THE agricultural history of this county could be nothing more nor less than
a repetition of the history of almost every other county in Southern
Illinois. But perhaps a short sketch of the subject may fill a niche in the
mind of some reader that will be a lasting benefit to him. The area of this
county is about one hundred and eighty-three square miles (one of the
smallest counties in the State), nine-tenths of which is susceptible of
cultivation, and in a state of nature was one vast forest of the finest
timber in America. No prairies were here to welcome the husbandman; if any
crops were grown, the timber must first be removed, which, in itself, was a
herculean task, and the stumps and roots were still to contend with. What
wonder is it that most of the county lay so long without improvement or
cultivation y For the first forty years of settlement in the county, there
could be no incentive to grow crops which there was no market for. Each
settler raised corn and potatoes and garden " sass " enough for his own use
and no more. The implements of agriculture consisted of a small bull-tongue
plow and a hoe made by the blacksmith.
The early mode of agriculture of this county consisted in beginning about the 1st of March to clear up three or four acres of land for corn. This, with the other small crops, would be planted as soon as the ground could be prepared, and it was then cultivated until it was ready to be "laid by," when there was nothing more to do on the farm until time to gather the corn and pumpkins in the fall. During this interval, the more industrious and enterprising men would go to some wood yard on the river and chop cord wood, while those not so disposed would hunt in the woods and loaf around among the neighbors. The "womanfolks" would raise a patch of cotton and spin, weave, and make their own and their family's clothes.
The main point in farming, in those days, was to have a herd of wild hogs in the woods, corn enough for bread and to feed the pony, and a few ears to toll the hogs up to mark them.
When spring came, the crop time was a rather hard life to live, and about the only revenue that could be counted on was hens' eggs to buy the small luxuries, such as coffee, sugar, salt or anything in that line; and if the hens failed to come to time on the "lay," the old man and children would strike out to the woods to dig " ginseng." A large sack of this then staple could be dug in a few days, and, when dried, would bring in $3 or $4 — a sum that would help out the family finances in a good shape. There was but little provision made for the cattle, as they could live all winter on the "cane" which grew in the woods. But very little wheat was grown here then, as there were no mills to grind it, and no market for the surplus. Indeed, the first settlers were at great inconvenience to get their corn ground; there were nothing but horse mills, and very few of them. There are many good stories told of these early mills. One patron said he always took his corn to mill in the ear, as he could shell it faster than the mill could grind it, and then he had the cobs to throw at the rats to keep them from eating the corn all up as it ran down from the hopper. Another story is told on the first water mill that was built on Cache River. The owner of the mill put the grist in the hopper and let on the water, and about the time he had the mill going nicely he heard a turkey " call" in the woods, so he took his gun and went to look for the turkey. While he was gone, a blue jay alighted on the hoop around the buhrs, and as fast as a grain of corn
would shake down from the hopper he would eat it. When the miller returned, the jay had eaten all the corn, and the millstones were worn out.
But all this is changed now. Our mills are first-class in every respect. A great change has come to the county since the advent of the railroads. Saw mills have cut the timber off, to a great extent, and much of our lands have been cleared up and put under cultivation. Some of our 100-acre fields of wheat are now cut with self-binders, and an average of fifty harvesting machines are sold annually in the county. Our hay crop is of great importance, as the river offers cheap transportation to the South, where the market is always good. All the low lands are well adapted to timothy, and the hill lands grow as fine clover and orchard grass as can be produced in the State; while the Kentucky blue grass takes to our pastures without any seeding, and with judicious management sheep could be pastured here all winter, except when the ground might be covered with snow, which is but seldom.
The county has, practically, no sheep, but over three thousand worthless dogs; and where that number of dogs reign supreme sheep do not flourish. The stock of cattle is being graded up with shorthorn and Jersey blood, which will prove a lasting benefit to the county. Our progressive farmers have abandoned the " elm peeler " or "hazel splitter " hogs, for a breed that is not all " snout " and " bristles, " and the results are every way satisfactory.
To sum up the whole matter of agriculture and horticulture, " after taking the quality and quantity of our products into consideration, the small area of our county, and that only one-half improved, we feel like we have no reason to be discouraged at the results.
Horticulture. — A history of Pulaski County that fails to accord it the first place on the list as a horticultural county, would fail to do justice to the capabilities of its soil and climate. While some counties grow more apples, some more grapes and some more tomatoes, yet there is not a county in the State where every one of the following list of fruits and vegetables can be grown to so great perfection: Apples, pears, peaches, grapes, strawberries, red raspberries, black raspberries, blackberries, tomatoes, melons, sweet potatoes, wax beans, early cabbage, pie plant, asparagus, and every variety of garden vegetable that can be grown in the temperate zone. All of the above-named fruits and vegetables can be grown on any single acre of good land in the county that is above high water mark, and good watermelons and tomatoes have been produced on a pile of earth taken from a well sixty feet deep, and that without any special fertilizers or care, except to supply water in a severe drought. This would prove that our soil is not exhausted as soon as the top is cultivated a few years.
The history of horticulture is in intimate relation with the progress of civilization. An acute observer has justly remarked that the esteem in which gardening is held among nations is an unfailing index of the advance they have made in other forms of human progress. But it is not until society is improved, commerce extended and the human mind expanded, that horticulture takes its place among the arts, flourishing wherever there is wealth to encourage or taste to appreciate its charms and excellences. Horticulture has advanced with civilization, and blended with all that adorns, refines and sustains the structure of a solid as well as an elegant society. The cultivation of fruit is the most perfect union of the useful and beautiful that the world has ever known. Trees, covered in spring time with their green and glossy foliage, blended with fragrant flowers of white to crimson and gold, that are succeeded by the ripened fruit, melting and grateful through all the fervid heat of summer, is indeed a tempting prospect to every land -holder in our favored region. It is natural to suppose that a people so richly endowed by nature as ours have given marked attention to an art that supplies so many of the amenities of life, and around which cluster so many memories that appeal to the finer instincts of our nature. In a region favored with a climate bright, sunny and free from extreme changes, and with a soil that, in varying composition, in fertility and depth becomes suited to all the fruits common to the temperate zone, horticulture is naturally held in that high esteem that becomes so important a factor in our welfare.
The introduction of fruit into this county is almost coeval with its first settlement. Sprouts from the old apple trees and seeds from the favorite old peach trees of the old home in the South or East were a part of the pioneer's outfit, and were cared for with as much patience as the children or favorite cow. While the varieties thus grown would not be considered of any great value now, yet they served a good purpose by creating a landmark, as it were, to which the youth who waited for the fruit to ripen can look back with pleasure, and, while his head may be " silvered o'er with the frosts of man y winters," a thought, perhaps, steals through his mind that the days spent under the old apple trees were the happiest of his life.
Horticulture, as an art, received but little attention in the early settlement of this county. The fruits adapted to the soil and climate had not been introduced; even the nature of the soil was not well understood. There were no means at hand for the rapid diffusion of such knowledge. There were no horticultural societies and associations, to gather individual experience and present it in available form for the use of the masses, and at best there was not much time, in the struggle for the necessaries of life in a primitive country, for the obtaining of its amenities.
Horticulture at this time, even in the older settled States, was but in its infancy, and the first effort of the pioneer was to reproduce the fruit in cultivation at the. time, and in the locality whence he had emigrated. Many of the old trees planted by the early settlers show some traits that have not been rivalled by the later and more improved varieties planted long since. Their hardiness and good bearing qualities are phenomenal and that, too, without any of the scientific pruning and care advocated by the horticulturists of the present day.
Improved horticulture in this county — that is, the planting of fruits for commercial benefits — dates back to about the year 185859. Judge A. M. Brown (now deceased), a prominent jurist and newspaper man of Kentucky, became infatuated with our hills and valleys, and located at Villa Ridge. He was the first man to plant largely of budded peaches, pears and apples for market. He was joined, almost immediately, by Dr. Brown, of Kentucky, and Dr. J. H. Grain, of Ohio, both very enthusiastic pomologists. They planted largely of apples, their first impulse being to grow apples for the New Orleans market, as the river offered a good outlet for that kind of fruit. But, like every other new enterprise, conceived by strangers to the soil and climate, they made some mistake? in the selection of varieties; and while the trees were growing many of our old citizens caught the fever, and new men came in from the North and East, and all became more or less affected with the horticultural " itch. "
About this time, a new class of men came on the scene. These were denominated " tree peddlers," and to say that they gathered in a rich harvest would be a mild expression. They sold trees to all they could induce to buy, at high figures, mostly on time, and any man who had land enough cleared was flattered and cajoled by the fine pictures and preserved specimens, to plant from ten to forty acres, mostly in apples. Many of the trees were true to name, but the varieties were unsuited to this climate. The early varieties were all right, but Spys, Spitzenbergs, Baldwins and many excellent Eastern winter apples are a failure here, as they ripen in August and September; while many of the orders thus taken were filled from the same pile, and labeled to suit the buyer. While this fraud was being pushed extensively, there was another class of men, who were more conservative, and thought that apples to suit our soil and climate should come from the highlands of Southern Virginia and North Carolina. Among this class, and at the head, ought to be placed " old Uncle Tom " McClelland (deceased), who spent time and money to try all the better varieties of his old North Carolina home, and with a fair share of success. Without any records on the subject, he is conceded to have been the first man in this county to graft or bud the apple tree. Many of the farms in this county attest his work, by their "Carolina Red June," "Abram," "Nickajack," "Limbertwig," " Buckingham " and many other apples of that class, suited to our soil and climate. While our experience has been a bitter one, it has inculcated many valuable lessons. One is, we are south of the latitude in which the apple attains its best estate. We can never hope to acclimate any of the choice Northern or Eastern apples to this section, yet we can and do grow good apples. Our "Winesaps," "Sparks," Finks," "Rome Beauty," "Summer Pearmain" and many other varieties are not excelled anywhere. While we give the apple the first place on our list of fruits for domestic use, it would have to accept a third or fourth place in a commercial point of view. The strawberry, peach and grape would outrank it for money.
The strawberry, while it never assumes the dignity of a tree, or the spreading importance of a vine, yet it commands respect for its intrinsic merit. No other single crop in this county, at this time, has the influence on the business relations of our people. An entire failure would almost bankrupt our merchants, and a good crop makes all hearts rejoice, from the merchant, with his thousands of dollars invested, down to the little negro with his " two quart check." The gathering and shipping of the strawberry crop to market, develops a spirit of business enterprise in our boys and girls that they would never attain by the study of text-books.
The first strawberries ever grown in this county for market were grown by Mr. Stephen Blanchard, near the town of America, about the year 1857.
They were known as the "Virginia Seedling," or "scarlet," and were at that time considered a great luxury, but would not be tolerated on our farms to-day. The berries that he took to the home market were handled in shallow trays, with the traditional "paddle scoop, " and what he marketed at the towns on the Central Railroad were put up in small quart boxes, made of thin lumber, and set on shallow trays. Then an old German would take one of these trays in each hand and walk to the railroad, pay his fare to Cairo or any other market he wished to use, and carry 'the berries and sell them and bring back the boxes and money.
The first Wilson strawberries introduced into this county was through the late Judge A. M. Brown; but the first Wilsons cultivated for market were by Martin Harnish, from Lancaster County, Penn. His one-fourth of an acre soon spread. In the vicinity of Villa Ridge, many of his neighbors planted small patches, seldom over half an acre, as there were many who thought the markets would be glutted and the entire business overdone. For instance, when, in 1863, nineteen shippers sent off fifty cases in one day, almost everyone thought the market would be " busted." But the berries sold on the Chicago market the next day, at 45 cents per quart.
The delusion that the market would be glutted, and that no one man could successfully handle more than one acre, clung to our people like the fear of death; and it is only in the last six or seven years that we have learned that the same vim and push that would handle one acre would handle ten if multiplied by ten. To illustrate how the fear of spreading out was kept alive, it would be well to give a sketch of one large plantation, and the way it was managed here. Some Cincinnati men, learning that we could grow good berries, formed a company, came here, and bought some land in a rich, sweet gum bottom. They cleared up twenty acres at a great expense, planted it partially with bogus plants, cultivated it in the most expensive manner and boarded at a hotel — in fact, moved things lively; building extensive quarters for pickers, and paying 3 to 5 cents per quart for picking. There was no fruit train then, as now, and all had to go by express. Some days they would miss the train, and the berries would have to lay over to another day; sometimes the whole lot would have to be dumped out at the station and thus lost. All this, in connection with the fact that the berries were ten days later in the rich bottoms than on the sunny hillsides, and a big mortgage was spread over the whole thing, and the reader will not be surprised that a grand failure was the result of the first big strawberry field in this county. Everybody was ready to say " I told you so," and "It can't be done; one acre is enough for any man," and many more such consolatory remarks. If c>ur people had seen where the failure came in, and profited thereby, we would, to-day, have ranked first as a strawberry shipping point, instead of being the third on the Central Railroad.
The varieties in cultivation here now are many, but the Wilson still holds its own against all new comers in the minds of its old friends. The cash brought into this county by strawberries, twenty-two years ago, amounted to but a few dollars; the amount brought in this year (1883) will reach nearly §100,000, and the acreage, which was about 600 acres this year, will, in 1884, be at least 50 per cent higher.
Peach growing has attained some success in the county in the last twenty years: but many of the first budded varieties were not suited to the soil and climate, and one-half of all the peaches planted in the county have failed to pay a fair interest on the capital invested, for the reason that the planters had not the experience and will to give the proper care to growing the trees, cultivating the soil, and " bugging " and thinning the fruit.
The late Judge Brown, already mentioned, and Martin Harnish planted the first commercial peach orchards in this county. They advocated starting the heads of the trees boot top high, so the limbs could bend down without splitting the trunks of the trees. A few years, however, of this style of pruning cured them of that idea, and Judge Brown became one of the stanchest advocates of high -headed trees, thorough "bugging" and thinning of the fruit.
It would be useless to go through the list of peaches, to designate those that failed, or those that succeeded; but most of the peach growers here noted that the early and late varieties pay better than to have an excessive crop in midsummer. With a better knowledge of what varieties to plant, and how to care for them, coupled with that progressive spirit of our planters, the outlook is promising to make this county one of the foremost peach growing counties of the West.
There may have been a few vines of Catawba and Isabella grapes planted here at an early date, but old Father Huhner, a German from St. Louis, was the first to plant grapes in this county (about 1859-60) for commercial use. His object was the manufacture of wine, and in a few years there was a lively interest in the grape and wine business in the county. A considerable amount of good wine was made and sold here; but the changes and vexations of the internal revenue, and the fact that the grapes would sell for as much money as the wine would bring, caused a falling-off in the production of wine, and to-day there is none made in the county. But the reader must not infer that grape growing has ceased. Far from it. Each year has witnessed an increase in the acreage, and more care and thought used in gathering and marketing the fruit, until it is now considered one of our most permanent and profitable fruit crops. Last year (1S82) there were more than seventy tons of grapes shipped from this county, and it was one of the worst years for the grape we have had.
The business has grown, from a few hundred vines in 1860, to near 200,000 in 1883, including the young vines planted this spring; and preparations are being made to still increase the number. The most hopeful outlook in the grape business in this county is the introduction of better varieties for table use and wine.
The red raspberry has always been a good fruit for market purposes, and has paid well the last few years; but our people don't plant largely of them on account of the trouble of getting them picked in good condition. Our hot summers sometimes burn the canes of the blackcaps so they die; and again, our market is so far off, that they are neglected as a market crop, although, in a general way, they grow and bear heavy crops, and are profitable to evaporate.
What can we say of blackberries? The woods, fence-corners and ditches are full of them; all fruiting annually, and making a glut in every market in reach. Some of the wild ones are good in quality, and larger in size than the Snyder, or many of the cultivated sorts so highly extolled by nurserymen.
In a commercial way, the sweet potato is, perhaps, the leading vegetable of this county. They have been grown here, for home use, for many years; but it is only in the last ten or twelve years that they have assumed any importance as a crop to ship to Northern markets. The first full car load of sweet potatoes grown and shipped from Villa Ridge to Chicago was in 1870. It was shipped by the winter, and from that date to the present time the shipments have increased, until now they are considered one of our best annual products; and there is not a mouth, from October to April, that they are not shipped North by the car-load.
The growing and shipping wax beans to the Northern markets was first successfully done by Mr. Israel Sanderson, of Pulaski (if we are not mistaken) in 1870-71. The business has grown, from a few one-third bushel boxes at the first, to eight or nine car-loads a year at present, and the demand seems to keep pace with the supply. Mr. Sanderson is also the first man to cultivate and ship the cantelope, or nutmeg melon to market from this county, and was the most successful grower in the county. But the melon -louse gave so much trouble that, as a commercial crop, they are now almost abandoned.
The growing of tomatoes for market has never assumed very large proportions here. The earliest and finest specimens, however, have been raised and shipped from Villa Ridge, and there is no reason why it should not rival Cobden as a tomato station. There are many other fruits and vegetables that should be mentioned; .but the brief space allotted to horticulture in a work of this kind, and the limited time at the writer's command, precludes a more extended article.