Earning a Living / Working the Land and the Sea / Farming

Chapter 15 -- Part 1

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For 250 years, from the time of Hampton's settlement until the 1880s, most residents earned their livelihood from the land. Unlike nearby Exeter, which was able to utilize the water power of the Squamscott River to develop large mills and factories, Hampton remained a rural community until the early years of this century. An unnamed correspondent to the Portsmouth Journal described the town's bucolic way of life in June 1874:
The inhabitants of the town number about 1,200, mostly farmers, generally very healthy, consequently very few deaths; average number yearly 15. The majority of the people are perfectly independent and apparently happy living on their little farms of 10, 15 or 20 acres, paying all their yearly bills, going to church constantly, paying liberally, dressing well and not seeing of their own or other people's money on an average, three hundred dollars in a year. This town was formerly called "Egypt" on account of its much corn; so much was raised that it was difficult to get rid of the surplus. Within my recollection it was trucked to Portsmouth, Exeter, Newburyport, Salem and Boston for a market. The present generation, not following in the footsteps of their fathers and neglecting to procure the great fertilizer for corn [seaweed] has reduced the quantity so much that we are now paying forty thousand dollars per year for corn that could be raised at home if the boys would put their minds and backs to it as formerly. In this particular, we are fast on a retrograde march. The boys don't seem to care about an accumulation of things of the world. They will never fill the shoes of their fathers. Hence, the truth is, our nation is growing worse and worse! In the town are 253 occupied houses and about thirty occupied only in the summer months. At the occupied buildings there are about 10,300 hens including both sexes. About all of the groceries and ten thousand other things are paid for in eggs. I have often seen barrels of flour proposed to be paid for in that ready cash article at the different stores in town. Some of the hens lay every day until they come short of material; others every other day, and others can only be made to lay by cutting off their heads. The cost of keeping hens well kept per year is one dollar per head, giving an income of two dollars per head. Some of our people keep one, two, or three hundred each. This is wrong, there should be on our little places no more than 20 to 50 at each place, the number depending wholly on the amount of room for the fowls to hunt and walk.

As the above newspaper article suggests, farming was not so much a business as a way of life in Hampton. The town had a number of blacksmiths who could make implements, wagons, and tools, and mothers, wives, and sisters sewed clothes, but the farmers grew much of the food they needed and they often traded or bartered at the local stores for such items as sugar, window glass, or other necessities that could not be made or produced on the farm. An important source of income was the Town, for whom farmers and other men worked on the roads. In 1896, for example, some 104 men earned from as little as 36 cents to $70 as highway laborers.

For the farmer to earn what little money was required for taxes and a few necessities, a cash crop was needed. Through the end of the nineteenth century and into the first two decades of the twentieth, the most common product was eggs. The [Exeter]News-Letter documented the chicken business in 1892. In February, the newspaper's Hampton correspondent boasted,

Hampton is one of the best egg towns in New England, and about 1,800 dozen are weekly shipped to the Massachusetts market. The business of collecting and shipping them lies in the hands of the town's three grocers. J. A. Lane sends to Boston, seldom shipping less than 800 dozen weekly, D. 0. Leavitt collects 300 dozen a week, delivering them for shipment to E. L. Dalton of North Hampton. I. W. Mason handles 600 to 700 dozen a week, all of which are sent to a single firm in Lynn [Massachusetts]. Hampton eggs command high prices in the city markets, and the collectors are often enabled to pay higher prices than the city market quotations. Two carloads of grain are weekly received here, and the greater part is consumed by hens. Several flocks number from 100 to 300, and the grain required to feed them has in great part to be imported.

Late in March, the three stores shipped 1,057 dozen eggs, the largest single day's shipment of the winter. Less than a month later, "...the greatest egg town in Rockingham County" shipped 2,635 dozen in a week. The business seemed to be so good that Postmaster Myron Cole built a poultry house behind his residence. The business seemed to attract entrepreneurs, as the News-Letter reported in May. One man noticed a small ad in the paper from someone who announced a higher price for eggs. The man hopped into his buggy at 3 P.M. and four hours later, after visiting several surrounding towns, he had purchased 256 dozen eggs, "which netted him good profits for his enterprise." Seeking to educate as well as to inform, the newspaper offered its readers the following puzzle: "A woman with eggs to sell recently visited three Hampton stores. At the first she sold half her supply and half an egg over. At the second half of what then remained and an additional half egg, and after selling at the third store half of what still remained and half an egg over, had 36 eggs left. The foregoing outlines an actual transaction and furnishes a knotty problem. Not a few are wracking their brains in the attempt to ascertain how many eggs composed the woman's original stock. How many had she?" Two weeks later, a Kensington correspondent provided an answer: "We are now wondering if the lady who sold her eggs in Hampton ... made a mistake in counting that should she take 295 eggs instead of even dozens, and an even half dozen. As we reckon, we find the first man took 12 1/3 doz., the second man took 6 1/6 dozen, the third man took 3 1/12 dozen. We would now like to know the price received for them."

One large chicken farmer at this time was George Johnson, who was also producing 1,500 ducks. In January 1893, the paper said eggs were selling for 34 cents per dozen, and "those whose hens lay fifty dozen per week, as Mr. Fred Lamprey's did last week, are to be congratulated." Just two months later, however, eggs were only selling for 16 cents per dozen, a price fluctuation that made the business speculative. By 1897, "Some of our enterprising farmers' wives declare that rather than sell eggs for eight cents per dozen they will boil and feed them to the hens." In 1895, the town's largest poultry growers were Irvin Leavitt with 600 birds and Fred Lamprey and Austin Mace with 400 birds each.

Prices had increased a decade later when the Union described the economic aspects of poultry in 1906: "A flock of 90 hens owned by George Elkins had the following balance sheet: 10,959 eggs laid, or 122 per hen and sold for a return of $273.90. Food cost $78.75 leaving a net balance of $183.15 or $2.14 per hen, when $1 per year profit per hen is considered good." The business had changed again by 1915 when the Union offered, "Rev. Edgar Warren has shipped 3,000 eggs for incubation from his White Wyandottes this season and expects to ship more until the end of the month when he will devote his time to his insurance business." Warren had a large poultry business but even he had difficulty making it a full-time occupation. The economics were against the small farmer, as the Union explained in a 1920 item: "A local farmer is selling eggs for $1 per dozen at his door and he has more calls then he can supply. For those who complain about the price, he says his grain bill is $15 per week and he has 15 dozen eggs to sell. All he gets out of it, therefore, is the society of the hens."

The abundance of chickens in Hampton made the town a prime area for hawks, for which the State paid a bounty for every one killed. In 1894, for example, the News-Letter reported, "It has been a great day for hawks, of which 100 is the estimated number killed. The bounty is 25 cents each which is an effective way to kill them." That year $66.25 in bounties was paid for 267 hawks. The following year the town paid $94.75 for the shooting of 379 hawks. Clinton J. Eaton earned $14 for killing 56 birds and several other men shot 20 to 40 hawks. In 1896 and 1897, when the program apparently ended, no doubt due to the lack of targets, Hampton men shot another 631 hawks. At various times in the late nineteenth century, the Town paid bounties on crows and woodchucks. Roaming dogs also preyed upon hens and sheep. For many years, the Town paid out small sums to farmers whose domestic animals were killed by dogs.

Hampton's last large chicken farmer was Leston Perkins, whose chicken range was behind the family homestead on Barbour Road. For 20 years, beginning about 1936, Perkins sold hatching eggs and fresh dressed chickens. Many of the eggs were sold to major poultry companies such as Nichols of Kingston. He had a home route for dressed chicken and eggs at Little Boar's Head and Rye Beach and he also sold dressed chickens to stores and restaurants at Hampton Beach and Portsmouth. At one time, he raised 15,000 chickens for meat during the summer and he kept 3,500 birds over the winter. The latter would be taxed by the Town and are reflected in the chart displayed later in this chapter. Perkins had an 11,000-egg incubator, and when it was operating at capacity, it produced 1,400 chicks every four days. To feed his White Rock chickens, Perkins bought grain, which was delivered in 400-bag car loads by train to Hampton depot. During the summer this was about a one-month supply.

For a few years, beginning in November 1949, the Nichols Poultry Farm leased the former Bradford Shoe Company building as a distribution center. Here eggs were delivered daily from farms in New Hampshire, Maine, and Massachusetts. The eggs were graded, sorted, and stored in cool, dehumidified areas to await shipment throughout the United States, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. The company began a hatching program in January 1950. Other local chicken farmers in this century included John Gambole, Edgar Warren, Austin Mace, Mrs. M. C. Morse, and 0. Raymond Garland. In 1953, Garland was cited by the New Hampshire Grange in recognition of his family's 300 years' ownership of their Winnacunnet Road farm. During the United States Bicentennial celebration, the property was honored as a New Hampshire Bicentennial Farm.

Although chickens and eggs were the most common agricultural products in Hampton, the local farmers raised other livestock and crops as well. In the winter of 1891, butcher John W. Lewis had killed 159 hogs, 50 for one man. At the turn of the century, Albert Johnson was Hampton's largest sheep farmer. His 1901 flock of 33 gave him 500 pounds of wool, plus 38 lambs.

Although the days of Hampton being called "Egypt" were over, corn continued to be an important crop. In 1895, the arrival of C. H. Crosby, the hulled corn buyer, was a newspaper item. In 1897, the town was pleased that contractor Abbott Joplin was rebuilding the Tuck Grist Mill on High Street for owner Joel Jenkins, a summer resident and inventor of the safety pin. A controversy developed over the mill's ownership since Jenkins, whose Victorian summer home still stands just west of the mill, claimed he owned it and 50 surrounding acres. Closed for about 20 years, the mill's ownership was traced by the News-Letter's Hampton correspondent from John Tuck in 1709, through various Leavitt owners to Ruth Leavitt in 1885. Supposedly Tuck's original building was torn down and replaced with the existing structure in 1815 by Moses Leavitt, whose sons operated the mill for many years thereafter. According to the 1897 newspaper article, none of the owners "...have ever laid claim to one inch of this land [through] which this water flowed, neither have they had a grant to flow this land since Tuck's grant expired in 1728. Notwithstanding, the land owners have never objected to the flowage of the land, and probably would not now providing the mill was in operation for grinding corn.

"But at this late day when a man comes from New Jersey and buys an old dilapidated mill not worth 15 cents, which has not been in operation for more than 20 years, and lays claim to 50 acres of land which several of our townsmen hold deeds of, seems about as preposterous as it is absurd. Avarice and greed will often carry a man to greater extremes than good common sense." There was nothing more to follow regarding Joel Jenkins; whether or not he again ground corn is unknown, but his renovations probably made possible the existence of the building until the present. Now owned by the Town, the mill was again renovated in 1985.

A traditional seasonal event involving corn was held in November 1901: "An old fashioned husking was given by Samuel Taylor last Thursday evening. After husking a large number of bushels of the yellow (and red) ears a bountiful repast was served. This, by no means, was the end of the evening's entertainment, for dancing was soon begun in a commodious room prepared for the occasion, prettily lighted with Japanese lanterns. After several dances, including the Portland Fancy and Virginia Reel, ending with Old Marm Tucker, the gay party again repaired to the parlors where there was entertainment that lasted until the more prudent concluded it time to go home."

In the summer of 1988, corn was still to be seen growing in large fields on Exeter Road across from the Batchelder farm, along Drakeside Road, and on Towle Farm Road. Grown by farmer Geary Hurd, this cattle feed-corn is all that remains to remind us of an old New England "Egypt."

Hampton farmers also grew a variety of fruits. In 1896, Albert Shaw gathered 25 bushels of strawberries from his beds and was expecting to harvest 50 bushels of blackberries and many bushels of raspberries. Currants were also grown in Hampton. In October 1897, Jacob Leavitt harvested 100 bushels of cranberries and others in town were expected to have 50 bushels or more. Today Hampton Falls is known for its large apple orchards, but Hampton was once a major producer of the autumn crop and it was not all men's work. The News-Letter's Hampton correspondent boasted in October 1888, "Two of our smart young women recently picked seventeen barrels of apples from the ground in one day. Who can beat the women of Hampton?" In 1891, the Portsmouth Chronicle reported, "Apples are a drug in the market; peaches are small in the trees on account of the drought; several gardeners have no chance to sell their products." A month later, the farmers found a solution to the apple problem: "Some of our farmers who make vinegar add beets to produce a nice color."

The apple abundance continued the following year and "J. W. Mason, the principal buyer, will ship for the season 3,000, possibly 4,000 barrels, all to Chicago, Dallas or Fort Worth, Texas. Prices have risen and $2 is the lowest now offered." In 1894, the News-Letter reassured its readers: "Contrary to fears, the local apple crop is large and of excellent quality. The largest grower is Aiken Coffin, who has 800 barrels of No. 1's and 600 bushels of cider apples. For beauty and size of the fruit, Otis H. Marston can vie with anyone. At the Mason store he exhibits a plate of Hubbardstones, weighing each nearly a pound and measuring a foot in circumference. Few buyers have yet appeared and shipments to market have hardly begun. The price now offered is from $1.25 to $1.50 per barrel." Meanwhile, "Hon. Ezra Winchester was busily engaged with five two-horse teams hauling a thousand [barrels of apples] to a schooner at a Portsmouth wharf ...." Apple prices changed little by the turn of the century when, in November 1900, four railroad cars were being loaded with apples at the Hampton station. Twenty-two cars had already been loaded and shipped and few apples were left in the area to sell. The going rate was $1.65 per barrel, up from 70 cents per barrel a month earlier. Freeman Williams was selling "drops" to a wholesaler for 50 cents per barrel. In 1935 Mrs. Rose J. Williams was selling apples, raspberries, peaches, and pears from her Rose Lawn Fruit Orchard on Exeter Road.

Another common crop was potatoes, also subject to wide price fluctuations. In June 1896, the News-Letter reported, "When our farmers pay at the rate of $10 per ton for phosphate, and reckon labor anything, and sell potatoes at 20 cents per bushel, they are not putting much money in the savings bank." The following year, however, "Mr. Horace Hobbs, one of our industrious farmers, has planted this year four acres of corn and five acres of potatoes that are looking well for this year, one piece of potatoes having 17,861 hills. Mr. Hobbs is selling his potatoes for one dollar per bushel."

By the turn of the century, potato farming had so declined that the Union reported in November 1903, "The first carload of potatoes ever imported into Hampton was received by Frank S. Mason on Tuesday, 550 bushels from Aroostook County, Maine, and selling at 75 cents per bushel." The apparent decline of farming was often discussed by Editor Charles Francis Adams in Hampton Union editorials. One appeared in an August 1905 edition, printed in connection with the annual Farmer's Day at the Beach, which attracted some 9,000 people, where at the Convention Hall, "the speaking was of high order." Adams suggested, "Hampton has a great future as a farming town .... Much produce has to be brought into town and ... the marketmen say they cannot get enough fruit, berries and early vegetables to supply the demand. Who would have thought that a vegetable wagon could be run from Exeter to Hampton two or three times a week with profit to the men interested in the enterprise? The time is coming when the great market garden section of south-eastern New England will be in the vicinity of Hampton. In the great Hampton marshes is locked up wealth beyond the dreams of avarice. Some of the best soil in the world now produces nothing but salt hay and a few stunted trees and bushes. One of these days the Hampton marshes will be diked and drained, and will grow crops of celery, onions, cabbages, etc., that will be worth fortunes to the owners. With the State College offering him a course in agriculture practically free, and with the possibilities of the new agriculture confronting him, the Hampton boy will do well to ask himself if it will not be good judgment to settle down in the old town and try farming." Two years later, Adams made a similar appeal, complaining, "... about 200 bushels of potatoes, plus thousands of boxes of strawberries, are being imported to town for home consumption while many acres of good Hampton land lies in grass or low profit crops." He urged Hampton farmers to grow more scientifically. Adams had great plans for the development of the marshes and he sought to combine his dream with a return to agriculture in Hampton, but neither hope was realized.

In 1907, the Town Register, Exeter and Hampton, 1907-8, listed the residents of this town. Some 142 men were classified as farmers, by far the most numerous category of employment. Fifteen Blakes in 11 families were listed as farmers, most of them living along Mill Road, at the junction with Barbour Road, a section that became known as "Blakeville." Many of these Blake farmhouses exist today, a few with Blakes still resident, and apple trees, barns, and outbuildings attest to the farming way of life that continued here through the middle of this century. Other farming families were the Maces, of which 11 men in eight families were classified as farmers, half of the 14 Browns and 11 Lampreys were farmers, as were four Godfrey and Marston families, and three Hobbs, James, Lane, Nudd, Philbrick, and Leavitt families.

In more recent times, Hampton farmers have had dairy herds. At the corner of Winnacunnet Road and Park Avenue was the Johnson family Spruce Hill Farm. Homer was the last of the family to work as a dairy farmer, selling out to Frank Freeman in 1946 or 1947. Freeman sold the dairy to Whiting Milk Company in 1956. The Johnson's farmed land of which part is now the Winnacunnet High School property, and they also used the open fields, now housing developments, in the area between High Street and Winnacunnet Road, where they grew many acres of corn for cattle feed. Homer Johnson had a milk route, beginning in 1913 at Hampton Beach and continuing until he sold out in the 1940s. The Johnson's offered daily deliveries in Hampton and two or more daily deliveries at Hampton Beach. When the Beach was closed in the winter, the Johnson's made butter with their surplus milk and, in the mid-1920s, Homer sold a lot of milk to a cheese factory in East Kingston. When Johnson began his daily Village route, milk was selling for six cents per quart. In the thirties, the Johnson's also had an arrangement with the Baker Farm in Stratham, which supplied milk to Phillips Exeter Academy. The Baker milk was used to expand the Johnson business in the summer at the Beach and the Johnson milk was used by the Bakers in the winter at the academy. Prior to 1922, the Johnson's farmed with horses, but in that year they bought a Fordson tractor.

By the 1920s, there were a number of small farms left in the center of town but only three large farms: Johnson's, Toppan's (on Lafayette Road opposite the junction with Winnacunnet Road), and the Perkins farm on Landing Road, operated for many years by Fred Perkins and later by his son Harold. When Winnacunnet High School was built in 1958, the Perkins cows were grazing on the land that is now the south end of the football field.

[NOTE: The following information on another farm in Hampton, was inadvertently omitted from the original printing of this History of Hampton and is hereby compiled by John M. Holman, Hampton History Volunteer of the Lane Memorial Library. The name of the farm was 'WAYSIDE FARM' and was located at 263 Mill Road and was in operation from the Fall of 1925 to 1966 for a period of 40 years. The owners & proprietors were Marshall S. & Dorothy D. Holman and operated it as a retail truck (fruit & vegetables) farm with some wholesale to the local First National Store. For additional information and articles written by Dorothy Holman, go to Dorothy D. Holman's Oral Histories.]

West of Lafayette Road, there were farms along Drakeside Road, Towle Farm Road, and Exeter Road. The E. L. Batchelder, Jr., home on Exeter Road was a farm for many years and it retains many of the outbuildings and barns it had when actively farmed. Today its open fields are still used for growing feed corn by Geary Hurd of Old Stage Road, Hampton's last active dairy farmer.

Although most farming is mentioned in connection with men, the women of the family also played an important role in the operation of a farm. Cooking was a woman's task and the responsibilities extended beyond the immediate family. In 1888, the News-Letter explained, "Farm help is scarce in this vicinity; it is a rare thing to find a man who will board himself, and several young men of this town have married ladies from the city who know nothing about boarding workers; it is hard work for them, and their ignorance in regard to it cannot be described." A few years later, in 1894, the women, perhaps, had had enough, for the paper reported, "Farm help will be cheap this season as women are tired of boarding men, and it is no wonder as they get little from their hard labor. Farmers get small prices for their products and this existing state of affairs ought to be remedied."

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