The Dairy Barn

When Easton and Redding were established as parishes of the town of Fairfield in the 1700’s, farming wasn’t so much a vocation as it was a way of life. Simply put, everyone was a farmer. It was the only way to survive. If you wanted to eat, you grew your own crops, raised your own livestock, tended your own orchard. Even those who had other ventures – store owners, shoemakers, sawmill operators, and even physicians – they all lived off the land they owned to some degree.

The business of agriculture as we think of it today wouldn’t come into its own in rural areas such as Easton and Redding until the mid-to-late nineteenth century. Farms were self-sufficient, capable of producing enough to sustain the family that worked them, but not productive enough to supply more than a few extra eggs, pounds of butter, or barrels of apples that could be bartered with the owner of the local store for items such as molasses, sugar, spices, and an occasional bolt of fabric for the making of clothes.

As a result, nearly every house that was built was accompanied by a barn, or at least a large shed that might hold a couple of pigs and a single cow for milking. As time wore on and more people began to work as carpenters, mill owners, blacksmiths, and teachers, some of the smaller barns and sheds saw less use and eventually fell into disrepair. But others were either expanded or replaced with larger structures as cities such as Bridgeport and Danbury grew and needed more food, milk, and meat than could be raised within the city limits. By the latter half of the nineteenth century, farming was becoming a sustainable business for some area families. One that could produce enough cash to allow them to become consumers as well as producers.

The problem with raising marketable crops in much of Fairfield County was the abundance of rocky soil that was difficult to cultivate, and the unreliable New England weather that so many above ground, vine crops relied on. Potatoes, carrots, and onions did well, with onions becoming a booming agricultural business in Weston, Fairfield, and Westport. Root vegetables stored well, and thus they didn’t need to be rushed to market before they would spoil. Farmers of root vegetables weren’t subject to the volatility of the marketplace as much as those who raised vine vegetables. A bumper crop of tomatoes and peas might mean lower market prices since those items needed to be sold before they spoiled.

The other issue that faced local growers of produce was the competition they began to face after the railroads made shipping fast, reliable, and relatively inexpensive. By the 1880’s produce from the Ohio River Valley was making its way to eastern markets. Farmers in that region could grow larger quantities of produce on more fertile lands that could be sold for less money than it cost local farmers to grow it in Connecticut.

It wouldn’t be until early in the second quarter of the 20th century when the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company decided to plant a large tract of land in Easton with apple and peach trees that another truly profitable and sustainable local agricultural industry would emerge.

But while the railroads hurt many local produce growers, they also helped the growing dairy business. In the 1850’s, Gail Borden invented a process that condensed milk. Borden’s sweetened condensed milk would remain usable for long periods of time without the need to refrigerate, enabling farmers to raise more milk producing cows and sell far more product than the local market could normally consume. When Borden built a processing plant in Newtown in the late 1800’s, local farmers began hauling cans ladened with milk to either Monroe or West Redding where they would be loaded onto train cars and taken to Newtown.

While the growth of dairy farming required larger barns to house cattle and store additional hay and silage for feeding them, the poor soil conditions that had limited crop production became a non-issue. As some farmers turned to other occupations to produce their income, dairy farmers often leased their fields for the growing of hay. Dairy farmer’s meadows were then used exclusively for grazing during the seven months when dairy cows could mostly fend for themselves between the twice-daily milking sessions that kept their owners close to home for all 365 days of the year.

The barns we will present here reflect the growth of the local dairy industry.

Philip Snow purchased a sixty-one-acre dairy farm on Sport Hill Road from the widow of Amos Candee in 1915. The barn pictured below replaced the large L-shaped barn that burned in 1945. This structure is good representation of the size and scope needed for a large dairy operation that handled the product from start to finish. The Snow family maintained a herd of approximately 150 milk cows in this 160-foot-long structure. By the middle of the last century, Snow’s took milk production from the cows to the pasteurizing and bottling process to delivery to the customer. Unfortunately, economies of scale made businesses such as this unprofitable by the final decades of the 20th century. Staying in business meant changing directions.

From the Preservation Connecticut webpage, Historic Barns of Connecticut: By the early 20th century agricultural engineers developed a new approach to dairy barn design: the ground-level stable barn, to reduce the spread of tuberculosis bacteria by improving ventilation, lighting, and reducing the airborne dust of manure. A concrete slab typically serves as the floor for the cow stables. Many farmers converted manure basements in older barns into ground-level stables with concrete floors. Some older barns were jacked up and set on new first stories to allow sufficient headroom. With the stables occupying the entire first story, the space above serves as a hayloft. By the 1920s most ground-level stable barns were being constructed with lightweight balloon frames using two-by-fours or two-by-sixes for most of the timbers. Novelty or tongue-and-groove beveled siding is common on the walls, although asbestos cement shingles also were a popular sheathing. Some barns have concrete for the first-story walls, either poured in place or built up out of blocks.  The gambrel roof design was universally accepted as it enclosed a much greater volume than a gable roof did, and its shape could be formed with trusses.

The Snow Farm structure fits all these descriptions. Even though this barn is less than 80 years in age, there are rather few of these structures left standing in Fairfield County. The four metal cupolas across the peak of its roof serve to ventilate the barn and are each adorned with a letter, together spelling out the Snow family name. The farm has changed directions over the years and now caters mostly to the needs of the landscaping community, but it is still run by members of the family.

The main dairy barn at Snow’s Farm on Sport Hill Road

Successful industrialist Edwin Gilbert was 80 when he became interested in agriculture in the late 19th century. He reflected on his youth when the hills of Redding were used for raising beef. Much of Connecticut had grown into a manufacturing state since then. The population had increased significantly, yet farms had continued to decline in numbers throughout the 19th century. Beef was then being shipped to Connecticut via the railroad from hundreds of miles away in the American West. According to Gilbert, “Thousands of acres of good grazing land are lying idle in Connecticut, and we are paying the railroad companies for the meat we eat. Why not use these pastures, raise grass and corn on these hills, and produce the best beef at the market’s door?”

Edwin Gilbert’s original idea was to raise beef cattle in Redding. Pictured here is his herd of Hereford cattle

During the two years following the recession of 1893, Gilbert purchased two additional depressed farms on Hog Ridge in the Georgetown District of Redding and Weston to add to his own 90-acre tract. In total, the three farms comprised 365 acres of land. He then built barns that would accommodate one hundred head of cattle, and two large silos. He started a herd of Hereford cattle and hired thirty men to work on the farm. Arthur J. Pierpont of the Connecticut Agriculture College – today’s University of Connecticut – visited him in 1895 and Gilbert remarked: “Mr. Pierpont, there’s lots of money in farming, but so far, I have found that it has been all on the left-hand side of the ledger.”

Gilbert’s Farm contained several huge barns like the ones seen here. c.1910.

When Edwin Gilbert passed away in February 1906, The Gilbert Farm was bequeathed to the Connecticut Agricultural College. Under the terms of his will, the college received 1,200 shares of Gilbert and Bennett stock as an endowment to support the farm. At the time of Gilbert’s death, there were about 70 head of cattle, 40 pigs, along with five caretakers to oversee the operation. It was anything but a profitable venture. Gilbert may have met with success in the wire industry, but his combination brains and money were no guarantee for success in the business of farming.

Thanks to the dividends the G&B stocks produced, the college managed turn the operation around by the beginning of the First World War. However, that was accomplished mainly through the elimination of farm employees and by selling all the livestock except for some beef cattle and a good size herd of milk cows. By the early 1920’s the farm no longer fit the college’s needs as a satellite operation of the Storrs campus, and it was decided to liquidate it and sell off the land. It was farmed by subsequent owners for a while longer, but the sheer size of the buildings was too much for a dairy farm to support without the funding the endowment had produced.

The milking bays in the interior of the Gilbert Barn in the Georgetown district of Redding c.1910

The barns are long gone. Today the property is the home of Meadow Ridge, an upscale retirement and long-term care community. A special thanks to Brent Colley for his contribution to the Gilbert Farm story and the above photographs.

Perhaps two of the most iconic dairy barns in Easton – or at least the two that have been photographed and shown up in various works of art the most times – are located on Church Road. One dates from about 1890 and the other around 1908. Built, expanded, and maintained by numerous generations of the Sanford family, they stand as examples of the ever-evolving needs of the farmers they served.

The large barn at 95 Church Road with additions on both ends
Both Sanford Barns on Church Road. The one in the foreground is located at 125 Church.

The giant red barn at 95 Church Road has seen several additions to accommodate additional livestock and equipment as the farm grew during the first years of the 20th century. My grandparents leased this property during the Great Depression and their cows supplied raw milk that was sold to my grandfather’s brothers to be processed and then bottled at their Marsh Dairy plant on Sport Hill Road.

Interior structure of the barn at 95 Church has seen the types of repairs that are needed to keep it standing straight and true.

As urban areas such as Bridgeport grew and the farms in those areas began to disappear, rural towns began to supply more of the milk that was consumed in the cities. That lengthened the time between production (milking the cows) and consumption. Raw milk was an excellent breeding ground for the mycobacteria found in tuberculosis. Pasteurization kills these mycobacteria, but the process requires equipment that many of the smaller volume farms couldn’t afford. Farms like my grandparents worked sold their raw milk to firms that could process it and then deliver it to the consumer.

While most of the individual dairy farms have gone by the wayside and have been replaced with much larger institutionally run operations, we are fortunate enough to still have a few of these large barns in our midst to remind us of a time when a family run farm could serve the needs of much of the community. Hopefully, they will stand for another 100 or more years!

1952 Cover of the Saturday Evening Post featuring the barn at 95 Church Road as drawn by artist Stevan Dohanos.
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