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Life on the Farm in America - Early 20th Century

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  • Life on the Farm in America - Early 20th Century

    As I get older, I am more and more impressed with how difficult and challenging it must be to live as a farmer. My mother was born on a farm in North Hero, VT in 1925. This was her grandparents farm, where her father had been born in 1901. There ancestors had come from Quebec in the mid 19th Century, from the nearby border areas. My grandparents moved to Boston in 1928, so the kids could have more opportunities. But they would take the train up every summer and spend the summer.

    This was primarily a dairy farm, but they also grew other cash crops as well as food for themselves. They were fortunate that they were literally on Lake Champlain, so they always had fish available to them. My mother told me several times they did not get electrical power until after WW II.

    My mother loved her grandmother very much, who basically kept her alive when she was born two weeks premature in the middle of the winter. My mother would visit the graveyards every summer when we went to Vermont, and she would always point out all the women who died in childbirth. She also loved to visit antique shops every summer looking for things similar to what was on the farm. She especially loved to fish - they used to got out in row boats and "troll" for gamefish, especially Northern Pike.

    Some of the things I remember my mother telling me about the farm was that her grandfather was an excellent business man, who knew how to grow and find a market for cash crops (often pea beans), that every one of the kids had their own chore to do every day, and they used to love Sundays, when they got to see their cousins. There was also a huge 3 acre or so garden which later became the lakefront lots given to the children, including my grandfather, which was cultivated by the women "in their spare time". This was very important for putting up preserves.

    Anyway, my purpose here is ask anyone who lived on such farms, or whose people did, how they were organized on an economic basis - what were the cash crops, how important was communal labor or barter, how were chores allocated to children, how was the barn and outbuildings laid out, how were the fields rotated and fertilized, how were seeds stored, what the kitchen routine, how did diet vary throughout the year, were any herbs used for medicinal purposes, what machines were used, tractors, generators, etc. - in short, I would love to hear "oral histories' from people. I'm sure others would also, since many or most of us are "city kids" or "suburban kids".


    Last edited by lakechampainer; 17 Sep 11, 12:27.

  • #2
    My Great Grand-parents farm house

    The first picture below is a picture of my great -grandmother and presumably a grandson on the back porch of her farm house in North Hero, VT, in the early to mid 1930s. She had 8 children. She died in 1935. Note the clothes washing devices, the toys, and maybe a spinning wheel - and the chickens. I guess they had simple times and generated their own fun. When my mother was 10 or 11 she jumped down from the hayloft, and landed on a pitchfork with her foot. Luckily, she recovered.

    The second picture is a picture of my grandmother (who was born in Ireland) on the front porch of the farm house. From her appearance, it seems that the picture is from the mid to late 50s. She must have been on summer vacation.

    The house was knocked down about five years later when my great-grandfather died. Most of the farm was sold to a Doctor from Maine as a vacation home. Much of the lakefrontage was given in lots to my grandfather and his siblings. Much of the land over the years was rented by farmers to grow corn or to cut hay.

    The third picture is of my grandparents and my great-grandfather. It must be before 1955, because the 3 acre garden is in the background, my grand-parents house has not yet been built. Interesting that they are holding the cats, reminding us of the need for cats to keep down the numbers of mice and rats.

    The fourth picture is a picture that just says "1921" on it. It is probably the best "farm life" picture I have. The bleakness of the landscape strikes me. It also reminds me that we in our lives don't take pictures of ourselves at work or working, but of our families or something special, not day-to-day. Edit: my wife just pointed out to me that these are obviously turkeys. I find that interesting, I don't remember my mother ever mentioning turkeys. Maybe that year they were trying to raise turkeys.

    I have many pictures of people including my mother, my brother and sister and myself, my cousins, etc. holding fish up proudly. Here is an example of what I believe is a (7 pound?) Northern Pike. I think the man is my grandfather, but I can't tell for sure.
    Attached Files
    Last edited by lakechampainer; 19 Sep 11, 12:09.


    • #3
      I've often thought of how hard life use to be. If you have ever cleared timber out of the woods you know. I've help a German friend get his wood in for the winter. Two chain saw, hand saws and only 60 70 feet to the truck to load the cut wood. After a day you tired. Think how it must have been and what kind of people moved into the wilderness, cleared the land built a cabin/shelter planted crops and all the time only a one shot smooth bore by his side for protection from gritters that lived in the wilderness both two and four legged.

      You were a better man than I am Gunga Din.
      "Ask not what your country can do for you"

      Left wing, Right Wing same bird that they are killing.

      you’re entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts.


      • #4
        I would certainly love to see rural pictures posted by anyone, from any country or era - I definitely believe that a picture is worth a thousand words - at least!

        And John, my hat is off to all the pioneers also - And I can only imagine what it was liking coming over on the boat. I'm sure it was no fun for my three grandparents who crossed the ocean, but I have trouble even imagining what it would have been like crossing on a sailing vessel.


        • #5
          I found a copy of a posting I made several years ago on the LinkedIn History Enthusiasts Group. I had posted a question about the Lower Canada rebellion of 1837 -1838 to see if maybe that had something to do with my people moving across the border. (I never found this out, but based upon genealogy records, My guess is not directly, but that the forces the led some to discontent inc. population growth and the way the English treated the French-Canadians, together with more freedom and land in the US, helped fuel immigration).

          Anyway, some things that I posted jogged my memory and also prompt me to mention some things:

          My great-grandmother spoke mostly French, she didn't speak much English. My mother told me that when she (my mother) took French in High School, she was not a good student, because she found the different pronunciations between Quebec French and French French to be confusing.

          The farm was about 80 acres (As I had measured it on google at the time: nothing to do with half a homestead). The perimeter of the farm had apple and pear trees. In my linkedIn posting, I had put in quotes that my mother told me "this was the old French Way". I just remembered now my mother telling me that there was another (5 or 10 acre?) field that was in question who owned it. I found this amazing, as in our society this would be a big deal. This land was near and/or may have included land that later included a large 4-H vacation camp. Edit - I wonder if the trees were planted not just for the fruit, but to provide a location for bees to locate their hives. I assume also of course that they were a "fence."

          When my great-grandparents were first married, they lived in a cabin in the woods, she would show us the foundation. I don't know if that was on what was later their farm. I don't know how they got the farm, I just realized that I had always understood it was not inherited. I also just realized that I should be able to find that out with some research.

          My mother used to tell me her grandparents were the first couple married in the newly opened North Hero church. This is confirmed in a book I have called "History Town of North Hero Vermont - an account of the discovery, settlement and interesting events" Compiled by Allen L. Stratton, North Hero, VT Printed by the George Little Press, Inc. Burlington, Vermont, 1976. from pages 135 -136

          "The first baptism in the North Hero Church , was on 15 June 1887, Henry LaFlame, Son of Alfred LaFlame, and also Sarah Brule', Dau. of John and Clara (Popaloose) Brule' (Bruley). The first marriage was Desire Dubuque and Jeanie Poquette, the parents of Luke Dubuque, Sr., our venerable and much respected townsman now living south part of North Hero Town."

          My big mystery is how were my great-grandparents so relatively prosperous for that time and place? I'm left with two thoughts: their parents were fairly well off, and maybe the ancestors who crossed the border came with some wealth, and also, because of the large vacation complex up the street/just South where rich people from NYC had lovely homes, a golf course, etc. The children all worked their at one point or another, the oldest son (Luke Sr. mentioned in the quote) worked for the people "at the point" his whole adult life, until he was into his 80s. I wonder if they not only had this direct income, but if they sold farm products to them directly sometimes.

          From genealogy records (which the Quebec people are known to have kept good records, through church records) I believe they each had one parent born in Canada and one in Vermont. I found a Quebec genealogy info guide which says that French Canadians started to move down Lake Champlain about 1830, based on the census. I have a great-great grandfather born in North Hero in 1840.
          link to Vermont French-Canadian Genealogical Society:

          "The Point" is how my Irish grandmother got to Vermont. She was living in NYC working for some of these people and she worked several summers there, which is where she met my grandfather. They were actually married in NYC.
          Last edited by lakechampainer; 19 Sep 11, 20:23.


          • #6
            Some more pictures from my great-grandparents farm

            Here are five more pictures from my great-grandparents farm. I found my other set of pictures.

            The first picture is someone, presumably my great-grandfather, dealing with a pair of work horses. Doesn't look easy! Any one have any ideas what type of horse, or what the equipment is that the horses are pulling?

            The second picture is my mother proudly holding up some fish she caught. from mid40s to early 50s I would say. They seem to have graduated to motors from rowing!

            The 3rd picture is from my grandparents lot. A decent view of the outbuildings, less extensive than I thought. Must be about 1955. Any ideas on the year and model of the car?

            The fourth picture is my mother with another trophy. Another view of the outbuildings behind the house.

            The fifth picture is of my mother holding one of her young relatives.

            My great-grandparents had six children, not eight. My great-grandfather lived from 1866 to 1958. My great-grandmother lived from 1869 to 1935.
            Attached Files
            Last edited by lakechampainer; 21 Sep 11, 05:05.


            • #7
              More pictures from the farm.

              More pictures from the farm.

              First picture looking west or actually west northwest across Lake Champlain towards New York State. As I've mentioned on other posts here, when I was a kid on the shore or on the lake I would sometimes imagine the ships from the great naval battles of The Revolution and The War of 1812 passing by, on their way to or from fighting.

              My mother with her grandfather outside what appears to be the main barn.

              A better view of the house. I'm sure if it existed today it would be worth a bit to someone who likes old houses.

              Edit: My wife just showed me how to blow up the picture on the screen by clicking on it. Oh. I guess maybe I'm only ten or fifteen years behind the times now!

              That is my grandfather proudly holding the fish in the fifth picture in post #2. He worked in a meatpacking plant for a while in Troy, NY for about a year I think around 1919 when he was about 18. I wish I'd asked him all about some of the details of that.

              When I google South End Road North Hero VT map I get a good view of the old farm (after zooming in some). The road changes from west heading to south heading (along the lake). The large area with fields inside the turn is the property (to the south and east of South End Road, and bordered by the lake to the west), including the large strip field ("the back field") to the Southeast of the main property -there was a tractor path between the fields. The main property east border is more or less a straight line with Old West Shore Road. As can be seen, the fields are still used for agriculture. Vermont has stringent laws to keep open space/work against sprawl, which I think is a good thing. The rest of New England would have benefited from similar policies.


              Continuing South on South End Road brings you to "The Point", which is where my grandparents met, when my grandmother came up from New York City with her employers.
              Attached Files
              Last edited by lakechampainer; 21 Sep 11, 11:06.


              • #8
                The car is a 1953 Monarch (Mercury in the USA).
                The most visable part of a persons education is their parents example !

                Christianity is made far too complicated by far too many denominations.
                It's truly a simple concept.
                Dont take my word for it---Read the Book of Romans!


                • #9
                  I lived on a poultry farm for 10 years and it could be a messy job. Farming is very hard work.
                  “When you're in jail, a good friend will be trying to bail you out. A best friend will be in the cell next to you saying, 'Damn, that was fun'.”
                  ― Groucho Marx


                  • #10
                    Following up a comment I made earlier, my great-grandfather was a "II" his name on his headstone is Desire Dubuque II. This suggests to me that maybe he did have some money or support, although he was not the eldest son. In the book I already mentioned, History Town of North Hero Vermont - compiled by Allen Statton, there is a map from 1871 on page 53 called Beer's map - the main part of the farm seemed to be owned by J. Hazen at the time. I wonder if the farm or part of it was bought from J. Hazen or his heirs by my great-grandparents.

                    My great-grandparents' children all left the farm eventually, except one, who died in 1954 right after chopping wood (he had his own house on the farm where the road turns at the lake). His name was Wyman. He and his older brother Luke were World War I veterans, who both served in France. Below are links to two ACG posts I made about them. The first link includes two pictures of my Uncle Luke on postcards to be sent home. The second includes a picture of a letter (on a postcard) he wrote to his mother from Gievres, France on March 2, 1919. There is also a picture of the front of the postcard. Some info in the original posts is wrong - Wyman died at 60, not 40 and Luke died in 1980 at 87, not in 1988. Thinking about it, I assume my grandfather, who was 17/18 at the time, must have "made his bones" on the farm with his two older brothers away.


                    That bring's up a question in my mind - were there dowries in those days? Or maybe the brides parents paid for the wedding party? Anyone have any knowledge of this, direct or not?
                    Last edited by lakechampainer; 22 Sep 11, 20:17.


                    • #11
                      Rutland Railroad

                      Like much of rural America, North Hero's history is closely tied with that of the railroads. In the case of North Hero, the Rutland Railroad operated from 1901 to 1961. A milk train was inaugurated in 1909, running daily. The railroad built the section through the Champlain Islands from Burlington, VT to Rouses Point, NY (a town on the Canadian border and on the lake). This would then connect with lines to Montreal. Also, the railroad had already purchased the Ogdensburgh & Lake Champlain R. R., which covered the areas on the South Side of the St. Lawrence River. Below is a link to a map of the old route:


                      There is a Rutland Railroad Museum, in Rutland, VT, operated by the Rutland Railroad Association. It is located at the old Central Rutland Depot. I have never been there, but plan to go. Link below to the Rutland Railroad Association site:


                      Below is a link to a web site, the fallen flags website, operated by George Elwood which is linked from the Wikipedia article below. It has some excellent pictures of old locomotives, trains, stations, etc. I recommend it to anyone with any interest in railroads or railroad history.


                      Link below to the wikipedia entry on the Rutland Railroad:


                      Prior to the railroads, much of the transport to and from the islands was by ferry and over the ice in the winter. There was a ferry at Knight's Point (now a state park) connecting North Hero and Grand Isle, from about 1785 to 1892. Knight's Wharf was also located here, a terminal for much lake shipping, the lake steamers making a regular stop here, bringing and picking up all manner of goods. Much of the farm products of North Hero were shipped from this point. Source: Previously mentioned book by Stratton. There were also ferries connecting North Hero and Alburgh, which as a peninsula had rail links to both Rouses Point on the west shore and Swanton on the east shore of the lake. In terms of roads, a highway bridges to the south and north were completed in the 1890s. Source for above paragraph, and the milk train info, previously mentioned book by Stratton, pp 46-47, p62 : History Town of North Hero Vermont An account of the Discovery, Settlement, and Interesting and Remarkable events Compiled by Allen L. Stratton North Hero, Vermont Printed by the George Little Press Inc. Burlington, Vermont 1976
                      Last edited by lakechampainer; 23 Sep 11, 06:18.


                      • #12
                        Building the Railroad - the Italian Contribution

                        From the previously cited book by Allen Stratton, I found this interesting, I guess especially because of my Italian heritage, two paragraphs from page 61:

                        With John W. Burke of NYC, as Chief Engineer, and O'Brian & Sheehan, General Contractors from NYC, the new extension struck bravely out into the lake west of Mallets Bay, stretching a marble riprapped causeway for three miles across to South Hero Island, then straight north along South Hero, Grand Isle and North Hero for the village of Alburgh and the final crossing of Champlain to Rouses Pt.

                        The construction work brought a boom to the Islands, upwards of 500 men, mostly Italians being brought in as laborers. Numerous of the local inhabitants found employment also, together with the huge demands of boarding and keeping the contractor's equipment operators. The railroad built shed-like living accommodations for the Italian laborers and it is told that they lived in the most primitive fashion, boarding themselves on what little they could afford from scanty wages. Dandelion greens was a prominent feature of their bill of fare.

                        Changing the topic, my favorite "day trip" in Vermont was visiting Shelburne Museum. It is great for general Vermont history and also for some NYC period history, with furniture displays, etc - one of those places you see and appreciate something different every time you go - highlight is The Ticonderoga which is on land now, but was "the last of the lake steamers". My grandfather used to tell us he used to see it go by when he was a kid.


                        Below is a link to a museum I have not visited, but would like to, The Billings Museum in Woodstock, VT. Among other things, it has a "farm life in 1890" exhibit, which seems interesting.

                        Last edited by lakechampainer; 23 Sep 11, 19:59.


                        • #13
                          North Hero and Grand Isle County today

                          Below is some current information on North Hero and Grand Isle Country. According to the US Census, the population was 803 in 2010, falling from 810 in 2000. Per the previously cited book by Stratton, the population from 1790 to 1900 was as follows:
                          1791 - 125; 1800 - 324; 1810 - 552; 1820 - 503;1830 - 736; 1840 - 716; 1850 - 730; 1860 - 594; 1870 - 601; 1880 - 637; 1890 -550; 1900 - 712

                          The town (with Grand Isle) has a volunteer rescue service with EMTs, a volunteer fire department, and a sheriff.

                          Vermont is the 49th largest state in population, 630,337 in 2010. Only Wyoming had less people.





                          Last edited by lakechampainer; 24 Sep 11, 10:42.


                          • #14
                            Some interesting pictures as pictures

                            Looking through my pictures I found some more pictures I find interesting. The first is again a picture of my grandparents and my great-grandfather. What I find interesting about this picture is the shadows on the front of the house. The sun was obviously going down over New York State across the Lake. God knows who took the picture, but I wonder if they were trying to get that effect, or it just happened.

                            The second picture is of my grandfather and my oldest cousin working on the driveway, on which the shale stones from the shore were used to provide a base for the tires. Looking towards Beekmantown and Chazy, NY. There is a stone that can be seen sticking out of the lake,about five feet into the lake, on the right. There were a number of such stones that were great to play on, both on the shore and on the water. My mother's cousin did some research and found out that there was a quarry in NY that in the early part of the century would dump their waste stone products on the shore. Sounds weird, but clearly these stones were not there naturally. My grandfather has his pipe in his mouth, as he often did. I swear I can still remember what it smelled like - very pleasant - "Borkum Riff" I believe was his brand.
                            Attached Files
                            Last edited by lakechampainer; 24 Sep 11, 15:36.


                            • #15
                              North Hero agriculture in the 19th Century

                              Once again from the book "History Town of North Hero Vermont: An account of the discovery, settlement, and interesting and Remarkable events" compiled by Allen L Stratton information from pages 71 to 81, entitled home industry.

                              First, I must say this book is very interesting. It was clearly a labor of love for the author. When I first read it years ago, I found it boring, as it is not a history, but a "compilation" as shown in the title. I remember my mother was disappointed that more French people and more family people weren't mentioned - my great-grandparents marriage and my two great-uncles service in WW I were the only mentions. It is clear to me now that the reason is simple - Mr. Stratton was working with documents and photos available to him, and certainly with the documents they would tend to be more about the English settlers, as they were there earlier and because at least some of the French people spoke French, as my great-grandmother did mostly. (I remember even my grandfather talking in his sleep sometimes in French, when he was older). Inevitably the "leading citizens" would not include the French people at first, they would not be serving in town offices or operating as merchants.

                              When first being settled, there was quite an industry burning the trees cleared from the fields to make potash.

                              excerpt from page 71, describing the process:

                              "A widespread industry in the Champlain Islands and elsewhere in the early settlement was the making of Potash. The necessity of clearing the lands for agriculture produced vast amounts of fallen trees that had to be burned to dispose of. The hard woods, oak, ash, birch, etc. produced wood ashes which were collected. They were boiled with water in huge open-air kettles, the impurities being skimmed from the surface, until the water evaporated and nothing was left except a thick brownish salt called potash. Good Clene Salte of Ly was when the potash was placed in a hot oven until the carbon was burned out, leaving a lighter ash, called pearl ash and a more valuable product.

                              Many references to this home industry are mentioned in our early history. Potash was much in demand in the Montreal market. It was a caustic product used for bleaching, soap-making, glass-making, and about the only product that could be converted to cash."

                              from page 74. regarding the trees used for Royal Navy Ships:

                              "The original forests of North Hero Island contained oak, maple, pine, spruce, tamarac, cedar, hemlock, beech, birch, ash, basswood, walnut, and butternut trees. Oak and pine were very abundant when the settlement of the island was first commenced. The early settlers, anxious to clear the land for crops, cut the virgin forest ruthlessly, burning such. Much of the oak and pine was cut into logs and rafted down the lake, through the Richelieu rapids, down the St. Lawrence to Quebec City for His Majesty's Ships."

                              an excerpt from page 75, regarding what the settlers grew and ate in 1798:

                              "Food was supplied almost wholly by the farmer. The variety was quite amazing. Records in 1798 tell of gardens with parsnips, carrots, turnips, cabbage, potatoes, pumpkins. Summer field crops of barley, peas, flax, oats, Indian corn, white beans, summer rye and wheat, and buck wheat. Fish and game augmented the menu. The farmer was his own butcher but the lack of refrigeration meant that the carcass was preserved by drying, salting, or pickling. In the winter it was frozen. When wanted a piece would be hacked off with an axe."

                              from page 77, regarding what and how much was grown in 1840, excerpt below:

                              "In 1840, North Hero farms produced 4005 bus. wheat; 6452 bus.Oats; 950 bus. Rye; 1383 bus. Buck-wheat; 3127 bus. Indian Corn; 14,525 bus. Potatoes; 1317 Tons Hay; 5185 lbs. Maple Sugar; 8044 lbs. Wool. (Thompson's Hist. Vt., pg. 129.)"
                              Last edited by lakechampainer; 25 Sep 11, 13:10.


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