Farming & Feasting with the Robinsons: Spring
Written onMarch 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 this four–part series, we’ll take a look at how the Robinsons cooked, ate, and farmed in the late 1800s.
The 1860s were a tumultuous time for the Robinsons. Rachel Gilpin Robinson, wife of Rowland Thomas Robinson, passed away in 1862, shortly after dismissing longtime housekeeper Naomi Griswold from service. Because Rachel and Rowland’s daughter, Ann Robinson Minturn, was living far from her family in Waterloo, NY, Rachel’s death meant that a large home and farm were left in the hands of an aging father and his two bachelor sons, along with a new, unfamiliar housekeeper and a revolving cast of hired men who sometimes lived on the farm. Not until 1870, when Rowland Evans Robinson, one of Rachel and Rowland’s sons, married Anne Stevens of East Montpelier, did the Rokeby House benefit from the attentions of a new matriarch.
If we could peek in on the Robinsons on a morning in, say, early May 1873, we might find Anne Stevens in the cellar kitchen, churning three days’ cream into butter, then rinsing it clean of milk and packing it into molds, embossing the surface with the Rokeby name. Naomi works upstairs, hanging the laundry from iron hooks in the ceiling and watching over a sheet of gingerbread as it cooks on the hearth. George Gilpin Robinson, the other son of Rachel and Rowland, is harrowing the back field, and he’s having a hell of a time because the oxen are “too fat to work” after their winter respite. Two men hired for the day to tag new lambs are out back, while a third man chops wood in exchange for a pound of butter and four pounds of wheat flour. Rowland Evans is bent over his desk, approaching deadline on a drawing for Field and Stream, but what’s really on his mind is the gingerbread, the smell of which is starting to waft into the library.
Rowland Thomas and Rachel Gilpin were devout Quakers and radical abolitionists, and during their lives the dining table was surrounded by their large family as well as fugitive slaves, hired laborers, household help, and a host of travelers and friends. They raised and bred Merino sheep commercially, and grew a variety of food crops such as wheat, buckwheat, oats, and vegetables for family consumption and as payment to their hired help. Later, under sons Rowland Evans and George Gilpin, both the human and Merino sheep populations shrank while the farm focused on dairying and commercial orchard and nursery work. Both brothers pursued professional careers as well; Rowland was a successful artist and writer, while George was active in civic life, serving as Ferrisburgh’s town clerk.
Spring was usually the leanest season; the family relied on dried and preserved fruits, pickled vegetables, dried corn, wheat and buckwheat flour, stored winter butter, cellared root crops, and preserved meats. When the maple sap began to run in March or April, it meant the first green vegetables would soon emerge. Calving—with its long–awaited supply of fresh milk and cream for fresh butter—would begin in early April.
Maple sugaring provided a celebrated, if brief, return to farm production, one especially loved by school–age boys whose talents at sugaring—or at least sugar–eating—were unsurpassed. Will Stevens, Anne’s brother, wrote to his mother on April 18, 1857: “I went out to Uncle Eliases last fifth day [Thursday] to help them sugar off not because they needed help by any means but because I wanted some sugar. I had a fine time as they sugared off over one hundred pounds and I had all I wanted to eat besides the visit.”
While today we prefer our maple syrupy, the Robinsons made little reference to the liquid form. Perhaps the widespread use of molasses made the liquid redundant. At any rate, the many references to “sugar” are, of course, to that of maple, rather than cane. And as with any small–batch product, sugar quality was highly variable. “New sugar is getting quite plenty here,” Will wrote on March 28, 1858, “but those who have eaten it think it is about half flour and the other half something else.”
By April, milk was in full flow, and the Robinsons took up the butter churn twice a week—a task that was a mixed blessing. Churning was arduous work, but butter was money in the bank for the Robinsons, who used it to pay a portion of their help’s salary. On March 30, 1884, Rowland Evans wrote to Anne, “Our supply of winter butter is getting very low. Neither do I want any winter butter–making for me—we quit making butter in December.”
Before canning gained popularity, fruits were a dried staple of the Vermont diet. While too tough to be eaten raw, reconstituted fruit formed the base of pies, cakes, and sauces. Rowland Thomas advised his sons in April 1862, “A[nne] says there are some dried plums in … the entry cupboard & also some dried peaches which should be used, the latter for pies & the plums for tea put a large quantity of water to both as they take up a great deal before they are worked.”
May marked a turning point for the Robinsons. Asparagus emerged and gardens finally became workable. Hired workers helped with the sowing of oats and buckwheat, and they chopped wood to restore the depleted stock. On May 17, 1885, Rowland Evans wrote his sister Ann, who operated a Merino sheep and dairy farm in Shoreham, “Our [gardener] has got his early peas in, and most of the beds made, but no cucumbers planted. He has cut the sparrowgrass [asparagus] three times, and wishes you were here to eat some today.” Seven years earlier, Rowland’s brother George found the first crop of fresh peas notable enough to deserve an entry in his sparsely kept farm journal (“Good ones,” he wrote simply). His subdued enthusiasm was warranted—he waited for those peas until June 27.
Still, the Robinsons employed some now–familiar techniques to hasten the arrival of certain tender vegetables. They started seedlings indoors in small pots and transferred them into a “hotbox,” a device much like a cold–frame but with added heat from composting manure below the soil. On April 20, 1862, an anxious Rowland Thomas, away on an extended visit to his daughter Ann in Waterloo, NY, following the death of his wife, wrote to his bachelor sons left alone on the home front during this crucial season: “How about the hot box and does thou make some oil cloth pots for melons and squashes etc.?” Just nine days later he presses them: “Will it not be well to place the box of tomatoes in the hot box? Especially if they give any sign of not doing well. I think plants of all kinds thrive better in the hot box when they get plenty of sun and air than in the house & bear the change to the open garden better.”
A springtime absence from the farm often caused Rowland Thomas a great deal of anxiety; he kept in constant contact with his sons to ensure their attention to the long list of duties. “Ann says the peas which Lloyd bought are in the box in the entry cupboard… do not forget the peas and potatoes. Rowl[and Evans] will not forget to uncover and cultivate the grape vines in the new vineyard,” Rowland Thomas wrote from Waterloo.
“I feel quite satisfied that none of our joint interests will be neglected in my absence,” he adds. The father’s directions were reminders to sons who undoubtedly knew their responsibilities and the importance of the proverbial “stitch in time.” Rowland Thomas’s anxieties reveal the deep connection between a Vermont farmer and his seasonal duties, the discharge of which bore real consequences for his family.
Photos courtesy of the Rokeby Museum, Ferrisburgh, VT
Illustration Meg Lucas