HVF in the 19th Century

A Glimpse at Hawthorne Valley Farm in the 19th Century.

Prepared by Martin Holdrege, Ric Fry & Conrad Vispo.


            Many people are not aware that approximately 75% of New England (and 85% of Columbia County) was once open farmland. Most of our current forests are secondary growth, grown up from pastures, fields and clearings. To illustrate this, we thought it would be interesting and important to look at the history of Hawthorne Valley Farm. We also believe it may be helpful for the farmers to know what crops the land was able to yield in the 1800s. In addition farmlands also provide habitats for many native plants and animals. Therefore they may be of conservation interest, especially when one considers what species were here a century ago, as well as what species are declining. By knowing what landscape was here 150 years ago and which species were abundant, we can get an idea of what nature-sensitive agriculture might be able to provide to native species today.



             We went to the County Courthouse in Hudson, NY. There we looked at old deed records. Through the deeds we were able to trace the primary owners of Hawthorne Valley Farm back to 1850, when it was owned by Eleazer Tracy (see partial transcription of 1849 deed sale to Eleazer Tracy and picture of original deed) In the County Courthouse we also had access to 19th century census “schedules” (the original records of the census takers). These statistics showed how much land the farmer owned, what livestock s/he had, and how much of certain crops were being produced. We were able to put this together yield information (e.g., cows/sheep per acre, or rye bushels per acre) and so convert production to acreage. We recreated land use and property borders, of Eleazer Tracy 1850, as best we could (see map). A deed gave the size and shape of the property. We placed this over a 1948 aerial photograph and adjusted using our best estimates. Using the approximate acreage from the deeds as well as the aerial photograph, we were able to figure out where crops were being grown, as well as where hay fields and pastures were.



            The Columbia County sheep industry reached its peak around 1840. Many hilltops were overgrazed and therefore stripped of much of their topsoil. The sheep were kept primarily for their fleece. In 1850 Tracy did not keep as much land for sheep as he did for cattle (see table). Ten years later he kept fewer cattle and more than twice as many sheep. In the 1800s Columbia County was one of New York State’s most important rye producers. The rye was mainly grown for paper and straw. Tracy used more land for rye than any other crop. Oats were important as feed for horses. At least some of the straw and oats may have been sent down river to New York City. Wheat, on the other hand, was not a primary crop during the 1800s. This is in part because the soils of the area are not well suited for its growth. The poor soils were able to sustain the wheat for only a few years, and the use of fertilizers was not extensive in these years. New England and adjacent New York had problems with the Hessian fly, a wheat pest, as well as other wheat diseases. Prior to the 1800s wheat was able to be cultivated in New England and New York. Tracy did not grow any wheat. Many farms had a dairy component and much cheese and butter were made. This was because it was the most practical method of preserving and trading dairy without refrigeration.

Eleazer Tracy’s farm gives a local glimpse of one, relatively early stage of our county’s agricultural evolution (see graph illustrating early agricultural production in the County). There was relatively little grassland previous to European settlement. There were wet beaver meadows. These were quite common, but diminished as the fur trade began. Other open areas included fire-prone places, as well as mountain tops with thin soils. Areas around rivers with a fluctuating water table also stayed open. The extent that indigenous peoples kept land open is not entirely known. Through their agriculture they formed open areas. They may also have burned the understory of forests, increasing the abundance of certain wildlife. The Northeast was at its most cleared around 1835, this stayed constant through the rest of the century. Farmers moved west in the 20th century, as more fertile soils became available. However, yield (amount produced per unit area) of such products as milk, corn, and hay has gone up in the past 100 years. So between 1940 and1960, the same level of overall production was taking place off less land. Orchard fruits and dairy have been the most important part of the agricultural life of modern day Columbia County, although more specialized farms (e.g., organic C.S.A.’s, grass-fed beef, home-delivery dairies) are now becoming more important.