Where Have All the Farms Gone? Local Historians Offer Answers

Where have all the farms gone? That was the question posed, and answered, by Derry Town Historian Rick Holmes and Windham historian Peter Griffin at a Breakfast Forum sponsored by the Greater Derry/Londonderry Chamber of Commerce.
Chamber members and visitors gathered in the barn at the Robert Frost Farm in Derry on Thursday, Sept. 26, and snacked on coffee, juice and cinnamon rolls. A flock of wild turkeys gathered on the back lawn of the historic farm and the trees were beginning to turn in the nearby woods. Fall was in the air as the audience settled back to listen to Holmes and Griffin.

Frost, who actively farmed the acreage from 1900 to 1907-08, was one of the last full-time family farmers in the area, Holmes said.
Farming began with the earliest settlers, the Scots-Irish Presbyterians led by the Rev. James MacGregor in 1719. MacGregor brought about 200 people to the area, a complete wilderness 10 miles from the nearest road. But that was what they wanted, Holmes said: they wanted a place where they could be Scots-Irish Presbyterians.
They brought two contributions to farming: the white potato, recently named state vegetable, and flax. They learned to weave from French Huguenots who were fleeing their own religious persecution, and MacGregor’s group brought the growing and weaving skills to the New World.
Londonderry linen became famous in the colonies, being worn by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and the Royal Governor allowed the town to have two town fairs a year to sell its main product. It inspired knock-offs, Holmes said, and the Crown allowed them to stamp their bolts with an “L,” making it the first trademarked product in America, Holmes said.
Farming peaked in the early 19th century, with 85 to 90 percent of Derry cleared for pastures or crops. The farmers profited from their proximity to Boston, and people from northern New Hampshire made Derry a hub as they stopped by to find what Massachusetts was buying, and at what price.
But by 1817, with the opening of the canal system, Derry was bypassed as farmers from upstate found an easier way to get their goods to market. The opening of the Western territories brought land that was rock-free and cheap, and the Industrial Revolution and mills provided jobs for young people.
“They could work 10 hours a day instead of dawn to dusk and receive $5 a week,” Holmes said. Derry saw its own Industrial Revolution with the coming of the shoe factories, and the family farms died.
Larger corporate farms such as the Hood Farm flourished for a while, he said. And the Egg Auction on Crystal Avenue gave backyard chicken farmers a way to vend their goods.
Griffin, who helped write the history of Windham, gave a simple formula for early industry: “If there was a stream, there was a dam, and if there was a dam, there was a sawmill.”
The Industrial Revolution for New Hampshire was made possible by rail, which allowed manufacturers to ship their goods to Boston and beyond. “At one point,” Griffin said, “New Hampshire had 20 points of rail access. Now there’s just one, the Downeaster in the Seacoast.”
The internal roads in New Hampshire were rough at first, Griffin said. Many weren’t paved, and local road agents applied oil to keep the dust down. So much for being green,” he wisecracked. In the stagecoach era, passengers often had to be strapped in to avoid being thrown by the wayside.
Trolley cars sparked a regional industry of building amusement parks, such as Canobie Lake and Pine Island in Manchester, Griffin said, adding, “They wanted people to use the trolley on weekends, so they gave them somewhere to go.”
After World War II many families made the exodus to the suburbs, and transportation was made easier by President Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System. For the Derry, Londonderry and Windham area, that meant Interstate 93, Griffin said.
“We ceded a rural existence and more nature so we could be a suburb of Boston,” Griffin said.
While 93 gave access to Boston and the world, it also “sucked the life” out of downtowns, Griffin said. Each town and city used to have a “dense, walkable downtown” with everything people needed. “You could shop on Saturday afternoon, carouse Saturday night and repent in church Sunday morning,” he said with a smile.