The Myth of Our Organic Past


By Jochen Welsch, Old Sturbridge Village

Visitors to Old Sturbridge Village routinely ask if, and usually assume, that early nineteenth-century farmers were “organic.” Most look perplexed when we answer that no, early nineteenth-century farmers were not organic. The public assumes that agricultural history and organic farming go hand in hand. This reveals a basic misunderstanding of both our agricultural past and of organic agriculture in general.

History is often imbued with more than a touch of romanticism and nostalgia for what once was. The problem is that what we think once was, in fact rarely existed. No, despite what we want to believe, our agricultural forebears were not organic. To understand this we need only examine the historical record found in town tax valuations, state and federal census data, and in an assortment of farmers’ daybooks, account books, and letters.

Organic and early American agriculture need not be mutually exclusive — many early techniques are appropriate to organics. It is wrong, however, to define one with the other, or to use the terms interchangeably. The introduction to the NOFA/Mass Certification Standards begins with a quote from Wendell Berry’s The Gift of Good Land that suggests why this should be so:

“An organic farm, properly speaking, is not one that uses certain methods and substances and avoids others; it is a farm whose structure is formed in imitation of the structure of a natural system that has the integrity, the independence, and the benign dependence of an organism.”

According to this criterion, few, if any, early nineteenth-century farms could be classified as organic. This is so primarily for what these farmers didn’t do rather than what they did. Some of the more obvious omissions were a near total absence of cover crops, effective or beneficial rotations, and most glaring of all, manure and soil management.

The key to any system calling itself organic is the establishment and maintenance of a healthy, viable, and productive soil. Simply avoiding the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, or other caustic compounds (something our forebears did not do!) does not make a farmer organic, as that alone cannot maintain the soil’s fertility over even a short period time. Of all the criteria one needs to call oneself organic, feeding the soil is perhaps the most important. And more than anything, it is the one thing our eighteenth- and nineteenth-century farmers failed to do or, in many cases, did not do well enough.

They themselves recognized that fact. Manure management was among the most discussed and debated topics in the early agricultural press. Yet only a small percentage of farmers subscribed to such journals and fewer still incorporated what they read into everyday practice.

Even the best farmers, given the extensive nature of their farms and the comparatively small number of stock they could maintain, would not have enough manure to fertilize all their fields adequately. While the difference might have been made up through the use of cover crops and green manure, this was not a common practice at the time. It required an additional expense in labor, equipment, and seed. What crop rotations were practiced barely allowed the land to regain its fertility.

Although criticisms of such poor management practices filled the pages of many an agricultural journal, they apparently had little impact. Most farmers found it cheaper to buy more land when yields no longer met their expectations. This practice, as well as the zeal with which many farmers tried to acquire more land and tend to ever larger herds of livestock, was also roundly condemned by the day’s reformers.

If all this sounds familiar, it should. These criticisms parallel many of those leveled at conventional agriculture today. Yet somehow we have chosen to ignore the destruction our forebears wrought throughout North America. While the damage done prior to the development and widespread adoption of petroleum and chemical-based fertilizers, insecticides, and herbicides is, in comparison to what has occurred in the last fifty years, small, we cannot easily write off the effects of the agricultural system created by our forebears in the first three centuries of European settlement of North America. Their agriculture was neither sustainable nor organic.

We should be careful not to judge the past through our own set of values. That would be both presumptuous and shallow. We must not, however, confuse the myths of the past that we so readily create for ourselves, with the historical record available for our examination. More often than not the images contradict each other. Keep that in mind next time you hear anyone speak of our organic past.

This is an excerpt of an article that first appeared as: Jochen Welsch, “The Myth of Our Organic Past,” in Susan A. Hanson and Lucia Stanton, ed., Proceedings of the 1992 ALHFAM Conference & Annual Meeting, 50-53.

ALHFAM members can access the full text of this article and thousands more though the A.S.K. database. Not a member? Join today!


Posted in Agricultural Museum, ALHFAM, Farm Museum, growing food, Historic Agriculture, Historic Farming, Living History, Proceedings, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Philosophy in Raising and Butchering Livestock

By Barbara Corson, Department of Agriculture, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

Most people feel some discomfort when confronted with the idea of killing an animal that they know as an individual. There are different ways of dealing with the discomfort, including trying not to think about it and buying the meat once it is not recognizable as an animal anymore; or discounting animals’ interests (“it’s PIG for gawds sake! Why would you feel bad about killing a PIG?”); or becoming a vegetarian and going to great lengths to avoid using any animal products. None of these solutions works for me.


The answer I have come up with (so far) is to remember that all living things die and are “recycled” in some way. Whether you are talking about an oak tree, a deer, a human being or a domestic sheep, the question is not “will it die?” but “how will it die, and when, and why?”

I believe there is a covenant between humans and domestic animals that is thousands of years old. The agreement is not “live with me and I will see that you never die.” Rather, the agreement is “Live with me, and I will do my best to protect you from painful injury, debilitating disease, and a slow, messy death. Live with me and you will have a better life and a better death than you would have in the wild. In return for my care, you will give me food, fiber, power, fertilizer and a unique kind of companionship that human society cannot duplicate.”

Of course, even if you agree that such a covenant exists, it is clear that we humans have not always upheld our side of the bargain, any more than we always honor our other commitments as individuals, to our families, communities and environment, etc. For me, these failures to attain the ideal do not destroy the validity of the concept. In my study of history, it seems to me that many of the skills of our agrarian past developed out of an attempt, consciously or unconsciously, to work with and care for the animals that have made civilization possible. In the past 75 years, technology has seemingly rendered many of these skills obsolete, yet I believe they are still valuable and worth preserving for aesthetic as well as practical reasons. So I hope to see more interested people learning and teaching each other about animal skills from our agrarian past and incorporating these skills into our present lives. Perhaps we can create a future in which humans honor our responsibilities to animals better than we ever have in the past!

This is an excerpt of an article that first appeared as: Barbara Corson, “Animal Handling 101,” in Debra Reid, ed., Proceedings of the 2003 Conference & Annual Meeting, 151-159.

ALHFAM members can access the full text of this article and thousands more though the A.S.K. database. Not a member? Join today!

Posted in Agricultural Museum, ALHFAM, Farm Museum, Historic Agriculture, Historic Farming, Living History, Living History Museum, Proceedings, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

The Threshing Crew

Threshing Rig at Heritage Park

Today’s guest blogger is Ross Gould who contributed a post about the walking plough in September. Thanks Ross for sharing your stories!

As an eleven year volunteer at Heritage Park in Calgary, and a farmer for 18 years in an earlier life, my favourite venue to interpret is the farm machinery shed. There are many stories that can be told, like the one about the “walking plow” I blogged about in September, but I have a special story that I tell when a couple visits the shed. It is for the lady in the couple.

I start by explaining that the threshing machine, and the steam engine to power it, were very expensive in 1915. They would cost as much as a house, which means that most of the homestead farmers on a 160 or 320 acre farm could not afford a threshing rig of their own. As a result, a group of neighbours would jointly purchase a rig and then help to harvest each others’ crop each fall.

I explain to the couple that the full threshing crew could often contain from 15 to 20 men. There were 6 to 8 teams and drivers to bring the stooks [a group of sheaves of grain stood on end in a field] to the machine and probably 4 to 6 “field pitchers” to help load the wagons. There were also 2 “spike pitchers,” to help unload the wagons at the machine, and another 3 to 5 to run the machine and steam engine and haul away the grain.

I then explain that, when that threshing crew pulled into my mother’s yard every fall, her kitchen and dining table became a restaurant for all those hungry men. She would have to provide the noon meal, an afternoon lunch, and sometimes supper. Not only that, because the crew went from farm to farm in the community, it became a matter of pride for the lady of the house to prepare the best meals. And finally, at the end of the threshing season, the crew knew who provided the best meals – and who didn’t.

A typical menu would include roast beef, roast pork, ham, hamburger or sausage, home-raised, of course.  Vegetables were potatoes (sometimes scalloped), turnips, carrots or possibly peas, all from our farm garden.  And pies for desert could be apple, cherry or peach, or often saskatoon berry, picked in the summer on our farm.  My mother often canned as many as 150 quarts of saskatoons each summer.  It seemed that we had canned saskatoons every other night all winter, and it came to be too much of a good thing. The pies were a necessity and most often what the farm wife was scored on by the threshing crew.

When I finish the story I almost always get a smile, or even a laugh, from the ladies. They understand very well how the lady of the house felt about maintaining her status in the community.

Posted in Agricultural Museum, ALHFAM, Farm Museum, food, Historic Agriculture, Historic Farming, Living History, Living History Museum, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Rendezvous in Time

The Story of Sainte-Marie among the Hurons Part 1

It seems fitting to have a gathering of living history and museum professionals visit Sainte-Marie among the Hurons in Midland Ontario Canada in June 2019 for the annual ALHFAM conference and annual meeting. Just as in days of old, we bring together groups of people for one common goal: To experience and learn from one another and share our common interests and expertise in the world of museums, living history sites and farms, be they small or large.

Sainte Marie was founded in 1639, 380 years ago, on the shores of Georgian Bay, and it became known by the French Jesuits who founded it as “A small piece of France in the wilderness.” At its peak it housed within its palisaded walls a grand total of 66 French men, many of whom were laborers with little to no education and a very small chance for a good life in France.


The New World was chosen by these men for many different reasons, including the opportunities for adventure and a better life. However, the most important reason was a very strong belief that the French Jesuits were doing a holy deed by being among the Huron Indians, teaching them a very different belief system. Through their conviction they built a wooden fortress in which the Jesuits could feel safe and in which each could call home.

But the story starts much earlier. In 1609 adventurer Samuel de Champlain, the first European to explore central Ontario, found himself in the land of the Wendat peoples, a confederacy of five tribes that numbered near thirty thousand by Champlain’s reckoning.


Champlain was able to form alliances with the Wendat, Montagnais and the Algonquin peoples, who eventually would help to win major battles against the Mohawk.

Champlain made many trips across the Atlantic and soon brought four Recollet priests– an order of the Franciscans–to the territories, and they began the missionary chapter of this story.


One of the best-known of the Jesuits to come to this part of Canada was Jean de Brebeuf. Born in Normandy France in 1593, Brebeuf first came to Canada in 1625, where he worked with the Wendat for the rest of his life until his death in 1649.


It was Brebeuf who was able to create and write a French/Wendat lexicon for the use of other Jesuits in their work of bringing Catholicism to the Wendat people.

Brebeuf and the Jesuits spent untold hours writing what was and is known as the Relations, a form of diary, that was sent back to France. In these narratives are found a great resource for the ethnography of the Huron/Wendat peoples. Without these diaries we would not have the wealth of information that we do today.

Through the many trials and tribulations that were experienced by both the French and Wendat, there are many exceptional stories of life in New France. Robert le Coq, the first donné – a volunteer who signed a contract to work as a business agent for the Jesuits in return for food, shelter and clothing—kept the mission supplied with everything needed to run it. Robert accepted many gifts of fur from the Wendat and in turn took these goods to Quebec to barter for everything from iron for the forge to linens for clothing.

Robert made many trips to and from Sainte-Marie to Quebec for supplies, and it was on one of these journeys that a very dramatic event took place. Traveling with a group of Wendat from Quebec, Robert became ill with smallpox, and they left him for a dead on a small island. As his body became covered with sores and pustules, he managed to find shelter there, and he eventually recovered. Not long after his recovery, a flotilla of Wendat came by the island, he convinced them of his identity, and he made his way back to Sainte-Marie. Imagine the surprise of the Jesuits, his colleagues, and those living at the mission who, having mourned his death, saw him miraculously reappear among them!

The mission headquarters in 1639 was the center of French life in the New World. Not only did the Wendat visit in large numbers, but the northern tribes also came to Sainte-Marie to trade with them. These northern tribes used the location as their temporary residence because its location was close to the vast majority of Wendat villages in the area, making trade much easier.

As buildings at Sainte-Marie began to rise, so too did the French population, including a cook, a farmer, a blacksmith and a carpenter. Jesuits, donnés, paid workers, soldiers and a number of young boys in their early teens lived at Sainte-Marie. The Jesuit priests could be found at various villages of the Wendat on any given day, conducting services and teaching/preaching Catholicism with the help of various donnés.


Stay tuned for more!

Contributed by Del Taylor, 2019 ALHFAM Annual Meeting Conference Chair



Posted in Agricultural Museum, ALHFAM, Annual meeting, Living History, Living History Museum, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Is your historic site a no fly zone?


Drones are becoming increasingly popular and more affordable. According to the Flight Safety Foundation, 1 million drones are registered in the U.S.1 This includes 878,000 hobbyists and 122,000 commercial and government drones (not including military drones). The actual number of drones is undoubtedly higher, since many hobbyists do not realize they are required to register their Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). In Canada UAS are regulated by Transport Canada. Canadian UAS are not required to be registered if they are flown for recreation and weigh less than 35 kg. They are, however, required to be marked with the owner’s name, address, and phone number.

As UAS numbers increase so does the potential for problems at our museums and historic sites. After experiencing problems with drones buzzing some historic buildings, the Oklahoma Historical Society (OHS) established a “no drone” policy. Drones definitely have their uses, and in fact, the OHS is considering acquiring a drone to monitor the condition of roofs and other hard to access areas. They are also great for acquiring promotional and interpretive footage. But the danger of having amateur drone pilots crashing into our staff, visitors and buildings, and scaring livestock is very real. Plus, do you really want to visit a nineteenth-century site only to be disturbed with a drone buzzing overhead?

However, depending on your state and local laws, there could be a problem with prohibiting drones. This was recently pointed out to us by a non-confrontational hobbyist and sent me on a hunt through relevant legislation. Turns out in Oklahoma there isn’t much—another case of the law not keeping up with current technology. The FAA controls all air space even over your site. FAA rules prohibit drones from flying within a 5-mile radius of airports and air traffic control towers and from flying over crowds. Flights are also restricted to daylight (30 minutes before official sunrise to 30 minutes after official sunset). Within Oklahoma the only other relevant law prohibits drones from flying within 400 feet of a “critical infrastructure” such as refineries, power plants, water treatment plants, correctional facilities and bridges and highways. Out of frustration a bill was introduced in the Oklahoma House of Representatives last session that would have allowed property owners to shoot down drones flying over their property. That might have been a little drastic, but the frustration is understandable when ranchers have drones buzzing cattle.

The UAS rules in Canada are more stringent. UAS must be at least 76 meters (83.1146 yards) away from buildings, vehicles, vessels and the public. Pilots must keep their UAS within sight at all times and within 500 meters– about the distance of 4 ½ American football fields. You can find the complete list of Transport Canada regulations here.


Photo by Kathy Dickson

In August 2014, the National Park Service (NPS) made it illegal to operate UAS in National Parks under 36 CFR 1.5. A CFR or Code of Federal Regulations has the effect of establishing administrative law under which agencies of the United States federal government operate. Then-NPS director Jon Jarvis cited safety and noise issues as reasons for the ban since their presence can be disturbing, both to people in the parks and to wildlife. While this is also true for historic sites, most of us cannot establish a ban by fiat.





Those of us that do not have specific legislation prohibiting UAS are still not without some protections. Harassment and “Peeping Tom” statutes  apply to UAS operators, and you can restrict UAS from launching or landing on your property. Since FAA rules require the operator to be in visual contact with their UAS at all times, this does restrict the area they can fly over. For now the OHS is sticking with the “no drone” policy and hoping that state regulations catch-up.

Your site might already be within a restricted area. You can check this out with the B4UFLY Mobile App from the App Store for iOS and Google Play Store for Android. B4UFLY is highly rated by users but only works in the United States. Other apps that work worldwide are UAV Forecast and Hover.

I did learn from my little research project that, should we decide to acquire a drone, the operator must have a Remote Pilot Certificate from the FAA. Any commercial or government UAS must be operated by a licensed pilot. In Canada if a UAS is flown for work or research or weighs over 35 kilograms a Special Flight Operations Certificate from Transport Canada is required.

Maybe Oklahoma is alone in experiencing problems with UAS at historic sites, since a quick, non-scientific survey of some of the larger historic sites around the country did not find any other facility with “no drones” posted on their website.

The advice we received from the hobbyist: “Get a cheap drone and launch your drone whenever one is annoying you. They will leave since they will not want to risk damage from your cheap drone.” We will be sure to use a licensed remote pilot if we do!

You can find out more information about UAS on the FAA website or on the Transport Canada website

Just as I was preparing to send this blog post off, NBC News aired a story on drones. Buried within the FAA reauthorization bill is language that would give the United States federal government the authority to shoot down private drones.2 I am sure we will be hearing much more about this in the future.

I feel I should remind everyone that I am not an attorney so please do not take any of this as legal advice!

1 Flight Safety Foundation. “U.S.-Registered Drones Now Number 1 Million.” Flight (accessed September 24, 2018).

2NBC News. “New law would give federal government the right to shoot down private drones inside the U.S.” (accessed October 2, 2018).

Contributed by Kathy Dickson, Director – Museums and Historic Sites, Oklahoma Historical Society







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How Clothing Dies (and How to Put Off the Inevitable)

The following is a shortened version of an article that appears in full in A.S.K.: ALHFAM’s Skill & Knowledge Base. Want full access to all 25,000 documents? Join today! Membership starts at just $30 per year for individuals.

When is clothing dead? If l threw out all of Living History Farms’ faded clothing, I’d lose most of my stock. It may be faded and even unsightly, but it will fit someone, and it will suit the work that they do for us. No, clothing is dead when the fabric itself dies, and any attempt at repair will either fail or take longer to do than to construct a garment from new cloth.

Preventing Early Clothing Death

The goal is to have all parts of the garment die all at the same time.

Prevention starts even before the clothing is cut out. First, preshrink every material that will go into the garment if it will ever be cleaned. The general rule is to wash fabric a little harder than the finished clothing will be washed. I prewash in hot water and tumble dry cotton fabrics, and warm wash and tumble dry wools so that Living History Farms doesn’t end up with coats that are bigger on the inside than the outside. Clothing construction also affects longevity. Your thread should not be stronger than your fabric, even when sewing on buttons— otherwise you will have to patch a hole before sewing the button back on!


Since too much machine laundering damages clothing, I tell interpreters, “If it doesn’t look dirty or smell dirty, it isn’t dirty.” There are period ways to put off washing. Collars and cuffs aren’t just nice accessories—they take the worst of the wear and dirt that clothing collects. Add these to dress shields in a bodice, and it may go for weeks without seeing a washing machine.

When you do wash clothes, use the lightest cycle and the coolest water that will get them clean, to prevent wear, fading and shrinkage. Hang period clothing to dry whenever you can. Dark or brightly colored clothing should be hung to dry in the shade or indoors. It gets faded enough while being worn.

Doc3-1[1]Ironing is also important to reduce wear. Press out the wrinkles that develop in sleeves and skirts from wearing in between washings, so they don’t become creases that wear out on the edges. Also, starch early and often. Hot starching fills in the spaces between threads that would otherwise collect dirt and washes out, taking the dirt with it. Even spray starch will help clothing look better and last longer. Avoid fabric softener. It’s not period, not necessary, and makes light and fuzzy fabrics more likely to burn like a torch.

Doc2-1[1]Clothing death usually is not a sudden thing. Shirt collars can be turned when the fold grows thin: Rip the collar from the collar band, turn it over, insert it and stitch it back in. Bodices and vests can be darned by hand on the unavoidable thick spots before the outer fabric wears through. Find a line of transparency where a let-down hem was? Take a tiny tuck on the inside of the garment, and protect the new edge if possible. When doing repairs, remember: These are permanent. Use small stitches, not large hasty ones, on your patches.

Clothing is made to be worn. My hope is that, by using good construction techniques and making repairs as soon as possible, it will be a long time before your period clothing wears out.

May your clothing live long and prosper.

Poresky, Laura M. “How Clothing Dies and How to Put Off the Inevitable.” In Proceedings of the 2010 Conference and Annual Meeting, edited by Carol Kennis Lopez, 110-115. Bloomfield, Ohio, 2011.

Full text first appeared in: MOMCC Magazine, Volume XXXIV, No. 1


Posted in Agricultural Museum, ALHFAM, clothing, Living History, Proceedings, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Future of Living History

Although I work at a “big box” Museum & Science Center, I try to stay active in the world of living history. As a volunteer interpreter and reenactor, I’ve heard many friends worry aloud about the future of the hobby and the profession. They see that fewer young men and women are joining reenacting units and volunteering at historic sites. They often cite the shallow focus on history in public schools and the increasing addiction to electronics as reasons for the decline.

I understand the concern, but I also see signs of hope. Perhaps the numbers of 15 – 30 year olds are dwindling, but I have had the pleasure to know and support a really wonderful group of young men and women. I am frequently amazed at the integrity of their research and their depth of understanding of the time period, events, and processes they interpret.

One example is a group of young interpreters at the Hetchler Farm at Genesee Country Village & Museum. When they were first hired in their late teens and twenties, they had little experience with agriculture. They learned history and process from seasoned interpreters, and from nineteenth-century agricultural publications, original tools and equipment, and period paintings and prints of farm work and life. It was a great pleasure to watch the four become proficient in animal husbandry; sowing, tending, and reaping crops; and making and caring for reproduction tools. Most important, they learned to share their passion for history with visitors in a compelling way. The Farm has undergone a transition from older interpreters to younger, and the quality of the visitors’ experience is very high. And happily, there are other under-30 interpreters throughout the Village, doing equally fine research and interpretation.


Agricultural work at the Hetchler Farm, Genesee Country Village & Museum. One of a small group of young interpreters who learned early 19th century animal husbandry, agriculture, cooking, and other farm chores and do a thorough, engaging interpretation for the public.   Photo Credit: Charles LeCount

At the Rochester Museum & Science Center, I arrange appointments for researchers to examine artifacts in our collections. Several young men have scheduled research visits with me to examine the construction and materials of the Civil War uniforms in my care. The intensity with which they examined the garments was striking, as was their depth of knowledge. They compared each garment with other examples they had seen in person or in print, and they worked hard to understand the tailoring and sewing techniques used. They respected the artifacts and handled them carefully. The fact that they were polite and grateful for the opportunity was an added bonus! With these young men integrating the knowledge gained from the original garments into garments they construct for themselves and others, the quality of their clothing will improve, and hopefully inspire others to do the same.

Finally, the most impressive dedication to living history I have been even a small part of occurred June 27 – July 2, 2018. My son and several of his friends participated in the 6th Corps March to Gettysburg. At first, Chuck and I weren’t sure this was a great idea. After all, it was over 90 miles along paved roads in summer, far from home. But we realized that if you are going to undertake such an experience, it’s best to do it when you’re 17, with good friends, and seasoned support.

This commemorative march is planned and executed every five years. The logistics are daunting: food and beverage are rationed to the marchers daily, camping spots are secured well in advance, two chase vehicles hover nearby in case of need. This year’s participants ranged in age from 17 to 60-something, and with the exception of 2 soldiers who left the march because of work obligations, everyone finished. My son and his friends were hot, tired, blistered, and sore, but they persevered. As one of them said, they wanted to “draw attention to the story of the heroic men who marched the route 155 years ago, and to experience a small portion of what those soldiers endured.” They left their last camp during the night of July 1, with 32 miles to go. They arrived at the Sedgewick Monument on the Gettysburg Battlefield at 3:30 p.m. on July 2 and were honored with cheers and applause from family, friends, and supporters.


Participants in the 6th Corps march arrive at Lockhouse 25 on the C&O Canal for a period-appropriate meal and safe place to camp. Photo Credit: William J. Watson

After long showers, a celebratory supper, and a good night’s sleep, the marchers noted that, 155 years ago, the soldiers of the 6th corps only had the hard ground and a battle to greet them. As one of them said “I want to reinforce that with however much attention the participants of this march received, we MUST remember those who came before us and sacrificed so much for this war.”

This is why I am hopeful about the future of living history. There are young people who do the research, learn trades or skills, and learn to interpret the past effectively. They are passionate, energetic, and dedicated. I don’t know how to increase their numbers, but if we all pay attention to our young people, recognize and encourage their talent, and support them in this great endeavor to keep history alive, we may see the results we need.

Sarah Wilson LeCount is the Collections Manager for the Rochester Museum & Science Center. She began reenacting when she met her husband in the 1980s and is grateful to have raised their son in the hobby.

Posted in Agricultural Museum, ALHFAM, civil war, Farm Museum, Historic Agriculture, Living History, Uncategorized | Leave a comment