Monthly Archives: August 2014

The Diemands’ big tent

diemand-tentDiemand Farm is a mainstay of Wendell’s agricultural landscape.  Following the pattern of a number of other newcomers to the town in the early decades of twentieth century (including the Lewis family), Connecticut-born Al Diemand bought an older farm property in 1936, and along with his wife Elsie, started a poultry business that has grown into a multifaceted operation now run by some of their many children.

diemand-photosNon-farmers looking at multi-generational, family-run farms like this one are often struck by the kinds of continuities that other occupations seem to lack:  rootedness in a particular place, skills passed along from parents to children, nostalgic landscapes that evoke images of an older way of life.  New England farmers have long made use of the nostalgia that surrounds small-scale farming for many people.  Starting in the early decades of the century–when Al and Elsie Diemand were just setting up their own farm–many farms began to offer what we would now call “value-added” products (jams, jellies, fresh vegetables sold at roadside farmstands) and “agritourism” (farm-stay vacations, hayrides, “pick your own” operations).  The Diemands have also created an inviting public interface for their farm, with goats, donkeys, and chickens on display and photos reflecting the farm’s history on the walls of the retail store (above).

But the truth is that farming is as much about change as continuity.  Like all other farmers, the Diemands have continually adjusted their practices in response to changing markets, tastes, and regulations. Continue reading

The Lewises find a farm

hudson-lewis-houseBy the 1920s and 30s, there was widespread agreement that small-scale farming in New England was in steep decline.  Yet a surprising number of people went “back to the land” in those decades, many of them prompted by the hardships of the Depression years and the availability of cheap land.  They were also inspired by dreams of self-sufficiency, desires for a closer connection to rural living, and concerns about the directions that capitalism seemed to be headed in.  Among the families who came to Wendell in search of these things were the Lewises of Maine, who bought an old Yankee farm on West Street in 1932 (above) and proceeded to teach themselves how to be farmers.  Continue reading

The Hagers’ experiment

hager-headshot On Christmas Day in 1839, a 61-year-old Wendell farmer named Martin Hagar (sometimes also spelled Hager) made over all of his farm equipment and personal property to his 30-year-old son Charles (shown at left in his own later years).  Charles, who had married the year before, agreed to care for his parents, one or both of whom were probably in poor health.

Among the items in Martin’s list of belongings were his livestock (horses, oxen, cattle, and one pig);  sled and sleigh;  three lumber wagons (suggesting that the family was cutting wood on a fairly large scale);  a plow;  a grindstone;  a mowing machine;  and the most expensive single entry on the list, “tobacco sash.”

Wait…what?  First of all, what is tobacco sash, exactly?  And does its presence in Martin Hagar’s inventory mean that mid-nineteenth-century farmers were actually growing tobacco–a crop that prefers gentle weather and fertile soil–in the rocky, hilly fields of an upland town like Wendell? Continue reading

Back among the hills

old-home-day[NOTE:  The full version of this article by Cathy Stanton originally appeared in the Greenfield Recorder on July 17, 1999, as “Franklin County comes home:  Old Home Day is a century-old tradition to boost civic pride.”]

The nearest public transportation was miles away, and the only way to get to the pretty hilltop town was by what one visitor called “the strenuous Up route.”

Nonetheless, people started gathering early in the morning for a day of games, picnics, music, and visiting with neighbors.  In the afternoon, two scratch teams faced off on the baseball diamond.  A local band played long into the evening.  “These Old Home occasions,” the same visitor remarked, “retain their popularity to an unusual degree.”

The comment was made in August of 1916–but it might have been referring to last weekend’s Old Home Day in Rowe, or to any of the other Old Home Days celebrations that survive in Franklin County in 1999.  The combination of sports, music, and food–and the community goodwill they generate–have changed very little in the past hundred years… Continue reading

Ebenezer’s acre

stone-wall-croppedIn 1771, the colonial government of Massachusetts surveyed the taxable property in the colony’s 152 towns.  Since most people were farmers, the survey focused largely on acreage cleared and cultivated, livestock owned, and the value of the property.  Wendell didn’t exist as a separate town yet (it incorporated in 1781) but searching for individual names of people known to have been among the first European-American settlers gives us a glimpse of some of these earliest farms.

One of the properties in Wendell (then part of Shutesbury) was being cleared by 28-year-old Ebenezer Johnson, the son of an already-settled Wendell farmer.  By 1771, he had cleared just a single acre, back-breaking labor in an era before backhoes and stump-pullers.  We don’t know exactly where in town the Johnson family’s properties were, but it’s a safe bet that even after his first acre, Ebenezer had accumulated plenty of material for the kind of stone walls that typically lined an upland farmer’s fields in this part of the state. Continue reading

Lucius Cook’s carrots

carrotsIn the fall of 1853, Dr. Lucius Cook wrote a letter to the newspaper describing his great success in growing carrots on 3/4 of an acre in the center of Wendell.  Subsequently reprinted in The New England Farmer, his letter described how he had been trying for two years to convert a hayfield to vegetable production.  An initial crop of potatoes had failed due to disease.  The following year he  lost most of his corn to worms and then had such a large yield of rutabagas that his horses (the only animals that would eat them) couldn’t get through all of them before the spring, and Cook ended up throwing most of them onto the compost pile.

But with the carrots he hit the jackpot.  He added about 30 loads of horse manure to the soil, invested in a new seed drill to plant the tiny seeds, and hired a crew to do the planting (and remove some of the stones that inevitably worked their way to the surface of the field, Wendell being known as a “rough, hilly town” in the words of the New England Farmer‘s correspondent).  In the fall, the harvest repaid Cook’s costs handsomely, with a yield of 16 tons or 651 50-pound bushels. Continue reading