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The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

AGRICULTURE - The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

AGRICULTURE. The first settlers in Cuyahoga County followed the usual pioneer routine. They made clearances, planted corn, buckwheat, and rye, fenced in garden patches, and kept oxen, cows, and swine. When the soil had been "tamed" by other crops, they sowed wheat. They carried on their activities in spite of malaria, the ravaging of crops by multitudes of squirrels, and attacks on their livestock by wolves. Many were really professional land clearers who, after a few years, moved on to repeat the farm-making process elsewhere. The remainder, like the incomers who bought partially cleared holdings, became "regular farmers."

The first settlers in a community under clearance had the advantage of a "newcomers' market" because later immigrants often had few or no livestock and before long exhausted the food supplies they brought with them, so that they had to buy locally. In parts of Cuyahoga County, the newcomers' market lasted until ca. 1810. During the WAR OF 1812 Cleveland became an accumulating point for army supplies, and after the war, Cuyahoga County shared the general agricultural depression afflicting the western country.

The depression continued until 1825, when the opening of the Erie Canal allowed shipments of wheat to markets in the east. Later, when the OHIO AND ERIE CANAL opened, there was a ready demand in the adjacent territory for wheat and other farm products, and Cleveland changed from a village to a bustling urban center. At the same time, Cuyahoga County became a region of old cleared farms where most of the occupants engaged in a mixed agriculture, relying on an income from the sale of wheat, wool, and cattle.

The most important local farm specialization was dairying; butter was manufactured for sale to peddlers and storekeepers, but cheese was also made on some farms in Cuyahoga County from the early 1830s. While the county was much less important in cheesemaking than the Western Reserve counties to the east, its output of butter and cheese together in 1839 was valued at $96,083. In 1859 the county's production of butter was put at 1,162,665 pounds and of cheese at 1,433,727 pounds. During the 1840s, many farmers just outside Cleveland delivered milk to urban residents--some sold at a market or by peddling through the streets, others to milkmen with routes. The Western Reserve dairy farmers bought their cows from drovers in the spring and sold them off in the fall, congratulating themselves on their good judgment when they found a few good milkers among the nondescripts.

A second type of specialization was the commercial growing of orchard fruits by farmers along Lake Erie. By mid-century the fruit, mainly cherries and peaches, was shipped by boat and rail to eastern and western markets. The value of the orchard output in the county in 1839 was placed at $18,179, and in 1859 at $67,437. During the 1840s, grapes were grown in Cleveland and the northernmost townships, primarily as a garden crop, and, by 1855 there were about 200 acres of vineyards near EUCLID. There was only a small production of wine; most of the crop was sent by rail as table grapes to eastern and midwestern cities.

A third specialization was market gardening, which involved growing a variety of vegetables, plus strawberries and other small fruits. Limited to the thinly populated parts of Cleveland and its environs, it was carried on almost exclusively by European immigrants and their families, as native-born Americans had no relish for the incessant spading, hoeing, and weeding required. The value of production in 1839 was given as $4,554 (which was probably understated), and in 1859 as $61,192.

In general, Cuyahoga County farmers prospered during the 3 decades preceding the Civil War, and consequently they were able to improve their buildings and buy new types of implements as they became available. Like other Ohio counties, Cuyahoga in the pre-Civil War era had agricultural societies. The first society, organized in 1823, held a few fairs or "cattle shows" but attracted little general support among farmers, disappearing about the 1830s. A second short-lived society was organized in 1834; a third came into being in 1839, held fairs from 1839-41, then suspended operations in 1842. The fourth, established in 1846 under a new state law that provided for a subsidy from the county treasury, was successful mostly because it featured horse trotting at its fairs. This society is still (1995) in existence, but its fairs have long since ceased to be essentially agricultural and have become primarily community homecomings.

In the half-century or so after the Civil War, Cuyahoga County farming became more specialized as increasing urban demand led to a considerable expansion in dairy buttermaking. Dairy cheesemaking was superseded by the factory system, introduced ca. 1863. In 1875 there were 16 of the new factories in operation, and in 1880 about 20, all of which made butter as a sideline. Those west of the CUYAHOGA RIVER were operated by proprietors ("Cheese kings"), and those east of it by cooperatives. The most significant development, however, was the supplying of milk to the Cleveland market, which began in 1868 when the first milk train began operating into Cleveland from Willoughby in Lake County. Originally, passenger trains took on milk cans as an express item at a special rate, but later they might be local freights running on a schedule. As the railroads carried milk cans at a flat rate, the milk suppliers near the city were at a disadvantage, compared to remoter farmers with cheaper land where new dairying country developed ribbon-fashion along the railroads. With dependable transportation available, some dairymen engaged in "winter dairying" (i.e., year-round production), which introduced silage to feed the milking cows through the winter. Although the first silo in Ohio was built at NEWBURGH in 1880, there were few others in Cuyahoga, County till after the famous Silo Convention at Cleveland in 1889, when silo construction flourished. By the mid-1890s, Cuyahoga reputedly had more silos than any other Ohio county.

As soon as the milk-train system was established, dairymen ceased to sell milk directly to consumers but marketed it through middlemen in the city, some of whom established depots near the stations for buying and shipping the product. In a subsequent variation, they set up "creameries"--skimming stations with machinery to separate cream from milk. As the milk depots and creameries operated throughout the year and paid better for their supplies than did the cheese factories, the factories began to shut down or sold their facilities to their rivals; by the mid-1890s none remained in the county.

Farmers involved in the milk industry found that the returns were regular and dependable; however, the economic security they gained was offset by an erosion of their independence. They had to comply with the increasingly strict regulations of the CLEVELAND BOARD OF HEALTH, and to be competitive with other suppliers; they had to replace their ordinary cows with those of popular dairy breeds. When they shipped directly to dealers, they had to adjust their workday to the milk-train schedules, which were usually arranged so that milk would arrive in the city by 8 A.M. Perhaps worst of all, they were disposing of a perishable product to buyers who were interested in keeping prices low and who found ways of having the suppliers assume all the hazards of the market.

In response to the unsatisfactory dealer-farmer relationship, some suppliers in the Cleveland milkshed organized the Northern Ohio Milk Producers' Assn. in 1901 to establish a fair price for milk. Although the group had some success in public relations, its members tended to make individual contracts with dealers whenever it was to their advantage to do so. However, when the Cleveland milk dealers refused to raise prices to reflect the increasing costs of labor and feed in 1916, the association suddenly revived and provided leadership in a short strike, culminating in a settlement which recognized the association as a contracting agent. Soon it began to function as the Ohio Farmers' Cooperative Milk Co., one of several such organizations in Ohio.

After the Civil War, commercial orchard production declined; cherries, peaches, pears, and plums became uncertain crops because of insect and fungus problems, and many of the orchardists turned wholly or partially to viticulture. By 1890 there were 5,000 acres of vineyards in the county, stretching somewhat intermittently from the Lake County line westward to the market gardens on the outskirts of Cleveland, with a smaller development west of the city. At least during the 1870s, more table grapes were being shipped from COLLAMER (southwest of Euclid) than from any other railroad station in the county; its only near rival was Dover (now WESTLAKE). Grape production in the county reached its maximum in 1899 at 11,591 tons, declining to 3,753 tons in 1919.

Vegetable growing also expanded after the Civil War. Potatoes, always important for farm consumption, developed commercial significance--partly because of market availability. The crop also fit into whatever rotation was being used, left the soil in good tilth, and did not demand excessive labor when farmers bought the available planters, sprayers, and diggers. Although in 1909 Cuyahoga was the leading potato producing county in Ohio, with 1,141,469 bushels, the industry fell off rapidly, with 1919 production only 35.4% of what it had been 10 years before. The decline was attributable to the increasing prevalence of fungus diseases and to soil depletion. Continued lack of profitability in later years reduced its commercial production further.

The market-garden specialty (now usually called truck farming) grew in the Cleveland area in proportion to the increasing population. Of particular importance was the forcing industry, the growing of vegetables under glass for the out-of-season market. In 1900 truck growers had about 21 acres in hotbeds or cold frames and 4 acres in greenhouses, the latter concentrated in the Brooklyn area.

Cuyahoga County agriculture in the years after World War I was in some respects simply part of the national pattern, with a general increase in mechanization. Fundamentally, however, the course of its development was determined by the continued expansion of metropolitan Cleveland. The table shows the decline in farmland acreage and the dwindling number of farms from 1900 on. The reversion to farmland in the 1930s was attributable to the fact that many failed real estate promotions were sold or rented to farmers.

Concurrently, there was a change in the concept of what was meant by a farm. Ca. 1920, with the exception of a few "showplaces" belonging to wealthy Clevelanders, the farms were still operated in conventional fashion by either owner or tenant. Farms of under 10 acres constituted about 10% of the total, but these were usually in intensively cultivated truck crops. With the advent of the automobile, country dwellers could work in the urban sector, and city wage earners could move miles beyond the suburbs. As a result, subdivisions appeared along the roads to the metropolis, with landlords selling off lots on their frontage. Though these parcels were classified as farms, in some cases they served as sites for antique stores, beauty parlors, dog kennels, and other small enterprises, and in many instances the occupants used them primarily as dormitories. Thus, in 1949 (the first year for which such figures are available) there were 136 farms in the county reporting no sales whatever of agricultural produce, and 563 "part-time farms" that reported sales of less than $400. The areas cultivated on the low output farms were so small that there were 404 farms in the county without a tractor, a horse, or a mule.


Changing times made for important developments in the market-milk industry. Beginning in 1917, owners of heavy trucks competed in milk hauling with the railroads and trolley lines, offering the advantages of charging $.04 a can less, picking up the cans from stands at the farmers' gates, and returning them later in the day. As early as 1919, wherever there were hardtop roads the system of taking cans to rail stations or milk depots was almost a thing of the past. By 1925 some of the trucking lines collecting milk for the Cleveland market reached as far as Ashtabula and Trumbull counties, and during subsequent years, Cuyahoga County milk producers, like other dairymen, suffered from the perennial surplus-milk problem. Perhaps their worst problem was that the rising price of land made dairying uneconomical. The average value of Cuyahoga County farmland per acre (with buildings) was $359 in 1945, $747 in 1950, $1,064 in 1954, and $1,650 in 1959. For these reasons, market-milk production declined sharply after World War II. In 1944, 236 farms sold a total of 9,094,182 lbs. of milk; in 1954, 47 farms sold a total of 4,508,254 lbs.; and in 1959, 10 farms sold a total of 124,190 lbs. In 1964 there were only 100 milk cows reported, on only 7 farms; the industry was gone.

The expansion of the metropolis steadily nibbled away at the fruit-growing areas. From the 1920s on, the only orchard product worth mention was apples, and by 1959 their average value per farm reporting was only about $75. In 1978 there were still orchards on 25 farms, but collectively they comprised only 136 rundown acres. Viticulture also was declining. The production of grapes in the county was 2,849 tons in 1939, and 213 tons in 1978 from the 17 farms still in the business.

While the market-milk and the horticultural industries were disappearing, the truck-farming business continued to expand. Some truck farmers acquired vehicles, enabling them to extend the sphere of market gardening 15 mi. or so into the rural areas, where they often resorted to direct marketing, erecting roadside stands. Even though expenses in the industry were high, operators increased their yields as a consequence of better cultural practices and more mechanization, and often benefited from appreciating land values. As roads improved, they extended their marketing area to include urban centers other than Cleveland, and by selling through cooperative associations they got a larger share of the consumer's dollar. After World War II, there was a steady decline in open-air vegetable growing as holding after holding was swallowed up by the advance of the metropolis. Truck-farming production, however, continued to increase because many of the open-air growers added to their facilities and entered the forcing business.

The greenhouse sector of truck farming, at least in its concentration in the BROOKLYN (Old Brooklyn) community, was not displaced by urban development. Nevertheless, the rising price of land meant that new facilities tended to be in, other areas, especially around OLMSTED FALLS. In the mid-1920s Cuyahoga was supposed to have about 160 acres under glass--more than any other American county. The maximum area under glass appears to have been reached ca. 1959, when the census reported 236 acres. Although some of the greenhouses specialized in flowers for the florist trade, most were devoted to lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers. By 1982 most of the greenhouse operators were corporations or partnerships; that year there were 16 farms (greenhouse establishments) having sales of over $250,000 each, with an average of $542,813. The county then had 122.5 acres under glass and an output of "nursery and greenhouse products" valued at $11,673,000, or 89.5% of the stated agricultural sales ($13,039,000) of the county.

Until well into the 20th century, living conditions among Cuyahoga County farmers were similar to those in other parts of Ohio. Much of the old isolation had disappeared with the advent of organizations such as the Grange in the 1870s, Farmers' Institutes in the 1880s, and the introduction of the telephone and free mail delivery. After World War I there was a great improvement in amenities throughout the rural area. In 1930 almost half the farm dwellings had water piped in. Of the 1,589 farms enumerated in the 1950 census, 1,380 had telephones, 1,531 had electricity from power lines, and 1,490 were on hardtop roads. During the 1920s, nearly every farm had an automobile or a pickup truck or both, and practically all had radios, as they would later have televisions. The few one-room schools left in the early 1920s were soon replaced by consolidated ones. There were new organizations, some involved in cooperative marketing, and others education and social, such as the 4-H clubs; many, however, became victims of advancing urbanization.

The steady encroachment of metropolitan Cleveland meant that in 1982 the agricultural census classified only 8,854 acres (13.8 sq. mi.) in the county as "land in farms," much of it fragmented by limited-access roads, parkways, airports, golf courses, parks, reservoirs, and wasteland. While the agriculture was concentrated in greenhouse operation and other truck farming, there were perhaps still a dozen farms engaged in general husbandry, selling soybeans, shelled corn, melons, sweet corn, and some livestock. Of the 8,854 acres of farmland, 2,364 were in woods. Of the remaining area--classified as "cropland"--336 acres were used only as pasture, and 959 acres were lying idle, which suggested that the land was unprofitable for agricultural purposes or that it was being held for speculation, or both.

Although the 1982 census showed that Cuyahoga County had 193 farms, only 135 had any "harvested cropland." As had been the pattern since the 1920s, many of the operators engaged in agriculture only part-time or not at all. No doubt some commuted throughout the week to factory or other jobs in the Cleveland or Akron area. All in all, outside the truck-farming sector, Cuyahoga, County agriculture in the 1980s had become a marginal operation. As in other old rural complexes surrounding a megalopolis, the prospects were for a gradual further decline.

Robert L. Jones

Agricultural Land in Cuyahoga County ( 3 Kbytes )

Last Modified: 10 Jul 1997 09:54:26 AM

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