John Sanderson's Farm

There are two very influential articles Environmental Historians usually read together although they’re separated by forty years; both about “The View from John Sanderson’s Farm.” The first was written in 1966 by Hugh M. Raup, who was the director of the Harvard Forest in Petersham Massachusetts on the site of Sanderson’s farm. Raup described the growth and decline of New England agriculture and its impact on the forest, attributing change to economic forces outside the area and beyond local residents’ knowledge or control. Although this isn’t the main point of Raup’s essay (his main point is that conservation planning doesn’t work), Raup paints a vivid picture of the inevitable decline of New England farming, with the farmers as first the beneficiaries and then the victims of market forces they can neither anticipate nor influence.

An important element of Raup’s article is the fact that it was originally a public lecture that Raup frequently gave to diverse popular audiences. The story he presented has over the years become the widely-accepted, seldom-questioned history of Eastern agriculture. Raup’s description of farming popularized the work of Harvard and Yale professors
Percy Wells Bidwell, Harold Fisher Wilson, and John Donald Black, whose books are still required historiographical reading for Agricultural Historians despite the fact that many of their conclusions have been contested. Raup popularized their ideas very successfully: in addition to the many lectures where Raup presented his case, the article has become possibly the most widely read and cited article in the long history of the Journal of Forest History (now Environmental History).

According to Raup’s story, early New England communities were based on subsistence farming because the roads were so poor. Farm products couldn't easily be brought to seaport markets, so rural life reflected the “simplicity and self-contained quality of the farm economy” (Raup, 3). Between 1791 and 1830, better roads and the growth of local industrial centers caused a farm boom, and New England's ratio of cleared land increased to 60 percent (4). But although New Englanders like John Sanderson planned for the future and invested in their farms, “a different kind of people,” financial investors, built the Erie Canal which spurred “expansion of agriculture in the Middle West.” New England farmers were caught by surprise, Raup says, because “the conceptual frame they had for their lives didn’t allow for such unknowns.” Their farm “economy collapsed…rather suddenly and on a large scale,” and the abandoned farms of the region were quickly overrun with second growth forests (6).

I have several issues with this story. First, neither Raup nor the sources he cites actually demonstrate the supposed cultural simplicity of rural New Englanders. And Raup’s description of the building of the Erie Canal puts the cart before the horse. Transportation did not produce products. On the contrary, a growing volume of expensive overland freight justified the canal project. This is shown by the immediate use of portions of the Canal as they were gradually opened before the completion of the entire line. Raup not only fails to mention this, he gets the Canal’s opening wrong by five years. But perhaps the biggest flaw with the story is Raup’s continuing use of the idea of “another kind of people” (8). “The people who visualized and built the canal,” he says, were only interested in the flow of products, and “where they came from or went, at either end, was of secondary importance as long as the flow continued” (10). This claim is not only extremely presentist, it’s inaccurate. The promoters of the Erie Canal were mainly western New Yorkers like William H. Seward or agriculturalists like Elkanah Watson -- who incidentally was born in Plymouth Massachusetts and lived in Pittsfield, which by Raup’s logic should have made him either oblivious to or opposed to the project. And perhaps most anachronistic and damaging element of Raup’s story is the assumption that capital is always external and (so obviously in Raup’s mind that he doesn’t even need to say it) urban. To be fair, this is a misconception that's at the heart of a lot of Banking History (more on that some other time). Economic development  projects from this perspective were always investments that “had to be made attractive to [outside] investors so that capital would flow into them” (8). Raup’s assumption of rural people’s passivity and ignorance as capitalists is especially difficult to swallow, because a few paragraphs earlier he had complained that the Sanderson heirs had liquidated their father’s farm at a profit, “took their capital and started a bank” (8).

One final note, based on my own research: Raup seems to conclude that although Sanderson’s “heirs did well by themselves when they sold their property while land prices were still high,” their profit was basically accidental (10). The story Raup tells hinges on “comfortable old New England farmers…actors in each segment [who were] essentially uninformed about what those in other segments had in mind” (10). I don’t think this was the case. My own primary reading suggests that most New England farmers by the 1830s and 1840s had friends and relatives in the newer western farming regions. My research suggests that these family connections were extremely active in passing information, money, and people along the new east-west land, water, and rail connections. Some farmers even had relatives that had gone into commerce and even banking in eastern cities. So I suspect that the farmers of New England towns like Petersham were not only aware of the economic changes going on around them, but that many of them welcomed these changes.

In “Another Look from Sanderson’s Farm,” Environmental Historian Brian Donahue challenges Raup on several of the points I’ve mentioned. The thrust of Donahue’s article (published in
Environmental History, January 2007) is that the economic growth that Raup believed would always provide better solutions than "planning" actually depends on unsustainable and environmentally destructive practices that generally happen far away, where we don’t see them. Donahue concludes that conservation provides a “moral brake on economic drives [that] is necessary to ensure greater ecological and social well-being,” but that “conservation cannot succeed if it is subjected to short-term economic tests” (Donahue, 31). Donahue's conclusion implies that there's a mismatch of both physical and temporal scale in the ways these practices are judged. Externalities of distance (out of sight, out of mind), time, and distribution (short term benefits to the few, long term costs to the many) are hidden in Raup's conclusions. And along the way, Donahue challenges many of Raup’s facts as well.

In Donahue’s story of the early New England farm economy, Petersham grew naturally and forests were cleared steadily. Population grew and farmers’ sons became farmers in their turn. Returning agency to people like the Sandersons, Donahue says population and farm growth would have happened, “increased outside stimulation or not” (18). Looking more closely at the structure of these farms than Raup had, Donahue points out that “the idea that Midwestern grain could have caused the collapse of New England farming is an odd one, considering how little of New England farmland was committed to tillage to begin with” (20). Contrary to Raup’s story, Donahue says “the number of acres in tillage scarcely grew at all and never rose above 4 percent of all the land in town” (18). Instead, pastureland was added; partly for wool but mostly for dairy production. Western grain actually took the pressure off New England farms. Corn and wheatfields were turned over to hay and pasture, and marginal pastures were allowed to grow up to pines. As a result, “Between 1880 and 1910, the acreage in agricultural production in Massachusetts fell in half…[while] During the same thirty years, the value of agricultural production doubled” (20). Massachusetts agriculture actually peaked not “around the time of the Civil War, as standard accounts like Raup’s would have it, but about 1910,” 85 years after the opening of the Erie Canal and 41 years after the completion of the transcontinental railroad.

Donahue admits the farm economy of New England did ultimately decline. “Population in hill towns like Petersham fell in half between 1860 and 1910,” Donahue says (20). But then he turns aside from the agricultural story, to return to his main theme about conservation (I would have preferred sticking with the farmers a little longer, to find out what happened to them). Population decline could have been the result of children moving away, old people dying, or simply of no one moving into a town like Petersham for a couple of generations. Who died, who moved away, and who decided not to come seem to be the crucial questions at this point in the story. If most Petersham families had sent sons and daughters into the West, then the deaths of the old folk back home or their retirement to the homes of their children in New York or Michigan takes on a much different emotional tone than the standard tale of a region crushed and impoverished by the wheels of progress. But we won’t know, until someone looks for the actual people, examines their records, and tells their story. Somebody needs to take yet another look from Sanderson’s farm, and this time follow the people rather than the trees.