Farming & Feasting with the Robinsons: Autumn
Written onSeptember 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 third of this four-part series, we take a look at how the Robinsons cooked, ate, and farmed in the late 1800s.
When autumn arrives in Vermont, it’s as if the searing heat of summer is absorbed by the maple trees and expressed through their blazing foliage. This signals the fiery death of another growing season, and the rapid retreat to winter’s dormancy. Ann Robinson Minturn remarked on this bittersweet transition in a letter to her husband, Lloyd, in September 1866: “The country never could be lovelier in September, I am sure, than during the present one—but it is always a melancholy month for me.”
With the change of the season came a flurry of preparation on the Robinson farm in Ferrisburgh. The shortening fall days barely held enough time for the apple picking, animal foddering, hunting, crop harvesting and, of course, requisite endless butter churning before the winter set in. And once the produce was harvested and processed, it all needed careful securing in cellar or granary, crock, barrel, or mason jar to survive the long storage season.
A clear day in early October 1862 would have sent Rowland Thomas Robinson—recent widower and father of Ann, George, and Rowland Evans—into the “new orchard” with son George and a handful of hired pickers in tow. After filling as many barrels as they could procure from Vergennes and Burlington, the pickers continued dropping their treasure into “anything that would hold apples.” Some stayed after the work day to collect their pay in windfalls—the apples blown to the ground during the fall winds. The other son, Rowland Evans, might have been at large in the woods, packing either pen or gun, depending on which of his twin passions of drawing and hunting had hold of him that day. A single man might have been working in the field, seeding winter wheat where buckwheat had been harvested weeks before. Daughter Ann Minturn, meanwhile, would have been at her new home in Waterloo, New York, possibly testing the pears, which would ripen any day.
While the family kept plenty busy outdoors on their respective farms, a great number of administrative tasks awaited them when days turned soggy and sent them indoors. Through a complex web of marketing and bartering, shipping and trading, regional specialties were exchanged throughout the state and the greater Northeast. The Robinson family sent barrels of apples and tubs of butter on canal boats down Lake Champlain or by rail to the West, while orders of Nantucket cod or a few jars of catsup came to Rokeby by way of the Post. But not so with Ann’s fragile produce: “If there was any hope that an unprotected barrel of peaches would ever reach you in safety, I should send one,” she wrote from Waterloo to her brother Rowland Evans in 1862.
As a commercial farming family in a post-wool economy, the Robinsons devoted the most attention to finding markets for their apples and butter, and negotiating the best prices by waiting as long as possible to sell. “Will try hard to send off the Montpelier [apple] order tomorrow and next day I go to Rutland to find a market,” Rowland Thomas wrote in 1862. “Am anxious to get them all off before the weather will require them to go into winter quarters.” He didn’t succeed; that year, when a hard frost came in early November, he and a neighbor’s hired hand scrambled to secure the hundreds of barrels of tender apples. Some were put in the cellar, some were packed with hay or wheat-straw, and the balance they had no alternative but to “commit to providence.” This time, providence revealed herself to be kind, and the apples fared well.
Not that any damaged fruits were wasted; in 1862 the Robinsons pressed at least 80 bushels of windfalls and other unsalable apples into cider, which was held in secondhand rum barrels and left to ferment in the cellar to become next summer’s favorite refresher. Still more apples were cored, sliced, strung, and hung to dry from iron hooks in the kitchen ceiling, providing a winter staple.
While well-secured apples could wait until November to be pressed or dried, the ripe, tender crops had to be preserved regularly in anticipation of the first freeze, the date of which was always a surprise. Ann wrote to her husband from Ferrisburgh on September 16, “We had last night a killing frost, the melons, tomatoes and cucumbers look drooping enough—and it is feared that the corn is hurt—not nearly all of it was out of danger from frost—it is a sad calamity to the county.” Melancholy September, indeed; in a single night, summer vanishes and the industriousness of just yesterday determines dinner tonight.
We have a good idea of just what the Robinson family’s autumn dinner was, thanks to the 1873 diary of Anne Stevens Robinson, wife of Rowland Evans. For a week in early October, Anne recorded the family’s daily menu. Breakfasts routinely consisted of johnnycakes and meat or potatoes, but the monotony ended there. In this single week, the Robinsons ate fresh and smoked pork, fresh beef, fish, various root crops and potatoes, and fruits including canned peaches, plums, and pears, and fresh apples, cranberries, and grapes. Cakes, pies, and gingerbreads rounded out the sweet side of things, while continued churning suggests that butter was a presence at each meal.
While Anne lists only domestic meats, autumn was the season, as it is today, of wild game, and the Robinsons certainly enjoyed their share of it. “The transition is easy and natural to game,” wrote Ann Minturn from Waterloo in late September 1861. “We do not see any partridges in our domain this fall—but every day and all day we hear the guns of the sportsmen, popping in the swamp and fields—the beasts shoot meadow larks among other things.” The Robinsons may have been above the lark, but they entertained other small creatures: “Rachel [Anne and Rowland Evans’ daughter] has taken to shooting squirrels and we are cooking six of her game today,” Anne wrote in September 1892, with what may have been equal parts pride and amusement.
“Who can realize that summer is gone,” Ann Minturn asked her brother George in a September 1868 letter. But even as she watched the winter’s approach in garden and field, she only needed to open a cupboard or head to the cellar to see that summer was never more than a barrel’s lid and a mason jar away.
Photo courtesy of the Rokeby Museum, Ferrisburgh