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York County Farming Was Very Different in 19th Century

Reapers, cutting grain or hay with scythes or sickles, were followed by young women and boys raking and stacking the harvest.
York artist Henry Barratt captured Pennsylvania German life of the first half of the 19th century in the illustrations he did for Yorker Henry Lee Fisher’s narrative Pennsylvania Dutch dialect poems.

Older women would bring a snack with jugs of water and whiskey to the field at break time
The life of most of those Pennsylvania Germans centered around farming. See my recent York Sunday News column below for a brief overview of farming in York County a couple of hundred years ago.

York County Founded on Agriculture

We point with pride to our rich agricultural and industrial heritage, but do we often think about how that intertwined heritage evolved?
The land here was fertile and plentiful. The majority of York County settlers were from Germanic lands that had been impoverished by years of warfare, and they came here for economic opportunity. William Penn had sent agents to Europe to entice them to help settle his new colony. These Pennsylvania Germans, as well as the English Quakers and Scots-Irish Presbyterians who also settled in bands across York County, knew how to farm.
Early settlers often came in small groups of several families. Working together, they could quickly build small log houses, clear fields and plant seeds, which they may have brought with them. Space was extremely limited on emigrant ships; families only had room in their trunks for bare necessities–clothing, household utensils, food and a Bible. As they worked their way westward from the port of Philadelphia, they would have picked up necessary tools for sustenance: an axe to clear the trees for farming and cut the logs for shelter, a spade and hoe to till the soil, fish hooks and fire arms to harvest game. These tools and their way of life were strikingly similar to that of the Native Americans who had lived right here not long before. There was one notable difference–the Native Americans had seemingly limitless land on which to roam. When the soil began to be depleted from repeated crops of corn and beans, or game became less plentiful, they packed up their few possessions and built a new village at a more fertile spot. The new settlers from Europe were tied to the land that they purchased from the Penn proprietors. They couldn’t just move to another parcel a township or two over–likely someone else was already buying that plot anyway.
So the farmers had to learn to restore productivity to the soil that was being depleted of its nutrients. They learned to rotate the crops and periodically rest fields. They discovered that burning limestone, abundant in some parts of York County, produced lime to improve the soil. Eventually lime kilns were built by enterprising individuals and lime processing became a commercial venture.
Soon farm families had a cow for milk and chickens, ducks and geese for eggs and meat. Cattle and sheep provided meat as well as hide for leather and wool for clothing and blankets. Horses and oxen were needed to pull plows to plant fields of wheat, corn, barley and oats. Instead of grinding the grains for their bread by hand with a mortar and pestle, as the Native Americans had done, gristmills were built on the plentiful streams to grind the grain with water power. Sawmills were erected to saw logs into boards and framing for the gristmills; for barns to store grain, hay and equipment and house animals and for larger houses for growing and prospering families.
Craftsmen were needed in the growing settlements to process the raw materials from the earth and the farms and manufacture needed items. Potters produced dishes and crocks from clay, sharing that resource with brick makers, who provided bricks for substantial houses, churches and public buildings. Sturdy trees from the thick forests provided charcoal to fuel furnaces processing copious iron ore into plates for stoves and into bars to be forged into tools and horse shoes and iron plows to more easily cultivate the land. Tanners processed tree bark to tan the leather from the farmers’ animals. Tinsmiths and coppersmiths produced kettles, pans, plates, utensils, lamps and lanterns.
Families grew and clothing wore out; fabric was needed for new garments, bedding, towels and storage bags. Farmers grew flax and sheared sheep. Women processed and spun the flax into linen thread and spun wool yarn. Huge looms were needed to produce textiles of any size, making the local weaver another essential inhabitant of the community.
Farmers and millers entered the world of commerce, hauling wagonloads of excess grain and flour milled from the grain to Philadelphia and Baltimore. This gave rise to local wagon makers making the slope-bedded “Conestoga” wagons, the big trucks of the day. Taverns proliferated, providing lodging, food and drink to the wagon teamsters and their teams. Farmers found they could make a substantial profit with fewer transportation costs by converting some of their grain into the more compact form of whiskey. York and Hanover coppersmiths were soon manufacturing stills by the hundreds. It is estimated that, between 1810 and 1840, nearly 1/5 of York County farms had a still.
Gristmills, sawmills, lime kilns and furnaces dotted the countryside, close to the raw materials, but craftsmen, tradespeople, printers, doctors, lawyers and other professionals tended to centrally gather in towns and villages. These tighter communities in turn provided another market for farmers and their produce–the first market in the town of York was charted in 1755, a scant six years after the foundation of the county.
This has been a brief overview of the first 100 years of farming and resulting early industry in York County. The changes in agriculture and manufacturing during the next 100 years in York County were even more dramatic, but that will have to wait for another column.
To commemorate anniversaries of two organizations in which I am involved, York County Heritage Trust and Farm and Natural Lands Trust of York County, the public is invited to attend my illustrated presentation on York County agricultural on Saturday September 11 at 10:30 a.m. at York County Heritage Trust, 250 East Market St., York.