Home | Whats New | Site Index | Contact | Search

Berks County Early Agriculture,

Agriculture in Berks County: 1700 to 1945 [1]

Adapted from the Berks County Conservancy, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992 as a "multiple property group" context.

Hartsprings Farms

Photo: Hartsprings Farms, Windsor Castle Road, Perry Township, Town of Hamburg; photographer Nicholas A. Tonelli, own work, 2011, [cc-2.0]; accessed June, 2021, via wikimendia commos.

Berks County, in Southeast Pennsylvania, has always been one of the leading agricultural counties in the state. From the time of settlement until the present, farming has been its primary land use, occupying 70 to 90 percent of the land in rural townships. Not only has the county retained its strong agricultural economy, it has preserved many of the traditional landscape features that give its countryside a unique historic character. The historic agricultural resources of the county have been the subject of the Berks County Conservancy's study for this multiple property National Register nomination covering the years 1700 to 1945.

The history of agriculture in Berks County can be traced through various periods, influenced by social, economic and technological changes that affected growth and progress. At its core, however, is the land itself and the individual farmer whose decisions about land use, crops, livestock, equipment, fencing, buildings, water supply, fertilizers, methods of planting, cultivation, harvesting, marketing and family lifestyle add up to Berks County farming over the years, an enduring heritage for nearly three centuries.

For the purpose of this study, certain periods have been chosen to define the context for today's surviving historic agricultural resources in Berks County. The period of settlement, 1700 to 1740, was one of pioneer farming, of clearing land and establishing farms. From 1740 to 1790, landowners strived to develop self-sufficient family farms and build substantial buildings that would serve the future generations of descendants. Wheat became the leading cash crop here and in other southeast Pennsylvania counties, making this region "the bread basket of the colonies." During 1790 to 1840, great progress was made in rejuvenating fields through use of fertilizer, lime and crop rotation. This was a time of prosperity when farming ruled the economy, new markets were developed, and well ordered farmsteads were established. It has been characterized as the golden age of Pennsylvania agriculture. There followed a long period of industrialization and urbanization from 1840 to 1920. Farming lost its domination of the economy, but it, too, was revolutionized by advances in technology. Animal power and machine power replaced hand power, transportation systems opened urban markets, and livestock and dairy industries improved. A reform movement developed seeking to bring scientific and educational advantages to the farmer. State land grant colleges, granges and other organizations led this effort.

Finally, from 1920 to 1945, the era of modernization brought further revolutionary change to farm life, through the advent of the automobile, the farm tractor, rural electrification, indoor plumbing, the telephone, and other conveniences. Specialization and management 'became more important in farming, while dairying became the most important farm industry.

Early Development of Agricultural Economy in Southeast Pennsylvania

During the colonial period Pennsylvania experienced rapid growth in population and increased status in national prominence. Next to the last colony to be founded, it was by 1750 third largest in population, after Virginia and Massachusetts. The climate of freedom encouraged by its founder, William Penn, attracted Europeans seeking relief from persecutions as well as persons of means who saw opportunities for individual initiative. Penn's city of Philadelphia became the largest city in the colonies, with nearly 18,000 inhabitants in 1750. This served as the center of government and trade. At the same time there was rapid expansion of the interior frontier bringing settlement to the counties radiating from Philadelphia, and to the farther reaches of the Delaware, Schuylkill, Lehigh and Susquehanna River regions.

A principal reason that Pennsylvania flourished during this period was its development of a strong agricultural economy. With Philadelphia serving as a market and export center and with the southeastern counties excelling in the cultivation of land and the production of food, a sound basis for prosperity was established. All real wealth sprang from the enterprise of the farmer and the merchant. The liberal land policies of the Penns, the skill and industry of the farmer-settlers, the richness of the soil, and the gradual development of transportation routes combined to make Pennsylvania the "breadbasket of America" (Stevens, 74). For more than a century, from 1725 to 1840, Pennsylvania led the nation in the production of food.

Farming patterns in Pennsylvania differed markedly from those in other colonies or in the European countries of origin. The village type of agriculture was practiced in the earliest English settlements in America, New England and Virginia. New England farmers lived in villages and went out to work on their respective farms, while holding certain land in "common" for grazing. In the early Virginia colony there was no private ownership of land, rather the settlers pooled the crops that they produced for use by the community. The colony did not prosper until private ownership was substituted for communal ownership. In Pennsylvania, on the other hand, small self-sufficient farms widely scattered in the open country prevailed from the beginning (Fletcher, 17). Although William Penn proposed establishment of the English system, the village plan did not meet the needs of the independent-minded Pennsylvania farmers. Most English, German and Scotch-Irish settlers desired to live on separate farms in the open country, as had the Dutch and Swedes before them. Instead of following Penn's directive for the establishment of separate townships of 5,000 acres with ten families having homes grouped in a central village, most landholders purchased tracts of 100 to 300 acres.

The southeastern region of the state was, and is, its principal farming area. Settlement radiated from the port city of Philadelphia into the rolling hills of the Piedmont and the broad expanse of the Great Valley. One of the major routes of migration was the Schuylkill River corridor which passed through Chester and Montgomery Counties into Berks. Between 1700 and 1760, the tillable portions of the county, were occupied and the population reached approximately 15,000 persons.

Berks County 1700 - 1740 Pioneer Farming

When the first settlers arrived in Berks County they found a land dominated by virgin forests. The region had been home to the Lenni-Lenape tribe who were semi-nomadic and practiced limited agriculture. Their chief crop was maize or Indian corn and other garden plants were beans and squash. Most of their diet was composed of wild plants, animals and fish. In spring they caught shad in the Schuylkill River; in summer they' picked berries; in fall they ate wild fruits, nuts and garden vegetables; in winter they consumed dried foods and smoked meats. During much of the year they hunted game animals. Often they set fires to the woods to drive the deer and other game to the waiting hunters. Esther DeTurck Bertolet, an Oley Valley pioneer, told her grandson (author Dr. Peter Bertolet) about the Indian fires which over the course of many years cleared open gamelands in much of the valley. Before the French and Indian War, Indians co-existed with the early settlers in some areas of the county. They shared useful agricultural practices, such as the cultivation and storage of corn, methods of growing beans, squash and tobacco, and the clearing of land by girdling trees. Only archeological evidence of their presence remains. Tools and other artifacts have been found at locations of known encampments and hunting grounds.

Life on a frontier farm was hard. The earliest dwellings were temporary structures that provided shelter until fields could be cleared, crops grown, and a farmstead established. Roads were rutted paths and the use of wagons was not common until after 1730. Tools were made from wood, including the plow (which was sometimes equipped with an iron knife to cut the sod). Crude wooden harrows were pulled by oxen to break the soil further. There were few horses. Grains were sewn by hand, and cultivated with a hoe. Grain was cut with a hand sickle. Once cut, the grain was bundled and shocked by hand. The harvested wheat was threshed either by tramping it out or by using the wooden flail, which beat it out. Ears of corn were shelled by hand.

Few buildings survive to illustrate the range of building types and construction methods of the settlement period. It is believed that houses were often simple structures made of log or rough planks fastened to posts driven into the ground. Records indicate that in 1718 George. Boone Sr., Daniel's grandfather, built a "log cabin without floor" in Exeter Township. The description of a half-timber dwelling of 1724 is recorded in Peter Bertolets manuscript of 1860. Some of the more substantial early houses, carefully crafted of log or stone, survive. Barns were known to exist at the same time, although dated examples are hard to find. The first crude barns were log shelters six to eight feet high, usually not chinked. The roof was thatched with straw or boughs held in place by saplings or stones. These primitive ground barns were replaced as soon as possible with sturdier structures, similar to the small log barn on a stone foundation at the John Leinbach farm or the small frame barn on the David Kaufman farm. One of the most common forms was the double log crib barn which had stables or animal shelters in the end sections and a threshing floor in the center. An example of this type is the Price barn in Ruscombmanor Township. Made of round logs, notched at the corners, this early barn has been in poor condition for decades, yet still survives. A number of gristmills were included on Berks farms before 1730 including the Kerlin, Boone, Kerst, and Reed mills. These mills have been demolished entirely or replaced by later mills at the same site.

One of the chief handicaps in the construction of farm buildings was the scarcity and high cost of nails, hence wooden pegs were used extensively. Wrought iron nails made of soft iron were hammered out laboriously on small anvils. These had rectangular shanks. Nails were so valuable that some times they were used in lieu of currency. Abandoned buildings might be burned down to recover the nails in them. It was not until 1796 that a nail cutting and heading machine was invented and "slitting mills" were constructed for cutting nails.

Although few dated buildings remain from the 1700-1740 period, other aspects of the rural landscape persist in boundaries, fence rows, settlement patterns, sites of roads, churches, and inns and family burial plots. When land ownership maps of Oley Township were superimposed on modern maps, it was seen that many original boundaries correspond to modern roads, fence rows, and property lines. Although farm sizes and field patterns have undergone many changes through the years, evidence of the old boundaries persists.

Family Farm

Between 1740 and 1790 agriculture flourished in Berks County. This surge of wealth and well-being developed partially because of industrial progress with the opening of many forges and furnaces, making Berks the leading iron producer in the commonwealth, but primarily because of the increased production of wheat for the export trade. The "wheat boom" started in the 1730s, accelerated in the 1740s, and reached a peak in the late 1760s and 1770s. In 1770 wheat accounted for 69% of the value of Pennsylvania's exports, with at least a third of the wheat crop sent abroad. Before and after the Revolution great quantities of wheat were collected at Reading each winter and sent down the Schuylkill when the waters rose during the spring. Flour from Berks and other Pennsylvania counties was shipped to the West Indies, England, Portugal and Spain, and to the New England colonies. Hence this period saw a great expansion in the profitability of farming, the construction of substantial and even elegant houses, the raising of splendid barns, the additions of many out-buildings for specialized purposes, and the proliferation of industrial buildings such as gristmills, sawmills, fulling mills, and iron furnaces.

Another regional characteristic of Berks County was established during this period. Whereas earlier immigration had consisted of a variety of ethnic groups, Swedes, English, Welsh, Scotch-Irish, French, Swiss and German, after the 1730s, the tide turned to Germany and the "Pennsylvania Dutch" character of the area was rooted. This had great implications as to the type of farming that developed here.

The basic pattern of the German farm in Pennsylvania was that of the single farmstead with the family forming the unit. In 1789 Benjamin Rush wrote, "The German farm was easily distinguished from those of others, by good fences, the extent of orchard, the fertility of the soil, productiveness of the fields, the luxuriance of the meadow". The , excellence of the "Pennsylvania Dutch" farms was no accident; they were the result of good Judgment, hard work, and superior methods of farming. Not only did the "Pennsylvania Dutch" played major role in the early agricultural prosperity of Pennsylvania, but they established a tradition of family farming that has endured to this day.

These farms were as self-sustaining as possible. By growing diverse crops and by selecting them wisely a farmer could keep himself busy throughout the year. A large variety of fruit and vegetables was dried for winter use. Meats were smoked over hickory or salted in brine for the winter. Honey and maple sugar were produced. Clothes were made from flax and wool grown on the farm. Shoes, candles and soap were home-made.

At that time wheat was sown by hand, usually in September, and cut with sickles in early July. The sheaves were stored in the barn to be threshed in winter. The predominant method in the Oley Valley appears to have been to have heavy draft horses tread over the grain. Another common method was by the use of flails. Winnowing or cleaning the grain followed threshing. Once cleaned, the wheat was ready for sale to a local merchant miller or to one down the river. Another option for the farmer was to have his wheat ground into flour either for sale or home use.

Rye was the other winter grain, sown in November and harvested with the wheat, in early July. Rye was used for bread and for distilling into whiskey. It was the second leading grain crop. The summer grains included oats, Indian corn, buckwheat, barley and speltz. Oats were used to feed horses. Indian corn or maize was fed to livestock rather than humans although it had been the Indian's mainstay. Buckwheat was made into meal for pancakes or feed for hogs and chickens. Barley and speltz (a German grain) were fed to animals.

Much hay was grown too, suited to the moderate climate and plentiful rainfall of the region. Every farmer tried to include some meadow land and a brook in his property, for almost every farmer had a small herd of cows. The irrigation of meadows began in 1750 and continued for 50 years, being described in deeds and wills as a "right". Only when clover and timothy were grown on upland fields was less importance attached to meadow land.

Common crops on smaller plots were hemp and flax used for cloth. Apple and peach orchards, cherries along fence rows, and pear, plum, and quince trees in the house yard supplied the family's needs, Berry bushes and wild berries were used for wine and preserves. Vegetables raised were potatoes, sweet potatoes, cabbage, beets, parsnips, onions, parsley, radishes, green beans, peas, peppers, lettuce and various herbs.

The breeding and raising of livestock was widely practiced. A productive colonial farm in the Oley Valley may have ten to twenty cattle, five or six horses, fifteen sheep and about ten swine. All the farms had some chickens and perhaps ducks, geese, guinea hens, and turkeys. The inventory of Benjamin Boone's herd, appraised in 1762, consisted of: six horses, six cows, five heifers, one steer, two bulls, four calves, 13 sheep and 13 swine. According to the appraisal the horses were of the greatest value. A pair of draft horses might be worth as much as six cows, whereas a fine riding mare was among a wealthy farmer's prized possessions.

Estate inventories and other documents show the typical agricultural tools and implements of the colonial period. These same tools were in common use on most farmsteads: Axes, grubbing hoes (for digging out roots), plow, harrow, sickles, rakes, cutting-box and knife, riddles, scythes, pitchforks, dung forks, dunghooks, flax break, garden hoes, shovels or spades. Threshing flails are found, but less commonly. Another specialized implement was the "winnowing mill", used to clean threshed grain. Iron replaced wood in plowshares and iron-toothed harrows were found on progressive farms.

The farm economy of the eighteenth century developed a network of related industries and services. Iron production and blacksmithing furnished tools and hardware, coopers made wooden barrels and kegs for storing flour and other commodities, wheelwrights built wagons for transportation of wheat and produce, weavers wove flax and wool into cloth, tanners made hides into leather, and many other types of craftsmen supplied household and farm needs.

1740 - 1790 Farm Architecture

Berks County is rich in its heritage of late 18th century farm architecture, characterized by soundly constructed buildings of log and stone. The presence of local variations in building types, designs and embellishments represents distinct patterns of folk cultural ethnic character. Because the farmers and builders of this period were mostly second generation immigrants, they naturally followed familiar European building traditions. Their handiwork in houses, farm buildings, tools and furnishings is a testimony to the fine craftsmanship of this prosperous period.

In a general way, the two main architectural traditions of the latter 18th century in Berks County are the "Anglo" and the "German". The former includes English and Welsh, primarily, and the latter Swiss, French Huguenot, and Germans from the Palatinate region of the Rhine Valley. Many outstanding houses, a number of barns and numerous outbuildings represent the 1740-1790 period. No farm in the county matches the David Kaufman Farm in Oley Township for its state of preservation and its' amazing integrity. Everything one would expect to find on a 1740s to 1800s Pennsylvania German farms there. A 1740s stone cabin, a 1760s manor house (architecturally intact with very few modern conveniences), a full set of domestic outbuildings, a walled garden, a walled spring and springhouse, a water ram; two fine stone barns, two frame barns, pig pen, wagon sheds, chicken house (later period), limekiln, quarry, family cemetery, locust groves, farm lanes and fences, meadow and cropland, all on the original 125 acres, still in family ownership and still farmed.

1790 - 1840 Development of Commercial Farming and Permanent Agriculture

By the late 18th century, most settlements in southeastern Pennsylvania were connected to each other by roads. Major inland towns such as Lancaster, York and Reading were accessible by Conestoga wagon. Farmers could haul their crops to the markets and could plan their production accordingly. In the 1820s further advances in transportation, such as the opening of the Schuylkill and the Union Canals, provided a means of hauling large quantities of flour, grain and other agricultural products to Philadelphia. These developments brought about a change from self-sufficient pioneer agriculture to the beginnings of commercial or market farming in this region.

The expansion to commercial farm production, the production of certain crops for sale rather than home use, could not reach its economic potential until a major agricultural problem was solved, namely, the maintenance of soil fertility. In most sections of Pennsylvania the continual planting of grain had decreased the natural fertility of the soil until its productiveness was exhausted. Many pioneer farmers would work their land until it became worn out, and then they would move to new land and start again. During the Colonial period, farms within forty miles of Philadelphia saw their wheat yield decline from an average of 20 to 30 bushels an acre to eight or ten bushels. In 1791 Richard Peters of Philadelphia reported to George Washington, "About eight bushels per acre is a full allowance for the better kind of farms in these parts. Some do not yield six." (Fletcher, p. 124) Farming became unprofitable and thousands of acres were idled. In this orgy of soil robbery there were few exceptions, mainly among Pennsylvania Germans. Being characteristically frugal and industrious, the Germans cleared no more land than they could use to advantage, and they saved manure and applied it to their fields. (Fletcher, p. 125) Accordingly it was not the farms of Bucks, Chester and Philadelphia Counties that made Pennsylvania lithe granary of the Revolution". It was the highly productive limestone valleys of Lancaster, Berks, Lebanon, Lehigh and Northampton - the Pennsylvania German lands. (Fletcher, p. 126)

In 1785 the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture was founded to address the critical need of improving soil fertility. To accomplish this goal the Society offered premiums "for the best method of recovering worn out field to a more hearty state within the power of common farmers". These premiums stimulated discussion and experiment among gentleman farmers that eventually resulted in a program of soil improvement that revolutionized Pennsylvania agriculture. This initiative was further stimulated by high export prices for farm products between 1790 and 1810 resulting from wars raging in Europe. (Fletcher, p. 127).

The farm practice that transformed agriculture most of all was the adoption of soil-conserving rotations. This was made possible by the use of gypsum and lime. These, in turn, made it possible to grow red clover on upland fields, in rotation with grains, instead of only in irrigated meadows. Finally, the production of more clover and grass made it possible for farmers to keep more livestock and have more manure to apply to the land. Thus a method of achieving "permanent agriculture" was devised. (Fletcher, p. 127)

Wheat remained the main cash crop throughout this period. From 1790 to 1840 Pennsylvania was the nation's most important wheat-producing state, while after 1840, it became second to Ohio. The limestone region of Berks and surrounding counties continued to lead the state in this important commodity. Corn became a more prominent crop after 1790 when the spacing between rows was gradually reduced, due to the introduction of more efficient tillage by the use of the cultivator. A method of cutting corn close to the ground and shocking it was practiced after 1800. Rye continued to be a leading grain in Berks County because of its many uses. The Germans preferred rye bread and used rye straw for roof thatch. In addition, it was used for the production of whiskey, with Berks ranking high in the state in the number of distilleries. In 1838 there were 19,410 acres of rye in Berks County, as compared with 17,400 of wheat, 17,200 of corn and 15,700 of oats. (Fletcher. p. 151)

After 1800 the acreage in hay increased for use on the farm. With the development of better roads, the number of horses increased rapidly, hence the need for timothy hay. 1838 statistics show that 11,700 acres of clover, 10,200 acres of meadow hay, and 6,600 acres of timothy were produced in that year. Another crop that gained favor was potatoes. In 1838, 4,000 acres were grown in Berks County. (Adams, p. 77) The growing of leaf tobacco for cigars was started in Lancaster County in 1828, and made some inroads into adjacent townships in western Berks.

Between 1790 and 1840 the livestock husbandry of Pennsylvania was transformed. The increase in use of lime and the greatly expanded production of forage and grain led to a marked increase in the number and quality of livestock. Improvement of breeding occurred at about the same time with the importation of English breeds of cattle, sheep and swine by wealthy patrons of agriculture, although in Berks County common use of these superior animals did not take place until after 1840. However, the displacement of grain farming by livestock farming was especially significant in the development of a permanent agriculture.

Because of all these improvements, the half-century from 1790 to 1840 has been called the golden age of Pennsylvania agriculture, a period when an agricultural economy reigned, before the Age of Industry brought its revolutionary changes to the patterns of work and life. This half-century was a time of agricultural awakening when worn out fields were rejuvenated and farm mortgages paid. The new husbandry and new markets brought to Pennsylvania farmers a period of prosperity that has not been surpassed. It was a time when Berks County farms flourished in the production of crops and livestock and in the construction of well ordered farmsteads. These farmsteads consisted of typical Pennsylvania German vernacular houses and barns surrounded by dependency buildings, gardens, orchards, meadows, lanes, cropland and wood lots. This is the traditional Berks County farm that even today reveals the historic fabric of our countryside and defines our county's lasting rural heritage.

Farmsteads of 1790 - 1840

On the typical Pennsylvania German farmstead of the 1790 to 1840 period the barn and house were complemented by numerous outbuildings that served specific purposes. These outbuildings can be divided into two major groups. Those which were used primarily to perform the domestic chores were clustered around the farmhouse and its yard area. They included the tenant house, springhouse, summer kitchen, bake oven, root cellar, smokehouse, woodshed, privy, washhouse, butcher house, and pump house. The other group was located near the barn or in the fields. These were the pigpen, sheepfold, chicken house, corncrib, hay barn, wagon shed, tool shed, and limekiln. Some farms had other specialized buildings such as blacksmith forges, ice houses, or distilleries.

Farmhouses of this period embraced new design elements, especially those of the popular Georgian and Federal styles. New sophisticated architectural features were often combined with traditional Pennsylvania German craftsmanship to produce local interpretations of style with Germanic overtones. The vernacular architecture that evolved was influenced by both traditions, being part Georgian and part Germanic. The most common rural house form, still seen throughout the county, is of this heritage.

The 1790 to 1840 period was the time that the Pennsylvania barn came into its own. A geography of the period states, "The pride of a Pennsylvania farmer is his barn, many of which are from sixty to one-hundred twenty feet in length and substantially built, either wholly of stone, or the lower story of stone and the superstructure of wood, handsomely painted or whitewashed. The interior arrangement of stables, threshing floor, granaries, places for depositing hay, etc, is admirably convenient and useful." (Charles B. Trego, Geography of Pennsylvania, 1843, p. 112, quoted by Amos Long, p. 318) It was during this period that increases in barn size and changes in barn form took place. These changes resulted from the need for increased storage and stabling. Barns were lengthened by the addition of extra threshing floors and mows on the upper level and the corresponding enlargement of the basement stable. Cattle and horses were often tied in standing stalls with wood partitions. Doors from the barnyard opened into each stable section and into the feed passages between them.

1840 to 1920 - Industrial Revolution: Farm Mechanization and the Reform Movement

The period from 1840 to 1920 could be considered an industrialization period for agriculture as well as for the overall American economy. The decade of the 1840s marked the close of the long period when agriculture dominated the economy of the state. In 1840 farming was the occupation of 60% of the people, but during the next decade, Industry grew to employ a majority of the work force. Tremendous changes were occurring in American life that would profoundly affect the lives of Berks farmers. Before the Civil War in 1860, 20% of the total population in this country was urban, but by 1910, 46% of the population lived in the cities. The agrarian America, peopled with yeoman farmers envisioned by Thomas Jefferson, was rapidly disappearing. Factories and cities arose, seemingly overnight, to replace farms and villages. In Berks County, the iron industry and other industries were developing rapidly, causing a shift of labor from farm to factory and a shift in population from farm to city.

The county transportation systems improved dramatically with the opening of the canals in the 1820's, the railroad in 1838 and the continued expansion and improvement of a network of roads. The Schuylkill River valley became a vital industrial corridor in bringing a new source of energy, anthracite coal, located upriver, to the new factories and mills that were springing up in the down river counties. In 1842 the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad reached the coal regions and the industrial revolution was underway. Coal would become the key to the expansion of the new industries and factories in the Schuylkill Valley and far beyond.

The transportation revolution had a positive effect on Berks agriculture as well as its industries. Farmers took advantage of the canals, railroads, and turnpikes to ship their grain and produce to urban areas. Philadelphia became a major market of the flour trade, and although the state lost its place as "the breadbasket of America" to the Middle West, the grain milling industry remained strong, and even expanded during the mid and late 1800s. The most outstanding change in agricultural practices, circa 1840, was the replacement of hand power with horse and machine power. The years from 1840 to 1920 could be designated as the animal-power period, in which most of the work on the farm which had been performed with human labor was now done by horses, mules and oxen. Prior to 1840 there had been little change in agricultural methods. Speaking of this period M. Jardine said: "Could the farmer of Pharaoh's time be suddenly re-incarnated and sat in Grandfather's wheat field he could have gone to work with a familiar tool. Then, within a period of fifty years, we covered ground in methods of crop production where fifty centuries had left almost no mark of progress." (Fletcher, 45.)

The first real improvements in tools and implements were made in the decades before and after 1840. In 1836, the first threshing machine was made in Reading. By 1837 John Deere and Leonard Andrus began manufacturing steel plows. In 1838 the first plows were made in Reading, and later Hamburg became a plow manufacturing center. Horsepowers, mowers and reapers were being developed. The McCormick reaper was invented in 1834, and was introduced to Pennsylvania in 1840 by agricultural reformer Frederick Watts of Cumberland County. The 1840s also saw the improvement of the cultivator and grain drill. The 1838 farm census reports the following implements on Berks County farms: threshing machines 100; corn shellers 152; revolving horse rakes 53; cultivators 1030 (Adams, 45).

Dr. Peter G. Bertolet of Oley in his Fragments of the Past written in 1860 relates, "Many of the modern labor saving machines have been brought into use among our farmers: such as mowers, reapers, threshers, drills, planters, etc. Thomas P. Lee introduced the first drilling machine in 1846; David Yoder Sr., the first reaper in 1845." Morton Montgomery in his 1909 History of Berks, states that Joel Dreibelbis, after he purchased his fathers' farm in 1857, was one of the first farmers in Richmond Township, to adopt mechanization. According to the agricultural census of 1850 Berks County ranked fifth in the state in value of farming implements and machinery with a value of over $700,000.

After the 1850's, the use of reapers and mechanical threshing reduced labor and made increased acreage feasible. Old barns were expanded and new ones built larger. Early threshers were small, animal-powered machines that could be set up on the threshing floor where the grain had previously been hand-threshed with a flail or animal-threshed.

The horse-power machines were developed about 1835 and were in use until the latter part of the century. Several "horsepower rooms" were found on barns that were surveyed. The horse-power room on the farm of Ernest Angstadt in Maxatawny Township was built as an extension to the barn on the bank end. A wooden shaft in the middle of the room had three wooden arms on which the horses were fastened. The three horses walking in a circle turned the shaft that ran the belts and gears. A belt from the power ran to the threshing machine on the barn floor. In this way threshing and feed grinding could go on in good weather or bad.

As threshing machines grew larger with higher daily threshing capacity they were prohibitively expensive for many farmers. Enterprising farmers would buy a machine and go from farm to farm threshing. During the latter half of the 19th century, many Berks farmers purchased threshing machines and separators from the Ellis-Keystone Agricultural Works of Pottstown. Early in this century Berks County lead all other counties in the state in percent and number of farmers owning their own threshing outfits. They, therefore, depended less on custom threshers (Adams, 54).

When straw walkers and chaffers were added to the simple cylinder-type thresher many more sheaves were threshed per hour. Straw removal became a bottle-neck in the system. A conveyor, known as a "carrier" was soon added. This could project out the front of the barn where a straw stack would be built in the barnyard. Straw stacks were wasteful, so many barns in Berks added additional storage for straw. The Survey revealed many of these additions, usually set at a right angle to the front of the barn.

The mowing machines patented in 1844 did not come into general use in Berks until after the Civil War. At that time, much, if not most hay was harvested, pitched and loaded by hand well into the new century. Hay was harvested with the sickle and scythe and gathered by wooden hand rakes. At the barn it was loaded by hand with a pitchfork, one man standing in the wagon, handing it to another man with a pitchfork in the barn. Methods overlapped in Berks, mechanization being used alongside man and animal power. While some farmers in Berks were loading hay by hand others, near the end of the 19th century were using the hay hook, spear or grapple. Many of the barns surveyed still had the metal track and carriage on the interior roof of the barn; several wooden tracks were also seen. Lloyd Dreibelbis and several other farmers remember the horses or mules being led outside the barn threshing floor so the animals pulling a rope over pulleys could lift hay from the wagon and move it across the track to storage in the hay mow. The Clemmer Barn in Hereford Township still has the track with two large steel grapples in place in the barn. The Survey found that many old barns had some interior roof support timbers removed or cut to accommodate mechanical loading.

Gas engines eventually replaced the horse and steam power. These engines were of all types and sizes and were used to pump water, run the cream separators or the washing machine, as well as to operate barn equipment. The Ernest Angstadt farm still has the building which housed the engine.

According to Ivan Glick of the New Holland Machine Co., rye was flailed while wheat was threshed mechanically. Mechanical threshing shredded the rye straw while the flail left it long and undamaged. The long rye straw was needed for roof thatch and for twisting into ropes to tie corn shocks and bundles of husked corn fodder. (The Survey found a log barn which the owner said still had rye thatching on the roof after 1900.) In 1880, Deering put 3,000 twine binders on the market and some of these reached Berks County during the eighties. The invention of the binder brought low cost twine in balls, and as a result rye could also be threshed mechanically after this date.

Agricultural Reform Movement

During the great advances in industrialization, farming lost status. The agricultural reform movement grew out of the need to improve the image and reclaim the status of the farmer. Improvement was the key word of the agricultural reform movement. The reformer sought the improvement of the overused and worn-out soils, the improvement of tools and implements to lessen the burdens of the farmer, improved livestock through selective breeding, and the improvement of the architecture of the farmstead so that the younger generation would be proud to stay on the farm. This desire for improvements led to the creation of county agricultural societies, the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania (Penn State), the U.S. Dept of Agriculture and the Grange. The Patrons of Husbandry or Grange was first organized in 1867 in Washington D.C. by Oliver Hudson Kelly to provide a vehicle for debate and discussion.

The same economic pressures felt by all American farmers after the Civil War were also felt in Pennsylvania and Berks County. These pressures were greatly intensified by the panic of 1873, and a need was felt by Pennsylvania farmers to band together for their protection and to have a forum for discussion. In 1873 the Pennsylvania State Grange was organized in Reading on September 18, with 25 Granges represented. The following local Granges were organized in Berks that year: one in Amity; two in Oley; two in Exeter; one in Richmond; one in Maxatawny; one in Douglass; one at Stouchsburg; and one in Perry. Twenty-six more grange chapters were organized by 1920.

The agricultural reform movement was also reflected in publications such as the Farm Journal, started in Philadelphia in 1877. Articles in this publication gave details of the newest farm machinery as well as why different varieties of crops and plants were the subject of experimentation. Often designs for farmhouses, barns, outbuildings, and grounds were featured in these periodicals. On most Berks farms, mechanized or not, everyone worked from dawn to dusk. Farmwomen not only had to do housework, care for the children, milk, feed the farm hands, cook, bake large quantities of pies, can or dry the vegetables they grew in their garden but they also worked in the fields as needed. The farmers all remembered having tasks from the time they were quite small. The older farmers spoke only "Pennsylvania Dutch" when they started school.

1920 to 1945: Period of Modernization

The everyday pattern of farm life in Pennsylvania changed little between 1820 and 1920. It changed in a revolutionary way in the next few decades, thanks to the automobile, the improvement of roads reaching from farm to town, communications advances in radio and telephone and rural electrification. By 1920 the automobile was no longer a curiosity, but a practical method of transportation, and the next several decades saw the paving of roads that provided new mobility to rural families. Contact with towns and in turn their contact by motor truck transportation with larger cities meant many changes: new sources of supply for foodstuffs, new access to stores in town for clothing and supplies, new communication between town and country. The modern era had begun (Stevens, 300).

Electricity was a major force in modernizing life on the farm. During the 1930s most Berks County communities were supplied with rural electrification. This meant the coming of the refrigerator and home freezer, replacing home canning and the cold cellar. It meant lighting of houses and barns, automatic pumping of water, and use of electric tools and labor saving devices in the house, barn and farm shop (Stevens, 301).

Home Conveniences on Farms in Berks County January 1, 1945 Department of Agriculture Estimates for 4,863 farms:

Running Water2,913
Bath Rooms1,100
Heating Systems990

From 1923 to 1928 the successful light tractor was developed and from 1929 to 1936 the all-purpose rubber-tread tractors with complimentary machinery came into wide use. In subsequent years tractors increased in size, versatility, and in the types of equipment that they could operate. "Combines" for the mechanical harvesting of grain came into Berks County following the general use of farm tractors in the early 1930s, the first one being operated on Tulpehocken Farms owned by Henry Janssen. Other harvesting implements of the 1930s were hay balers, corn pickers and potato pickers.



Dairy Farming: 1920-1945

Dairy farming was the leading Berks County agricultural enterprise during this period. Hand milking, which often was a source of contamination of milk, began to give way to machine milking in the larger herds about 1920. At about this same time milking machines and mechanical cooling improved commercial dairy business opportunities and the milk market greatly expanded.

In 1916 the Interstate Milk Producers Co-operative was organized in West Chester and established headquarters in Philadelphia. Berks County dairymen were among the organizers and hundreds of memberships were sold to dairymen in the county. This was a bargaining organization which gradually gained the confidence and cooperation of established milk dealers in the Philadelphia marketing area. In 1934 the Lehigh Valley Cooperative farmers was established with its headquarters in Allentown. Hundreds of Berks milk producers from the northern and eastern sections of the county joined. During the 1940s this became one of the largest and most successful milk producers' cooperatives in the state, both in marketing of dairy products and in herd improvement through artificial insemination breeding service.

Other dairy cooperatives were the Farmer's Union Dairy Cooperative and the Farmers Fairfield Dairy Company, both in Muhlenberg Township in the 1930s and 40s. Many private commercial dairies also became established, including St. Lawrence Dairy, Clover Farms, and Dietrich's Dairy. These businesses had their own processing plants for pasteurizing and bottling the milk. They had fleets of delivery trucks that picked up the raw milk from the farm in the early morning, and delivered bottled milk to their customers, door to door, on daily routes.

During this period sanitary standards prescribed by State and municipal authorities made it necessary for most dairymen to erect a milk house where the milk was separated and cooled. The survey found many of these houses (almost always of cement block) on Berks farms. After 1930, the springhouse and milk cellar were displaced by the milk house and electric cooler. Hand milking of smaller herds like those on the Heffner farm in Maidencreek Township, continued well into the 40's as did other farmers of smaller herds in Berks.

In Berks County as elsewhere the new standards, mechanization and milk inspection requirements changed barns radically. Often forebays were enclosed with many windows to provide more space and light. Stanchions replaced stalls, dirt floors were cemented. Many of these enclosed forebays were encountered in our survey including the Stauffer Reifsnyder (Richmond), Benjamin Scheffler (Upper Bern) and Adam Schaeffer (Lower Heidelberg) barns. The additional expense to conform to the new codes drove some Berks farmers out of the dairy business, especially those with smaller herds.

Mushroom Farming: 1920-1945

A form of agriculture that came to Berks County during the 1920-1945 period was the growing of mushrooms. The mushroom Industry came into existence in Pennsylvania in Chester County. In 1928 an Italian immigrant named John Morganti brought the industry into the Berks region, building a plant on Mt. Laurel Road in Muhlenberg Township. Other early mushroom entrepreneurs were Cleto Cinelli, John Paci, Pietro Gaspari and Samuel DeSantis. The industry continued to grow locally helping to make Berks and Chester Counties the "Mushroom Capital of the World".

Trends in Agricultural Production 1945

In 1948 Charles Adams, Berks County Agricultural Extension Agent since 1914, wrote a History of Farming in Berks County in which he summarized his findings: Changes in agricultural practices on Berks County farms have been made gradually over a long period of time. The early agriculture featured corn, wheat, rye and hay. Corn was the basic feed crop and still is today. Wheat was the chief cash or money crop and the basic food crop. With the opening of the midwest and the coming of the trans-continental railroads, western wheat grown on cheap land and on extensive acreages forced an adjustment in Berks County's agriculture. Wheat no longer was depended upon as the only money crop, even though it still is important as a cash crop to this day. It's importance was intensified by the world food situation created by two world wars. The peak in wheat acreage on Berks County farms was reached in 1920, while corn acreage increased with peak production in 1945. Oats, rye and buckwheat all declined since 1880. Tobacco was never a large crop in Berks County with 820 acres in 1880 and 59 acres in 1940.

New and improved varieties contributed much to the profit of the grain farmer. Most of this advance was made in the last forty years. The Pennsylvania State College and nearby state Agricultural Colleges and Experiment Stations all contributed to this advance. The corn improvement program has been the most outstanding, with the development of hybrids in the last dozen years.

Advancements in the livestock programs also are outstanding. It was not until the early years of the present century that any marked advances became apparent in better selection and better breeding of livestock. On the dairy farms the Durham and Shorthorn type of dairy cow began to disappear in the late nineties and early 1900s. The Holstein breed took the lead in this transition, and still is in the lead in numbers on our farms. The competition among milk dealers for a higher cream line and a more highly colored product has brought the butter breeds into the whole milk market, namely Guernseys, Ayrshires, and Jerseys. The change-over from a butter and cheese industry on dairy farms, to one of market milk, has meant a considerable adjustment. This occurred for the most part since 1910.

Beef cattle have not been able to compete with dairy since 1910. The numbers of beef cattle has decreased materially, because the dairy cow was found to be a more profitable machine in converting feed crops into a marketable product demanded by the public. The transition in the poultry industry on Berks county farms is even more pronounced. A higher quality product through more careful handling of eggs has opened up a ready nearby market for well selected fresh eggs. This was spurred on through the cooperative effort of poultrymen from Berks and nearby counties, in the development of an egg auction which attracted large buyers from the seaboard markets. The dung-yard fowl which comprised our general farm flocks up to 1900 to 1910, have disappeared and standard bred hens are the rule on most farms, whether it be a flock of 100 or a commercial poultry farm with thousands of laying hens.

An outstanding adjustment in the last twenty-five years is that of mechanization of our farms, and a consequent reduction in numbers of horses and mules. This released more than 50,000 acres of land that produced feed for horses, for which other uses had to be found. Farm mechanization and farm home conveniences have greatly changed the rural life picture since World War I.

The peak of total farm acreage was reached by 1900. Since then, each decade shows a definite loss in farm acreage, so that in 1940 it is only slightly more than it was in 1844. The percent of acreage in farms also shows a decrease from the peak of 83.3 in 1900, to 67.8 in 1945. Improved acres in farms follow a similar trend. Woodland and waste land acreages also had been on the decline since 1900. The 1945 Census records the land area for Berks County to be 552,960 acres. Of this 374,891 acres are in farms, or 67.8% of the total area. (Adams, 76.)

Dairy cattle numbers generally increased during the 1880s and since then have remained fairly constant. The drop in the 1945 census indicates less cattle raised during World War II when normal replacements were not available. The general trend in poultry numbers is definitely upward since 1880 and that is what has put Berks County into 15th place among the more than 3,000 counties of the nation in number of hens and 21st in total egg production. Horses and mules reached their peak population at the turn of the century and during the last 45 years have lost ground, due to mechanization of agriculture. Hogs vary from year to year, but increased in the war years. Sheep were numerous on farm flocks and for wool production to the mid nineteenth century, and have been of minor importance since then. Beef cattle have declined during the twentieth century, as dairy cattle have been more profitable.

During the latter half of the 19th century practically every farm had a home orchard for family needs, and a few apples to sell. This trend continued up to the first decade in the 20th century, when farm orchards began to lose ground because of an infestation of San Jose Scale in the 1890's. Only those orchards continued to thrive where the farmers invested in spray equipment and did a consistent job of spraying year after year. Only a small percentage of farmers did so, and as a consequence most small farm orchards disappeared while larger commercial orchards developed to serve the market needs. Large amounts of fruit were produced in a favorable season, with most absorbed by the local markets. Peaches and apples were the exception which were heavily exported from the county.

Epilog: Current Status of Agriculture in Berks County

Since 1945, the number of farms in Berks County has consistently declined. According to the U. S. Bureau of the Census, Census of Agriculture: 1987 Advance County Report, Berks County farms decreased in number from 4,863 in 1945 to 1,809 in 1987, while the acreage decreased from 374,891 to 243,260 (from 67.8% to 44.0%). These statistics reflect a dramatic land use change occurring in Berks, similar to that in other highly productive agricultural regions in Pennsylvania and, in fact, in much of the northeast United States. The period from 1945 to the present has seen an urbanization of rural areas with development of transportation networks, shopping centers, industrial parks, office complexes and housing tracts on "open land". This has brought about a crisis for cities, which have lost their vitality, and for farming communities, which are beset with development pressures. Nevertheless, agriculture remains the state's and the county's "number-one" industry, and certainly the county's predominant land use. A strong agricultural base remains in the county, and farmers are striving for more efficient production in order to maintain profitable operations.

Unfortunately there is no really effective mechanism for growth management and agricultural preservation at state, county or regional levels, and local township governments lack incentives for cooperative planning. Locally, Berks County is participating with the commonwealth in the PACE (Purchase of Agricultural Easement) program and seven townships have enacted Agricultural Zoning. These programs begin to address the problem, but a much greater cooperative effort is needed to counteract the continuing loss of prime farmland to suburban sprawl.

Studies such as the Conservancy's multiple property nomination projects for farms and gristmills in Berks County help us learn a bit more about our county's rich agricultural and architectural heritage. The remarkable legacy of Pennsylvania history found in rural Berks - in farms, mills, villages and existing landscape patterns can still reveal many insights into our past. The loss of farmland over the past 47 years has resulted in the loss of many unique and important historic resources. This rather brief one-year project points out very clearly that preserving farms and farmland is the "number-one" historic preservation problem facing Berks County today.

  1. National Register of Historic Places, Agriculture in Berks County: 1700-1945, 1992, Nomination Document, National Park Service, Washington DC

Home | Whats New | Site Index | Contact
Privacy | Disclaimer

Copyright © 1997-2024, The Gombach Group