In class one day my local history students were discussing the impact of the Industrial Revolution on the early nineteenth-century New England farmer. Our focus turned to stonewalls, a ubiquitous reminder of the past in New England. In the woods and parks of New England, stonewalls serve as a palimpsest of what was once an agricultural landscape. A student asked if stonewalls were made to mark the boundaries of the farms, or where they built to keep in livestock? Another asked if the form of the stonewall had any relation to its agricultural function. These original questions generated a myriad of other questions – so many that I knew what our next class research project would be. What I didn’t realize was the breadth of knowledge and skills we would need to understand the subject.
In preparation, I first read two books: Susan Allport’s Sermons in Stone: The Stonewalls of New England and New York (which later became our primary textbook) and A Long Deep Furrow: Three Centuries of Farming in New England by Howard S. Russell. We were amazed to learn that there are far more trees in Massachusetts today than there were 150 years ago. By the mid-nineteenth-century as much as seventy to eighty percent of the Massachusetts landscape had been cleared for farming. According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s statistics on fences in 1871, out of a total Massachusetts acreage of around five million acres, 2,481,767 was fenced – almost fifty percent. In Massachusetts’ Essex County, seventy-five percent of the fences were made of stone. [http://www.primaryresearch.org/stonewalls/fencesurvey.pdf (6.3MB)]
Even so, it was around this time that the Industrial Revolution was shifting the nation’s agriculture west. One wonders how many of the fenced in areas surveyed were in fact abandoned farms. As early as 1820 the Industrial Revolution began to impact the livelihood of the New England farmer and his plight continued to worsen . Advances in transportation such as railroads, steamboats, and the completion of the Erie Canal flooded New England markets with farm products from the South and Midwest. Cyrus McCormack and John Deere designed farm machinery for the expansive and relatively flat Midwestern farms as opposed to the typically hilly and rocky small farms of New England. Eventually most New England farmers either abandoned their farms for the lure of cheap, rich land in the Midwest, or for opportunities in the growing mill towns nearby.