Aroostook County farming in the 1800s

17 years ago

In 1860, U.S. Census enumerators counted 2,938 farms in Aroostook County, up from 1,228 farms in 1850. Improved (cleared) land increased from about 55,000 acres in 1850 to 124,117 acres in 1860. By 1880, the number of Aroostook County farms had increased to 5,802, with a total of 270,442 improved acres. Although these U.S. Census of Agriculture statistics are precise, their accuracy is unsure.
    In 1860, Aroostook County farms generally ranged from 20 to 100 acres. By 1880, most farms exceeded 100 acres in size, and 56 farms topped 500 acres.
To get a “long ago” view of Aroostook County agriculture, let’s look first at livestock inventories in 1860, with 1880 figures shown in [brackets]. The June 1 tally was 18,043 [39,615] sheep, yielding 61,312 [190,636] pounds of spring-clipped wool, 6,541 [12,461] “milch” cows, 4,521 [6,638] hogs, 2,490 [2,252] working oxen, 7,156 [14,031] other cattle, 3,654 [9,054] horses, and 8 [21] mules and asses.
Draft horses were replacing oxen as sources of farm power. By 1896, the working oxen population had fallen to 748. The number of horses had climbed to 15,263, and the number of sheep had dwindled to 3,965.
Poultry was not counted in 1860. In 1880, Aroostook County was home to 55,864 barn-yard foul (exclusive of spring hatching). These birds produced 335,684 dozen eggs – and a lot of Sunday dinners.
Farm production included 39,267 [80,316] tons of hay, 129,875 [52,548] pounds of maple sugar, 606 [2,036] gallons of maple molasses, 8,275 [49,815] pounds of honey, 32 [323] pounds of beeswax, and 795 [1,185] pounds of flax. In 1880, the yield of hay was just over one ton per acre.
The County produced 419,783 [628,435] bushels of oats, 230,442 [296,793] bushels of buckwheat, 26,714 [10,894] bushels of rye, 24,763 [138,236] bushels of wheat, 16,471 [15,777] bushels of barley, 3,265 [382] bushels of Indian corn, 957 [1,277] bushels of clover seed, and 411,630 [2,248,594] bushels of potatoes.
In 1867, S. L. Goodale, Secretary of the Maine Board of Agriculture, wrote “an extensive and lucrative business might easily be established in the manufacture of starch, for use in the cotton mills of New England. The demand is large, and nowhere are good, mealy potatoes more easily grown than in Aroostook.” In 1871, the first starch factory was built near the Aroostook River in Caribou.
The number of acres of potatoes in Aroostook County in 1880 was estimated as 14,009, with an average yield per acre of 160 bushels or 96 hundredweight. By 1890 the number of acres had doubled to 28,000, with a production of 5 million bushels, of which over 1.5 million was manufactured into starch in the 42 factories in the County.
Orchard products were valued at $1,684 in 1860, and $7,227 in 1880, ranking Aroostook dead last among Maine’s 16 counties in both 1860 and 1880.
The 1800s included a Civil War that killed nearly 5 percent of the Nation’s adult male population. The U.S. Patent Office Report (1862) noted that farmers of New England “love the homes they have created, but only as part of the whole country, and when a disruption of that is threatened, their rough hands, that had never wielded anything more warlike than a ploughshare or a pruning hook, are the first to beat those peaceful implements into the sword and the spear, and with prompt alacrity to hold at bay the traitorous assailants of the capital, of liberty, and the Union.”
To some farmers, money was also important. When Union Army recruiters approached William H. Sutter of Maysville (north Presque Isle), he asked them if the pay was enough to cover chewing tobacco. He was assured it would. William, age 19, enlisted in Co. C, 15th Infantry, on December 2, 1861. He left the farm in the hands of his younger brother.
   Steve Sutter is a retired university farm advisor who resides in Presque Isle. He may be contacted at stevesutterfarm@aol.com.