Chapter 6

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Chapter 6 – The Changing Face of Agriculture[1]

For much of Davenport’s history, farming has made or unmade the community.  The town and its several villages grew as land was cleared, as agricultural markets expanded and as farms prospered.  Population fell and both farming and non-farming life declined with the disappearance of those same markets and farms.  In 1820, shortly after the birth of the town, Davenport’s population was perhaps 1236 persons, about three times what it had been in 1800.[2]  Population continued to grow until it reached a peak of about 2300 before the Civil War.  After this peak it declined continuously until the start of the Great Depression.  

Until World War II, agriculture provided almost the entire economic support for the community.  (Lumbering, wood products and other non-agricultural manufactures of the previous chapter were a distant second.)  The trend in population roughly followed that for Davenport farms.  We have to guess a bit at the exact number of the town’s farms before the State censuses of 1865 and 1875, but in the latter year there were 333 farms, or one for every 6.6 residents.  This was about the largest number ever of Davenport farms.  From then onwards, both farm numbers and population fell almost continuously, although both population and farming recovered slightly during the depression of the 1930s.  (See Chapter 10.)  World War II marked the end of the close link between Davenport’s residents and farming.  Population recovered, increasing to new heights in the late 1900s, while the number of farms declined from 183 in 1930 to 133 in 1950 and to under 15 in 2002.[3]  



Three things impress those who read about farming in Davenport’s early days.  The first, in contrast to more recent times, is the wide variety found of both crops and farm animals.  Douglas Denatale in a “Two Stones for Every Dirt” chapter mentions “buckwheat, rye, oats, corn and potatoes” as the basis for nineteenth century subsistence farming “in addition to carrots, rutabagas, turnips, and cabbage” from the household garden and sheep on the hillsides.[4]  Although many families, even those without farms, owned apple trees, a horse (and often an ox or two on the farms), and at least one cow, it was not until the coming of the railroads that dairying emerged as a principal farming activity.

The second strong impression is how difficult life was for the early farmers.  It is hard for today’s generation to grasp the simplicity, crudities, and hardships of early rural life.  Many of Davenport’s older generation can still remember barefoot summers—but not of going barefoot from March to November (see sidebar).

Nicholas Sigsbee (1816-1889) reminisced toward the end of his life about his West Davenport boyhood during the years after the town was founded.  He remembered farmer, son and hired men subsisting on a supper of “cider pop,” a liquid mix of apple cider and rye flour, with dark rye bread and butter on the side.  Sigsbee told of cold, fireless church services; homemade flannel clothing, and tea substitutes for most families since real tea was found only in wealthy households and then on Sunday only.[5]

The Frosty and Painful Economy of Shoe Leather

The third profound theme in the old days—and indeed through all of Davenport’s history—has been the need for adaptability and tenacity to cope with continuous change.  Some of this change was year-to-year and can be inferred from the early state agricultural census reports of crops planted in two successive years.  Abrupt shifts would result from the vagaries of weather at planting time, the vicissitudes of prices and markets, early experiments with crop rotation, and the random inroads of bugs and pests.  Longer-run changes and need for constant adaptability are illustrated by the gradual decline of grain production in the valleys and of sheep on the hillsides.  These trends were followed by the long, slow emergence of dairying after 1830[6].  Later came the gradual introduction of mechanization (following upon the replacement of most oxen by horses), additional experiments with crops and livestock, and finally the disappearance of most farming, both from the stony hillsides and largely, too, from the fertile valleys.



The following sections of this chapter will explore the medium to longer-run changes in cereals, potatoes, butter and cheese, apples and apple cider, hops, poultry, as well as the abrupt and dramatic decline in maple sugar.[7]  An accompanying Appendix will present a more detailed snapshot of Davenport farming at the time of the Civil War, based on one of the earliest agricultural censuses for the Town, that of 1865.  These several discussions will often be in terms of totals and averages.  These disguise the sometimes great individual variations among farms within the town and are most useful for broad comparisons and for judging trends over time.  Some notion of variation among farms of differing sizes can be found in the section on Davenport’s farms in 1865.  The future of Davenport farming will be touched upon at the chapter’s end, and a few thoughts more will be added in Chapter 15 and in the Epilogue.

Cereal production.  Wheat was the grain of choice for the first settlers in much of the United States, and it was a principal cash crop for the early Delaware County farmers.  But beginning about 1830, according to Ulysses Hedrick in his classic 1933 study of agriculture in New York State, wheat was threatened by the “midge and Hessian fly.”  Within a decade these “had become so destructive that in all eastern New York wheat growing became unprofitable, and almost ceased to exist.  Ten or fifteen years later, means had been found to combat these pests and there was a revival in central and eastern New York.” [8]

In Delaware County, wheat output fell from 50,585 bushels (Census of 1845) to 20,295 bushels five years later and to a mere 9,494 bushels by the 1855 census[9].  Davenport mirrored this dramatic decline, producing 2,919 bushels in 1845 and only 720 bushels a decade later.  By 1860, Delaware had regained its 1845 production level (Davenport data are not available).  Production thereafter fluctuated greatly from decade to decade though modest output continued through 1974, with small peaks in 1920 and 1950 apparently spurred by increased demand during the two World Wars.

To make up for the abrupt decline and subsequent uncertainty of wheat production Delaware County farmers turned to oats and buckwheat, both of which reached their largest production per farm in 1860.  Oats had been a favorite of Scottish settlers, and New York State had long been a major producer of both grains.  West Davenport had its own mill specializing in buckwheat flour, and its product was reportedly held in high repute for many miles around.   Both grains began a long decline in the early 1900s (buckwheat more so than oats).  The decline was both in absolute terms and in per farm production.

Buckwheat for People, Poultry, and Pigs

Buckwheat has been from the first a favored minor grain in New York, and to this day [1933] the state produces much of the crop grown in the whole country.  Its uses have always been the same, those of provender for poultry and swine and as a human food for making buckwheat cake, a familiar dish on farmers’ tables for at least two centuries.  (Hedrick, 1933, 338.)

Rye, of young Nicholas Sigsbee’s less-than-fond “cider-pop” recollection, was another early cash crop, sold for whiskey making and otherwise used mostly for fodder.  Rye production also briefly expanded during wheat’s troubled times.  Its decline, however, began about the time of the Civil War and accelerated after the turn of that century.  Barley production, used in brewing beer, for stock feed, and as a substitute for wheat in bread, did not respond to wheat’s early decline.  It continued to be produced in minor amounts until it had a small but abrupt resurgence, quadrupling its previous output, in 1880 and 1890, before once more falling to its earlier levels.  (Barley’s brief comeback, possibly related to a nearby brewery market, provides one more intriguing question for future historians.)

Corn was of course a native American crop and well-suited to Delaware County soil and conditions.  (It was known as “Indian corn” for much of the 1800s, in part to distinguish it from British usage in which “corn” included all cereals.)  Hedrick observes that “the yield was usually higher than wheat, and there was always a fair yield on poor land in the hands of careless farmers.”[10] In the 1835 census, Davenport’s yields per acre planted were oats, 22.6 bushels; corn, 21.1 bushels; buckwheat, 14.7 bushels; barley, 14.4 bushels; rye, 13.4 bushels; and wheat, 11.5 bushels/acre.[11]

Corn output expanded rapidly to fill the gap left by wheat, stimulated after the Civil War by the slow but steady growth in Delaware County’s dairy industry.   Along with most other field crops, however, corn production for grain (both in annual totals and in averages per farm) began to decline after 1900.  Milk cows per farm, in contrast, grew steadily to a peak about the time of the 1975 federal census when farmers reported an average of 30 cows per farm (45 cows per dairy farm).  This was almost four times greater than the Delaware farm average had been towards the end of the Civil War. 

Corn grown for silage increased also.  It rose rapidly from 23 tons per average Delaware farm in 1950 to 195 tons in 1982.  By subsequent censuses, however, corn silage declined slightly as the outlays for filling corn silos were lowered through shifting to plastic-wrapped hay silage or “baleage.[12]



Potatoes.  These provide another example of abrupt change in the medium-term followed much later by a longer-term decline.  Davenport’s production of white or Irish potatoes in 1845 was 32,636 bushels or about 140 bushels per farm.  This total was greater by a considerable margin than the combined production of barley, buckwheat, wheat, corn, and rye (which totaled less than 100 bushels per farm in all).  Only oats, at 180 bushels per farm, exceeded the output of potatoes.


Potatoes in the 1840s were affected in the United States by a blight, “introduced no doubt from Ireland,” which “swept like a wave of fire over the fields of North America.”[13]  Delaware County potato output dropped by more than half between 1845 and 1855.  By 1860, however, pre-blight output had almost been regained and production increased steadily on the whole until 1910.  Subsequent censuses registered a sharp decline over the next half-century, from 95 bushels per average Delaware County farm in 1910 to only 6 bushels in 1954 and 3 in 1997.

Butter and cheese.  In the 1800s, almost every farm in Delaware County, and even many small town households, had at least one or two dairy cows.  There was only a small non-farm market, however, for fresh milk.  The surplus was made into farm butter and cheese or it was fed to the hogs.  Delaware County farm cheese production declined steadily from the earliest year for which data are available, 1845.  In that year production averaged almost 30 pounds per farm.  Some commercial cheese making did develop.  Davenport village had a small cheese factory in the late 1800s located near the center of town on land now east of the Methodist Church.  Another cheese factory operated in Fergusonville.   Cheese enjoyed a brief resurgence before the 1920 census.  Because of the stimulus of WWI, Delaware County farm cheese had increased 30-fold over its 1910 production, but only reached an average of 3.6 pounds per farm.

The fortunes of farm butter rose with improved transportation and fell with the coming of commercial creameries.  The average farm family in Delaware County produced 700 pounds in 1845 when output was first reported.  (Davenport’s production in 1845 averaged only a little under 600 pounds per farm.  The town’s cheese production in that year, however, exceeded the county average.)  As transportation and access to distant markets improved, farm cheese production fell and that of butter rose.  Spurred by the coming of the railroads, butter reached 1470 pounds per farm household in 1880 and 1750 pounds in 1890, slightly less than five pounds for every day of the year.  The human (mainly female) labor of churning all that butter was shortly thereafter replaced by the steam-driven power of creameries.  Farm production fell by one-third between 1890 and 1900.  By 1910, farm butter had almost disappeared from the Delaware county scene.

Flax and wool.   Flax (for lint, seed, oil and feed) and sheep (for meat and wool) were among the early staples of Delaware County farms.  They, however, succumbed even earlier than cereals, butter and cheese to outside forces.  Both flax and wool production were probably near their peaks when output was first reported in 1845.  Flax was soon displaced by other crops for feed, oil and lint, especially by cheaper cotton from the emerging Southern producers.  Delaware flax production almost ceased after 1845, though it picked up again briefly during the cotton shortages of the Civil War.

Delaware County sheep averaged close to 30 per farm in both 1835 and 1845.  These numbers reflected a boom brought about after 1820 by high prices for fine wool.  Before this, few flocks existed “outside of Long Island and down the Hudson valley.”  “Of all livestock [sheep are] the most difficult to rear under unfavorable environment, poor shelter, poor food, and the ravages of wolves and other wild animals,” and this “almost prohibited the rearing of sheep in frontier settlements…”[14]

When prices fell again, Delaware sheep flocks declined (though the average quality and yield of wool per fleece increased)—to an average of only nine animals per farm before the Civil War.  Wartime cotton shortages, as in the case with flax, led to a temporary rise between 1860 and 1865.  This was followed by further declines as competition from the west, including western New York State, increased.  After 1910, average sheep numbers barely reached one per farm in most years, and county totals fell from 9,300 in 1910 to less than 900 in 1997.

Apples and apple cider.  As with milk cows, almost every farm family possessed apple trees.  Among Davenport farms in 1865, almost three-fourths of the smaller holdings grew apples while for those with 50 acres or more of improved land, apples were found on all but four in one hundred farms.  Davenport’s largest apple grower in 1865 was Andrew Oliver of the Fergusonville Academy who reported having 300 bearing trees.  The average orchard among the larger farmers had over sixty trees.


Apple production, too, rose and fell with the times.  Delaware farms averaged 72 bushels in 1865, 46 in 1875, 27 in 1890, and 88 bushels in 1900.  These ups and downs reflected weather variations and the yield per apple tree.   After 1900, in company with many other crops, apple production fell steadily from an average of 69 bushels per farm in 1910 to less than one bushel in 1954. 



Less is known about the production of apple cider.  By some accounts, apple cider, especially the hard variety, was in the early days the beverage of choice throughout the region.[15]  A cider pitcher was reportedly found on most dining tables, and one author states that “cider was simply the most important of all beverages consumed by New Yorkers for two centuries.”  An authority is quoted as having calculated that “per capita consumption of cider in New York State and New England in the 1840s was 1.14 barrels—that was for each man, woman, and child.  Some thirst! …The typical Long Island and upstate New York farmer was growing apples sufficient to make twenty-five or more barrels of cider a year which he either pressed on his own farm or more likely took to a local cider mill.”[16]

The Misery That Cider Makes

In the mid-1800s the average Delaware farmer (not necessarily the “typical” apple-growing farmer) produced 55-75 bushels of apples each year (equivalent to 14-19 barrels of the fresh fruit and not half that amount of cider).   It thus seems unlikely that production by the local cider-producing farmers could have approached the 25 barrels in the earlier quotation.  Agricultural censuses reported Delaware and Davenport cider production for only a few years, and the quantities amount to only a barrel or so per farm family.  More may have been produced in cider mills off the farm, although Delaware County in 1865 was credited with only one such mill.  (West Davenport had a mill, located on the northwest side of the bridge over the Charlotte River.)  Still, more cider, especially of the hard variety, may have been made but simply not reported to federal and state census takers.

The rise and fall of hops.  Hops in Delaware County make up a story of erratic wealth, of the ups and downs of beer, of spreading interest throughout the county, of disease and fungi, of memorable harvest times, and above all, of high risk.



The market for hops increased with the popularity of beer.  Around 1850 “domestic beer consumption began to increase dramatically to meet the need of immigrants, especially those from Germany…”[17]   Hop growing shifted from New England westward, and much of the new production was found in neighboring Otsego County, New York.  “In 1869 for instance, New York State produced ninety per cent of the hops grown in this country and over a third of this harvest came from Otsego.[18]” Hop-picking lasted in Otsego, according to Edwin R. Moore, from “near 1800 to well beyond the turn of the century.  There are many old timers [in the early 1960s] who look back with nostalgia to those days in early September when friends and neighbors gathered in the hop yards to earn a little pin money and enjoy a week or so of fun.” [19]

Hops, the ‘Pernicious Weed’

Though never a major producer, Delaware County shared the wealth for a time as hop production spread south and east along the Susquehanna River.  The town of Davenport led the way, producing 52,000 pounds in 1855, three-fourths of the county total.  (Franklin and Sidney were the other two major producers, between them accounting for almost one-fifth of the total.)  By the end of the Civil War, Davenport’s hop output rose one third more, but the town’s contribution dropped to a little more than one-fourth of the county total as farmers in other towns joined the hop-growing excitement.  Sidney and Franklin remained large producers but in 1865 were out-produced by Kortright (57,022 pounds) and Harpersfield (37,937 pounds).  Even Stamford, with 20,206 pounds, reached the same level as Sidney.

By 1883, hop production costs had risen substantially, westward expansion followed lower costs, and after 1900 a general decline began. 

Delaware County’s hop production reached its peak about 1870 and then fell dramatically (by 75 percent) by the time of the 1875 state agricultural census.  Hops regained two-thirds of their earlier peak in 1880 but subsequently declined even more dramatically until their disappearance after 1910.  Production in all of the former major producing towns fell by large amounts between 1865 and 1875, with some producers (Delhi, Meredith, and Stamford) falling to zero.  Davenport’s hop total dropped from 69,930 pounds in 1865 to 29,068 in 1875. 

Blue Mold Ends “Frolic Time”

Even within Davenport, still Delaware County’s major hop producing township in 1865, only certain farmers enjoyed the bonanza.  Few farmers with less that 25 acres of improved land grew hops and only about one-third of larger farmers did.  Roswell Wheeler reported by far the largest hop fields: 10 acres in 1864 and 11 in 1865.  But Wheeler’s 260 pounds-per-acre-yield in 1864, the production year of the 1865 census, was among the ten lowest reported.  Albert Goodrich, with only a half acre in hops, claimed 1,400 pounds per acre.  The next highest was Matthew Sixsmith (later Sexsmith) with 2,562 pounds on a reported two acres.  Eighteen of the eighty growers planted three acres or more of hops; thirteen had 1864 yields of 800 pounds or more per acre. 



Poultry.  A more recent boom-and-bust activity has been chicken raising.  Its full history is difficult to unravel because prior to 1920 the census recorded only the value and not numbers of poultry.  Thus we know that two of three Davenport farms in 1865 raised poultry but not the actual numbers of chicken, ducks, geese, etc.  (Most poultry in the earlier years were either consumed on the farm of were traded for groceries—“women’s money.”)

Sometime after World War I, chicken farmers began to discover economies of scale and the benefits of large chicken houses.  Later came specialized hatcheries and the subsidized delivery of newly hatched chicks by the U.S. Post Office Department.  The size of flocks began to increase, and the federal agricultural census started to report the details.  By 1930 there were 3,249 Delaware County chicken farms averaging 85 chickens of more than three months age.  By 1950 the number of chicken farmers had dropped by forty percent but average flock size had almost doubled.   The number of chicken farms, in fact, decreased in every census after 1920.  There were 1474 Delaware farms in 1954, the year of peak chicken production, 166 farms in 1969 when the average farm size reached its peak of 1226 chickens of 4 months and older per farm, and only 57 farms in the agricultural census of 1997.[20]

Thus the high point of Delaware County chicken production occurred somewhere between 1954 (greatest production of chickens) and 1969 (largest average size farm).  By 1997, as with so many other farm activities, Delaware County chicken production had almost ceased to exist.  The culprit once more was competition from more favorably located parts of the country where even greater economies could be achieved.

Where did all the maple sugar go?  A funny thing happened to Delaware County’s maple sugar industry at the end of the 19th century.  Production collapsed, plunging by almost four-fifths between 1890 and 1900.  The maple sugar business is always subject to the weather and is hence erratic.  But a sudden decrease from 784,000 pounds to 170,000 pounds could hardly be blamed on the weather, especially when production fell by a further sixty percent over the next two decades.   The question of course is why.



The first clue is that Delaware County was not alone.  Total New York State output fell by almost as much, namely by two-thirds over the same 19th century decade.  The second clue is that during the 19th century one did not talk about a maple syrup industry but a maple sugar industry.  Maple syrup, in fact, was at first not even called syrup but “maple molasses.”  Maple molasses arose largely as a maple sugar byproduct and was darker and stronger-flavored than today’s syrup.  By the same token, the maple sugar of the 1800s might not have been recognizable today.  Much was done to make it as white as possible, presumably to eliminate the maple flavor.

Whiter Is Better

Maple sugar, in other words, was grown largely for use as a general-purpose sweetener, and the quality standard was that of refined, white, cane sugar.  The Heritage article quoted in the sidebar (“Whiter is Better”) tells the story of early, grandiose plans by a group of Philadelphia investors to meet the sweetening needs of the whole country from maple trees.  The plan was ultimately frustrated by successful cane sugar growth in Louisiana.

In the end, maple sugar could not compete with cane and beet sugar though it does seem to have held its own against another competitor, sugar from sorghum.  Refined cane sugar had been gradually overtaking maple sugar in the decades prior to 1890.  After years of importing beet sugar from Europe, a U.S. beet industry began to take off about 1890, and this provided maple sugar with a further challenge.  But it was not these factors alone which led to the precipitous downfall of maple sugar.

It was the fall in the price of white sugar against which the Delaware County and other maple tree tappers simply could not compete.  The average price of granulated sugar dropped from 15 cents a pound during the decade of the Civil War to 11 cents during 1870-79, to 7.8 cents during 1880-89, and to 4.7 cents over 1890-99.  The final price decline, and undoubtedly the change that melted the maple sugar market, occurred despite the large reduction in low-cost imports from Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines accompanying the Spanish-American War.

Nor can maple sugar’s trouble be blamed on the rapidly growing imports of sugar from Hawaii.  These had risen since an 1875 treaty had largely eliminated duties between the islands and the United States.  (The U.S. did not acquire Hawaii until 1898.)  But Hawaiian sugar was relatively high-priced.  Its imported price was about 5 cents a pound at the end of the 1890s. 

What really drove down the price of sugar in the United States was the huge increase in low cost (under 2.5 cents per pound) sugar from the Dutch East Indies, primarily from the island of Java. This new source of sugar more than offset lost imports from the former Spanish colonies, and its low price helped force down refined and other sugar prices throughout the United States. 

Java’s “Green Revolution” Kills Davenport’s Maple Sugar

Thus an important cash crop of Delaware and Davenport farmers was destroyed once more by outside competition, but this time it was from plantations and scientists on the opposite side of the world.   In fact, local hardship had come twice in a century from the same distant country, today’s Indonesia.  The explosion of a volcano, Tamboro (sometimes also “Tambora.”), had caused Delaware County’s “year of no summer” in 1816 (chapter 3), and now an early “green revolution” on Java led to the dismantling of Davenport’s maple sugar industry.

There was some compensation for the loss as farmers accelerated their shift from sugar to syrup production, a shift that had begun after the Civil War.  This continued to maintain a minor but welcome infusion of cash during the late winter months when other farm activities were at a minimum.  Delaware syrup production rose rapidly, more than doubling its 1890 level when it reached a peak of 99,000 gallons in 1920.  Output, as with most local farm crops, declined thereafter with the general demise of farm life.  From 374,000 trees tapped in 1920, the total fell slowly to only 64,000 (from 51 farms) by the time of the 1997 census.

Farming at the millennium’s end.  Farming can be a precarious way to earn a living.  This is even truer when hillside soil is poor, when farms are too small to encourage scale economies, when competition is strong from more favorably situated areas, and when off-farm job opportunities easily outweigh the toil and relentlessness of farm work.

Davenport farmers have shown remarkable resiliency and determination over the years.  They have adapted in the short run to drought, pests, floods, political vagaries, changing markets, and competition from as far away as Java on the other side of the globe.  Only a few, however, have been able to accommodate to unending, longer-run economic pressures. 

These few, in Davenport today, are dairy or other livestock farmers.  Three farms raise horses, including the show mount stables of Leo Lomangino (sidebar.)  The dairymen in particular have gradually evolved into heavily capitalized modern businesses.  The survivors have been quick to adapt new (and especially labor-saving) technology, often modified with creative ingenuity to fit local conditions, and modern business methods.   Even so, farm income is usually supplemented by outside earnings of one or more family members,[22] and the critical factor in most cases has been subtle elements that have continued to make farming attractive to younger generations.

“Buy High, Sell Cheap, and Make a Lot of Friends”

Farms have evolved into agro-businesses that require most of the same skills needed for success everywhere in today’s economy.  The same applies to a number of additional, agriculturally-related Davenport establishments, namely the several greenhouses and nurseries that have been developed in recent years to serve both local and regional markets.  In early 2003, there were five such businesses in Davenport.  These ranged from a single, small greenhouse in Davenport’s east end—Nancy and George Novellano’s Sweetmeadow Greenhouse—to many dozens of J.R. Frazier and Sons greenhouses in the west end.  These latter totaled five acres (200,000-plus square feet) under plastic or other protection.[23]

As to the future, the well-watered and relatively fertile fields of the Charlotte Valley floor should continue to provide some comparative advantage for a limited number of local farmers.  It is not clear, however, to what extent local dairies can continue to count on government intervention to stabilize or at least provide a floor under milk prices.

A larger problem for the next several decades, as will be touched upon later in the Epilogue, may be the looming presence of global warming.  Warmer temperatures should extend growing seasons and provide some benefits though they may also affect optimal crop and pasturage selection.  Of greater menace may be changes in rainfall and snow precipitation patterns.  If drying as well as warming trends should persist[24], the dairy farms (which require a surprisingly large amount of water for livestock as well as for pasture and fodder) may be hard-pressed to continue their generally successful adaptation to change. 



Chapter 6 Appendix:  Davenport’s farms in 1865

and the Golden Age of Davenport’s agriculture.


The discussion above mainly concerns Delaware County crops and livestock—and the medium and longer run changes in some of these.  Davenport is mentioned but information is mostly limited to 1865 with some mention of 1855.  The 1865 New York State Census is no more detailed than for 1855 and 1875, but the Davenport information for 1865 has recently been copied out by the Delaware County Clerk, farmer by farmer, with a copy provided to the Davenport Historical Center.[25] 

Although a number of Davenport’s young men were still away on army duty, the year 1865 is of interest because many of the early farm products (sheep, swine, oxen, wheat, rye, flax and cheese) were still important.  Peak production of other products (corn, oats, barley, buckwheat, potatoes, butter, maple sugar, honey and apples) were soon to be achieved, many of these new peaks occurring between 1875 and 1900.  The last quarter of the 19th century can legitimately be called the golden age of Delaware County agriculture.  The number of farms and acres of farmland were at an all time maximum, in turn leading to peak production of many crops.  Railroad transportation had improved market access, especially to New York City, and more distant agricultural competition was but slowly emerging.

Davenport in 1865, on the brink of this “golden age,” had reached close to its maximum number of farms and improved acreage.  Three hundred and twenty-nine “farms” were reported as having some agricultural production.  Of these, however, five seem to have had garden plots but no actual farmland as such.  One additional farm was shown with unimproved but no improved farmland. Two of the remaining farm owners/managers/operators/agents can not be matched with Davenport residents.  Non-residents presumably worked these two holdings.

The “average” of these 329 “farms” contained 68 acres of improved and 37 acres of unimproved farmland.  Only ten percent (7 acres) of improved land was plowed.  Field crops (including potatoes but excluding other garden crops such as beans, peas, turnips, carrots, and onions) reportedly occupied 10.5 acres.  The “average farm” in 1865 grew largely hay and pasture (46 acres of grassland and meadows), oats (4.6 acres), winter rye (1.5 acres), buckwheat (1.4 acres), and Indian corn for grain and fodder (1.3 acres).  The farm had 1.7 horses, 5.4 milk cows (down from 6.4 the year previous), and 0.2 working oxen.[26]  (See below for an idea of how some of these averages varied in 1965 by farm size.)



Ninety-two farms grew hops (up from 79 in 1864).  The 1864 hop production came to a little over 1,000 pounds, on average, for each producing farm.  One Davenport farm made two gallons of wine from grapes (sidebar), and 56 farms harvested 3,500 pounds of honey.  Eighty-eight farms manufactured flannel cloth, averaging about 20 yards each.  Fifty farm families made linen, a few more than reportedly grew flax, and the average linen-weaving family produced 27 yards.  Fulled, cotton, and other cloth were produced in smaller amounts. (See Chapter 5, footnote 4, for the process by which fulled cloth is made.)

Wetmore Wets His Whistle

 It is of course rather meaningless to talk about an average Davenport farm in 1865. There was instead a continuum, ranging from holdings of less than one acre to the largest in town of 500 (improved) acres.  (This largest farm belonged to William Simpson of Simpsonville who titled himself “merchant” rather than “farmer.”  See Chapter 5, sidebar, for a more complete portrait of Davenport’s first “millionaire” and gentleman farmer.)  A better picture of farming in Davenport may be had by looking not at town averages but at points along this size-continuum. 

But first note another reason why some averages for any particular year may prove misleading.  This has to do with the short-run, year-to-year changes induced by weather, prices, or other factors.  Thus from 1864 to 1865 many farmers reported significant increases or decreases in the kinds and acres of the crops they grew and of the livestock they owned.  Even for the town as a whole, the sum total of these individual changes could be significant.  From 1864 to 1865, for example, possibly because of men returning from the Civil War, Davenport’s total field crop acreage rose by 19 per cent.  Winter rye acres jumped by 73 percent, and increases totaling more than 10 per cent each were registered for barley, buckwheat, potatoes, and hops.  Wheat acres for the town, on the other hand, fell by 9 per cent.



The size distribution of Davenport’s farms in 1865 was worthy of note.  Professionals, craftsmen and other non-farmers owned a majority of the 43 smaller farms of 10 acres and less of improved land.  (The land occupied by these small farms amounted to less than one per cent of Davenport’s total.)  Owners included carpenters, laborers, millers, merchants, mechanics, shoemakers, blacksmiths, innkeepers, a sawyer, a lawyer, and a physician.  These were obviously less-than-full-time farmers with significant income from non-farm sources.  Unusually large numbers of these small farms did not possess either cows (12 of the 43) or even apple trees (17 of 43).  Their products tended to be limited.  Fifteen of the forty-three produced no field crops at all.

The largest farms, on the other hand, those with 100 to 500 acres of improved land, made up 39 per cent of the total number but possessed a larger share—52 per cent—of all improved land.

As the size of the farms increased in 1865 Davenport, almost everything else increased too.  This included not only total agricultural output but also the number of different crops grown and varieties of livestock carried.  Thus Indian corn was grown by one-third of farms with less than 25 acres (all acreage figures are for improved farmland), by 55 per cent of those with 25-49 acres, by 61 per cent for 50-99 acres, and by two-thirds of those farms with 100 acres and more.  Almost every other crop increased its representation as farms grew larger.  This generalization extended even to honey, maple sugar, apple cider, and to the almost-but-not-quite universal growing of potatoes.  Farms, in other words and as illustrated in the table on the following page, became progressively more diversified as their size increased.









   of farm





         Improved land:

 0-24 acres

  25-49 acre

  50-99 acre

 100+ acre


Number  farms





Avg. household size





Avg. farmland, acres







      Improved acres  
      Unimproved acres









  Plowed land





  Meadows + grass





  Field crops






Proportion all farms with:









  Field crops grown










     Winter rye










     Indian corn















  Apple orchard





  Maple sugar prod.





  Bees' honey





  Working oxen










  Milk cows





  Swine killed, '64





  Sheep shorn, '65





  Poultry, '65






Average per farm, 1864




  Butter, pounds





  Wool, pounds





     Wool/sheep, lbs.





  Apples, bushels





  Apple cider, barrels






Even the average number of persons in the farm household size grew larger with more farmland.  The census definition of “household” included servants, aged parents, unmarried sisters or aunts, and farm laborers all living under the same roof.  A larger farm could support more people—and also required more hands to work it.

Thus, while the great range in farm size precludes the notion of an “average” Davenport farm, there was nevertheless a certain predictability over the range of farm sizes.  A number of small farms would add up to a single larger farm in almost every way, including the greater diversity of the crops produced, but of course not in terms of the total number of persons supported by the land.

A picture of typical Davenport farms in 1865 is shown in the table on the previous page for a range of farm sizes: small (below 25 acres of improved farmland), medium-small (25-49 acres), medium-large (50-99 acres), and large (100 acres to the largest farm, of 500 acres).  

How to Tell If You’re a Farmer

You may be a farmer if…

(From Ray Christensen, Special Assistant, New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets, who reports that the list “just showed up on my desk one day.”)  


The following additional illustrations to be found here.

6a  Haying time on the flats along the Charlotte River, 1920s  
6b Hay rake and horse, Davenport fairground in background, 1920s  
6c Two horses mowing hay, cleanup crew with scythe following  
6d Buckwheat field after harvesting and collecting into shocks, early 1900s  
6e Two horsepower threshing machine, early 1900s  
6f  Loading hay on flats above High Point (prior to cover photo)  
6g James McNamara using a grain cradle  
6h Cutting corn in the last century, the Frank VanDuesen family  

[1] Chapter 6 – The Changing Face of Agriculture  (This chapter is an adaptation of Alan M. Strout, “The Changing Face of Agriculture in Delaware County and the Town of Davenport,” corrections through March 2, 2002; Davenport Historical Society.)

[2] For comparability over the period 1800-1870, Davenport’s population includes those persons within the original 1817 town boundaries minus estimates of those lost to Otsego County somewhere between 1822 and 1837.  (See Chapters 3 and 15 for more details.)

[3] 1875-1950 Davenport farm numbers are from M.C. Bond, “Delaware County, Census Data,” Dept. of Agricultural Economics, New York State College of Agriculture, Cornell University; Report A.E. 869, July 1953, mimeographed.  The 2002 total includes 7 dairy, 6 beef or beef-plus-others, and 1 horse farm.  The several greenhouse businesses are not included in the total.

[4] Douglas DeNatale… from the household garden and sheep on the hillsides. (DeNatale, 1987, 3.)

[5]Nicholas Sigsbee (1816-1889) reminisced… tea substitutes for most folks since real tea was found only in wealthy households and then on Sunday only. (Sigsbee, 1889b, “In the Good Old Days.”)

[6] These trends were followed by… emergence of dairying after 1830.  (The date is from Nicholas Sigsbee, 1889b).

[7] Data to illustrate these medium-to-longer-term changes can be found in federal agricultural censuses for Delaware County (1850-1997) and in the decennial state censuses (1835-1875) containing varying details for the towns themselves.  Davenport in the 1835-1875 period seems to have been a fairly average Delaware township.  Davenport’s population ranged between 5.2% and 5.8% of the county. The town’s proportion of the county’s improved acreage, numbers of livestock, and crop production have generally fallen in the 5-6% range with outliers between 4 and 7% of the county totals.  Exceptions in the 1845-1875 years were the use of oxen and the making of farm butter and cheese where Davenport tended to fall below county averages.  In contrast, Davenport consistently produced more than its share of the county’s output of rye, potatoes, peas and beans, and above all in later years, hops.

[8] Wheat was the grain of choice … “… there was a revival in central and eastern New York.” (Hedrick, 1933, 331-2).

[9] Most production figures shown in this paper pertain to the full year immediately before that of the census.  They are shown for simplicity as pertaining to the date of the census itself, and should always be read as production “in the year covered by that census.”

[10] Hedrick observes… ”… always a fair yield on poor land in the hands of careless farmers.”  (Hedrick, 1933, 338.)

[11] At the time of the 1855 census, not a good year for cereals, Davenport’s average yields had risen for corn to 32.6 bushels per acre.  For each of the other crops, yields had fallen.  For oats, the fall was by almost a half to 12.6 bushels per acre and for the others by 30-40 percent (barley, 10.0 bushels; buckwheat, 8.9 bushels; and wheat, 7.1 bushels/acre).  These highly variable yields illustrate the shorter-run changes with which local farmers have always had to contend.

[12] Average grain silage and hay have about the “same feeding value when determined on the basis of dry matter,” according to Robert R. Musgrave of Cornell University.  See “Silage” in Encyclopedia Americana, vol. 24, p. 21, International Edition (Danbury, CT: Grolier, 2001).

[13] Potatoes in the 1840s… “swept like a wave of fire over the fields of North America.”  (Hedrick, 1933, 342.)

[14] Before this, few flocks… this “almost prohibited the rearing of sheep in frontier settlements…”  (Hedrick, 1933, 372.) 

[15] Frank Briggs made lots of cider although he did not drink the hard variety.  He lived up a steep road at the top of Pumpkin Hollow.  The cider, by then well-fermented, was kept for the snowplow crew, and Frank’s road was always one of the first to be plowed.

[16] By some accounts, apple cider…”…either pressed on his own farm or more likely took to a local cider mill.”  (“Cider: Folk Beverage Supreme,” in Heritage magazine, vol. 5, no. 2, Nov./Dec. 1988).

[17] The market for hops increased with… the need of immigrants, especially those from Germany…”  (“Hops, the “Pernicious Weed,” Heritage, vol. 2, no. 1, Sept/Oct. 1985.)

[18] By 1874, however, Otsego’s production had been surpassed by Madison and Oneida counties, and Otsego’s contribution had fallen to one-seventh of the New York State total.

[19] “In 1869 for instance, New York State produced… a little pin money and enjoy a week or so of fun.”  (Moore, 1964, 2.)

[20] An attempt was made in the 1950s to increase local poultry consumption by popularizing barbecue chicken.  Among other tasks of the Delaware County Poultry Commission (whose nine members included the author, at that time a substantial poultry-grower) was the sponsorship of an “annual broiler barbecue” in Delhi.  (Oneonta Star, July 28, 1953; and The Daily Star of Oneonta, July 28, 2003, p. 6, under “50 Years Ago.”)

[21] Java’s production took off… to 1,162.2 million pounds.  (For sugar import figures, see U.S. Bureau of Statistics, 1901, p. 332.)

[22] Steady outside income can be especially important when approaching a local bank for the always-important crop and equipment loans.

[23] The number of establishments growing nursery or greenhouse crops in Delaware County increased from 25 in 1992 to 61 in 1997.  Area under glass or other protection (today, largely plastic) grew by 14 percent, and cropland in the open grew almost nine-fold, to 289 acres.  Most of the Delaware greenhouses grew floriculture crops—bedding/garden plants and foliage, potted flowering plants, etc.  (U.S. censuses of agriculture, New York State and county data.)

[24] Drying in many areas is expected to accompany warming, even when rainfall remains constant, because of increased evaporation.

[25] Published totals for Davenport cannot in all cases be reconstructed accurately by adding up the farm-by-farm numbers.  This is because of errors in addition in 1865 and because of later errors in copying the 1865 results, the latter worsened in some cases by severe deterioration of the original census pages.  In general where totals are quoted they are from the published results while the reconstructed estimates have been used for individual farmers, groups of farmers, and some averages.

[26] The average farm saw the butchering of 0.6 cattle for beef, and 1.8 hogs (yielding 415 pounds of pork).  It produced 649 pounds of butter, but reported no cheese that year.  Thirty-one pounds of wool came from 9.4 shorn sheep.  In the entire town, only 54 sheep were butchered in 1865 (an average of 0.16 per farm) while another 11 were killed by dogs.  The farm produced 62 bushels of apples from 43 trees and 123 pounds of maple sugar. 


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