In 1683, William Penn reported to friends in England, “Here is plenty of cow cattle.” Cattle, together with all other farm livestock, were brought to the Delaware Valley from Europe by the Swedes, Finns and Dutch in the 17th century. There were no native farm animals here except the turkey. The Indians kept no livestock except dogs, which were used somewhat on the chase, but served mainly as food in times of famine.
It is recorded that the cows “found” here by the English were small, scrub creatures often subsisting in deplorable conditions. It is said the nondescript cattle eked out a miserable existence, unhoused, ill-fed and left to forage in the woods over winter, sometimes freezing and starving or “destroyed by wolves, bears or panthers.” English colonists did not, at first, realize how much more severe the winter climate of southeastern Pennsylvania was than that of England. It was many years before they began to build substantial barns similar to those their German neighbors had been building, almost from their first settlements.
In 1789, Benjamin Rush described the German farmers practice of overwintering cattle: “They keep their horses and cattle as warm as possible in winter, by which means they save a great deal of their hay and grain; for these animals, when cold, eat much more than when they are in a more comfortable situation.”
In the early days of settlement, the culture of forage crops for winter feed was practically unknown. Consequently, local farmers in the early 18th century were dependent upon meadow hay for wintering their cattle. The practice of growing grass crops and hay in fields was little employed at that early date. Meadows were valuable, not only for summer pasturage, but for the wild grasses growing there, mowed and stored in barns and barracks (roofed hay stacks). They were the only practical way a farmer could overwinter cows.
Wherever possible, there were separate hay meadows and pasture meadows. The hay meadows were scythed and the dried hay carried by fork or wheelbarrow out to higher ground where it was loaded onto a wagon. Grazing was sometimes restricted in the hay meadow as the hooves would damage the sod.
The first cutting was in the hay making season, the last two weeks of June. The second cutting, called in Pennsylvania Dutch Omet or Umet, was in the first two weeks of September.
When timothy hay was adopted, it was usually fed to the horses, and the cows continued to get meadow hay. The hay mows in the barns were sometimes different sizes to hold the various hays. The horse stable mow was never as large as the cow mow. Red clover hay, though, was fed to the cows. There are ads for red clover seed in the 1730s in Franklin’s Philadelphia Newspaper, and it was probably in general use in the Dutch (Pennsylvania German) areas by the late 1700s.
Interestingly, in the early days, wherever practical throughout the German region, the hay meadows were “watered” (the original term for irrigated) so that a good second crop of hay could be cut in the late summer. Great labor was spent in the irrigation system and sometimes great expense in buying water rights.
We have evidence that both creeks in New Hanover, Swamp Creek and Minister Creek, were used to irrigate hay meadows during the 18th century. The first evidence is an 1830 deed for Hartranft’s Grist and Saw Mill, which was located on the property of the late Joseph Deery on Church Road near Reifsnyder Road. It carried an easement from before 1784, (when this was still Philadelphia County) parts of which are interesting enough to be quoted:
“Excepting and reserving unto Jacob Dengler his heirs and assigns forever the free right and liberty and privilege to take water through a trunk which is to be in breadth one foot and in depth four inches out of the headrace of the said mills along a smaller race which is not to exceed one foot in depth which the said Jacob Dengler his heirs and assigns forever have a right to dig and keep in repair in order to water the meadows on a tract of land adjacent to the said mills tract that is to say from the 15th day of June until the 27th day of November in every year three times to wit twenty-four hours each time and for which purpose the said mill is to be stopped and the floot (sic) gates to be shut and kept tide (sic) by the same John Binder his heirs and assigns tenants and occupiers forever during the said term of three times in 24 hours in every year and that the said Jacob Dengler and his heirs and assigns have a right as well during the above mentioned times or at all other times when the said gristmill hath more than a sufficiency of water to draw off as much water of the head race of said mill that a sufficiency of water is only left for the said mill to water the meadows above mentioned to be taken out of the headrace as such a place as may be the most advantageous to him the said Jacob Dengler.”
Which is to say that if there were plenty of water, the neighbor could have as much as he wanted, but if there was not plenty of water, the mill had to be stopped so as to allow the headrace to fill up three times a season so the outflow would water the neighbor’s meadows.
The other example in swamp is on the Minister Creek, upstream from the Swamp Pike. The 200 acres between Leidy Road and Charlotte Street were originally owned by Johannes Benner, a tanner who died unexpectedly in the spring of 1748. Notice of the estate sale was published in Sauer’s Germantown paper and noted among other things, “fifteen acres of good meadow, most of which can be irrigated” (translated).
And lo, on the Minister Creek in the center of that tract are today the remains of two very old dams, and just above one can still be seen the terrain of a single ditch irrigation system.
The practice of damming creeks and then ditching and channeling water courses to overflow onto hay meadows was quite labor-intensive and generally ended in the 19th century, although on some few farms it continued into the 20th century. The channels were cleaned in the fall after the corn was husked, but before November 1, the start of rabbit season. Because the water was in the ditches intermittently, sod would grow in them that needed to be hacked out, and the ditches needed cleaning annually. There was a specialized tool called a “schwamm-ax” or a meadow ax, used to trim sod from the sides and bottoms of the ditches. One of the few known existing sod axes is in the Goschenhoppen Museum and comes from the New Hanover area. It was found on the farm of Dr. Fenton Russell, which borders the Scioto Creek near Obelisk. The property was originally owned by Ludwig Schittler.
After the practice of watering meadows was abandoned, the nutritious meadow hay continued to be cut in the amount that nature provided and taken to the barn for winter feed.
Also of interest: Bob Wood’s history talks Thursdays from 1 to 2 p.m. at Studio B, 39A East Philadelphia Avenue, Boyertown. Topic for Thursday, Sept. 3: “Cabbage.” This lowly vegetable helped make early settlement possible.
The Historian is produced by the New Hanover Historical Society. Call Robert Wood at 610-326-4165 with comments.