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Five Acres Too Much
Five Acres Too Much

Five Acres Too Much

A Truthful Elucidation of the Attractions of the Country, and a Careful Consideration of the Question of Profit and Loss as Involved in Amateur Farming, with Much Valuable Advice and Instruction to Those About Purchasing Large or Small Places in the Rural Districts.

by Robert B. Roosevelt, 1869

To the writers of books on farming, gardening, horticulture, agriculture, and floriculture, this work is respectfully dedicated, as an evidence of what can be done and what wonderful results can be produced by a careful study of their directions and strict obedience to their rules; and as a slight testimonial to the accuracy, lucidity, and practicability of the advice which they give and the experiences they describe; in the sincere hope that they will never weary of composing books equally truthful, trustworthy, and interesting. — The Author.

INTRODUCTION.

It was in consequence of reading a little volume called “Ten Acres Enough” — a practical and statistical, as well as, in certain points, a poetical production — that I came to prepare this volume. In that work a charming and interesting account is given of the successful attempt of a Philadelphia mechanic to redeem a strip of exhausted land of ten acres in extent. In the course of it, a vast deal of advice and most valuable directions are given on the subject of planting and sowing, draining and reaping, manuring and pruning; berries and fruits, vines and vegetables, are duly considered; and the question of outlay and income, expenses and receipts, losses and profits, is forever ding-donged into one’s ears. So useful is the instruction it contains, that no one should think of buying a farm, experimenting in rural life, or even reading this book, without first perusing that one. To be sure, the author forgets occasionally some minor matters — such as clothing, food, and the like, leaving his family naked and unfed for several years — but that is doubtless due to his poetical temperament and intense love of nature. In the same spirit, therefore, no matter how frequently I may refer to money matters in the course of the following pages, even if I should occasionally condescend to speak of food and raiment — those commonplace necessities — it must be understood to be with no sordid view; and if I keep these matters before the reader’s attention, it will be for the sole purpose of benefiting and enlightening him, and pointing out clearly the financial consequence of investing in rural residences.

The country — how beautiful it is! to a man wearied with the cares of city life; who has pursued an exhausting profession for several years with vigorous energy; who has taken a hand in politics, attended caucuses and Conventions, and helped to “run the machine;” who has a philanthropic turn of mind, and gone on committees and made public collections; and who, moreover, has abundant means — this though last, is by no means least — the country, with its green leaves, its lovely flowers, its waving grass, its early vegetables, and its luscious fruits, is most attractive; and where a residence can be obtained which combines all these luxuries with pure air, and no chills and fever, and which is not too remote from city life and its attractions, it is as near to Paradise as this world permits.

There are many such places near New York. Gorgeous villas dot the banks of the Hudson, and congregate together thickly on Staten Island; there are beautiful spots along the coves of Westchester County, and persons who do not mind expatriating themselves to go to Jersey; but there is one locality that far surpasses all others. The steep banks of the Hudson, cut off as they are from the westerly winds by the Palisades and higher hills beyond them, are uncomfortably hot; Staten Island is overrun by sourkrout-eating, lager-beer-drinking, and small-bird-shooting Germans, who trespass with Teutonic determination wherever their notions of sportsmanship or the influence of lager leads them; Westchester County, like some of our famous prima donnas, is fair to look upon, but great on shakes — too much so for perfect repose; and Jersey will be a pleasant place to live in when the inhabitants, individually and as a government, cease to live off strangers.

The locality referred to — the chosen spot of this earth — the Eden of a country village — has none of these drawbacks. An invigorating breeze blows over pure salt marshes; Germans do not trespass nor make one afraid; no man residing there has ever had a case of chills and fever, no matter what may have happened to his neighbor, where the boys are forever out o’ nights and exposed to the dew; and the inhabitants are always ready to kindly take a stranger in.

It is a village, and yet country houses stand embosomed in majestic trees; cows pasture in the vacant lots and bellow in the streets; nurseries for the propagation of trees and shrubs give a condensed edition of miniature forests, and furnish in one rod the flowers that Nature, if left alone to her parsimonious way, would scatter over an acre; gas is in the residences, pigs root in the public roads, and early peas are combined with plank side-walks. This unequaled concentration of attractions can be reached in thirty minutes from either the upper or lower part of the city — of course New York city is meant, as no one need leave Philadelphia or Boston to get into the country — and by a most delightful route, partly on water and partly by railroad. The trains run every hour all through the day, and the line is the safest in the world. This spot, so desirable, so infinitely superior to all others, is Flushing, Long Island.

I have some property at Flushing which I should like to sell in lots to suit purchasers; in fact, it is five acres of such lots — the five acres that this book is all about. I owned this superior investment when “Ten Acres Enough” led me to thinking that if the author could make such a delicious thing of a plot of sand in New Jersey, as much could probably be done with half the area in the fine soil of Flushing. Unfortunately, my land had no improvements, but then it was a magnificent level square, precisely like a block in the city, and admirably adapted to building. Otherwise my five acres were full as good as the half of his ten acres; the grass seemed to be abundant, for the cows of the entire neighborhood had grazed on it from time immemorial; a previous owner had been once known to plant cabbages, and the tradition is that they grew and came out cabbages, and did not, as they usually do, spread themselves and become very fine but rather loose leaves. The soil was deep a well having been sunk on the adjoining property without descending beyond it, or reaching any water worth speaking of; and the exposure was as sunny as could be desired — there being only six trees, and one of those in doubtful health, on the entire five acres. Teachers generally say, on receiving a new pupil from another master, that there is more trouble to unlearn than to learn; here there was nothing to be undone — everything was to be done. It was not exactly a virgin soil, but, like a lovely widow, it had lain fallow — a friendly farmer made use of that word—so long, that it would be grateful for the touch of a rake or hoe. There was no garden, no fence, no orchard, and no fruit-trees of any kind except one apple-tree, but then the nurseries and a little labor would make this right.

An unpleasant suspicion crossed my mind that perhaps it would have been better if some of these things had been done to my hand, and that possibly I was not exactly the man to do them in the best way; but a second perusal of “Ten Acres Enough” was enough for me, and these absurd doubts were banished forever. If an uneducated mechanic could leave Philadelphia, rescue a decaying farm, and make it splendidly remunerative, why could not an educated lawyer from New York convert an uninjured farm into the eighth or ninth — we Americans have added a few to them — wonder of the world?

The affair was as simple as could be. With a class-book of botany, a recipe from Professor Mapes, a few cuttings of some wonderful new berry — of which, doubtless, there were plenty, and Bridgman’s “Gardener’s Assistant,” the result was certain. It was merely a question of seeds, weeds, and manure — the first and last to be encouraged, and the other to be eradicated.

After all, what is the wonderful science in farming? You put a seed in the ground, and it comes up — that is, if it does come up — either a pea or a bean, a carrot or a turnip, and, with your best skill and greatest learning, you can not plant a pea and induce it to come up a bean, or convert a carrot into a turnip. As for planting, any fool can do that, and as for making it grow, the wisest man in the land can not effect it. These and a few other similar arguments were entirely conclusive, and soon visions of the accomplished fact engrossed my mind.

I should have a neat, modest, small, but cosy little house; square, for economy’s sake, but surrounded on all sides by a deep piazza; the garden should be filled with delicious vegetables, fruits, and berries, the earliest and best of their kinds; there should be a magnificent bed of asparagus — that king of the kitchen garden — a dozen long rows of strawberries, with fruit as luscious as a young girl’s lips; Bartlett pears, early peas, peaches and cream — the latter only indirectly vegetable — cauliflowers, tomatoes, mushrooms, lettuce — every thing, in fact, that a gentleman eats when he can get it, and nothing that he eschews when he can do no better. The residue of the farm was to be partly orchard and partly market garden, and this was to supply the family during the winter and pay the expenses of the household.

It is an immense satisfaction, of a hot evening in summer, even in the prematurely scorching days of June, to leave the city, after a long day of labor and trouble, and, rushing away with railroad speed into the country, to enjoy the delicious air and cool breeze, to sit beneath the outspreading trees, to wander through the woods, to bathe in the brook, to doze or smoke in the shade. The scent of the blossoms or the hay, or no smell at all, is such an exquisite relief from the customary odors of New York streets. The sun seems to lose half and the air to gain double its ordinary power. The pleasures are so innocent, the matters of interest so pure, the mind is braced but not wearied. The garden, whether kitchen or flower garden — those delightful adjuncts of a country place — is such an infinite source of health, improvement, and delight. Man, confined to the city by dire necessity of money-making, recognizing the country as the natural sphere of his existence, dreams of a neat, quiet, retired country place, and books such as “Ten Acres Enough” persuade him to convert these dreams into realities.

I had always been troubled with similar visions, although by a strange fatality my education in country matters had been woefully neglected, for I could hardly distinguish tomato-vines from egg-plants, and had not the remotest notion of modes or seasons of planting; but, now that there was a possibility that these imaginings might be realized, I was so charmed, that I resolved to record my experiences for the guidance and instruction of others. Thus it came about that this work was written; and if it is occasionally defective in style and irregular in plan, it is probably not more so than was my farming.

CHAPTER 1. A COW.

It was early in winter when I made up my mind finally to erect a country house on the Flushing five acres. Plans, and size, and arrangements were in the vague and misty future; for months the ground could not be broken to build the foundations, and little could be done besides preparing for the next year. The first thing that seemed of vital importance was the stock. Pigs and chickens could be obtained at any time; horses had to be had, of course, but need not bother one till the last moment; but a cow was a creature that must be taken when a good one offered. Moreover, I have a weakness for cows: it is a purely theoretical interest, for my knowledge is less than moderate, not even extending to the mode of milking them; but their big eyes, and gentle manners, and unnecessary horns, and split feet, have always filled my heart with love and wonder. Horses are miserable creatures, invariably doing precisely what they ought not to do, kicking when they ought to go, going when they ought to stand still, balking when their owner is in the most frantic haste; forever sick, or lame, or requiring to be shod — a pest, a nuisance, and a bore. But cows do not balk, or run, or go lame, or need shoeing; and although they occasionally kick over the milk-pail, it is probably with good reason or with the best of intentions. They have nice long coats that keep them from catching cold in winter, and have an odd way of perspiring through their noses that is as curious as it is interesting. A cow is a model — without referring to this last peculiarity — for a wife; she is gentle, good, and beautiful, and never makes a fuss. The first point, therefore, was to buy a cow.

I had a friend living at Flushing named Augustus Weeville, who had been there several years, and who had acquired great knowledge of the intricacies of rural performances, and, among other things, was learned in cows. In fact, he was learned in most farming matters, and, being naturally proud of his adopted village, and interested in my success in emigrating thither, gave me throughout his valuable advice and assistance.

Of course, his aid was called in on the cow question, and equally, of course, he knew an Irishman — by-the-by, what can be the reason that Irishmen are the only people that have cows to sell? Is it because they love cows, or hate them? The whole world knows their “strong weakness” for pigs, but do they collect rare specimens of cows out of pure affection, to dispose of to curiosity-seekers having good homes? Or is it that they love pigs too well to endure the presence of a rival, and dispose of the bovine race as fast as they obtain them? However that may be, if you ever want a cow, an Irishman will want to sell you one; and this particular Irishman had a particularly fine animal — just the thing for the occasion.

Before purchasing, I made a few elementary inquiries — as to what cows eat, how much exercise they needed in what manner they were to be stabled, and how many quarts of oats they would require daily. My friend replied that they preferred a warm mash, to be given three times a day; and when he saw from my countenance that my mind was a blank on the subject of warm mashes, he explained that hot water was poured upon bran and meal mixed, and that the mixture was then usually called a mash, although why and wherefore he could not distinctly say. Then, carried away by the extent of his knowledge, and rousing to the subject, he went into the habits of cows in general; that he thought ship-stuff was an excellent change of diet; that they liked hay, turnips, carrots, potato-peelings, bread, slops of all kinds that were not greasy; that they were not fed oats, and required no exercise and no care in the stable, but stood in the sun all day long, winking and blinking with contentment, and put themselves to bed at night; that the one he referred to was not young, but gentle and a good milker; and mentioned incidentally that he hardly knew where I would keep her in the city, as no cow would ever go down the area steps and through a narrow hall-way into a back yard.

Now I knew nothing of bran, and meal, and ship-stuff, and only listened with an attempt at an intelligent smile, satisfied that the articles could be purchased by name, and without explaining their nature; but I was well aware that the yard was the only place in which to keep the cow, and that the road to it was down the steps and through the lower hall; at least, if there was any other way thither, I had not yet discovered it, and I had owned my house then some twenty years. So this casual objection was quite a serious one, and we were compelled to discuss the feasibility of leading the animal up the front steps — a proceeding, however, which would have required her to go down the back ones — or hoisting her over the fence. As these measures did not seem practicable, and a cow must be had, my friend mildly suggested that several Irishmen with a stout rope might drag her through the passage-way; and as my faith in the nature of cows was illimitable, it was determined to make the purchase on the chance. The weight of a cow was to me an utterly unknown quantity, and the floor she was to pass over having once, on a previous occasion, and without any great strain, given way, a carpenter had to be called in to strengthen it. He, in his enthusiasm, and being probably as ignorant as myself, used so many supports that it would have been strong enough to carry an elephant, while four able-bodied men were engaged from a neighboring stable, and provided with a good-sized rope, so that we were fully prepared for any emergency.

In order that there may be no mistake in the debit and credit of this transaction, it must be known that the cow cost $100, to be delivered at the door free of charge. So this sum must be charged to principal as so much invested in stock, whether it ever entered my back yard or not; and the interest on it will here-after be one of the current expenses, amounting, at seven per cent., to exactly $7 a year. It is essential that these matters should be watched; “look after the pennies, and the pounds will take care of themselves;” and the point would be whether the cow’s milk and so forth would hereafter pay $7 annually net profit.

The day appointed to receive my new pet arrived, and with it the animal, while four brawny, red-handed Irishmen, strong enough to pick her up and carry her if she resisted, were at the door. They at once became excited, and prepared for action, and the cow looked wild and threatening as they closed in around her. Her owner, who was leading her with a cord, called out “soo-so-o-o” in a deprecatory manner, that evidently produced no effect; he, however, got her head to the first step, where she hesitated, and began to sniff suspiciously. The moment of action had evidently come, and I was about to shout to my supporters, who had been carefully instructed as to their duties, “Up, guards, and at her,” when the lower door opened, and an intelligent Irish female appeared, holding a turnip in her hand. The effect was magical; the creature’s countenance changed instantly; turnips evidently had been scare with her, or her owner, not thinking it worth while to waste food that would not be paid for, had left her hungry; she advanced her nose expectantly, and, as the tempting viand was skillfully withdrawn, followed it and the “retiring maid” down the steps, through the hall, and into the yard.

Four natives of the “Gem of the Sea” were sadly disappointed; they came for an “illegant bit of a scrimmage,” and determined to make that cow do what she did not want to do, as well as increase their reward by extraordinary violence; and they would have liked to follow her, and, as they could not make her go in, make her come out against her will, and without the allurement of turnips. Of this satisfaction her incomprehensible behavior had deprived them, and they went away sad and disappointed men. This incident only placed the character of cows on a still more exalted pedestal, and fully justified my confidence.

My friend Weeville had given me specific directions in writing how to feed that cow; exactly how much bran — of which, after some trouble, and a vain attempt to buy a few pounds of it, I had obtained a bag — was to be mixed with a certain proportion of meal; and how often daily this mess, which is probably English for mash, covered with warm water, was to be fed; and about how much hay would fill up the intervals. These instructions were carefully transmitted to the servant who had charge of the dairy, with particular injunctions to carry them out to the letter, and not to deviate from them in the smallest particular.

For several days my new purchase demeaned herself unexceptionably, being quiet and well-behaved; but at the end of about a week she began to bellow, and kept on increasing her complaints daily until they became unendurable. Neighbors put their heads out of windows, evidently meditating dire resolves unless “something were done, and that shortly,” whenever I went into the yard to appease her.

What to do was not very clear. When my dog howls I go out and whip him, and he appears to think that is the right thing to do, and stops; but a cow is such a big thing to whip, and she did not seem to be in the least mollified by a few strokes of a stick that I tried. Gratitude for my good opinion should have induced that cow to take a hint from her equine friends and put a “bridle on her tongue,” but, instead of doing so, she gave free vent to her feelings, and, in spite of petting or flogging, abusing or praising, made “the air musical.” My exalted admiration for her race diminished as sleep fled from my pillow, and murderous thoughts possessed my soul. I seemed to see a dagger “with its handle to my hand,” which looked much like a butcher’s knife, and there was an estrangement springing up between us that might have terminated fatally had not the Celtic heroine of the turnip adventure reappeared. With the energy peculiar to that sympathetic race, the lady of the kitchen announced, “It was starving, the poor baste was; and if the master would let her feed the crayture all she wanted, there would be no more noise at all, at all.” That consent was not long withheld; one more roar removed all scruples of dignity, superior intelligence, and the like, and Biddy fled to the meal-tub. She returned in ten minutes with the biggest tub of mash the cow or myself had ever seen. The former — not Biddy, but the cow — plunged her nose into it nearly to the eyes, and devoured it without once pausing, and then did the like with a replenished dish. My opinion of the intelligence of cows and Biddies was elevated, and I concluded cow-feeding was not my specialty. With those two feeds, or more properly gluts, of mash, comfort returned to my household.

About the time that these events occurred, milkmen had concluded that the lacteal fluid — or what they sold for such — was scarce and valuable, and they raised the price to the rate of twelve cents a quart. Our cow, which had been baptized with the name of Cushy, gave about eleven quarts daily, and as the household only needed six, there was a clear opening for profit to the extent of sixty cents a day. Pure milk is rather a rarity — by which is intimated that it is not universal — in the milkmen’s carts in the great city of New York, where that of a watery consistency and cerulean hue is more common than the dull, pale opaque of the real article. In fact, it is said by dairymen that milk just as it comes from the cow is heating — too heating for persons confined to the narrow and unhealthy limits of a city, and should have a little dash of fresh water to take the fire out.

In spite of their convincing arguments, however, an individual was found so little alive to the excellence of the dealer’s milky way as to be ready not merely to pay the current price, but to supply his own cans and send for the milk. This opened a magnificent vista; it was the first of the long series of profits that were to flow in one steady stream from the country place or its accompaniments. If one cow yielded a clear daily income of sixty cents, that a hundred or a thousand would yield proportionally more was merely a question in the rule of three.

There was one little matter, however, that somewhat impaired the full measure of this success. The haymakers, or whoever they are that own hay, had raised the price of their goods to keep pace with the price of milk, so that hay was at the moderate rate of two dollars or two dollars and a half a hundred pounds. Moreover, that was an uncommonly intelligent cow, and she used her superior gifts to assure her own comforts, regardless of my feelings or my profits. The hay was stored in a closet under the steps that led down into the yard, and, in spite of every care and contrivance to keep her out, Cushy would open the door, and not only help herself to all she wanted, but throw down armfuls under her feet, and then, like all her dainty race, she would utterly refuse to eat whatever had become dirty. If the door was latched, she pushed the latch up; if bars were placed across, she removed them with her horns; if a rope was used, she broke or stretched it; and if she could not get in otherwise, she would tear the whole away.

After trying many plans, the door was ingeniously hung from the top, so that, as was supposed, it would effectually prevent her unauthorized inroads; but next day it was found at the other end of the yard, having been carried thither on her head. Besides, the amount of hay she ate seemed to have no effect in diminishing the quantity of mash she wanted; rather she appeared to carry into practice the deceptive proposition of the stingy father to his hungry sons — that he who ate the most meat should have the most pie — by demanding more bran the more hay she consumed.

In spite of these drawbacks she was an immense convenience. Her manufactory seemed to work better than more scientific and artificial arrangements, and turned out a more agreeable article than the most skillful chemical milkman. However disgraceful to human nature is the confession, science is nowhere against a cow. To be sure, she would on wash-days carry a few clothes off the lines, and drag them around in the most nonchalant and unconcerned way conceivable; would even now and then get her horns mixed up with the lines generally, and pull out half a dozen hooks; but the moment this was done she was entirely satisfied, and would stand perfectly quiet until she was disencumbered. She made more dirt than was altogether sightly, and a man had to be engaged to come daily and remove it.

These various eccentricities added somewhat to her cost, and made it difficult to compute the amount accurately; but, apart from the value of clothes and clotheslines, her feed cost thirty dollars a month, and the man’s attendance six more. So long as she kept on giving twelve quarts a day, there was a clear profit of four cents daily, besides the thorough manuring of the yard, which with farmers is an important point, and would have been more valuable in this instance if it had been possible to grow anything in it, and had it not been, unfortunately, that, for some unknown reason, not even a spear of grass had ever been willing to exist there.

The quantity of milk, however, soon began to diminish, until, after six weeks, the arrangement with our neighbor had to be discontinued. This reduced the profit, although Cushy still gave more than an abundance for our family, and there would have been a loss had not hay and bran come up to the occasion by coming down in price. The reader, therefore, much call upon the author of “Ten Acres Enough” to determine, by a few algebraical eliminations, whether, if a cow’s yield falls off more or less, and her feed diminishes in price considerably, there is a loss or profit, and if so, why so, and how much. For my part, I never could arrive at any satisfactory conclusion except that pure milk and fresh cream were, either combined or separate, very satisfactory.

Cushy had an excellent disposition; she never exhibited but one evil passion, and that was for the meal-tub: she would feed from the hand or a pail, or, in fact, in any way, so long as she was fed enough. Upon this regimen she waxed fat, until it became a serious question whether she would ever again pass out of the doors that it was at first doubtful whether she would enter. Her stomach was of goodly size when she came, and I did not wonder that it occupied so much of her thoughts; but it grew prodigiously, and she had a way of standing still by the hour, with her head under the clothes on the lines, when the sun began to grow hot in the spring, or of lying at full length in their shade, that was evidently conducive to corpulency. When she wanted her meals, which she did not only at frequent intervals, but whenever any one came into the yard, she would go to the kitchen window, and, thrusting forward her head as far as the bars permitted, would “moo” gently to express her wants. If not attended to immediately, she would soon speak louder, and at last would demand food in the most peremptory tone of stentorian bovine lungs. She invariably had her desires gratified, and thus was this interesting evidence of intelligence greatly developed. She had an amusing way of playing with whatever boxes or baskets might be left in the yard, somewhat regardless, to be sure, of their fragile nature; she would carry them on her head round about, and occasionally pin them to the earth with a thrust of her horns; and if she found the stable, which was of wood, close and uncomfortable, she now and then walked out of it through the side, but did these things in so unconscious a way that no one could find fault.

She kept on growing fat and fatter — (to continue her history and somewhat anticipate events) — until summer came, and it was necessary to send her to the country. Then the services of another Irishman, of course, were called into requisition, and he started off from the house with her, early one morning in June, to lead her eight miles to her future home at Flushing. Neither himself nor the cow was heard of again till late that night, when, with startled countenance, he related his adventures to my friend Weeville. He had hardly turned the corner before a butcher rushed out and announced that he wanted to buy that cow. Patrick indignantly refused, true to the aristocratic Irish idea that the employer is always above disposing of any thing; but the butcher was irrepressible, and, pulling out his wallet, offered ninety-five dollars for her; but Pat retorted, “You’ll not get the likes of her for ninety-five dollars.” This the would-be purchaser mistook for a haggle over price, and demanded how much she would be sold for, when Patrick, breaking away from him with indignation, answered resolutely, “She is not for sale at all, at all, but going to the country for air and grass.”

“But it’s an awful time I’ve had with her,” he continued, in his narration. “Sure and didn’t she lay down with me twelve times, and didn’t I think every blessed time that she would niver get up again? Her tongue hung out a yard, in spite of me watering her at every trough along the road. She kept me ever since tin o’clock this very morning, and would stop to rest whenever she felt like it, until I began to think I shouldn’t get home till next day.”

Thus Cushy exhibited another evidence of her intelligence. As she had heretofore insisted upon being fed whenever she was hungry, she now had, with equal peremptoriness, demanded rest when she was tired. Fat and unaccustomed to travel, she made the Irishman conform to her views of speed, like the superior being she was, knowing well that he was only sent to wait on and accompany her in her journey. She was evidently pleased with the country, being found next morning up to her knees in clover; and, had it not been for the attacks of a gadfly, which she resented furiously, she would have led a perfectly happy life. She certainly was a model animal. My presentiments of success were not mistaken, and I felt almost like claiming, with the modest author of “Ten Acres Enough,” that my impressions were never wrong.