From Farm to Table in the Good Old Days

Last spring, as part of the Easton 175th anniversary commemoration, I was approached and asked to contribute some of Easton’s historical recipes to the upcoming CFE Cookbook. I was more than hesitant. After all, this book was being created to encourage current residents to use some of the ingredients grown on our local farms in their present-day cuisine. Anyone who has ever seen a collection of early 19th century recipes would soon realize that food preparation 150 years ago was much different than it is today. Most early recipes either dealt with the preservation of various food products or with making previously preserved meats and vegetables palatable when they were eventually prepared for consumption. Dining in the 19th century was more about sustenance than the creation of nutritious and delicious meals. With very few exceptions, those early recipes produced dishes that most 21st century Americans would not voluntarily choose to eat.

One such example that comes to mind is something that is still occasionally made today. Mincemeat pie. Only today’s mincemeat is nothing like it was 150 or even 50 years ago. Today’s version is sweeter and is used for making a pie that is usually served as a dessert. The modern recipe still includes a mixture of currants, raisins, sugar, apples, candied citrus peel, spices, and suet. But 150 years ago, it was served as a main course, and it had one rather important additional ingredient that is missing in the mincemeat recipe of today. Meat!

In the 19th century, mincemeat was the resulting product of the preservation of whatever meat that was used (beef, mutton, wild game). It required neither heat to produce nor refrigeration to keep. Once the mincemeat was ready, it could be stored for months and then baked in a pie crust and served as a complete meal.

My grandmother’s recipe replaced the usual mutton with venison. It was certainly a lot more savory than sweet. Right up until the year she passed, she would send my father two jars of this mixture in the mail every November. My dad loved it, the rest of us tried it once and that was enough.

Two jars of this savory concoction arrived at our house every fall just before Thanksgiving. True, old fashioned, God-awful tasting mincemeat made with venison. The meat was uncooked but had a shelf half-life of an old fashioned fruit cake.

So rather than entertaining the reader with dishes that most folks living in the 21st century would likely not enjoy, I thought we would explore a little of the history of Easton’s agricultural growth and the types and varieties of the crops our ancestors chose to cultivate, as opposed to providing detailed descriptions of the kinds of cooking recipes one would have found recorded in their two-times great grandmother’s hand writing.

Easton, along with Weston and Redding, started life as part of the town of Fairfield. The initial division of lands of the town of Fairfield was certainly conventional in nature, but after the town purchased all the Native American land between its northern border and Danbury, that land was surveyed and divided into long, narrow strips and eventually assigned to the town’s largest taxable estate holders according to their relative wealth.

The Fairfield Long-Lots were separated by vertical highways that initially had no cross-highways bisecting them. The lack of easy east-west movement simply wasn’t conducive to the establishment of the traditional parishes that would eventually become villages and towns like of most the rest of the Connecticut colony. The Long-Lot lands were better suited for farming – and rather isolated farming at that. Initially, the farms in what would one day become part of Easton were established along the vertical highways named after the earliest land grantees, such as Jackson, Morehouse, and Burr. Settlers in this northeastern section of Fairfield were very few in numbers prior to 1725.

Records indicate one of Easton’s earliest family farms was established in 1713 by Mathew Sherwood and his son Thomas along the Jackson Highway (now Sport Hill Road). A true testament to the townspeople’s dedication to working the land, it is still in operation over 300 years later and is still owned by members of the Sherwood family.

Early Connecticut farmers planted crops and raised livestock mostly for their own consumption. A few of the larger farms produced more than they could use and the excess farm production was usually bartered between neighbors or sold to area stores for credits that could be applied for purchasing products that a farmer couldn’t grow for himself, examples being sugar, coffee, salt, molasses, and  assorted spices. A farmer who raised hogs might barter bacon and salted pork for a steady supply of eggs and milk from another farmer who had multiple cows and chickens. Some farmers even bartered with local millers for the grinding of their wheat and corn into flour by giving the miller extra portions of their crops rather than cash.

Mid-nineteenth century agricultural censuses for the town of Easton give us a clear and accurate picture of what our ancestors would have produced on their farms.

Potatoes and corn saw the greatest numbers of acres planted. The reasons are obvious. Potatoes kept well for many months when stored in the cool root cellars found in every Easton home prior to the introduction of artificial refrigeration. Corn kernels could be dried and then rehydrated when they were ready to be consumed. Corn was also used as livestock feed or ground by local millers for flour and cornmeal. Corn syrup was a cooking staple that every farmer’s wife used.

Wheat, barley, and rye also consumed many acres of local farmland. Grains played heavily in feeding the livestock and were also used to produce flour needed for baking.

Not surprisingly, almost every Easton farm had an apple orchard. Like potatoes, apples stored well and could be kept for up to a year if they remained undamaged and cool. Apple cider was either consumed fresh during the autumn or allowed to ferment to produce a hard cider that was later consumed as an alcoholic beverage. Apple cider that was fermented for a longer period of time became vinegar, a vital ingredient used in the pickling process that would preserve summer vegetables for use during the winter.

The Root Cellar. Every Easton farmhouse had one of these in one form or another. They could be built into the side of a hill, or be part of the basement, usually a separate room with no structure above it. This one had rock walls and the traditional dirt floor. Being underground meant a fairly consistent temperature of about 56 degrees F. Properly stored root vegetables and fruits such as apples could be stored here for several months.

Honey and maple syrup were produced on many of the larger farms. In addition to being a tasty sweetener, both products were used in the preservation of unrefrigerated meats such as bacon. The bees that produced the honey were also essential in the pollination process of flowering fruit trees and vegetables. Maple trees were plentiful and syrup production, while time consuming, came during the early spring before the fields were tilled and the new crops planted. Both honey and maple syrup kept for months with no need for refrigeration.

Every Easton farmer would have cultivated a substantial vegetable garden that yielded different varieties of fresh produce from May until late September or early October. Root vegetables such as onions, garlic, carrots, yams, and radishes all stored well. And some of them added valuable flavors to preserved meats when they were eventually cooked and consumed.

The vine vegetables such as tomatoes, green beans, cucumbers, and squash provided their growers with a fresh and delicious alternative to the usual fare of preserved foods that had supplied substance, if not natural flavors, over the previous winter. Each of those vegetables was savored as they were harvested, and those that weren’t immediately consumed went through the process of preservation either through pickling or canning – the “canned” vegetables usually being put up in sealed Mason jars after 1860.

My grandparents built a new house in 1942 and included a room just like this one just off of the basement. The gravel floor helped to keep the temperature cool in the summer and above freezing in the winter. The shelves were lined every fall with freshly canned and pickled vegetables that would easily remain edible for up to a year with no further refrigeration.

By the late 19th century, it was obvious from the non-population censuses that at least some of Easton’s larger farms were planting enough acreage to produce excess crops that would have gone to commercial market. Most likely, that market would have been in Bridgeport where the local farms in that growing city were then being sold off as housing needs increased and the land became more valuable as building sites than remaining in use as farms.

With the exception of poultry, livestock production remained relatively constant on Easton farms throughout the century. Most farmers kept between one and four dairy cows – milch cows as listed in the census reports. Most also raised a couple of beef cattle and a few hogs each year. Sheep appeared to be raised mainly for the wool and goats were seldom listed.

The number of chickens could range from a few layers that almost every farm had, up to a thousand or more if the farmer was a commercial egg producer or a regular supplier of chickens headed to butcher shops in Bridgeport where they would be killed as they were purchased. Unlike beef, pork, and mutton, poultry was always consumed while it was fresh. The advantage of having a few extra chickens roaming around the barn yard was the ability to provide a tasty meal of fresh white meat with only a few hours’ notice. A chicken could be pecking the ground for cornmeal at noon and be served for dinner by 5:30 PM.

Preserving meat was a time consuming and painstaking process. Do it wrong, and you lost a valuable animal that had taken months to raise and feed. Smoking the meat was not only a popular method of preservation, but one that added a flavor that the meat would retain until it was consumed. Salting was also frequently used to draw the moisture out of the meat so that it would keep for months on end. The issue with salted meat was in rehydrating it and adding enough spices and cooked vegetables to overcome the taste of the salt residue that remained in the cut. Slow cooking meat mixed with vegetables in a large stew pot for hours not only added flavor but rehydrated the meat to make it more tender.

By now, you should be getting the picture that most of the recipes used and handed down during the 19th century involved the process of preservation. With no refrigeration prior to the last few years of the century, meats and vegetables required labor intensive methods of pickling, smoking, salting, or brining that would preserve their nutritious qualities over the many months they wouldn’t have otherwise been available for consumption.

Recipes that involved the assemblage and cooking of delicious cuisine revolved more around holiday dishes and desserts than they did everyday fare.

20th Century Changes

While Easton’s farming community flourished during most of the 18th and 19th centuries, by the 1890’s, the land was yielding less and younger people were being enticed by the regular wages paid by the growing factories in nearby Bridgeport.

But the farming community wasn’t dead yet. While many of Easton’s original families of English descent were abandoning some of the less profitable farms, a few others were expanding their land holdings to support their growing dairy businesses. Much of the milk from southern Easton made its way into Bridgeport where the demand easily outstripped the capacity of city’s remaining farms to produce it. By the late 1800’s ice boxes were common place in many urban homes and the “ice man” was a regular sight with his horse drawn wagon as he delivered blocks of ice that allowed urban dwellers to keep their milk from spoiling. Easton’s growing herds of dairy cows needed grasslands upon which to feed and many of the previously cleared fields in town that had once produced wheat and corn were ideal for that purpose. 

The “Ice Wagon” became a regular sight in most urban communities during the second half of the 19th century when metal lined ice boxes were used to keep certain perishables refrigerated for up to several days. Ice would be delivered directly to your door via these horse drawn wagons.

But in addition to the fresh milk that Easton dairy farmers were supplying to nearby Bridgeport, a new plant in Newtown offered an entirely new market for some of Easton’s milk. Many mornings saw Easton dairy farmer’s wagons lined up in Stepney with multiple 15-gallon milk cans waiting to be off-loaded at Burr Hawley’s store where they would be recorded and then shipped in bulk via rail to Newtown to be processed.

c.1900. Burr Hawley’s store was located near the intersection of CT Route 59 and 25 in Stepney. Easton farmers would bring their milk to Hawley every morning, where he would then record the amount before loading it onto a larger wagon and delivering it to the railroad station for shipment to the Borden plant in Newtown.

Gail Borden had developed a process of removing about 60 percent of the water content in milk that resulted in the product remaining viable for months instead of hours. A new Borden processing plant that made condensed milk opened in Newtown early in the 20th century and local dairy farmers gained a new market for their product. Borden paid one-quarter of a penny over the New York Exchange price and as many as 80 local farms supplied the plant with between 8,000 and 9,000 quarts per day.

Gail Borden’s milk condensing plant in Newtown on Church Hill Road by the Railroad Station

By the early 1920’s farms such as Marsh Dairy on Sport Hill built their own processing and bottling plants where raw milk was pasteurized before having the cream separated from the milk and both bottled. The bottled products were then sent to local markets or delivered to area doorsteps by the dairy’s own fleet of delivery trucks.

There was also an entirely new population of farmers emigrating to America from Eastern Europe, and they were more than willing to work the lands that were being abandoned by second and third generation farmers of English heritage. Many of these farms produced enough vegetables to bring to market and it wasn’t unusual to see local immigrant farmers heading to Bridgeport on many summer mornings with horse drawn wagons loaded with freshly harvested root vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, and onions, as well as tomatoes, corn, squash, and peas. Some of these farms could produce and sell enough vegetables between June and late September to pay the family’s bills for the rest of the year.

The Bridgeport Public Market on June 30, 1925. Farmers would bring their fresh produce here every morning and area grocers would buy what they needed on a daily basis. Even as late as 1925, there are several horse drawn wagons seen amongst the motorized produce trucks

It would be this new generation of Easton farmers who would contribute to the town’s growth in the early part of the 20th century and keep the farming industry alive into the 21st. Some of that new wave of farming families still run agricultural enterprises in Easton today.

In the 1920’s the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company hired Franklin Hubbell to manage their Easton lands. Hubbell soon saw the opportunities that the land on Flirt Hill could offer for growing fruit trees. Within just a few years, the newly planted orchards were providing the water company’s new venture, the Aspetuck Valley Orchards, with an abundance of quality apples and peaches. For many years, apples were harvested and boxed at the BHC facility on Black Rock Turnpike before being shipped to markets outside of Easton. A good many Easton students had their first job doing seasonal work packing fruit under the direction of Mr. Hubbell. Over the years, Hubbell also oversaw the addition of vegetable crops, and Easton became known as a destination for quality fruits and vegetables – a reputation that still applies today.

1949. Young Easton men handling the apples on their way to the sorting machine and grading stations at the Aspetuck Valley Orchards Barn on Blackrock Turnpike.

As the 21st began, many locals have continued the tradition of Easton farming and agriculture. Some operations such as Sherwood’s and Silverman’s are now second, third, and even fourth and beyond generation businesses. Others. Like the Sport Hill Farm and Shaggy Coos are run by farmers who are relatively new to the industry, but who offer a slightly different take on the local farm market experience by offering fresh, sustainable, natural products. Still others, like the Edwards family and their Maple Row operation have transitioned from the dairy business to primarily growing and selling Christmas trees, while the Snow’s have turned their dairy farm into a supplier of organic landscaping and garden soils, mulch, and natural fertilizers. These are but a few of the family run agricultural operations that still exist and thrive in Easton today, but they all carry on the tradition of farming and providing food and other related farm products to area residents. May this be one tradition that never fades away!

Silverman’s Farm in the 1940’s. Easton’s first indoor fruit and vegetable market.
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