The Civil War
As has been seen by the reader who has followed us through these pages, for the greater part of the time since Braddock cut his rude way across our county, our inhabitants have been chiefly engaged as tillers of the soil. Our pioneer farmers found the country almost entirely covered with a dense forest. To cut this away and let the sunlight shine in, that the seeds panted might spring forth and bear fruit, was their first and most onerous duty. For more than a century the wealth of our county consisted almost entirely in the value of the soil, viewed from an agricultural standpoint. The hills and valleys were prized then not for what lay beneath the surface, nor what they might bring as building sites, but solely for the value of the crops of grain which they could produce, and the live stock which might be bred and fattened upon their yearly outgrowth.
Our early farmers and farm makers have sometimes been censured by our present generation for what is termed the profligate destruction of timber in the first half of last century. In this a great injustice has been thoughtlessly done them. In no other way could the country have been developed and its real wealth made known. Each section had to be of necessity self-sustaining, and, to make it so, their first duty was to take the land and bring it under the hand of cultivation. The privations and hardships of the early farmers are scarcely appreciated as they should be by the present generation, which has reaped from their labor more than they themselves did. It is neither true nor fair to say that, while they were wresting a scant livelihood from the surface of the earth, they were ignorant of mines of marvelous wealth which lay concealed beneath their feet. The coal, iron, gas, rock, etc., which have since contributed so much to the wealth of the county, were without value in their day, and without the preliminary labor performed by pioneers, would necessarily have remained valueless for all time.
In the early days of Westmoreland agriculture the product was largely rye, a cereal which was not only suited to the new ground, but which could be readily converted into whisky, for which there was always an open market. Most farmers were, therefore, interested in opposing the tax on whisky, which brought about the Whisky Insurrection. Moreover, the new ground was, in their opinion, better adapted to the cultivation of rye than of wheat, though this statement is not borne out by later experience. Early in the last century, when turnpikes and canals opened up a transportation to the eastern cities, our farmers began to raise more wheat and corn than they needed for home consumption, and shipped the flour East in barrels. Turnpikes also fostered the raising of live stock, and droves of cattle, horses and sheep became in some seasons of the year almost an every day occurrence. Thus it was that good roads have in the past proved to be the salvation of rural communities. The people of the county are now alive to this matter, and the next decade will undoubtedly see much advancement in good road making.
Railroad building, which began in Westmoreland county with the latter half of the last century, added a new impetus to agriculture. With increased facilities for transportation, the farmer learned to raise the crops best adapted to his soil. These he could readily dispose of, and with the income could purchase such commodities as he and his family most needed. During the Civil war, when prices were high, they relaxed somewhat from this rule, and tried more or less to produce on the farms such commodities as their families stood in greatest need of. With a great army in the field to clothe, wool advanced in price till it sold readily at one dollar or even more per pound. The Westmoreland farmer readily adapted himself to the new situation, and thousands of hills were forthwith dotted with sheep.
As a general proposition the hills were well adapted to grazing, and the alluvial deposits which form the river and creek bottoms produced luxuriant crops of corn, oats, rye and grass, while wheat is more readily produced on higher ground. In the course of a century rye, from holding the highest pace among the cereal products of the county, has taken the lowest. Following up the idea that the farmer should produce the commodity best suited to his soil we have hundreds of farmers who produce little else than milk, which our railroad facilities enable them to ship readily to the town markets. Still others produce cattle or horses almost exclusively.
The great strides which the county has made in the last quarter of a century in mining, manufacturing and railroad building, prompt us sometimes to almost forget that we are still strong in agriculture. By a table found elsewhere in these pages, it will be learned that the assessed value of the rural communities for the year 1905 was $42,488,766, while that of the borough was $31,858,814. But this is not an entirely fair statement, for many coal works are assessed with the township property, though they have really no connection with agricultural wealth. But no such objection can be urged to the Report of the Census Bureau for 1900. From the Census Bulletin on Agriculture, No. 207, issued June 24, 1902, (Page 3) we collate the following facts relative to farm statistics in Westmoreland county. There were at that time 5,402 farms in the county, of which all but sixty were supplied with farm buildings. The aggregate acreage of these farms was 515,729, or a fraction over ninety-five acres for each farm. This is about nine acres more than the average acreage of the farms of the state. The value of the land, exclusive of the builds, was $20,786,820, while the buildings were valued $8,527,570, the total valuation of farms and buildings being $29,314,390, or $5,426 per farm. There were $1,419,530 invested in farm implements and machinery, and $2,867,619 worth of live stock, making a total valuation of farms, buildings, machinery and live stock, of $33,531,539. This shows an average value of farms, including buildings, machinery and live stock, of $6,207. The gross income of these farms, not including products fed to live stock, was $3,776,966, or an average of $884 per farm.
There is, in fact, only one item in which we seem to fall below other counties that might reasonably be compared with Westmoreland, and that is in the amount of money expended annually for fertilizers. We expended $65,600 to that end during the year, as against $172,680 in Montgomery county; $366,700 in Lancaster county; $447,160 in Bucks county, and $370,380 in Chester county. The solution of this is partly due to the fact that Westmoreland is so generally underlaid with limestone that but little expenditure is necessary for fertilizers. Out soil, moreover, being naturally rich in potash, needs little more than the application of lime in its caustic form to fee the potash and make it available to growing plants. The phosphoric acid necessary in the production of the cereal crops we grow is comparatively cheap, while, in the other counties named, many farmers are engaged in market gardening, and therefore need a fertilizer which induces a large leaf growth. They must therefore resort to the use f more nitrogen, which is the most expensive element of plant food found in the market.
Source: Pages 442-444, History of Westmoreland County, Volume 1, Pennsylvania by John N. Boucher, New York, the Lewis Publishing Company, 1906.
Transcribed August 2000 by Priscilla Davis Webb for the Westmoreland County History Project
Contributed by Priscilla Davis Webb for use by the Westmoreland County Genealogy Project (http://www.pa-roots.com/westmoreland/)
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