First Extensive Farmers Listed-Types Of Crops And Variety Introduced Discussed In Article
From the 1938 centennial edition of The Times-Register
Farming was of secondary importance in the lives and living of the early settlers of Roanoke County. Like other pioneers their time was largely occupied in hunting, fishing, and protecting themselves from Indian attack. Farming implements were few and crude. Corn and a few vegetables and herbs were raised, the work being done largely by the women and children. Practically all of the farming implements as well as household furniture and equipment were of home construction. Plows were made of wood carved from forked trees, dogwood being the favorite for this purpose. Harrows were made by driving wooden pegs of hickory or other hard wood through small logs which were attached together with wooden pins or thatches.
The food used in the average home was largely from game, wild fruits, and either hominy or grain cooked whole, until the first water mills were constructed replacing the hominy to some extent with corn pone.
As the acreage of cleared land was increased and trails to other settlements and the towns which had developed further east, were sufficiently opened for wagon travel, markets gradually developed for small amounts of farm produce in addition to that needed at home. In the early years of the nineteenth century occasional small loads of grain were hauled in wagons to Lynchburg, Richmond, and other eastern markets.
Cattle and sheep, fattened on the rich pastures which far exceeded those of the east in productiveness, were driven through the country to eastern markets including Baltimore. Even hogs were driven on foot through the country. Hogs of those days were very different in type from the highly specialized meat animals of today.
With long legs and lean in appearance they were well adapted to ranging through the forests to forage on chestnuts, acorns, and wild plant growth, as well as travel the long distance on foot to market. They would be considered very sorry specimens indeed by present day farmers.
Cattle likewise were much more rangey and lean in type. The small acreage of wheat and corn, raised with crude instruments and laborious method used, were needed largely for human consumption. Cattle and sheep as well as horses were dependent mainly on the native grasses growing in the open areas. As additional land was cleared pasture and hay crops were increased and oats were grown for feed for livestock in winter, in addition to the other grain crops.
The building of the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad into Southwest Virginia in the 1850’s marked the real beginning of agricultural development as well as that of other enterprises of the county. Cultivated acreage increased rapidly to produce grain crops, and livestock products, as well as flax and wool for the use of men employed by the railroad, and other small industries which gradually developed.
Hemp Grown Here
Soon shipments were being made by rail to eastern markets and in later years for export to Europe. At one time in the early history of the railroad hemp was of considerable importance in a number of sections in the valley of Virginia including what is now Roanoke County. The production of hemp gradually moved westward as the demand for products which were less difficult to ship increased.
Tobacco raising was developed in Roanoke County as soon as the production of necessary food crops was provided for. Tobacco was the first important cash crop produced in this section as in other parts of Virginia. It developed into one of the most important farm enterprises. In 1876, in the Town of Big Lick, there were five tobacco factories and three tobacco warehouses. The first tobacco factory in the county was built by Isham M. Ferguson in 1858. There was a large tobacco factory also located in Salem.
Tobacco was brought to the warehouses for sale by farmers from as far as seventy-five to one hundred miles distant. Large quantities were manufactured for export and hauled by wagon to shipping points on the James River where they were hauled by boat to Norfolk.
Water mills were one of the most important industries throughout the county developing with the earliest production of grain crops. The first mills were rather coarse stone burs producing only corn meal and occasionally whole wheat or rye. Considerable quantities of this ground grain were used in the manufacture of whiskey.
Soon after the operation of the railroads, equipment was installed in the larger mills for the production of flour, thus becoming an industry of considerable importance. Manufacturing flour has continued to the present day as an important industry in the county.
The cultivation of grapes and other small fruits has occupied a position of some importance on the majority of farms since the earliest history of the county, although these fruits have never been of considerable commercial importance.
Livestock and livestock products have continued to occupy an important place in the farming of the section from the very first. Only in recent years with the development of greater demand for more perishable and higher priced agricultural products such as vegetables, small fruits, dairy and poultry products, resulting from the rapid growth from the city of Roanoke, has beef cattle and sheep been replaced to a large extent in the immediate vicinity of the city. The development of the railroads and the industries which have developed in Roanoke exerted a very great influence over the agricultural enterprises of the county.
Roanoke County was the first section in the Valley of Virginia to become of importance in the culture of vegetables and small fruits. The usual effect on agricultural enterprises in any section, as cities increase in size, is that of greater attention to more intensive farm crops, particularly vegetables, poultry, and the smaller agricultural enterprises. The most extensive branches of agriculture are replaced. Dairy farming gradually moves outward from the city while beef cattle and sheep are produced in sections at even greater distances in which land is lower in price and more extensive pasture areas are available.
Among the first extensive farmers in Roanoke County were Nathaniel Burwell, William M. Peyton, George P. Tayloe, Mrs. Jane Lewis, Patterson Hannah, William Persinger, George Trout, Madison Pitzer, Henry Houtz, Dr. John Ribble, Dr. John Johnston, Andrew L. Pitzer, Jeremiah K. Pitzer, William Johnston, Mrs. Maria Lewis, Robert Craig, Lewis Zirkle, Alexander White, and Joseph Deyerle. The section known as the Barrens was first farmed extensively by Gen. Edward Watts, Oliver Betts, and Read. Their estates were known as Oakland, Waverly, and The Barrens. This land is now occupied by the Williamson Road section of Roanoke, the Andrews’ Huff farms and a few others. When this area was first settled it was largely in grass and scrub oak. It was a favorite Indian hunting ground for buffalo and deer.
Fruit growing was started in the early agricultural history of the county and developed continuously in importance until more recent years. The production of apples has held its own in later years in importance.
Among the earlier orchardists in the county were Jordan Woodrum, the Kittingers, Terrys, Fergusons, Wertz, Poage, Martin, and Puckett. The orchards were planted between 1840 and 1870. During this period there was no activity of importance in the apple industry other than distilling. The apples were usually exchanged with distilleries for brandy which was sold at an average of about one dollar per gallon.
These orchards were largely of pippins which were considered one of the best brandy producing varieties. R. C. Wertz of Back Creek, a prominent fruit grower in the county at the present time and a descendant of early settlers of this name writes as follows:
“In 1864 an apple buyer from New York by the name of Shanks came into this pippin belt and bought all the pippin apples in this season at 50c per bushel, in piles. The apples were picked and put in rail pens but were not packed until the weather got cool. The grades packed were clear and cloudy. All apples were packed that didn’t show signs of decay. This practice was repeated for four or five years. Being able to find a market for pippins caused a great demand for nursery stock, which could not be found at this time. However, in a short time this section had four or five nurseries producing this variety but could not supply the demand. Among our first nursery men were Elijah Poage, William Grisso, Jordan Woodrum, George Poage, and others.”
-Prepared by Lisa King