The American Farm

March 30, 2004
Filed under Destinations

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Driving through miles and miles of farmland can be an uplifting experience. Seeing a farmer
tilling the land or harvesting his crops makes some of us recall childhood visits to Uncle
Jim’s farm, where we slid down stacks of hay and tried our best to catch a chicken. It may
feel like an all-American experience, but the American farm of today has been evolving
since the first person sowed a seed in a land far away. To learn more about the farms in
this country, we must look across the Atlantic Ocean to the British Isles and Northern
Europe. It was immigrants from these areas that established farms in Pennsylvania and the
Appalachian Mountains, bringing with them their own styles of architecture and ways of
raising food for their families. Fortunately, you don’t actually have to cross the ocean to
see how the American farm developed. All you have to do is visit the Frontier Culture
Museum in Staunton, Virginia. You won’t see replicas here; you will see structures that
were actually brought, piece by piece, from Ireland, England and Germany, to be reassembled
at this unique museum. Some of the homes and barns date back to the 1600s. Spread across
220 acres of rolling hills, the museum was conceived by a group of Europeans and Americans
who had a desire to bring together the cultures that blended into the American farm as we
know it today. Scholars of history ventured to Europe to seek out farms that remained
intact and best represented the cultures from which they came. Then came the arduous task
of disassembling and shipping the parts to Virginia, to be reassembled at the museum. By
1988, after 13 years of planning, the farms from Ireland and Virginia were opened to the
public. The museum is more than a collection of structures. The animals on display in each
segment of the museum are closely matched to those found on the original farm. Since some
of the original animals are extinct and others have been bred to improve their usefulness,
what you see may not be totally authentic, but will closely resemble the original species.
In addition, gardens have been planted with the crops that were grown by the families who
occupied and worked these farms. Furnishings also have been kept as authentic as possible.
Before you set off on the 5/8-mile loop trail that connects the farms, stop at the visitor
center. Here you can purchase tickets and see an audiovisual preview to prepare you for
your visit. Then it’s off to the first farmstead on your tour. By 1775, there were a
quarter-million German-speaking colonists in America. They came to this continent to escape
the harsh winters and the religious turmoil of the early 18th century in their country.
They brought with them their farming and cultural customs. The majority of the German
immigrants settled in Pennsylvania, and as their population grew, they moved south into the
Valley of Virginia. The buildings you see were originally located in the small farming
community of Hordt in the Rhineland-Palatinate region of Germany. The house was one of the
oldest surviving structures in Hordt; it dates back to 1688. The house and barn are of
fachwerk, or timber-frame construction, and the roofs are clay tile. A narrow staircase
leads to bedrooms on the second floor of the home, and on to a third floor, or attic, that
was used for storing crops or other items. In the kitchen, you will find a feature that
sets the German house apart from others: a raised hearth for cooking, rather than the more
traditional open hearth at floor level. Pots were hung on hooks over the fire and skillets
rested on iron trivets. The wood furnishings were simple and often built by the family. The
barn has a bay for animals on either side of a threshing bay. In later years, a third bay
was added for a wagon. In addition to field crops (mostly grains), German farmers also had
a family garden where they raised vegetables, herbs, berries, fruit and flowers. While at
the German complex, you might see some domestic fowl that you don’t recognize. The ducks
are Blue Swedish and the hens are Silver Polish, White Crested Polish and Spitzhauben,
which translates into the “pointed cap.” The yellowish cattle, known as Gelbvieh, are
descendants of cows native to the Rhineland-Palatinate area. Draft teams were mixtures of
oxen or horses and cows. The pigs were important for the food they provided. As you head
toward the farm from the Scotch-Irish, or Ulster, heritage of Northern Ireland, you will
see long stone walls and buildings with thatched roofs. This farm, which was active around
1730, came from the town of Claraghmore in County Tyrone. Farmhouses of this era were
traditionally one-story with thatched roofs and dirt floors. The cavities between the
double stone walls of the buildings are filled with rubble and whitewashed on both the
inside and outside. The farms in Northern Ireland were quite small by American standards. A
typical farm was 10 to 20 acres, and the most common crops were potatoes, oats and flax,
along with some other grains. Cattle in Ireland were more important for producing milk and
butter than beef. The black Kerry cattle you see at the Ulster farm are the rarest at the
museum. The species arrived in Ireland as long ago as 2000 B.C. These rugged animals were
known for their ability to survive on poor forage, but over time they were replaced by
high-producing dairy and beef breeds. Only 500 Kerry cattle remain in the entire world.
Pigs were important to Irish farm families, and the white Landrace here resemble the Irish
Greyhound pigs found on Ulster farms. You’ll also see a variety of free-range chickens on
this farm. The floor of an Irish farmhouse was hard-packed clay. Flagstone was used in
front of the fireplace. Since the early fireplaces did not have chimneys, members of Irish
farm families developed black lung disease from the smoke they had inhaled from infancy.
The beds had backboards because people had to sleep in an upright position in order to
breathe as smoke settled near the floor. Meals were simple, porridge being the main dish.
After leaving the Irish homestead, follow the path that leads to a blacksmith’s forge,
which was brought to the museum from County Fermanagh, also in Northern Ireland.
Blacksmiths working with a very hot fire will demonstrate the skills of making farm and
household implements, using the same types of tools that were used in the mid-1700s. Your
next stop is the English farm, where you’ll see a vast difference between how English and
Irish families lived. This farmhouse from the West Midlands of England, in Worcestershire,
dates back to 1630 and is the oldest structure at the museum. The house remained in one
yeoman’s family for four generations. (A yeoman was an independent farmer who owned his
land.) The typical English farmer produced a combination of grain, animals and dairy
products. He rotated his crops to maximize the yield from his land. The variety of animals
was important for the production of wool, meat, dairy products and transportation. The
house here was built in segments, with the kitchen being the oldest part of the structure.
It was a comfortable home with a room where the family gathered for meals around a long
table and a well-furnished parlor for entertaining. The upstairs bedrooms included a large
room for the parents; other rooms were shared by children and servants. The 18th-century
cattle shed on this farm came from West Sussex. The stately structure has leaded-glass
windows and elaborate Jacobean chimneys. Like the German house, the English structure has a
clay-tile roof. The Devon cattle on this farm, which also are becoming rare, were known for
their ability to provide meat, milk and work. Sheep were the most plentiful animals on
English farms, but those in the 17th century were smaller and produced less wool than do
today’s breeds. The sheep here are a mixture of Southdown and Cotswolds, breeds that the
Romans introduced to Britain. Now enter the American farm, built around 1850 and brought to
the museum from the Valley of Virginia. All 11 buildings in this complex are from the same
farm that once stood in Botetourt County, Virginia. The original part of the log house was
built in 1830 and consisted of two large rooms, one on each floor. A kitchen wing and
porches were added in the 1840s. You’ll see a number of other buildings, each designed for
a special use. The barn, with two pens separated by a threshing floor, is reminiscent of
the German barn. Other buildings were used for curing ham, doing laundry and keeping
chickens. A stone building over a spring provided a cool place to store food. Farmers in
the Valley of Virginia raised a variety of grains as well as potatoes, corn and other food
crops. Until the introduction of mechanized equipment, everything was done by hand,
including planting seeds and harvesting crops. Horses were important to these farmers and
hogs provided food. Furniture was sturdy and functional. There were tables, chairs, beds
and cupboards, but little upholstered furniture until after the Civil War. In addition to
presenting the history of agriculture, the Frontier Culture Museum is the setting for many
activities throughout the year including barn dances, music festivals, quilt shows and
blacksmith competitions.

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