By Leslie Perrin Wilson, Curator of Special Collections, Concord Free Public Library
"The first farmer was the first man, and all historic nobility rests on possession and use of the land ... [E]very man has an exceptional respect for tillage, and a feeling that this is the original calling of his race ... And the profession has in all ways its ancient charm, as standing nearest to God, the first cause." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Farming"From the English settlement of Concord into the 19th century, farming was an almost universal occupation, practiced by the town's minister and other educated men as well as by humbler folk. Crops were raised for personal consumption and for trade. But during the 19th century, agriculture underwent tremendous change. At its outset, New Englanders worked the land essentially as generation after generation had before them. Over the course of the century, however, the West was explored and developed, diminishing New England's agricultural importance and draining manpower from the region. The railroad, which came through Concord in 1844, opened up new markets and allowed easy transportation of products -- particularly wood -- that were difficult to haul in quantity by wagon or too perishable or delicate for traditional modes of transportation. By the end of the century, new crops had edged out the old staples and new techniques and tools had been introduced. Moreover, farming became a specialty rather than a fact of every man's life. Those who continued to farm adapted themselves to a market economy or perished. Only those farmers who had some capital to invest in their operations and who were able and willing to adjust to changing market demands thrived. And at a time when it could no longer be assumed that farms would always be passed from father to son and that sons would always be willing to assume their management, hired hands increasingly replaced family help.
In late 19th century Concord, the agricultural focus was on delicate crops (asparagus and strawberries, for example) and on perishable products (milk and butter) that could be carried by railroad to markets beyond the local. Greenhouse farming became important. Concord farmers grew asparagus in quantity from the 1850s, and within a few decades produced half the entire Massachusetts crop of the vegetable.
In this climate of change, county, state, and local agricultural societies sprang up to provide support and learning opportunities for farmers and to promote innovation. The county societies often held annual agricultural fairs at which farmers displayed their produce and livestock and vied for prizes. State agricultural societies were seminal in setting up boards of agriculture that issued reports and otherwise stimulated new and better approaches to farming. (The Massachusetts State Board of Agriculture was established in 1852.) Local organizations sponsored their own programs and events, sometimes providing a more congenial atmosphere for the working farmer than did the county societies, which were often run by the well-to-do and politically connected.
Membership in agricultural societies was one indication of a 19th century farmer's openness to change. Concord farmers had a choice of two locally-based organizations, the Middlesex Agricultural Society and the Concord Farmers' Club.
The Middlesex Agricultural Society was established in 1794 under the name Western Society of Middlesex Husbandmen by Middlesex County members of the Massachusetts Society for Promoting Agriculture. Incorporated in 1803, it was formed to encourage the exchange of agricultural information and to foster experimentation. The name of the organization was changed by act of legislature to the Society of Middlesex Husbandmen and Manufacturers in 1820, to the Middlesex Agricultural Society in 1852.
The Society initially held its meetings in various Middlesex locations. Its activities were centered in Concord from 1820, when its annual Cattle Show was first held here. Premiums were awarded at the show for the best in various categories of produce, livestock, farm products, and handiwork. For years, the Cattle Show was held at a fairground on what is now part of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. In 1853, the Society's Committee to Purchase Land bought property behind the Concord Depot, on the east bank of the Sudbury River. In 1869, a track, judges' stand, grandstand, sheds, pens, and stables were put up. An agricultural exhibit building was constructed on the river's edge soon after.
The wide-ranging membership of the Middlesex Agricultural Society included a high proportion of Concordians, among them lawyer Nathan Brooks and his son George Merrick Brooks, who was a lawyer and a judge; Simon Brown, editor of the influential farm journal New England Farmer and active member of the Massachusetts State Board of Agriculture; Ephraim Wales Bull, developer of the Concord Grape; Abiel Heywood, Town Clerk for thirty-eight years and an official in the Middlesex County court system; lawyer and judge Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar, Attorney General of the United States in the cabinet of President Ulysses S. Grant; John Brooks Moore, who was able to capitalize on Ephraim Bull's work with grapes in a way that eluded Bull, and who developed and marketed various small fruits; pencilmaker William Munroe and his son William, founder of the Concord Free Public Library; Minot Pratt, Punkatasset farmer and botanist and original member of the Brook Farm utopian community in West Roxbury; First Parish minister Grindall Reynolds; storekeeper and businessman Daniel Shattuck; and Sam Staples, Thoreau's jailer.
The much smaller Concord Farmers' Club was established to provide a forum for the discussion of topics of practical value and -- like the Middlesex Agricultural Society -- to stimulate experimentation with crops, equipment, and techniques. It was first assembled on January 30, 1852, at the Liberty Street home of Simon Brown, and was formalized shortly thereafter with the election of officers and the adoption of a constitution. Its meetings were held at the homes of its members. Attendants listened as the host read a prepared talk on some assigned aspect of agriculture, after which an open discussion of the topic ensued. Twelve standing committees were set up by constitution: Manures; Hoed Crops; Root Crops; Grain Crops; Grass Crops; Live Stock; Farm Buildings and Farms; Farming Tools; Reclaiming Waste Lands; Garden Fruits; Ornamental Gardening; Fruit and Ornamental Trees. Special committees were appointed as interest or need dictated. Members included a mix of those still remembered for major contributions to agriculture and related fields -- Ephraim Bull, John Brooks Moore, Simon Brown, Minot Pratt, and Judge Henry Flagg French (President of the Massachusetts Agricultural College in Amherst before moving to Concord, writer for agricultural journals, and author of a book on farm drainage) -- and hard-working, self-improving, progressive farmers whose names few today would recognize.
Concord's transcendental authors celebrated the virtues of farming as it had been earlier practiced. Emerson did so, for example, in an address at the Middlesex Agricultural Society Cattle Show in 1858, printed in the 1858 Transactions of the Society and later in the collection Society and Solitude under the title "Farming." Thoreau had a great deal to say about farmers and farming, both in his journal and in his published writings. In A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers -- his first book, published in 1849 -- he devoted pages in the chapter "Friday" to comparing the Middlesex Cattle Show with the great festivals of antiquity and to celebrating the common farmers who attended it. He wrote, "Amos, Abner, Elnathan, Elbridge ... I love these sons of earth every mother's son of them." Agriculture had been radically transformed -- made more scientific, subordinated to market considerations, and in various ways institutionalized -- over the course of Emerson's and Thoreau's lives. They responded by idealizing what they perceived as a simpler, more elemental time.
Note on sources:The Concord Free Public Library Special Collections hold especially rich primary sources on agriculture in Concord during the 19th century, among them the records of the Middlesex Agricultural Society and the Concord Farmers' Club, the papers of Ephraim Wales Bull, scrapbooks compiled by Simon Brown, a run of the New England Farmer, and manuscript reminiscences by Concord farmer William Henry Hunt. Useful secondary sources include Howard S. Russell's A Long, Deep Furrow: Three Centuries of Farming in New England (1976), Brian Donahue's "The Forests and Fields of Concord: An Ecological History, 1750-1850" (in Concord: The Social History of a New England Town, 1983), Robert A Gross's "Culture and Cultivation: Agriculture and Society in Thoreau's Concord" (in Journal of American History 69:1, 1982), and James Kimenker's "The Concord Farmer: An Economic History" (also in Concord: The Social History of a New England Town).
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