Farming & Feasting with the Robinsons: Summer
Written onJune 01 , 2009
In the not-so-distant past, eating locally was a way of life and a matter of necessity. For four generations, the Robinson family farmed in Ferrisburgh, at the place known today as the Rokeby Museum. The museum’s collection includes correspondence and household records detailing the family’s ways of farming, preserving, and eating. In the second of this four-part series, we take a look at how the Robinsons cooked, ate, and farmed in the late 1800s.
When George Gershwin wrote “Summertime, and the living is easy...” one gets the impression he wasn’t really thinking of the farming population. In the words of Ann Robinson Minturn in August 1862, “there be those whose souls rejoice in the yellowness of their butter, the whiteness of their bread, and the exceeding cleanliness of their houses... to sit with the hands folded is an abomination–and such women should I think be farmers wives.” Ann may have questioned her own suitability for the job, thick as she was in the weeds of summer, with its endless demands on the farm family, but her musings quickly shifted to talk of rains and cherry crops, drying corn and filling feather comforters, and the pressing business of the season.
If spring found the Robinsons in the spirit of perseverance, summer marked their shift to “eternal vigilance, which is the price of all success,” as described by Rowland Thomas in a June 1862 letter to his sons. With most crops in the ground and the danger of frost largely passed—but never entirely gone—the Robinson family (father Rowland Thomas Robinson, sons Rowland Evans Robinson and George Robinson, and daughter Ann Robinson Minturn, who lived away but wrote often with advice) focused on pest control, protection from unseasonable freezes that came even in June, timely replanting of any ruined crops, the beginnings of food preservation for the following winter, and of course the dreaded chore of haying. But summer also brought a fair burst of reward for the toil; this was the season of fresh fruit, streams full with fish, golden butter, and the occasional mug of cider drawn from the cool cellar’s barrels when the going got especially tough.
One of the many visitors to Rokeby in the early summer months of the late 1860s might find son George checking for worms amongst the nursery trees, ready to “apply the tin [an insecticide] without delay” should he find any. Son Rowland Evans is off to Brooklyn, drumming up work among the publishing houses and enduring the heat of the city (with the aid of a cold lager or a “rectified high wine...tastes better than Molson, I think”). Daughter Ann Minturn and family are working to establish a farm in Waterloo, NY, where father Rowland Thomas is enjoying one of his visits—an annual affair following the death of his wife, Rachel, in 1862. Mary Ann, the hired housekeeper, is on an errand to bring strawberries to the neighbors, for “we have had enough and some left.” The neighbors return the favor with “a large piece of nice cheese.”
Indeed, the Robinsons appeared to have relied on their neighbors for any cheese they enjoyed, as the great majority of their milk was churned into butter for home use, trade, and sale, as well as for packing into stoneware crocks for winter use. Vermont’s reputation for excellent dairy was forged in this era; Rowland Thomas remarks on a trip to Nantucket Island in August 1867: “The butter came in good order and is pronounced excellent....It is next to impossible to get butter of any quality, & some we have had I think would not be relished by Jack or Monkey or any of their [canine] class accustomed to respectable board.”
The respectable Robinson board was apparently overflowing with fresh fruits and vegetables during the summer months, when the general rule was to eat one’s fill (and perhaps a bit more) and to put the rest by. Blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, cherries, and currants, of both cultivated and wild varieties, accompanied every meal. Ann Minturn wrote to her brother Rowland Evans in July 1862, “Speaking of comforts, foremost among [them] we may this season place strawberries.” She adds, “if you have many cherries this year, I should have the [hired] girls dry some.” Aside from the endless churning, the greatest seasonal chore for Rokeby’s women was the drying—and later canning—of fruits and vegetables. Beans, sweet corn, fruits of all kinds, and tomatoes required considerable labor to put up for a colorful and flavorful winter diet. In 1873, Anne Robinson, wife of son Roland, kept a canning log in her diary: her steamy hours over the canning pot yielded at least 20 quarts of cherries, 22 quarts of blueberries, 16 quarts of tomatoes, and 3 bushels of sweet corn, likely making a comforting sight in the cellar when the days started to wane.
Pickling remained popular even as the technology was shifting from drying to canning; fiddlehead ferns, black walnuts, and cucumbers were all preserved by fermentation with salt or pickling in vinegar. Ann Minturn advises her brothers on the method for putting up cucumbers in 1862, their first year with an inexperienced housekeeper and no female relatives to attend to such matters: “Cut them off the vines and put them in a brine made with course [sic] salt–always being sure that there is some salt in the bottom of the barrel-& that they are covered with some old – but clean cloth.” If the barrels in the cellar today are any indication of the size of the batches, the Robinson bachelors were well supplied with cucumber pickles, should all other crops fail.
For all the work the women put into the pantry, the men worked equally hard to fill the granary and to bring in the hay, both of which required a great deal of cooperation from the weather. Ann Minturn’s family in Waterloo hayed 90 acres; with the many head of merino sheep at Rokeby, we may presume that the Robinsons had at least as much of what Rowland Evans called “the cursed job.” The introduction of the wheat binding machine and the mowing machine to both farms “rob haymaking of its terrors,” wrote Ann Minturn in 1861. Although the task remained a source of anxiety due to the possibility of “catching weather,” farmers like the Robinsons “did not hire an extra day’s work —on account of a mowing machine.” Indeed, with “the lack of suitable help” an ever present concern, the machinery reduced the need for outside workers and proved doubly rewarding.
In addition to hay, the Robinsons and the help they did hire harvested wheat, buckwheat, and rye during the summer months, and planted oats and a great deal of potatoes. Crop rotation and soil health was a concern then as now: Rowland Thomas wrote to his sons in August 1867, “I hope and trust thou will be encouraged to sow the same ground to wheat this fall & in good season but not without a pretty liberal coat of manure & doubtless a barrel of lime to the acre would supply an essential ingredient to the soil, which is partially exhausted by the two successive crops.”
Rowland Thomas understood the importance of good tilth in ensuring the future feeding of his family and livestock, and in securing the business future of the farm. Rokeby, left in the care of his sons, was “too valuable to be lost for want of vigilant care, as you know without my reminding you.”
But vigilant care was abandoned during the most brutal heat for the cool banks of Otter Creek or Lewis Creek, where the whole family flocked with fishing poles in hand to catch perch and trout. Another refuge was “down cellar,” where “a mug of cool cider ‘would make a feller feel better,’” as Rowland Evans wrote to his brother from Brooklyn in 1868. “The cider sent here was highly appreciated,” he continued. “It is just gone, and in good time for it was getting decidedly vinegarish.” Perhaps so in the city, but with the many thirsty mouths at Rokeby on those scalding summer days, it’s unlikely a single drop of cider was unintentionally left to vinegar.
Sketch from the Rokeby collection