There's an old volume of Connecticut history in my collection that I recently had professionally rebound. Its ponderous title is usually abbreviated: Connecticut Historical Collections by John Warner Barber and my early edition was printed in 1838. This is the first in a series of single volume state histories that Barber would produce, and his work established local history as a legitimate and popular field of inquiry in the United States.
Barber's Connecticut history includes descriptions and anecdotes of every Connecticut town then in existence and hundreds of unique wood block engravings of these communities as they were at the height of agriculture and as the industrial revolution was already strongly changing the character of New England. Old, spineless volumes of Barber are routinely stripped of their maps and engravings, but mine had been in the family since an ancestor with an interest in the Olmsted origins of our family purchased it in 1844. There are two obituaries pasted on the the inside of one of the marbled endpapers, including that of my Gr-gr-gr-gr-great grandmother, Esther Ingersoll Olmsted, who was born in Ridgefield CT, married a soldier in the Revolution, and died in St. Louis at the home of her daughter in 1847.
I invested in restoring the binding of this volume as means of preserving it as part of our family archive and also to make it available once more a s a readable reference instead of an age-spotted book held together with string. There are treasures of local interest here as well, and it has much to say about the character of communities in the Litchfield Hills where I live and work today as they were 170 years ago.
Litchfield County has four fewer towns in 1830 than it does today: Bridgewater, Morris, North Canaan and Thomsaton split off from parent communities later in the century. The county population in 1830 was 42,855, compared with more than 180,000 today. The largest town was Litchfield, the county seat, with 4,456 residents. Torrington, by contrast, had 1,651 residents but was poised for explosive growth with the expansion of water powered industry on the Still River and the Naugatuck. By the close of the century, the vast majority of Litchfield Hills residents would be found in the valley mill towns and the population of the agricultural uplands would sharply decline. Only in recent decades has this trend reversed and some of these communities regained their previous population numbers.
"The principal part of the county is elevated and mountainous. The prevailing soil is a gravelly loam, generally deep, and in many places strong and fertile, and admirably adapted to grazing. The agricultural interests in the county are very respectable. The staple productions consist of cheese, butter, pork and beef. Considerable attention is also paid to the raising of neat cattle and sheep. The manufacture of iron is carried on more extensively in this county than in any other section of the state."
This description conveys a great deal of information about the factors that influenced the growth and development of commercial enterprise in this region, the effects of which are still felt in our landscape and communities today. It is striking as much for what it emphasizes as what it neglects to mention. The region's extensive network of rivers that were already powering mills and industrial development was already starting to gain ground on agriculture and in a few short decades would displace it as the most significant factor in the local economy. Neither are the regions forest resources emphasized, because at this time in our history the land had been extensively cleared, both for charcoal to fuel the iron furnaces and for farms and building material. In his entry for the Town of Norfolk, Barber notes that:
"Formerly large quantities of sugar were made from the maple: more than 20,000 lbs. have been manufactured in a single season; but since the land has been cleared by progressive settlements, and in consequence of the destruction of the maple trees by some tornadoes, the business has generally declined."
Animal husbandry and farm products reliant on grazing rather than row crops dominated the agricultural economy in the 1830s. Sheep in particular were of extreme importance, as Merino wool was produced for Yankee mills. In the 1870s, hoof and mouth disease decimated the sheep herds of western New England, and combined with the rapid loss of its rural population to better farmland in the west or to growing urban centers, those parts of the region not served by rail or water became struggling backwaters. The one product that the East could produce to meet urban demand for perishable goods in large quantities was dairy, and the regions agricultural producers shifted to dairy. The local invention of canned, condensed milk and access to rail ensured that those farms that survived in the Litchfield Hills were dairies. As the dairy economy struggles to persist in our region today, it is worth considering that agriculture has adopted to mew market opportunities here in the past and may do so again, although with considerable trauma and the paramount need for a secure agricultural land base in a time of elevated land values.
The iron manufacturing center of Salisbury, Connecticut had been a mainstay of the industry since the mid-1750s. Local resident Ethan Allen of Revolutionary fame held an interest in Salisbury's first blast furnace. The Ore Hill region of Salisbury was quarried so extensively that it is now a deep lake. The local ore was a brown hematite which yielded 40% pig iron after smelting.
From 5 to 600,000 bushels of charcoal are annually consumed at the different establishments. The puddling furnaces require from 2 to 3,00 cords of wood annually. The number of workmen employed in the different processes of preparing the material and manufacturing the iron, amount to in all about 500 men. The furnaces produce annually from 2,000 to 2,500 tons of pig iron. The forges and puddling establishments annually produce from 1,200 to 1,500 tons of wrought iron, which is used for anchors, car axletrees, musket barrels, and various other kinds of drafts"
Anthracite coal field and steel manufacture shifted the center of the iron industry to Pennsylvania and the Rust Belt of the old Northwest a few decades after Barber described the operations in Salisbury. Today it is a town with classic New England charm and a grant list that just topped $1 billion. The forested uplands that were denuded for charcoal were unsuitable pasture for dairy cattle and are now maturing forests. The changes in the land since Barber's day inextricably linked with human activity, although the regional impacts of distant fossil fuel use, elevated land values, and a rural economy again in transition will have profound influences on its future.