Above: Our farm (outlined in black) on Bob Rider’s map
It is a wintry scene out there, a heavy, wet snow blanketing a dormant world. The pastures months ago stopped greening and growing; the vegetable garden, stripped of vegetation, heavily composted, silent and still, awaits spring. The sheep with nothing to graze on gather, huddled, either in their favored space of safety on the south side of the barn or down by the source of their winter food, the hay-filled manger near the road. Vernon and Possum, our devoted pig couple, lie snoozing in this snowy time in the shelter of their hut, cuddled up together in the straw. The Rhode Island reds, their egg production way down, are not venturing out today to energetically scavenge the front chicken yard as they usually do but spend this short winter day scavenging the coop.
Here in the warmth and comfort of the house there is now ample time for the luxury of reflection. I realize, as I stand leaning on my desk looking over a 1939 map of our corner of Germantown, what a tiny fragment our farm actually represents of what was once an intensively farmed region.
True, this corner of Germantown has a much older history dating back to the early eighteenth century when the Livingstons gave up this parcel of their vast domain (at that time larger than the State of Rhode Island) to a colony of Palatine Germans in flight from the constant warfare that disrupted their once prosperous life on the Rhine. While the broad outlines of this history are readily known, there is little in the way of a detailed record of how the land in our neighborhood for most of its history was actually farmed.
The map of 1939 is the only historical document I have found that provides a really detailed view of what each farm grew and who the individual farmers were. This very informative map we owe to the late Bob Rider, our near neighbor on the north, who apparently as a project for one of his college classes at the Ag school of Cornell University created a map recording in great detail how all of the farms surrounding the orchard farm of his father, Weston Rider, were planted.
What is now Turkana Farms, we now know, is a mere 40 acre fragment of the more than 130 acres owned by Richard Lasher at the time the map was made, his acreage intensively planted in apple, pear, and cherry orchards and several large vineyards, its lowland areas given over to pasture for dairy cows. The more than 500 acres shown on the map of farms surrounding the Richard Lasher farm were similarly given over to the same mix of orchards and dairy. A miniscule portion of this more than 500 acres was given over to what the map designates as “cultivation”, which evidently meant grain or vegetable crops.
This dearth of “cultivation,” the dependence on orchards, and the substantial inclusion of “pasture” reflected the poor quality of the land the Livingstons had chosen to pass along to the Palatine settlers, a land in which shale is never far from the surface, the terrain consisting of long north and south running fingers of high land (called “hogbacks” by the locals) separated by narrow low areas (locally called “hog troughs”). It was on the ”hogbacks” that most of the orchards and vineyards of our neighborhood were planted and where the original farm houses and barns were built. The “hog troughs” must have required over the centuries considerable and constant draining to serve as pastures. This is evident at present from the current state of the “hog troughs,” which because their drainage systems were not maintained to keep the land agricultural have once again reverted to wetlands.
In returning to the map, I realize that since Bob Rider’s death, and the dismantling of his beloved orchard, our tiny Turkana Farms (apart from a small dairy goat operation across the street) is the only functioning farm in the entire area of the 1939 map, the rest of the land having been carved up for residences whose owners have allowed the orchard, vineyard and pasture areas to grow up in scrub and woodland.
As I looked at the map not only did I begin to realize the great loss of agricultural productivity in our neighborhood but also the loss of all the families once sustained by this productivity. Moving from east to west along our road were the evidently prosperous (given the substantial houses they left behind) farms of Richard Lasher and Clarence Lasher, the dwelling of Richard’s son, Eldridge Lasher, as well as the smaller holdings of Edmond and Raymond Lasher. No wonder our street was called “Lasher Avenue.” Not a name lived on it that was not a Lasher, but sadly, not a single Lasher is today left on the road. Additionally to the west and north were the farms of Parker Coone, William H. Denegar, Martin Oravitz, and, of course, Weston Rider. At present of all these names only the Rider name remains in the person of Anne Rider, Bob’s widow.
The 1939 map, a wonderful legacy left by Bob Rider, I now realize casts light not just on the history of our little corner of Germantown but also the sad history of American agriculture during this past century.