Landscape and Material Life

I stumbled upon a delightful book in the stacks of the Jones Library in Amherst called Landscape and Material Life in Franklin County, Massachusetts, 1770-1860 by J. Ritchie Garrison. I

At first it looks like a dry reference work full of charts and graphs of acres tilled, crops raised, orchards planted, barns built, but as you get a sense of the whole work (I’ve been reading snatches at random) you see that every detail helps complete the picture of what life was really like, right down to the number of barrels of cider each town produced.

There are floor plans of the different kinds of houses and barns, different systems for balancing tillage, pasturage, orchards and woodlots, descriptions of how to grow broom corn and make brooms out of it, and descriptions of the other cash crops inventive Yankees tried, and how well they did with them.

There are drawings of the tools I see today at barn sales and detailed descriptions of the persistent ventures into industry which, despite a lot of failures, eventually led to the county’s preeminence in the precision industry in the 1870s.

There are lots of human stories, too, but not the kind that wrap up neatly as they do in fiction. Garrison chooses people who are emblematic of their time like John Wilson (1782-1869), who tried his hand at printing, overseeing the poor, inventing (he patented a plow that didn’t sell well), surveying, making brooms and raising silk worms.

Wilson later made a fortune developing land in East Boston and lost it in a land speculation venture in Texas. He worked for Deerfield Academy for a while and in the 1850s he tried a new crop, tobacco, and did pretty well with it.

Now you see tobacco barns all over the valley.

Or John Williams, from a Hatfield family that moved to Dalton who was apprenticed to and later worked for a merchant in Connecticut, sailed to the Indies as a cabin boy, and later started a general store in Conway, which did great for 28 years, and was still doing great when Williams cosigned a loan for his brother-in-law — nine thousand bucks. Ouch!

Through this wealth of detail, and these aptly chosen examples, what emerges is a real sense of what life was like two centuries ago in the nucleated lowland villages and the upland farms of Franklin County, Massachusetts.

I think historians often focus too much on wars and treaties and changes in government when the real story of human progress is the history of village life through the ages.