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Sunday, September 11, 2016

Early Agricultural Fairs: Farmers' Showcases



Journal Opinion September 7, 2016


HORSE SHOW. Horse racing and exhibitions were a major draw for local fairs. In 1906, the local newspaper reported that there were 10,000 in attendance for race day at the Bradford Fair. The grandstand was built into the hillside and offered a great view of the race track. Courtesy of the Bradford Historical Society.

CROWDED FAIRGROUNDS. The Bradford Fairgrounds. located on Fairground Road, offered what was called "the most natural fairground in the state." The midway featured several "eating houses." Despite the temperance movement, beer was being offered in the middle tent. Courtesy of the Bradford Historical Society. 

AREA-WIDE FAIR.  The Waits River Valley Agricultural Fair was held between 1890 and 1908 at the East Corinth Fairgrounds.  It drew both organizers and spectators from Corinth, Topsham and other area towns. The 1893 three-day fair was typical with a band concert, balloon ascension, races and exhibits. Courtesy of the Town of Topsham.



“The county fair is about the only legalized good time left to the county people….on one short day, at the county fair, we live and forget, happy in the company of the county-side, absorbed in a common pleasure.” Charles R. Cummings, The Vermonter, 1910. 

The period from mid-summer to early October is fair time in Vermont and New Hampshire and has been since the early 19th century. This column explores the history of agricultural fairs in the region from that to the early years of the 20th century. Information was gathered from local histories, several internet sources and newspapers of the period. The book Agricultural Fairs in America edited by Julie A. Avery was helpful.  


The town of Nutfield, now Londonderry, NH, clams the first agricultural fair in America. Local farmers held a fair to exhibit their best in 1742.  Other sources cite the fair sponsored in 1811 by the agricultural society of Massachusetts’s Berkshire County as the first. New Hampshire town charters, including that of Haverhill’s, specify that as soon as there were 50 families in town two fairs should be held annually.  It is unknown if  Haverhill met that early directive. 
 

While each of the fairs mentioned below had their own particular features, most of them had much in common. They were sponsored by agricultural societies and organized to promote the best cattle and crops that farmers had to show. As they evolved, domestic arts were included along with new machinery and farming techniques. 


The New aHam Hampshire Agricultural Society was organized in 1812 and the Grafton Society followed in 1818. One of these may have been involved in the earliest local cattle shows held at Haverhill and Plymouth in 1820 and Orford in 1826.  


The first fair sponsored by the Orange County Agricultural Society was held in Chelsea in 1847. Until its demise sometime after 1890, the Society’s fairs were held in either Chelsea or Bradford, with some competition with the two communities competing to be the host.


 Bradford’s fairgrounds, located on Fairground Road, offered what was called “the most natural fairground in the state.” McKeen’s History of Bradford included a description of the three sections of the fairgrounds: a lower level with a half-mile track which was used for horse racing and the exhibition of cattle; an upper level for exhibitions in permanent buildings and tents ; and a grandstand built on the hillside between the other two sections. It had been the site of fairs sponsored by the Connecticut Valley Agricultural Society between 1850 and 1866.


Because the Orange County Fair was held so frequently in Bradford after 1870, local newspapers referred to it as the “Bradford Fair” or “the fair at Bradford.”
 

With the expiration of its fairground lease, the last Orange County fair was held in Bradford in 1888. In 1892 an area-wide fund drive raised most of the $5,000 needed to refurbish the grounds and rebuild the track and grandstand.  The fair was held in 1893 and continued until taken over by the Bradford Agricultural and Trotting Association in 1900. That association continued to hold very successful fairs until 1913, after which regular fairs were discontinued until 1948. 


The Waits River Valley Agricultural Society began holding fairs in East Corinth in 1890. In 1895 shares were sold for $10 each to provide for improvements to the fairgrounds.  It was reported that tents erected for the 1899 fair had sufficient canvas “to have sheltered a regiment of the United States regular army.” Despite ups and downs, it was said that the fair became “what Old Home Day is to other communities.”  In 1908 the fair was discontinued, but was revived in the 1930s.


As early as 1842 an annual cattle fair was held in Ryegate for the “buying, selling and exchanging of Horses, Cattle, and all other kinds of property.” Beginning in 1888 the Ryegate and Wells River Dairymen’s Association held an annual fair in South Ryegate.  The grounds featured a short racetrack and display buildings.


 In 1906 The Caledonian reported that the fairground and building had been sold to the Caledonia Park Association and “will do away with the famous Ryegate fair which was held here every year and which attracted large crowds of people from miles around.”  Fairs did continue under the new ownership until about 1912.


From 1886 to 1894 the Pompanoosuc Agricultural Association held a three-day fair at the Pompanoosuc Fairground. As with many fairs it was held mid-week as the concept of the "weekend" had not developed and holding events on the Sabbath was out of the question.




The Grafton County Agricultural Society’s fair was an example of an event that drew organizers, exhibitors and spectators from an extended community. Beginning in 1859, its leaders included men from Orford, Lyme and Wentworth. This annual fair was held in Littleton until a new fairground was purchased in Plymouth. That new location allowed the fair to grow through stages as the Union Grange Fair, the Plymouth Fair and lastly, until its closing in 1993, as the Plymouth State Fair.


As early as 1846 Vermont also had a state fair.  It was held in various locations around the state including White River Junction and Montpelier before settling in Rutland. There it was managed by the Rutland County Agricultural Society. Its stated purposes were “the practical education of the farmer” as well as the “dissemination of knowledge respecting the resources of the state.”   


In West Topsham, a short-lived but successful fair was held in 1890-91. At the second annual fair attendance was 2,000 and it was said that “the display has never been equaled by any town fair and by few county fairs.”
  

 Another short-lived fair was the one sponsored by the Farmers’ Agricultural Society at Haverhill Corner in 1891. Although that one “went off with a snap,” by 1893 the fair was discontinued. 


Most fairs were held for between two and three days with an occasional fourth day.  There were also one-day fairs held in West Fairlee and Post Mills and a “County Fair” held in Fairlee, all in the early 1920s. The West Fairlee event was held for a number of years, attracted up to 700 with admission of 25 cents and offered “Rest Rooms for Mothers.”   


There were also numerous church and grange fairs, but they were generally one-day events and did not feature extensive agricultural displays. 
  

The fairs were not without controversy. The early Londonderry Fair was discontinued when it became a “moral nuisance…with scenes of vice and folly in some of their worse forms.” In 1893, The United Opinion mentioned “a gang of sharpers are working the fairs with games, fakes, etc., and a considerable amount of counterfeit money is said to have passed around.” In 1895 a Vermont law gave fair officials the power to control horse trading and games of chance both within the fairgrounds and along the roads leading to it.  


 As the temperance movement grew there were prohibitions against the sale and use of intoxicating liquor as well as pool and games of chance.  In 1885 The Women’s Christian Temperance Union met the challenge of thirst by furnishing a barrel of ice water at the Bradford fair.  The following year it was mentioned that “if the exhibits cannot sustain [without liquor] better dispense with the shows.”


With horse racing common there was bound to be controversy.  In 1859 a tongue-in-cheek flyer appeared announcing the second annual fair sponsored by the Salt River Valley Gouging and Sponging Association to be held in Bradford.  With announced seating for 6 people, premiums of $3.50 and a prize of six cents for the “biggest Humbug,” this fair was being held “owing to mismanagement last year.” Gouging and sponging were terms associated with cheating in races.  It is interesting that the Association is named in an 1861 transaction in which a piece of adjacent land was sold.

Newspaper columns often mentioned when individuals from one community visited a fair in another.  Some towns gave students a day off to attend the fairs. Railroads offered special prices for tickets to stations adjacent to fairgrounds and hundreds took advantage of this. 


Many came by horse and buggy. A Piermont elder writing in 1948 recalls going to the Bradford Fair in the early 1880s. She described “long lines of teams filled the dusty roads until we came outside the Gates.”


 Poor road conditions prompted the following Bradford comment in 1895: “We take the liberty to suggest to the town of Corinth that they get mad and declare the annual fair off until the road between there and here is put into decent shape.  Everybody would make such a kick out of the prospect of a year without a Corinth Fair as would make the voters of both towns do some hard thinking.” 


It was not uncommon for there to be up to 6,000 spectators on a single day at these local fairs depending on the weather and the programs offered.   In 1871 New Hampshire reported 100,000 attended fairs and 5,000 head of cattle were displayed. As “horse trots were the great feature” of local fairs, large crowds turned out for them.  In 1906 10,000 were in attendance for race day at the Bradford Fair.  


Locals sometimes travelled out of the local region to attend fairs.  After 1835 fairs were held in St. Johnsbury and after 1880 in Tunbridge.  The Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876 and the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 were attractions for some local residents, some of whom wrote of their experiences for the local newspaper.   After 1916 some took the train to East Springfield, MA for the Eastern States Exposition. 
 
Fairs offered remote farm families an opportunity to share techniques as they socialized with others from the area. Improved practices and new equipment for both farm and home were showcased.  This was especially important as there were major innovations in agriculture by the mid-nineteenth century. These included new farm implements and improved growing techniques that drew the interest of farmers looking for ways to improve efficiency and yields. 
 
 Competitions among both farmers and housewives were key. Those competitions were divided into departments and classes in many fields. There was horse, cattle and poultry judging along with produce, domestic items and floral displays. There were ploughing matches, bicycle and foot races and even a baby contest looking for the “best, handsomest and smartest babies.” 


 Some fairs offered special divisions for boys and girls to show their own produce and handiwork.  In local newspapers, premiums were promised beforehand and winners announced after.  Local champion animals appeared at local fairs before being presented at larger fairs throughout New England and New York. 


Dozens of town oxen teams competed annually in early fairs.  Most fairs featured concerts by bands such as the Bradford Brass Band and the Newport Cornet Band. In 1901 a baseball game between the Woodsville and Bradford teams was “one of the leading attractions on the first day in Bradford.  It was not uncommon for there to be speeches by local dignities.  A merry-go-round was a money-making feature at several fairs.


Professional shows include acrobatic acts, mini-circuses and the popular balloon accession with parachute drop.  One frequent performer was the balloonist Professor Bonet, “a young man of rare nerve and skill.” There was no mention of a burlesque show or the type of sorted sideshow found in some larger communities.  


Why were these fairs discontinued?  There was the constant need for funds for upkeep and improvements to the fairground, a need that was sometimes overwhelming. As with many ongoing activities where the burdens of work and responsibility fall on a few, those few give up the burdens after a time.  With no one to fill their roles, the activity drew to a close. Increasingly there must have been competition from motion pictures that provided star-studded entertainment, from automobiles that could take folks farther away and radios that kept them at home. 


The authors of the History of Ryegate, writing in 1913, expressed the sadness that many must have felt when the local fair was no longer held. They  further wrote “We believe in home fairs and the  friendly competition of neighbors in prizes given for merit, when the average farmer feels at home and knows he has a fair chance to get a square deal.”  Add to that an entertaining program and an over-all good time and it makes a believer of us all.  


At local fairs today one can see an update of the early fair experience including this 1880s child’s summary of fair day. “It was a day of anxiety and fatigue for Pa and Ma, but the children rode home tired, but happy, with their hands clutching balloons, whips and candy, a large amount of the latter adorning their faces.”

Friday, July 8, 2016

1816: Year Without A Summer




In April 1815 Mount Tambora in the Indonesian archipelago erupted sending  a giant cloud of ash and sulfuric acid into the atmosphere.  Over the next year this cloud spread around the Northern Hemisphere altering the weather.


1816 was the year with a chilly spring and a disastrous summer for much of North America and Europe.


Prepared initially for the Journal Opinion


Weather and climate are always topics for conversation. The current news gives us plenty to consider. World-wide, 2014 was the hottest year on record and 2015 was even hotter. Climate change and the impact of El Nino greatly diminished the most recent winter.

But 200 years ago this month, one of the most unusual summer to pass in northern New England was just about to get started. This column deals with the weather in and around 1816. Information was gathered from state and town histories, old newspaper articles and 1816 The Year Without Summer by William and Nicholas Klingaman.

In a region where aberrations in the weather are normal, 1816 was really abnormal. It was a year with a lost summer. It was a year that was talked about for decades and spawned both scientific studies and folktales. 

The 500 years before 1816 were part of a period of global cooling known as the Little Ice Age.  Settlers in the region experienced unusually late and early frosts from time to time. In 1783 Thomas Johnson of Newbury reported that a frost on August 9 killed most of the corn crop. The decade following 1810 was for many the coldest 10-year period in the history of North America.

At the time there were a number of explanations for the abnormal weather. These ranged from unusual sunspots and the use of lightning rods to God’s displeasure of a sinful society. Current scientific evidence points to unusual volcanic activity. 

In 1809 there were several powerful eruptions in remote tropical locations. In 1812 there were two volcanic eruptions in the Indian Ocean and another in the Philippines in 1814. But the most significant eruption came on Mount Tambora in the Indonesian archipelago beginning on April 5, 1815.  A series of eruptions pulverized the mountain, sending ash, dust and soot up to 25 miles in the atmosphere.

The noise of the blast could be heard over 800 miles away.  It is estimated that 15,000 residents in the vicinity of the volcano died from the blast, the ash and the resulting tsunami and 80,000 died in the ensuing year from disease and starvation.

Within 24 hours a giant mushroom shaped ash cloud had covered hundreds of square miles. It was later determined that the eruption was the largest in thousands of years and was 100 times stronger than the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980.  

In addition to millions of tons of ash, a giant aerosol cloud of sulfuric acid formed. Both ash and aerosol became suspended in the atmosphere and spread around the world by wind patterns. The particulate matters reflected sunlight resulting in cooler temperatures and abnormal weather. 

Almost immediately, residents of Europe and North America noticed spectacular sunsets caused by the particles and gases in the atmosphere. New England experienced frosts in late August and snow in September, 1815. When snow fell that winter it was often tainted brown or red. 

The winter of 1815-16 was milder. The Middlebury Register reported that “January was so mild that fires were allowed to go out except for cooking purposes.” By early March much of the snow was gone and the Northeast experienced early spring thunderstorms. 

The Klingamans explain that this mild winter was partly the result of the Tambora cloud. Its interaction with the atmosphere led to fewer polar incursions than normal. As spring arrived, however, cold air was free to move down from the Arctic setting up North America and Europe for “a chilly spring and a disastrous summer.”

Residents of Northern New England were not fully prepared for what was to come. Most residents were subsistence farmers, depending on annual crops for their food and fodder for cattle. In the previous decade several major epidemics of spotted and lung fevers had sickened and killed many. 

Early spring rains and warming temperatures led to “expectations of a fruitful season and an abundant harvest.”  Late April brought a heat wave and many regional farmers planted their crops as temperatures reached the low 80s.

May turned cold as Canadian air flowed south bringing freezing temperatures and snow to New England.  Jacob Ide of St. Johnsbury recalled that temperatures “were like that of winter.” Early buds on plants froze. On May 16 snow fell all day in some portions of the two states. 

Temperatures during the first several days of June were mild. But on June 5 a winter jet stream caused temperatures to plummet and then a freak blizzard followed. Snow and hail fell throughout Vermont and New Hampshire with some places receiving up to 12 inches of snow with drifts to three feet.

Over the next three weeks, the region endured snow and cold temperatures of unprecedented severity for June.  Not every day was cold, but the accumulative impact on residents was harsh.  Ide recalled that “June was the coldest month of roses ever experienced. Frost and ice were as common as buttercups usually are.”

Sheep that had recently been shorn froze to death. Birds that could not find shelter died.  Early crops and leaves were destroyed.  Farmers could not work their fields. Bricklayers in Bath had to quit working because their mortar froze. Residents wore winter garments. Most agreed it was beyond anything they had ever experienced.  

Unaware of the impact of the volcano, residents sought answers for the unusual weather. Some claimed it was the appearance of sunspots so large they could be seen with the naked eye. Others suggested unusual amounts of ice in the Great Lakes and North Atlantic or the cooling of the earth’s core. Use of lightning rods, earthquakes in the Mississippi Valley, a great comet in 1811 and the impact of deforestation were also blamed. 

Many saw the hand of God at work. It was widely believed that God controlled the natural world and used its manifestations to carry out His will. Perhaps this unusual weather reflected God’s displeasure at a decadent society or maybe it was a foreshadowing of the apocalypse.  The Governor of New Hampshire admonished residents to be mindful of their transgressions. Still in its infancy, meteorology was not available to offer alternative scientific answers. 

Almanacs for 1816 predicted hot weather for July. The weather did not heed those predictions. July 4 was cool followed by frosts throughout Northern New England on July 8 and 9. Mt. Moosilauke was white twice that month. When warmer temperatures returned in late July, farmers were encouraged to plant oats and late corn.  Livestock suffered from lack of fodder and some farmers mowed fields of immature corn to feed them.  

During this entire summer Vermont experienced a severe drought.  Water levels in rivers, lakes and wells sank. Smoke from forest fires blackened the sky, blocking the sun and obscuring views everywhere. 

By early August, fears of a general famine had subsided as hopes for a harvest of some grains seemed possible. In both Claremont and Lebanon it was reported that there was a “bountiful crop of rye.” In some communities the wheat crop survived. On August 13 a cold wave hit the region with frost. After a brief warmer period, frost on August 21 and again on August 28 and 29 caused residents to abandon those hopes. Some built fires around their fields in a vain attempt to save their crops. Snow covered mountain tops in both states. 

Samuel Morey of Orford experimented with cutting the immature corn stocks and stacking them in stooks, a method that resulted in the ripening of some kernels. On September 5 he wrote that the area seemed threatened with “severe scarcity.”  Later he wrote that the frost of the 28 “has put an end to the hopes of many corn growers.” Colonel W. H. Hoffman of Lebanon is quoted as saying “there was only six bushels of sound corn raised in the town that year.”

September only added to the misery of area residents as black frosts hit during the last half of the month.  The editor of the Vermont Journal wrote: “Never before in this vicinity [had the weather] appeared more gloomy and cheerless than at present. It is extremely cold for the time of year, and the drought [sic] was never before so severe.” In Hartford as in other communities, water on ponds and rivers froze “to some thickness.”  

October and November weather added to the plight of area residents.  While there was finally some rain, 12 inches of snow fell in Haverhill on October 17. The winter of 1816-17 was bitter cold.  Snow fell in some towns on the 5th of May, 1817. While the months that followed provided some relief, it took another year for conditions to return to normal.   

This disruptive weather had a lingering effect on the residents .  While there was starvation elsewhere in the world, local residents made do without normal supplies of foodstuffs. Grain prices rose. One local businessman brought a flatboat of grain from Connecticut up the Connecticut River and sold it at greatly inflated prices. In towns such as Newbury and Peacham, desperate farmers sought to sell what little they had at similarly high prices.  

Many who had not tasted oatmeal before came to rely on it. It had been introduced into the area by the Scottish settlers of Ryegate. The mill at Boltonville ran full time to grind the oats to meet the demand.   Some traded maple syrup for fish brought from the Atlantic or Lake Champlain.  Others ate what they could trap or forage, including wild plants, pigeons and even an occasional hedgehog.

The History of Ryegate quotes one Newbury elder who recalled that “children would talk about being good, for perhaps they would die when winter came, and would have nothing to eat.”  Farmers had to decide whether to eat their meager corn crop or save it for seed. The drought only added to residents’ plight as wells dropped and mills lacked water power.

 The poor weather conditions gave one more excuse to move westward.  Many wondered if the climate had changed permanently and gave in to “Ohio fever.” Some communities in Vermont and New Hampshire lost major portions of their population as discouraged families sought new opportunities in the Midwest. 

New England was not the only region to suffer from the impact of Tambora.  Areas in the Midwest and as far south as Virginia experienced cold spells during the period and to varying degrees suffered crop destruction from unseasonable frost and snow and drought. Peasant farmers from Quebec to major areas of Asia experienced especially hard times. 

Europeans also suffered greatly as crops failed from both cold temperatures and heavy rainfall.  A poor harvest in 1815 was followed by an even poorer one in 1816.  Many crops just did not grow. This destructive weather added to the economic and social displacement of the recent Napoleonic wars.

Throughout Europe, farmers sold off their livestock, depressing prices. Unemployment rose. Food prices increased as grain supplies diminished.  In some areas bread prices rose to three times the normal price. Neither private nor government charity were able to deal with the magnitude of the problems created by the economic situation.   

Outbreaks of disease throughout Europe added to the people’s plight. They reacted by filling churches to offer prayers for relief, by rioting against both bakers and authorities or by migrating for better opportunities elsewhere.  Large numbers of Europeans sought relief in the United States. 

“Year without a summer”, “1816 and froze to death”, “the mackerel year”, “the poverty year” are all titles given to the disruptions experienced by so Northern New Englanders many during the period.  Years later many elders recalled the difficulties of residents in the two-state area. As with stories told and retold, enhancements tended to creep in.  

Since settlers first came to this region, they have experienced anomalies in the weather and changes in the climate. There have been colder single weeks than those of 1816, deeper snow banks and more severe droughts, but none equal the continued onslaught of bad weather experienced in 1816.

 Elders like to recall that snow was deeper and winters more severe when they were young. They remind their listeners that in the last century no one would plant their gardens until Memorial Day and would expect the first frost just after Labor Day.  Climate change has changed that.

A review of the weather of 200 years ago remind us that events that occur half a world away can have a profound impact on our way of life and that large areas of the planet are just one poor harvest away from disaster.  It is well to recall that a volcanic eruption, melting glaciers, warm water in the Pacific or automobile omissions elsewhere can impact when we plant our tomatoes and how much fuel we will burn next winter.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Sheep Mania: Boom and Bust


Dorset Horn Variety:  This ewe is one of 650 animals in a flock belonging to Ben Machin and Grace Bowmer, owners of Corinth's Tamarack Tunis Farm.  The flock is the largest in the area and is reminiscent of the ones that blanketed local meadows during the 19th century. (Photo by Ben Machin)

“Our citizens have become so dependent upon the growing of wool that this article may be said to be the staple of the state.”  Charles Paine, Vermont Governor, October 14, 1842

From 1820 to 1870 the raising of sheep represented a major activity for Vermont and New Hampshire farmers.  During long stretches of that 50-year period the number of sheep far outnumbered citizens. The sheep-raising boom significantly impacted the local economy and ecology. Even after the bloom faded, the raising of sheep remained significant for many local farmers. This column examines that sheep raising period.

 Prior to 1810, most farmers kept a few sheep around the homestead. The wool was homespun into cloth for blankets and garments and the meat eaten by the farmer’s family.  Writing in 1794 about raising the animals in Vermont, Samuel Williams said, “the richness of the pastures, in new settlements, gives an extraordinary sweetness to the meat, and richness to the fleece.”

Most farmers suffered annual losses to wolves and bear. The sheep in Newbury’s meadows, Frederic Wells wrote in his town history, “had to be gathered at night into secure yards near the dwelling, to keep them out of the reach of rapacious but cowardly animals.” 

Owners developed techniques to identify their animals when communal pasturing was practiced or in case animals strayed. This included unique ear cuts and punctures or smears of paint.  In some towns, these brands were registered with the town clerk. Most communities had a town pound in which straying sheep were held until retrieved by their owner.

The establishing of local textile mills marked the decline of homespun production. The earliest ones were carding mills that readied wool for spinning and fulling mills that processed woven cloth.

In 1799 Richard Gookin of Haverhill began to manufacture wool carding machines, using techniques illegally exported from Britain.  His machines were used widely by mills throughout New England.

By 1822 there were cloth-finishing mills in many local communities including Post Mills, Bradford Center, Haverhill and Wells River, most using power from local streams and rivers.

Subsistence sheep herding came to an end after 1809 with the introduction of Spanish Merinos by William Jarvis for his farm in Weatherfield, Vermont. These prime animals had fine, heavy fleeces. They were the first introduction of European purebred varieties and led to the great sheep boom in Vermont and New Hampshire.  

This introduction came at a time when wheat as a cash crop in Vermont was declining due to Western competition and when larger woolen mills throughout New England created a demand for additional wool.   

A number of factors made northern New England a prime location for what rapidly became sheep mania, a boom that took over local farms. One of the first was national events. A series of embargoes after 1808 and the war of 1812 raised the price of wool as imports were blocked. This was followed by a series of tariffs that further raised the price of imported wool, making locally produced wool more competitive.

Looking back, the 1890 Vermont Agricultural Report summed up other reasons: “the Vermont soil, Vermont climate, and the Yankee skills” created ideal places for the sheep industry to thrive. There were hill and river meadows ideal for grazing; brooks and small rivers for the washing of animals; stones to build hundreds of miles of fencing and compounds; new barns and sheds to provide shelter from cool weather; and hard working farm families to make this all possible.   

The extent of the boom in sheep can be seen in the number of animals. In 1812 there were 11,227 sheep in Vermont. In 1840, at the height of the boom and with wool bringing high prices, there were 1,681,000 sheep in Vermont and 617,390 in New Hampshire. 

Census figures reflect this growth in the local area. In the census of 1837, Orford had 8,053 head of sheep, Piermont- 4,195, Bradford- 4,249, Thetford- 7,258, Corinth- 6,272, Haverhill- 6,915, Vershire-4,558, and Newbury- 6,608.  While large, these flocks were dwarfed by those in Shoreham, VT, located at the epicenter of the boom, with 41,000 head in 1840.   

The 1840 census reported there were 156,053 sheep in Orange County, 100,886 in Caledonia and 174,664 in Grafton. That year Topsham had 6,111 in its flocks and Bradford’s had increased to 9,388, more than double the figure three years earlier. In many communities, sheep led to the exclusion of other agricultural staples.     

Lyme was one of the largest sheep raising towns in the area. In Lyme there were 9,867 sheep in 1836, 12,557 in 1848 and 13,176 in 1855.  Sheep-raising held on longer in Lyme than in most towns and the number of sheep never fell below 6,000 until 1886. Evidence of this could still be seen in the 1930’s with high stone walls and enclosures around Holt’s Ledge and Smarts Mountain

Spanish merinos were not the only breed being raised.  French merinos were also imported along with English breeds including Southdowners, Oxfordshires and Cotswolds.  Some strains were mutton stock.         

This significant increase in herding had a major impact on farm ownership and society. In 1892 Vermont historian Rowland Robinson describing the annual Spring shearing ritual in these rosy terms: “Shearing-time was the great festival of the year. The shearers, many of whom were of the flock-owner’s well to do neighbors, were treated more as guests than as laborers, and the best the house could afford was set before them.  The great barn’s empty bays and scaffolds resounded with the busy click of incessant shearers, the jokes, songs, and laughter of the merry shearers, the bleating of the ewes and lambs and the twitter of disturbed sparrows.”

As pasture land became more valuable, deforested landscapes became common. With the demand for sheep runs, poorer farmers were encouraged to sell out to their more prosperous neighbors. This caused many to seek new land in the West. In 1834, several publications carried a letter from the Green Mountaineer warning: “Beware of the ‘western fever’ and above all sell not your farms to your rich neighbors for sheep pastures.”

The boom also had an impact on towns and cities in the two states. Lebanon and Manchester in New Hampshire and Winooski and Bridgewater in Vermont are examples of communities that had large industries based on textile manufacturing. In 1879 Albert Carter of Thetford operated the Thetford Wool Mill, later moving it to Lebanon.

The mania began to wane in the mid-1840s. Despite opposition from farmers, the tariff on wool was lowered in 1841 and eliminated in 1846. Even as Governor Paine spoke of the importance of sheep-rising in his 1842 address, he warned of the dangers of  overreliance.

 Eastern sheep farmers suffered from competition from herds in the west where sheep could be raised in larger flocks and at lower costs. Sheep-raising was also introduced into Australia and South Africa in the 1830s and later into New Zealand and Argentina, resulting in increased competition for world wool markets. These factors indicated just how little control producers had over markets.

Despite the reduction in the number of sheep being raised in Vermont and New Hampshire, the amount of wool produced did not go down. Improved breeding led to a significant increase in the amount of wool per animal.

This success was defined in a 1922 report published in The National Wool Grower: “Vermonters took that fine-boned smooth, thin fleeced sheep from Spain and in three-quarters of a century transformed him into the oiliest, wrinkliest, heaviest-fleeced animal ever known.”

By 1850 many farmers found they could make more money breeding prized sheep than raising wool.  Owners of prized rams could demand high prices for making them available for breeding and could sell an animal for up to $10,000. Sheep from Vermont were sold to establish and enhance flocks in Western states and abroad.  

During the Civil War there was a brief increase in the demand for wool.  This was the result of the decrease in availability of Southern cotton and increase in the demand for wool for military uniforms.  In some localities the number of sheep was increased to meet this demand, despite warnings to beware of “fine wool on the brain.” 

In Newbury during that period, “sheep raising was very profitable and at one time wool brought one dollar a pound.  Everyone rushed into the wool business.”  As the war ended there was an equally rapid decline and, in some cases, animals were slaughtered for one dollar apiece. 

Despite the fact that the sheep-raising boom was over, sheep continued to be important. Family farms continued to have flocks, large and small, through the end of the century.

 In March 1878 the Burlington Weekly Free Press reported “Orrin Rice of Springfield, has six cosset sheep that have brought the present season, 13 lambs, 11 of them alive and kicking.  There were five pair of twins and one set of triplets.”  Orrin Rice was my great-great grandfather. 

Northern New England farmers had to compete with herders elsewhere. In 1876, the Bradford Opinion reported that in the Boston market “Sheep are selling at about the old figure. With full supply from the West the flocks from the North have to correspond, which is hardy satisfactory.”  That week lambs were selling for 7 cents per pound.  

The United Opinion of May 1887 reported that the herd of West Newbury’s W.C. and D Carleton took “the lead for heavy fleece, five of them shearing 120 pounds of wool.”  Live animals, wool and meat were exported from the area to markets in the Northeast by drovers such as George Baldwin of Bradford and George Fessenden of Wells River.       

Throughout the entire period, local agricultural fairs such as the Orange County Agricultural Society Fair allowed farmers to exhibit prized animals. The Vermont Phoenix of September 28, 1893 reported that the show of sheep was the largest and best ever made in [Windham] county.  The article gave special praise to H. W. Keyes of North Haverhill: “Until we saw these animals we were not aware that any sheep had been bred so near perfection.”

The Orange County Gazetteer of 1888 listed 60 farmers in Thetford keeping 4,590 sheep in a variety of breeds. Newbury had 29 farmers with 3,877 sheep. Sheep raising held on in some towns such as Lyme and Piermont even as it declined in other areas of the two states. This decline was hastened by the further reduction of the tariff on foreign wool.

One of the problems faced by sheep farmers was damage to the flocks by dogs. This “plague” created a “sad havoc” on herds up and down the valley.  A newspaper report in December 1877 reported that dogs killed more than twenty sheep in the herd of Mrs. H. Keyes of Newbury. Problems with dogs caused the Smith farm of South Newbury to give up their flock. Towns offered public reimbursement for damage, but it was never enough.    

In 1889 C. G. Nott’s queried “What shall the New England Farmer do? He cannot compete in wool with the unhoused flocks of Texas and California, of New Zealand and Australia.”  For many farmers the answer to the question was to switch to dairy cattle.

Some Vermont and New Hampshire herders continued to raise sheep, although in diminishing numbers. Agricultural census figures show the decline in number of Vermont farms and the number of sheep kept: 1920: 3,051-62,756; 1945: 793-15,459 and 1964: 388-7941. New Hampshire had small numbers of farms and animals during the same period and experienced similar declines with only 355 farms and 5,602 animals reported in 1964. 

Currently, the Vermont Sheep and Goat Association reports that a number of farms keep sheep in this area.  Flocks range from 6 to 650 animals and produce wool, yarn, lambskins, meat and livestock. 

While these farms have a wide diversity of breeds and have farmers dedicated to their care, they represent just a mere shadow of the herds that blanketed local hills during the boom of sheep mania.   

Monday, March 7, 2016

Flood of 1936: Floods, Dams and Bridges



 A LAKE IN BRADFORD:  By Saturday, March 14, 1936, there was a lake stretching from Bradford village to the New Hampshire shore.  The Bradford railroad station was just one of the buildings that was flooded.  (Bradford Historical Society)




BRIDGES UNDER ATTACK: The Piermont Bridge withstood the onslaught of ice, logs and other debris, where as the Orford-Fairlee covered bridge and the East Thetford bridge were damaged beyond repairs.  (Bradford Historical Society and  Lyme Historians


VILLAGE UNDER WATER:  The village of North Thetford was flooded by water from the Connecticut River.  The bridge to Lyme was closed, but was not permanently damaged.  A number of folks had to be rescued by boat (Thetford Historical Society)  




Eighty years ago this month a series of floods set records for high water in the Connecticut River Valley, throughout New England and a major portion of the eastern United States. This article deals with the impact of those floods.


The winter of 1935-36 created the conditions that led to the floods that followed. Across New England there was an above-average snowpack with high water content, heavy ice cover on rivers and deep penetration of frost. David Ludlum writes in The Vermont Weather Book: “A great mass of frozen precipitation was stored on the hills and mountains awaiting spring conditions that would be its release to start downhill on the long journey to the sea.”  


During the middle of March 1936 the Northeast experienced a series of storm systems. Each moved from the Gulf of Mexico, eventually bringing heavy warm rainfall and rapidly rising temperatures to Vermont and New Hampshire.  




Ludlum reports that in the first major storm of March 11-12 over six inches of rain fell in northern New Hampshire and four inches fell in southern Vermont in a 24-hour period. During the second major storm, heavy rain fell over Northern New England on every day from March 16 to 22. Wide areas of the region received between 10 inches and 30 inches of rainfall. 
 

The warm air and rainfall caused the ice-clogged waterways to breakup and flow downstream. The snowmelt added a tremendous volume of water to the ice-clogged rivers and streams. Ice jams acted as dams and backed up water caused significant flooding.  


The United Opinion covered the local flooding in great detail. The headline for the March 20th edition read “Bradford is Practically Isolated from Outside World for Four Days.” Coincidentally, that edition included the first chapter of the romance novel “Storm Music” by Dornford Yates.


 The following description includes material from the newspaper along with accounts from other sources.  During Wednesday night March 11 it rained. Typical of the entire area, Fairlee village residents were kept awake by the rainfall and “the men were kept busy turning water to keep it out of cellars.”


It rained all day on Thursday March 12, “causing the Waits River and its tributaries to swell and sent out vast amounts of ice in monstrous ragged cakes.” The railroad tracks were washed away at Pompanoosuc Station between Norwich and East Thetford, discontinuing all freight and mail trains. 

A work train was stationed in Ely to provide support for the crews working to repair the wash outs on the roadbed all along the system.


The Bradford golf course was completely inundated and by Saturday the water had, wrote one columnist, “spread out into a beautiful lake many of us wish was a permanent feature for our little town.”

Sightseers on Sunday came to view the lake. Some found Route 25 jammed with ice.  Others traveled to East Barre whee another lake spread from the flood control dam to the base of Orange  Heights.  That dam, built following the Flood of 1927, protected Barre and Montpelier from the major damage they had previously experienced.



On Monday the 16th, “torrents of rain” fell and continued through the night. By Tuesday night the roads south and north from Bradford village were closed to traffic, along with the road to Piermont. The water came up 5 feet during the night and the lake formed by the flooding Waits and Connecticut Rivers was dotted with ice flows and debris.


The Bradford railroad station was surrounded by water and trains that had begun to get through were again stopped by submerged tracks. The local grain facility lost over 60 tons of grain and cement. North Thetford village was flooded with “much damage” to homes and some residents had to be rescued by boat.


Between Tuesday night and Wednesday, the Piermont, Orford and two Thetford bridges were closed as a result of the danger. An ice jam at Newbury broke sending quantities of ice, water, logs and other debris against those structures. Loads of sand was used to prevent the bridges from floating away.


 The railroad bridge in Woodsville was weighted down with carloads of cinders. One span of the East Thetford bridge was lost and the Orford-Fairlee covered bridge was damaged beyond repair.


When the dams at 15-mile Falls and North Stratford, New Hampshire were either open or breached more water flooded into the already over-burdened Connecticut, flooding towns to the south. The middle sections of Jackman and Page dams in East Corinth went out, adding to the flood on the road to Bradford.  


By Wednesday night, March 18th, many communities were isolated with all roads closed. The rising water flooded the power station at the Bradford falls and electricity was cut off. Sections of Newbury, Piermont and Haverhill, especially Woodsville and areas along rivers, were also isolated and without electricity


“Thursday morning brought a cold leaden sky which over looked a desolate waste of water which had risen rapidly during the darkness.” At that point the level was two feet higher than that of the flood of 1927. The water “lapped” at the back of the buildings along the east side of Bradford’s main street.


About 3:30 Thursday afternoon, rain began to fall again. By Friday morning, March 20, the rain had been replaced by the sun “shining in a half hearted manner.” It was on that day that the flooding reached its highest level, about five feet above the 1927 mark. Someone painted a line on the furnace building of the Bradford Academy to make note of that March 20th high water level. It still can be seen there and has never been surpassed.    
  
By Saturday the water began to recede and continued to do so over the next few days. The newspaper reported stories of rescues from the previous week of both individuals and livestock. Stories of boats being used to get milk to dairies, voters to meetings and some students to the schools that remained open were also reported. Fairlee students who attended Orford High School were kept out of school until a temporary bridge could be built.  


 During the flood, Norris’s store in Woodville received supplies from Littleton via a trolley across the Wild Ammonossuc. Lyme physician Dr. William Putnam opened an office at Thetford Academy and had a car on each side of the river while the East Thetford Bridge was being repaired. 
 

Much credit was given to the Central Vermont Public Service crew who “came through in style,” restoring electricity.  In several cases they worked from boats on wires suspended over floodwaters.


 Whatever damage and inconvenience suffered locally was small when compared to that experienced elsewhere across the northeastern half of the nation.  From Virginia and Ohio through northern New England the great flood of 1936 inundated communities. Rivers from the Mississippi to the Monongahela in the Midwest to the Kennebec and Saco in New England flooded. In many places high water broke records going back several centuries.  


In New Hampshire, the Merrimack flooded Manchester and Nashua and went on to flood the Massachusetts communities to the south.  Over 87 towns and cities in New Hampshire suffered flood damage.  
  

Along the entire length of the Connecticut River new flow records were established.  As small rivers and streams added to the rainfall, the impact was magnified downstream. At Bellows Falls 29 feet of water flooded over the top of the dam. North of the Vernon dam a six-mile ice jam broke submerging the top of the dam by nearly 11 feet and flooding the communities below.


 By March 19th 50,000 residents of the lower Connecticut River valley were homeless. Springfield, Massachusetts and Hartford, Connecticut were inundated in the worst flooding in history.  Up to 200 lives were lost in New England and property damage was over $100 million.  


The floods significantly increased the demand for flood control and virtually assured the passage of some sort of national flood control legislation by the federal government.  Even as the Roosevelt administration was dispatching a force of 275,000 relief workers to the devastated areas of the Northeast, efforts were being made to push through a gigantic flood control bill.  


An editorial in The United Opinion in April, 1936 summarized the need: “All New England now feels that something permanent must be done to prevent disastrous spring floods…Southern New England now realizes that reservoirs nearer the headwaters of the rivers is their best protection since flood waters are no respectors (sic) of state lines… It is an expensive program but more than worth its cost in the end.”  


There had been federal flood control legislation and dam building projects before. The Comerford Dam in North Monroe , built between 1928 and 1930 was, like many, primarily for hydroelectric power.  Conversely, the East Barre dam was built by CCC workers in 1933-1935 as a flood control reservoir.


The new proposal differed in significant ways.  By establishing a major commitment to protecting people and property from flood, it changed the role of the federal government. It expanded the role of dams to include reservoirs for flood control. The Army Corps of Engineers was also given greater responsibility for dam flood control construction and operation.


There had been earlier opposition to flood control projects from conservatives over this expanded role of the national government, the lack of revenue and the impact that dam construction might have on private property. That opposition virtually disappeared in the wake of the 1936 floods.  


On June 22, 1936 President Roosevelt signed the Flood Control Act of 1936 into law.  In later years, it would be followed by other legislation complimenting and expanding the federal government’s role in flood control.  


Between 1941 and 1961 the Army Corps constructed seven flood control dam with the capacity to control a portion of the runoff from the upper Connecticut River watershed. The Union Village Dam and the North Hartland Dam are two of those.  The Corps also works with hydroelectric dam operators and private landowners to try to contain recurring floods.


One provision of the 1936 legislation allowed states to enter into compacts involving flood control.  Such agreements have been reached between Massachusetts and Connecticut and Vermont and New Hampshire to compensate the two northern states for the costs of protecting the two southern states.


The 1854 wooden covered bridge between Orford and Fairlee was damaged beyond repair and was dynamite.  In June 1937, a new bridge was dedicated.  Built for $209,000, it was named The Samuel Morey Memorial Bridge. A new two-span bridge was built in 1937 between East Thetford and Lyme to replace the damaged 1896 bridge. 
 
Despite the changes in federal policy toward flood control, opposition to dam and reservoir construction continued. Republican George Aiken led the opposition to the enhanced Federal role in dam construction as a member of the Vermont legislature and as governor.


 In 1938, Vermont U. S. Senator Warren Austin wrote in a private letter “We are in a great fight over the New Deal flood control bill which would give the Federal Government power to seize more for dams and reservoirs, driving the inhabitants out, tearing up roads, etc. We know we are licked, but we fight on.”  There was similar opposition when the new Wilder Dam was proposed in the 1940’s.


For centuries there have been major floods on the Connecticut River. Major ones between European settlement and 1936 include those in 1770, 1862, 1913 and 1927. Some of those caused greater damage than the 1936 flood. One example of this was the major destruction to Wells River village in 1927.


There have major floods since 1936, including 1952, 1960, 1973, 1996 and 2011. In some towns there was greater damage and higher flood levels than 1936, while other communities were spared.  Much of the local area was spared the damage from Tropical Storm Irene that so devastated other parts of Vermont.   


For centuries little children have chanted the nursery rhyme “Rain, rain go away. Come again some other day.” One thing is certain: for those of us who live in the Connecticut River watershed, that “other day” is sure to come and so will rain and, ever so often, floods.