Farm Archaeology or Discovering Your Farm's History
Before buying our country land, we did as much research as we could over and above the title search to figure out just what the property was used for before we stumbled across it. Our land-locked 17 acres of rolling hillsides had been thickly planted with a marketable crop: loblolly pine. The title search performed by the lawyer was clear, yet what had the land been used for throughout its history?
Here's what we found out - and how this can lead you too into farm archaeology, or learning the history of your own rural property.
Poke Around a Bit and Find the Trash Pile
After clearing the land and building our home, we settled in. On our early walks through the woods, clues emerged telling the tale of the land.
First, we found one small farm trash pile out in the woods. On rural properties, most farmers just dumped their trash into a pile. Have you ever been to a museum and looked through the glass cabinets at broken pieces of pottery? The signs typically say they were recovered from old privies and trash piles. Well, that's exactly where you'll find the gems on your own property!
On our property, we found a small trash pile. Laying in a rusty heap were a few very old paint cans and some old farm cans, feed cans, and an oil can that looked as if they came from the 1920's or 1930's. A rusting mattress spring, an old workbook, and a glove decomposing in the dirt all confirmed that we'd found the farm's trash heap.
We realized that there must be another building somewhere nearby. Our own property line was close to the trash heap, but the 17 acres we bought had been split off from a 52 acre parcel. And maybe, just maybe way before that, it had been larger.
A walk through the woods revealed across the property line a falling down barn, an old tobacco curing barn, and the ruins of outbuildings.
Success! We'd discovered the original home...and sure enough, our trash pile would have been in their back yard, so to speak.
Neighbors who own land a few miles away go digging in their own trash heap. They know their farm dates from the late 1800's. They've dug up beautiful old soda pop bottles and medicine bottles, whiskey bottles, and shards of pottery.
Look for the trash heap and find some clues as to how long the land has been inhabited.
Walk the Land and Look for Clues
More telltale clues emerged the more we got to know our land. We found remnants of barbed wire on various trees. Sometimes bits of barbed wire poked up seemingly at random from the forest floor. Taking a line drawing of our plot and the surrounding plots, we drew in the barbed wire that we found and added dots for imaginary lines where the wire must have stretched. We realized that our forest had been cattle fields in the not so distant future. Tracing the wire around the old falling down barn, we figured out where the previous owner must had had his pastures.
About six months after moving in, I was walking our dog down our country lane. A battered gray car pulled up and a delightful elderly lady smiled at me from twinkling eyes behind the wheel. She introduced herself, and her last name sounded familiar. Then I realized that her last name and the name of our road were the same!
Turns out, she lived down the lane....and her husband's people, as she called them, had settled the area before the Revolutionary War. Talking to her was the most interesting conversation and yielded the best information about our farm's past.
She told us, for instance, that our road was the old stagecoach route through the area. The odd looking buildings on the road about two miles from our home was actually an old general store, post office and a tavern where General Ulysses S. Grant had stayed on his way to meet Robert E Lee at Appomattox! What a thrill to learn that our road dated back to the late 1700's.
A few weeks after that, I met the neighbor who lived just around the bend in our road. She lived in a very modern, brand new house, so I was surprised when she told me there was a 1700's house on her property. She filled in the gaps, pointing out piles of what I'd taken to be falling down barns or discarded lumber, showing me where the old 1700 and 1800 houses had once stood.
Learning from those who have lived near our rural land for generations was the best farm archaeology lesson I've ever gotten, and filled in many fascinating details about the landscape around us. I can't look at some of the farms without seeing things through new eyes.
The Local Newspaper and Historical Society
Our local newspaper, like most local newspapers in towns throughout the country, will never win a Pulitzer Prize for journalism - but it is the lifeblood of the community. Each week, our little paper runs a page of either the newspaper from 50 years ago or 100 years ago. It's a fascinating glimpse into our town's past and we've learned even more that fills in the gaps in our farm's history.
For example, reading about the town's big news 100 years ago, we realize that the barbed wire fences may have fenced in dairy cows rather than beef cattle, which are what most people raise today. A larger creamery supplied milk to thousands of people around the area and was in business until the 1980's, when it shut down for good.
The local historical society also runs periodic articles and pictures. We can spot some of the older homes near us in the photos, helping us date them. Then, looking at their architecture, we can determine how old some of the buildings are near us too.
County Court House
I've left the county court house for last, mostly because I haven't done this yet. We have seen an aerial survey map of our farm and learned the names of the little creeks running through the back of the land, as well as the names of the neighboring farms. A neighbor looked up her farm in the court house and discovered that it was farmed right after the Civil War by a freed slave. We wonder about that man and his family. How were they, in rural Virginia, right after the Civil War, able to afford and farm nearly 100 acres? The family name is prominent around here. We are still looking into the history of her farm.
As for our little piece of land, each day we learn something new. We've found a strange area that looks as if someone dug there a long time ago, but we can't quite figure out what they were digging. It's amazing what you can find by doing a bit of farm archaeology. Who needs Egyptian pyramids when there's a farm to explore?
Putting the Pieces Together
Discovering the history behind your property or farm is like assembling a huge jigsaw puzzle. You start with the obvious pieces, like the outside pieces and corners on the puzzle; whatever you get when you buy the land, be it the platt or other closing documents.
Next, you build on the puzzle with more obvious pieces; whatever you find on the property itself. A farm's trash pile, old fence lines, and outbuildings tell more of the story.
The next step to completing the farm archaeology puzzle is to ask the neighbors and look into local history. The neighbors who have lived there are a long time have stories to tell. Assemble those pieces with general local history, and you can make educated guesses about any gaps in the story.
Lastly, head on over to the county courthouse. Like my friend discovered with her farm, you may find something surprising or special about your land. Add that to the puzzle and you can develop the history of your farm, country land, or any property.