Historic Crops Present Our Agricultural Past: Carriage Hill Farm Visit
by Rick Musselman of Carriage Hill Farm, Dayton, OH
photos by Jim Scherer of Huber Heights, OH
Today, we are faced with the continual loss of farm land and the agrarian way of life. One other aspect of our agricultural past that has almost disappeared is heirloom crops. Over the past fifty years, the introduction of hybrids has almost entirely replaced the crops of our past. However, because of the efforts of living history farms and museums, such as Carriage Hill MetroPark Farm, these crops are still being preserved for future generations.
At Carriage Hill Farm, over eight different period crops are being maintained using period farming methods and techniques. Everything from wheat to sorghum is grown to present a picture of what historic crops looked like. Two of the most interesting crops for visitors to see are corn and tobacco.
During the 1880s, Henry Arnold, the farmer who lived at Carriage Hill, maintained over 17 acres of what was termed “Indian Corn.” This term refers to the old European use of the word “corn” for grains and crops, for example “barley corn.” Thus, when Europeans came to America they referred to the native crop as “Indian Corn.” Corn during the 1880s was a major crop that was quite diverse. In the 1886 Ohio Agricultural Report, there were over 46 classified varieties of corn and 27 unclassified varieties listed.
Today at Carriage Hill, varieties such as Reid’s Yellow Dent, Bloody Butcher, or Ohio Calico can be found at times. Using heirloom seed, corn planting is also done as a period demonstration. Cornfields in the 1880s were laid out much differently than those seen today. To recreate a cornfield during the time period it is laid out in check rows. The field is prepared and then marked using a marking sled. Afterwards, the farmer moves across the field perpendicular to his markings with an original corn planter. A knotted wire is stretched across the field which when tripped causes a kernel of corn to fall into place in the dirt. Rather than being planted in long straight rows, the field is actually laid out more like a checkerboard. The idea behind this is that the field could then be cultivated in all directions, including diagonally.
When fully grown, visitors are also astounded at the size of period corn. Typically, a period stalk of corn can grow anywhere from 12-15 feet in height. In addition to that, one will also notice a little less regularity as opposed to modern corn fields. Altogether, this helps present a more accurate picture of what period cornfields looked like.
In addition to growing corn, Carriage Hill grows another period crop that draws much interest, tobacco. While the Miami Valley area in Ohio is not viewed today as a large tobacco growing region, at one point an international market existed there. In 1890 the amount of acres planted in Montgomery County alone was 8,927, producing 6,308,998 pounds of tobacco.
Of the many different types of tobacco grown in the United States, the most commonly grown during the 1880s in the Miami Valley area was the seed-leaf variety. Even today, Carriage Hill Farm still maintains this rare heirloom variety and plants it each year. Several years ago, the farm was looking for backup sources for this rare seed and managed to track it down through the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station. Thus, a truly period variety found in the Miami Valley has been maintained using a documented source.
Just as corn planting is offered as a program, visitors can also stop out at Carriage Hill and watch as tobacco is being planted. To prepare for spring planting, the Carriage Hill staff starts flats with the miniscule seeds. Typically the seed is mixed with cornmeal or sand to measure its distribution in the flats. The flats are then taken to Cox Arboretum, a Five Rivers MetroParks facility, where the plants quickly mature. Once the flats are ready, they are then transplanted by hand into a plot. An original tobacco planter is used, complete with a wooden barrel of water. Each individual plant is set and watered. Throughout the summer, the historic farm staff weed around the plants and check for tobacco worms. Finally, in November, tobacco stripping is done as a public program. Tobacco is also tied into hands and packed into an original tobacco press. In addition to this, some tobacco is left hanging in the barn in order to interpret to the public this cash crop.
Period crops help provide a better understanding of our past farming practices. Through the efforts of countless individuals and numerous living history sites, these heirloom crops will be maintained for future generations.
For more information on living history farms and museums across the country, go to www.alhfam.org (Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums) or www.momcc.org (Midwest Open-Air Museums Coordinating Council).