Agriculture

historiclongbranch-agriculture

                                                                                                                                                         Courtesy of Tom Lussier Photography

During the late 1700s and early 1800s, the Shenandoah Valley’s reputation as a productive agricultural region blossomed and world-renowned acclaim for its fertile land grew. The Valley famers’ commercial agricultural pursuits included the production of corn, hay, and various grains, and raising horses, cattle, sheep, and pigs. While their agricultural pursuits were varied, it was wheat that served as the major cash crop for the region. From the late 1700s through the mid-1800s, each of the owners of Long Branch participated in this agricultural boom by running a wheat plantation at the site. Like many other large plantations in the Valley, Long Branch utilized slaves in the production of this major cash cop.

Men cradling wheat in the Shenandoah Valley. Image from the collection of the Library of Congress.

Men cradling wheat in the Shenandoah Valley. Image from the collection of the Library of Congress.

The Shenandoah Valley’s increased production of wheat can be directly linked to the Atlantic economy’s increased demand of the grain. By the mid-1700s, Great Britain’s industrial revolution picked up pace, which increased the demand for manufacturing laborers. Since there were less food producers working the land, Great Britain became dependent upon foreign shipments to feed its country’s residents. Shenandoah Valley farmers became an integral part of this expanding food demand and Atlantic World economic network. Valley farmers produced wheat, ground it into flour at local mills, and sold it to merchants located in Alexandria for direct shipment to Europe. The wheat produced at Long Branch was likely ground at the local Burwell-Morgan Mill in Millwood and shipped via various transportation methods to markets in Alexandria before being shipped to Europe.

Planters throughout the Shenandoah Valley thrived through the American Revolution and into the early 19th century. Many other industries in the Valley, including coopers, wagoners, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, and silversmiths, were positively influenced by this prosperous period of wheat production as well. The Valley’s wheat industry remained lucrative until the mid-1800s when depleted soil, economic turmoil, and the Civil War greatly disrupted agricultural productivity. In addition, Valley farmers faced competition from mid-western farmers that increased their production of wheat for they could now easily ship their product to markets via newly laid rail lines and the Erie Canal. Eventually, the mid-west would replace the Valley as the nation’s leading wheat producer.

During the rise and fall of wheat production in the Shenandoah Valley, Long Branch had three different owners – Robert Carter Burwell, Philip Nelson, and Hugh Mortimer Nelson. Each of these owners maintained a wheat plantation at Long Branch with varying degrees of success. Contemporary inventories indicate that the plantation had fans, scythes, harrows, plows, and wagons, which are all needed for the production of wheat. The plantation’s livestock included, pigs and hogs, cattle, sheep, horses, and oxen.

Slaves, one using a hand sickle and harvest stick, harvesting and gathering grain. Image courtesy of the National Park Service.

Slaves, one using a hand sickle and harvest stick, harvesting and gathering grain. Image courtesy of the National Park Service.

Throughout Long Branch’s tenure as a plantation, between 20 and 30 slaves planted and harvested wheat. After plowing and prepping the fields in September or October, winter wheat was planted. The fields then needed weeding and to be kept free of livestock until the early summer harvest. Around June or July the wheat was ready to be harvested. Harvesting utilized sickles, or scythes and cradles, to cut and collect the wheat. These tools, dangerous to use, allowed an individual to harvest an average of two acres of wheat per day.

Like many of the other farms throughout Clarke County and the Shenandoah Valley after the Civil War, Long Branch struggled while attempting to pay back debts in a depressed economy. While Long Branch’s slaves had been freed, the Census of 1870 suggests that at least one family, the Bannisters, stayed and worked at the farm and for the family until 1951.

Hugh Nelson Jr., a progressive and scientific farmer like his father Hugh Mortimer Nelson, maintained the farm throughout the rest of the 19th century, dealing with failing wheat crops and a struggling southern economy. After Hugh Nelson Jr.’s death in 1915, Sallie Page Nelson attempted to continue the large farm previously maintained by her husband, however, as the years went by she began to lease the property to other farmers. Long Branch’s life as a wheat plantation had run its course, and subsequent owners simply maintained large vegetable gardens and some livestock, while the many acres of its grounds provided area farmers with new land to cultivate.