in 1866, and a cheese factory built at East Poultney supplied with an engine, vats and the usual apparatus. It began making cheese in 1867, under the superintendence of C. A. Rann, having the milk, on the average, of 450 cows. Mark Lewis established a cheese factory at his residence, about three miles north of East Poultney, in May, 1874, for himself and his nearest neighbors, having the milk of about 140 cows. There was a cheese factory in Hampton, near the west line of Poultney, taking the milk of a good many Poultney cows. By 1875, the dairy business was the leading business among farmers, with probably more than one thousand cows kept in the town.

Farming Wages and Prices

“In the 1840’s fifty cents was the price of a day’s work, except in the haying season, when it was seventy-five cents to one dollar. Farmers hired men by the month for from nine to twelve dollars. Corn and rye was sold from forty to fifty cents per bushel; oats for about twenty-five cents, and wheat for a dollar. By 1875 those prices and wages had doubled.

Fruit Growing

“Thomas Ashley’s brother Isaac brought apple seeds with him when he settled here and planted a nursery on the farm later owned and occupied by Luther Thrall, located about a mile south of East Poultney. Settlers made early efforts to procure orchards, so that generally, quite early, orchards were on almost every farm, producing apples in abundance. The soil was then such that the trees grew rapidly, and were loaded with fruit as soon as sufficiently advanced in growth.


“Soon after the beginning of the 19th century, distilleries were built one after the other, until ten of those institutions were actually in operation within the limits of the town. At that time the business was regarded as legitimate and proper by all, or nearly all; and the people so far participated in it, that every man who raised more grain than he wanted, found a market for the overplus at the distilleries.

“There was a cider mill in almost every school district, and it was not an uncommon thing for a farmer to make fifty or even a hundred barrels of cider. He would put into his own cellar, for his own use, from ten to twenty barrels, and the remainder would go to the distillery, for which he would get from fifty cents to one dollar per barrel.

“Raising grain, growing apples, and making cider for the distilleries, the manufacture of corn and rye whiskey and cider brandy was among the leading pursuits of our people in the 1820’s. Every distiller kept hogs, which were fed and fattened on the slops of the distillery, and the hogs were more frequently marketed at Montreal, and were driven on foot to Whitehall, and thence boated down the lake [north] to their destination. For some years the product of the distillery business made up the leading articles of commerce.

“As early as 1830, the temperance movement had begun, and those favoring that movement used all their influence against the distilleries. Soon after, the distilleries, one after another, went down, and the business of liquor distillation in the town of Poultney was ended.

“We are sorry to record, about this time, the interest in fruit growing declined. The apple trees were becoming old; the soil had begun to lose its earlier fertility; the making of cider and cider brandy had become unpopular, and had been relinguished, except for making a limited quantity of cider. The people, then, could not see any use for the apple tree, except to make cider from, and for this reason many orchards and parts of orchards were cut down, and all were neglected, and rapidly run to decay.