Friday, March 06, 2009

New Hampshire Cellarholes

My mother had a recurrent fear that I would fall down an abandoned well.

This was not irrational: the time was the 1940s; we lived in rural New Hampshire, a country thick with abandoned farms. Most of the structures had been reduced to mere cellarholes, filled with attractive nuisances of a sort that can easily snare a 10-year-old. The wells themselves were often lightly boarded over with a readily removable rock on top of the boards. We kids knew they were a menace and I always kept my distance. But there they were, a somber reminder (as it seemed to me then) of somebody's disappointment and failure.

A bit later when I came to be curious about the history of these old places, I developed the notion (never systematically informed) that most of the abandonment was recent, perhaps in the Great Depression, certainly since the beginning of the (20th) Century. I pictured despairing toilers giving up on the stinginess of short growing seasons and rocky soil. Now here is Betty Flanders Thomson with a more textured account--rather, a surprisingly different story:
Contrary to what many people believe, there is nothing inherently wrong with the ferility of New England's soil--what there is of it. The highest yield of corn per acre produced in the country until recently was produced in Connecticut. ... [T]here were rivers and lakes that washed some of the soil out from among the rocks and assembled it into some usable masses here and there. But relatively few of these patches are large enough to do more than provide turning space for a small horse-drawn hayrake.

It was the competition from cheap land, level and clear enough to allow the use of large farm machinery, that put the pinch on New England agriculture. When canals and then railroads came along and provided low-cost transportation for bulk freight from the West, the bottom fell out of the old farm economy. As a result, hordes of Yankees gave up and went off to populate the new lands; and it is not always as easy as one might think to tell an old-stock Ohioan or Iowan from an old-stock Vermonter.

Defection from the hills received a further push from the expansion of water-powered industries, and this in turn was enormously stimulated by the Civil War. People who did not go west moved down into the mmushrooming factory towns nearer home. While the farmer's daughters went to work in the mills, his sons were off to fight in the war. ... [L]arge numbers of young men never returned to the hill farms.

By the 1870's farms were being abandoned wholesale ... . Deserted farmhouses became increasingly conspicuous in the landscape, and soon it was apparent to even the least observant that a great change was taking place in rural New England. ... When a family decided to leave, there were few takers for the farm. Many simply moved out and, after a last lingering look at the old home, shut the door and went away, leaving the place to the forces of nature.

With no one on hand to repair a leaky roof or replace the first broken window, it took only a few years for an abandoned farm house to fall into decay. ... A man from southwestern New Hampshire once said that when he was a child in 1865, he knew of nine old cellar holes within a mile of his country school. In the same area in 1887 he counted twenty-three of them.

--Betty Flanders Thomson, The Changing Face of New England 24-6 (1977)
Ah. Oh. Well, two things. One, apparently my chronology was off by more than a generation--apparentely farm decay persists a lot longer than I thought it did. And two, the story sounds much more cheerful and optimistic--not so much pushed off the farm as drawn into a new frontier. I suppose one reason for my negative view of things is that I saw the ones who stayed home who, in the nature of things, were probably the pessimists ("They'll never make it! It'll never work! They'll be back!") Or even worse, I saw the ones who did not make it and did come back, with all the sadness and disappointment that may imply. Now that I think of it, I've seen a paper trail that I can draw a link to Laura Ingalls Wilder, the chronicler of pioneer life, from the ancestry of both my New England grandparents. But I had to grow up, and move away, and buy the book, before I ever heard her story of what happened after they left.

But the wheel turns. My father lived in New England all his life. About 1970, he saw a bear in the back of his three-acre lot. It was the first he had ever seen in the wild. I suspect you could have bought the whole town back then for the price it would cost you to buy just the three-acre lot today.

Final note: Thomson's book is a treasure, but so far as I can tell, it is out of print (the only Amazon links are in Canada and Japan). It richly deserves to be brought back into print. NYRB Classics, are you listening?

No comments: