This article from the Cecil Historical Journal is a reprint from the spring 2001 edition. It has been condensed and was originally called, “Agriculture, Then and Now.”
ELKTON — On plantations like Bohemia Manor, some of the vast acreage granted to Augustine Herman by Lord Baltimore, enslaved African Americans were already harvesting tobacco from the fields of southern Cecil County in 1674. That was the year Cecil was officially designated as a county.
Tobacco was grown extensively in the county, mostly on scattered plantations along the waterways. However, in those early times neighboring Dutch planters raised wheat that supplied Cecil County residents with food. At that time in our history tobacco was the principal commodity, the cash crop. Every available acre was planted mostly in the Oronoco type of tobacco. Even Lord Baltimore’s quitrents were assessed in pounds of tobacco.
After drying, tobacco was packed into hogsheads for shipment directly to England from wharves often located on the plantations. It was shipped to merchants in England who sold it on a commission basis. At times these merchants filled orders for such things as ink or axes for colonial planters. The ships returned carrying these necessities and slaves. Later the small tobacco growers sold their crop outright to large planters or to an agent or factor for a British merchant. Later still, a law required that tobacco be sent to a central point for inspection before the final shipping.
By the 1740s, several factors were pushing Cecil County farmers away from growing tobacco, and pulling them toward growing grains. Due to the fact that tobacco was a labor-intensive crop, many slaves were needed. Tobacco also wore out the soil. Residents needed grain for food. Philadelphia was profitably exporting grain to Europe, and encouraged the growing of grains in the Maryland counties to the south. For these reasons many planters in Cecil County had largely changed to corn and small grains such as wheat, oats and barley by the 1740s.
After 1720, agriculture in the county was divided into two different types of farms. In the tidewater-area, holdings still ran to large plantations usually by tenants or managers. These required many workers and had large slave populations in the early times. These early plantations became nearly self-sufficient. They grew most of their food and also had a few cattle and other livestock to supply their needs. Some had small mills to grind the grain they used. The proximity to navigable water allowed the import of necessities and luxuries, and easy export of grain and other crops.
Some of these early plantations have survived for centuries: Greenfields was patented to John and Mary Ward in 1674. Here at first they raised tobacco using slave labor. In the beginning, animal power, first provided by oxen and then by horses, pulled the plow. Later Greenfields became more diversified and modernized.
For example, in the early 1900s a steam threshing machine harvested the grain. The farm is famous for its elegant brick mansion. Corn and soybeans now grow in the fields.
Wards Knowledge near Cecilton had been cultivated since 1694, while Essex Lodge is said to have been working farm for over 300 years. In the 1950s, Aberdeen Angus cattle were raised there and usually sold at Lancaster, Pa., stockyards.
The fall line marked a contrast in the type of farms. Plantations dominated the coastal plain east of the fall line. In the Piedmont part of the county, mostly smaller farms were found. One of the earliest was Success Farm located on the Susquehanna River about where the Conowingo Dam is located. It was originally called Land of Delight and was surveyed in 1683 for Thomas Lightfoot. It came into possession of John Hammond Cromwell whose descendants owned it until 1937. Here 12 yoke of oxen were used to farm 400 acres. Success Farm, which no longer exists, was famous for a fine brand of peach brandy, made from peaches grown on 100 acres of the farm.
Welsh, Scotch-Irish and Quaker farmers from the north settled all across the northern part of the county from 1683 to the 1720s. Here the owners and their families usually worked the farms with the help of just a few workers. Some farms kept a few slaves. These farms were more diversified as to products raised. While tobacco was grown early, small grains, corn and hay soon became the chief crops. Typically, every farm had some fruit trees and a farm garden. As time went on, there were also large orchards and dairy farms. Many farmers also raised poultry, hogs, sheep and horse hay for the Philadelphia market. They also shipped butter and eggs to the cities. This land was rich and well-watered. Fast flowing streams allowed the use of mills. Some of these became merchant mills in the 1800s. They ground grain for other growers and shippers.
Farming was always a way of life and big business in Cecil County. The Cecil Democrat newspaper regularly published the prices for grain. For example on Sept. 6, 1851, listed prices included “flour $4, wheat 70-73 cents for good to prime red and 73-83 cents for white; white corn 58-60 cents, yellow 55-56; oats 33-35 old, and 28-32 new.” The prices of beef cattle, sheep, hogs, and lambs were also published weekly.
The Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad placed ads in the Cecil Democrat in the winter of 1854-1855, announcing to famers that railroad would be adding milk and market cars, in a hope to enable milkmen to avail themselves of a regular and speedy conveyance.
Cecil Countians learned to take care of their land by crop rotation and fertilization. This is shown by a September 1851 advertisement in the Cecil Democrat, reading, “Guano — Just received from ships Norman and South American, 440 bags Peruvian guano, which I am selling as cheap as can be bought elsewhere, perhaps a little cheaper. Call and see, a good article of Patagonian, also on hand for sale. I expect a boatload of Wrightsville lime here this day (Sat.). Persons in want will please call immediately. Jos. P. Cantwell, Elk Landing Wharf, Sept. 6”
How times were changing! The 1800s saw the coming of electricity and the invention of new machinery. As time passed the use of tractors, truck and the new types of farm machinery replaced horsepower — and gave a new meaning to the word. All these things contributed to big changes in the way farms were operated. Now farming depends on large mechanized equipment.
Thanks go to Jo Ann Gardner for retyping this article.