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Cultural Landscape: Rural Landscape

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The rural landscape of Vermont covers the vast majority of the state, and includes the farming landscape and the forested landscape. From the earliest subsistence farms in the late 1700s to the most modern dairy farms, Vermont's rural landscape has been dramatically shaped by farming. As farming has evolved, the landscape has evolved with it. It's not unusual to see a cluster of old apple trees in a 75 year old forest, or to see a modern free-stall barn next to a 120 year old bank barn. To understand the rural landscape you see today, you need to understand the earlier farming and logging patterns, from which it evolved.

Vermont in the 1700sFarming in Vermont began with the Europeans, especially the English settlers from the south in the late 1700s. Towns were divided into rectangular lots and sold to farm families. So, from the very first, the landscape was one of dispersed farmsteads spread across Vermont. The settlers arrived to a mostly forested landscape and began to clear the forest by hand. The first generation was largely subsistence farmers, clearing small acreages, and eking out a living for their family. The pattern was one of small clearings of a few acres dotted throughout a mostly forested landscape. Few farm buildings remain from this time, although sometimes the original farmhouse remains as an ell on a more modern addition.

Vermont in the 1800sFor most farmers, the first conversion of their land into market-oriented farming came with the sheep boom of the 1820s. Hillside after hillside in Vermont was cleared for sheep pasture as Vermont farmers raised wool for the very profitable world wool market of the time. Small 30' X 40' English-style barns were built during this time, and some have survived to this day. Many Vermont farmhouses, or a section of them, date to this time.

About 1850, the long run of dairy farming started in Vermont as the bottom dropped out of the sheep market. Although there had been dairy cows before 1850, they became the center of the farming economy after 1850. Barn designs changed and barn sizes increased. Hay and grain fields were expanded for cows (and the horses needed to run the machinery that made these farms profitable). Farms produced primarily cheese and butter, which were much less perishable than fluid milk. Houses were enlarged as farm families accumulated wealth. The rural Vermont landscape reached its most cleared extent during the second half of the nineteenth century.

Vermont in the 1900sAround 1900, dairy farming shifted over to fluid milk production as improvements in refrigeration and processing occurred. Small cheese factories and creameries became common in villages. Barbed wire became cheap, and new fencing was done more often with wire instead of stone walls. As the national economy changed in the early twentieth century, hill farming became much less viable here, and farming in large areas in the hilly parts of Vermont was abandoned. Much farmland was reclaimed by natural forest growth, and some small softwood plantations were put in on old farm fields. Successful farms were left along river bottomland and the flatter valley areas of Vermont. The twentieth century barns we have in the state are concentrated there and are uncommon in the higher hill sections. Field sizes increased on the working farms during this era, and old hedgerows and fence lines were removed to accommodate larger machinery.

At higher elevations in Vermont, where the growing season was too short to successfully farm, logging was carried out throughout the latter nineteenth century and into the twentieth century. Although the forests have largely grown back and there are very few human artifacts from logging left up high, the forest age and composition is related to the human use of the landscape.



Barn styles in Shelburne

The style of barns used on Vermont farms changed through time as scientific research suggested improvements in barn design and as the type of agriculture evolved through two centuries. Each distinct era of agriculture had a distinct barn type, and one can learn to quickly guess at a barn's age and past use just by its style. This is especially easy to do with what are probably the two most common barn styles in Vermont: the bank barn and the gambrel-roof barn.

Bank barn from latter 19th Century

The bank barn is a very common feature in Vermont, and typically dates to the second half of the nineteenth century. If you see a bank barn, you can guess that it was part of an active dairy farm of that era, and the bigger the barn, the larger the herd. The gambrel-roof barn is another common barn, and typically dates to the first half of the twentieth century. If you see a gambrel-roof barn, you can guess that this was an active dairy farm into the twentieth century.

Gambrel-roof barn from early 20th century

Shelburne has more gambrel-roof barns than many of the more mountainous towns in Vermont, because dairy farming was much more viable in Shelburne well into the 20th century. The relative abundance of this type of barn is testimony to the richer limy soils, the relatively flat land, and the warmer climate of Shelburne, compared to many regions of Vermont.



Historic topographic maps online

Other Resources:
Look at your local library or historical society for:

  • town histories
  • Henry F. Walling's maps from the 1850s
  • F.W. Beers' atlases from the 1860s and 70s
  • Child's Gazetteers from the 1880s
  • electrification maps from the early 1900s
  • old photo and postcard collections
  • aerial photos from the 1927 flood
  • farm diaries
  • agricultural census information

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