Signs of a Lost Agricultural Past

Jan 17, 2017

If there’s anything than interests me more than local history, it's unrecorded local history – that is, events, stories, characters and places that live only in the memories of long-time residents – and sometimes not even there, sometimes only in the shapes of certain landscapes, or in the presence of mute but evocative objects that require the beholder to shape and piece together a tentative narrative about their history.

One of the most intriguing examples for this sort of unrecorded history lies at the intersection of two old dirt roads in my town bordering the Herring River marsh. I first encountered this spot some fifty years ago and have a dim memory of seeing some pigs in a pen here, though if there were, they’re long gone.  

To the north of this intersection is a small island surrounded by fresh and brackish marsh. Barricaded by a thick wall of blackberry vines, the island at first glance looks totally inaccessible. But if you know where to look, there is a footpath that skirts the edge of the open marsh and shortly brings you to the island.

The island is of modest size – no more than a few acres. Its contours are steep and covered with open pine woods, suggesting that it was open land only a few generations ago. The first time I explored it, some twenty years ago, there were a number of signs of past human occupation and use. On the west side of the island there was a small wooden shack with a galvanized stove pipe projecting from the roof – long-abandoned, but indicating that at some point someone had taken up at least temporary residence here.

At the summit of the island I came upon a couple of even more surprising objects. In one spot sat the rusted steel hulk of large cultivator, or harrow, with its axle of short spiked rods. The axle was attached by a chain to the geared shaft of the left wheel – indicating that it was pulled by a tractor, or, more likely, a horse or mule. Further down the slope toward the road I found another sizeable farm implement, some kind of seeding apparatus, perhaps. It was steel trough some 6 or 7 feet long with tires at both ends and discs at the bottom of the trough that turned with the axle.  Both implements seemed grossly out of scale and impractical, given the small size and steep terrain of the island. Yet here they were, indicating that someone had not only farmed this small island, but had somehow managed to get sizeable farm machinery across the marsh to do so.

The other day I went back to the island. A stub of galvanized pipe is all that’s left of the small wooden shack, but the rusted farm implements are still there. Moreover, there’s been an unexpected addition since my last visit: a steel ladder leads up to a rather substantial deer blind in one of the pines. Thus one might say that this island has not so much been abandoned as it has reverted from an agricultural use to an even earlier one – that of a hunting and - if we include the blackberries - gathering society. In any case, the changing uses of this small out-of-the-way place suggests that human beings have an endless capacity for adaptation, which is a good thing, since by all environmental indications, we’re going to need it.

This episode originally aired on January 13, 2015