Delaware County NY Genealogy and History Site

Centennial History of Delaware County, New York : 1797-1897
edited by David Murray, LL.D.

Transcribed by Tamara Sanford


AS the county was developed by the labor of these industrious and intelligent pioneers the whole face of a neighborhood became transformed. The forest was crowded back and in its place appeared smiling fields of wheat and rye, corn and buckwheat, hay and potatoes. Apple orchards, plum trees, and currant bushes appeared on every farm. The log-house and barn gave place to frame buildings; horses displaced oxen in many of the services of the farm and the family. Roads were laid out and maintained throughout the county. Mills* for grinding grain, which at first were few and distant; were erected at convenient places on streams which furnished waterpower. (* The first settlers in Harpersfield were compelled to go to Schoharie with their grain; those who settled in Middletown went to Kingston; and the Johnstons at Sidney ascended the Susquehanna and found mills at Cherry Valley).

When these mills were well nigh inaccessible the pioneers had recourse to home made wooden mortars, which were dug out of a green stump large enough to hold a peck of grain. Over this was bent a tough sapling to which was tied a heavy wooden pestle. With this rough apparatus the farmer could break the husks from the grain, and even crush the kernels into a kind of rude meal. Sawmills were early introduced at many suitable mill sites. These were generally erected near pine or hemlock forests, and lumber, was cut by them for the new frame houses and barns which everywhere began to be erected. For many years lumbering was one of the great industries of Delaware county. At many places both on the East and West branches of the Delaware river great rafting stations were maintained. The lumber was cut in the winter, and either prepared for rafting unsawed, or it was sawed into boards and joists and scantling. In the spring this lumber was built into rafts in a protected eddy of the river. Then the lumbermen taking advantage of the usual freshets of the spring started their rafts on the river. It was no easy task, and not wholly without danger, to steer the raft through the rough and sinuous current and past the sharp head- lands and rocks. When the narrow part of the stream had been passed, usually below the junction of the two branches of the Delaware, the smaller rafts were joined together, four of the former making one large raft. In this fashion the raft was run down the whole length of the river to the great lumber market of Philadelphia, It is only necessary to add here that the lumber of Delaware county has long since been exhausted and instead of the supply being sent out in rafts by the rivers, it has now become necessary to bring it in by the car load on the railroads.

There were a number of minor industries which for a time were prevalent in the county, but which have gradually passed away and are no longer of consequence. 1. As long as hemlock timber lasted the tanning of leather continued. In many localities this was an important business, and in some has continued until very recent times. But the hemlock forests have now been completely demolished, and tanning has ceased to be of consequence in reckoning the available resources of the county. 2. When the forests were being cleared up, and when wood was the only kind of fuel immense quantities of wood ashes were produced on the farms. These were used in many and various ways. Soft soap for use in all farm purposes, was made by leeching wood ashes and producing a lye. This when combined with animal fat produced the well known soft soap, which farmers in early times almost universally employed. The wood ashes also were sold by the bushel to establishments where they were reduced to merchantable potash and pearlash, which were largely used in the arts.

The making of maple sugar was from the earliest settlement of the county a prominent occupation. Even before the Harpers came to live in Harpersfield they had come thither in the spring of 1772 to obtain this crop. The town was so well supplied with maple trees that for a long time it bore the name of "the Bush" or the "Sugar Bush". Sugar was made in the spring of the year at the time when sap of the maple begins to ascend from the roots to the buds. The tree that is used for sugar making is called the sugar maple (Acer saccharinum) which abounds in the northern part of the United States and Canada. An incision was made in the trunk of the tree two or three feet from the ground. 'To catch the sap of the tree which flowed from this incision a spile was inserted in the tree just below it; and from this spile the sap fell drop by drop into buckets or sap-troughs. It was gathered from these receptacles into a hogshead, from which it was fed to evaporating pails, Then when reduced to the consistency of thin molasses, it was transferred to a pot where it as still further reduced to a consistency which would when it was poured into moulds cause it to harden into cakes.

This maple sugar was almost the only kind of sugar used among the pioneers, and is still manufactured in every part of the county where maple trees are to be found.

It soon became apparent that butter making was the industry best adapted to Delaware county. In general the soil was too stony and intractable for the raising of grain. Wheat was almost abandoned as soon as facilities for importing wheat flour became available. Rye continued to be raised, but usually not in quantities much more than sufficient to supply the wants of the farmer's family. Oats were needed both for man and beast, and even the rough soil and the short season were no impediment to the raising of good crops. Buckwheat and Indian corn and potatoes were also crops which were raised readily and freely, but farmers generally contented themselves with crops sufficient for home consumption. The main business of the farmer and his family was to make butter, which always could be sold either in bulk or in small quantities for cash.

The great question in reference to every farm was, how many cows will it keep. This depended on two things, first the amount of pasture land which furnished food for the cows in summer, and second the amount of meadow land which furnished hay for the cows in winter. Grass and hay, these were the staple articles of food for the cows. There were, however, other foods which were sometimes used to supplement these. In the autumn when the grass was beginning to fail sliced potatoes and sliced turnips were fed to the milch cows. And in the spring when the cows had grown tired of hay, and the pasture was not yet ready for them, they were often fed with a mash of bran or crushed grain in addition to the hay which was their main diet.

Butter making was essentially the same in the early periods of the county as it is now. The cows,* however, were much inferior as milk-givers to the present breeds, and the milk was much less rich in butter. (*Professor E. B. Voorhees, director of the Now Jersey Experiment Station who has given facts here mentioned, says the dairy cow of the Middle States was undoubtedly a defendant of the early importations from Holland 1625, from Denmark 1627, and from the West Indies into Virginia as early as 1609). The cows were usually the native cattle which had spread from New England, and were the miscellaneous crosses between cattle imported from Holland, Denmark, England and Scotland. They were small and generally active in climbing the hillsides of Delaware county farms. The average daily milking was from six to ten quarts. From this it was customary to make during the season at the very best about 100 pounds of butter. When these figures are compared with, the dairy records of the present day they seem trivial. Now a good Jersey cow yields fifteen to twenty quarts of much richer milk, which if used for butter making will produce something like 250 to 300 pounds during the season. The milk was poured into tin pans and these set in a cool dairy house until the cream had risen. Then the cream was skimmed from the pans and put into the churn, where it was agitated with a dasher until the butter "came." Churning was a tiresome task when done by hand; but this was almost the unvarying custom in the earliest times. Later, wheels were constructed to do the churning, which were sometimes turned by a dog or a sheep and sometimes by the water of' some convenient stream. The butter when taken from the churn had to be worked in a large wooden bowl with a wooden ladle in order to squeeze from it the milk which might cling to it. Then it was salted with fine salt and packed into the firkins or tubs in which it was carried to market. Nearly all this heavy work, and it was heavy was done by the women of the pioneer families; and by this means they bore their full share in the labor of maintaining the families and producing the means by which progress and prosperity were gradually spread throughout the new settlements.

The butter, as we have said, was packed in firkins holding from eighty to one hundred pounds; or sometimes in tubs made by sawing a firkin into two parts. A farmer kept these packages in his cellar until the cool weather of the autumn arrived. Then he loaded all his firkins into a lumber wagon, covering them carefully from the sun and the dust, and carried them to some place on the Hudson river, whence it could be taken to New York. At these places Catskill or Kingston generally, there were butter buyers or commission merchants who were ready either to purchase the dairies for cash, or to take them to New York on commission. At a period a little later there sprang up a class of men in various central localities throughout the county who undertook to purchase their butter from the farmers at home, and thus spare them the long journey which they had been obliged to take. Still later and within a comparatively recent time, there have appeared creameries at many points, to which the farmers now carry their milk. These establishments treat the milk, the cream and the butter in the most approved methods, and have done much to raise the dairying industry of Delaware county to its present high character.

Index to Centennial History of Delaware County

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