Voice of the People: Daily Life in the Antebellum Rural Delaware County New York Area
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by Nancy S. Cannon
As in the rest of American in the era before the Civil War, most families in the rural Delaware County New York area made their living as farmers. From sunrise to sunset they worked the land in spring, summer, and fall, raising crops such as oats, hay, wheat, corn, and buckwheat. Livestock included cows, oxen, horses, sheep, poultry, and pigs. When evening came, farm families worked by the glow of a wood fire or by the light of a candle made from the tallow of a cow or sheep that had been slaughtered for meat.
The earliest settlers began by clearing the land of the native forest: a man with an ax could ready several acres a year for planting. (see Pioneer experiences). Gender, age, and physical ability generally dictated the division of labor. Men chopped away at the forest, made fences (often stone walls), tilled fields, planted and harvested crops, constructed buildings, took care of livestock, and cut firewood. Women assumed the domestic responsibilities within the home, ranging from cooking meals over a wood stove to childcare to nursing to gardening to food preservation to cleaning to laundry to spinning and weaving. Children, a key component of the agricultural unit of production, contributed however they were able: feeding livestock, emptying slop pails, collecting firewood, carrying water buckets, preserving produce, picking up stones, gathering fruits and berries. In addition to hired hands, neighbors in this cash scarce economy often joined forces whenever labor for a large project was needed. "Bees" for everything from barn raising to logging to quilting provided both labor and social opportunities.
Circumstances necessitated encouraging hard physical work. Many who settled the area immigrated from a Europe that lacked land and political stability. For the industrious, Jacksonian America offered a land of increased freedom and opportunity. Others migrated from states such as Massachusetts and Connecticut where land had already become scarce or the soil depleted. Deplorable working conditions in factories, such as the New England textile mills, made the backbreaking labor of farming less onerous. A farmer controlled his own schedule and, with hard work, could at least generally provide food and shelter for his family. Nonetheless, factors such as sickness, vice, misfortune, market conditions, and unreasonable rents (see the Anti-Rent conflict) could bring economic failure to the most industrious.
In addition, the vagaries of Mother Nature could produce havoc with the local economy: a drought meant a poor crop which meant the farmers would be unable to buy products at the local stores which meant the shopkeepers would be unable to sell their merchandise. There were no credit cards. Entrepreneurs such as Guerdon Edgerton of Delhi gave credit to people, but at a high cost: if the crops were poor and the farmer could not repay the debt, the creditor ended up with whatever was used as collateral for the loan, from land to cattle to furniture. Delaware County's first Poor House, constructed in the late 1820's, provided food and shelter to the poor and insane in a time before welfare checks existed. Children unfortunate enough to end up in the Poor House were sometimes let out as indentured servants until they reached the age of 18. Despite the hard times that followed the Panic of 1837, the first bank in the area, the Delaware Bank in Delhi, opened in 1839.
Businesses evolved around the needs of the farmers. After the land had been cleared of the native forest, mills to grind home-grown wheat into flour emerged. Blacksmiths produced horseshoes, nails, fasteners, and simple utensils. Coopers made firkins for butter and barrels for storage of everything from pork to beer. As farms prospered, villages grew and provided new services. Village businessmen relied on the farmers to purchase their wares. Factory made goods at affordable prices, imported from places such as New York City, allowed local residents to enjoy some of the benefits of the Industrial Revolution. Merchants took farm produce such as wheat, eggs, butter, dried apples, beeswax and feathers rather than cash as payment. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the area had quite a variety of businesses: dry goods stores, grain mills, fulling and carding mills (for wool cloth), hardware stores; dentists, physicians, shoemakers, tailors, milliners, rafters, lumbermen, blacksmiths, carpenters, lawyers, land agents.
Although the Industrial Revolution transformed many villages in America into factory towns in the antebellum era, the Delaware County area remained a land of small farms and villages reliant on the business of agriculture to sustain it. Letters, diaries, and newspaper advertisements on this web site provide numerous examples of daily life in the area. For example, an 1821 advertisement for a general store in the Delaware Gazette (a Delhi newspaper) lists the products sold as well as the offer to accept payment in farm produce or lumber. In 1835 farmer Walter Jayne of Walton, New York wrote to his brother Addison in New York City asking for a loan due to losses incurred after an unusually severe winter: no money was available locally. In 1831, a notice appeared in the Delaware Gazette relating to "voluntary assignments by an insolvent, for the purpose of exonerating his person from imprisonment". Alvina Colony, a 6 year old girl in the Poor House in 1837, became an indentured servant to perform housework for a local family to age 18. Matthew Griffin signed an agreement with Henry Edgerton in 1848 to provide board for stage coach drivers as well as hay, oats, and straw for the horses. Nathanial Arbuckle of Delhi kept a farm diary outlining his daily routine in 1852. For additional documents, proceed to Letters, Diaries, etc.
For Further Reading
Illustration: Adapted from Peterson's Magazine, March 1858, frontispiece
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