The changing landscape of the Town of Gorham 1800 to 2009
by George Henry, Historian
The great Swamp white oak, the White oak, Chestnut, Elm, Ash, Hickory and a variety of other trees were what greeted the first of the settlers in the town of Gorham. Armed with only an ax the clearing of land for crops must have seemed a daunting task. But it was also an opportunity, there was material for building their cabins and a source of ready income. The demand for potash was such that much needed cash income was derived from selling the ashes of these giant trees. The clearing of the primeval forest was mostly complete by 1840.
The pioneers also found abundant wild life. Deer, Bears, wolves, Wild cat and the occasional Cougar. The Deer provided ready food and the Wolf provided a great threat. Wool was a necessity of pioneer life for clothing. The wolf made raising sheep almost impossible..The great Wolf hunt of 1811 eliminated this predator from the area. The Deer were gone by 1830, the result of hunting and changing habitat, and not seen again until 1920.
By 1825 New York became a major producer of Wheat. During the first ten days of operation The Erie canal shipped 3500 tons of flour to markets in the east. Rochester became known as the Flour City. As the lands in the west were opened up to farming and the fertility of New York farms declined due to continued crops of wheat, the production of wheat also moved west.
During the next twenty five years the farms of Gorham began to shift to more livestock production. Dairy products in the form of Cheese and Butter became a major cash crop.
Until 1860 the farms in the town of Gorham consisted of a herd of sheep, a few cows, some chickens and enough pigs to supply the winter meat for the farm family. The crop production was hay for the livestock , barley and wheat for home use and local consumption. After the Civil war the production of cotton cloth replaced the spinning wheel. This resulted in one less task for the overworked farm wife and less need to keep sheep. The Sheep herds became larger concentrated on fewer farms.
A major change came during 1860 and 1870 with the planting of orchards, mostly Apple trees. It was said that if a farm did not have at least an acre of orchard it was hardly considered a farm, with many farms having much larger acreage. With this production, apple dry houses sprung up in every community for the production of dried apples. Along with the orchards came cooper shops and stave mills for the making of barrels. Dried apples were a major economic contributor to the prosperity of the town. Until World War One Germany was a major market for dried apples. During this same time period most of the great Gambrel and Gable roof barns of the area were built, and many of the remaining Oak and Chestnut trees fell prey to this construction.
The apple industry was dealt it's final blow with the freeze of 1933-34 when the temperature fell to thirty below zero and remained there for almost a week damaging the trees so severely that production never returned.
Tthe Rual Electrification Act of 1933, an act of Congress to bring electricty to the rual areas, brought another great change. By 1940 most farms had electric service. With electric motors one man could milk many more cows, water could be moved hundreds of feet and refrigeration could cool milk. With lights Chickens could be stimulated to produce eggs all year and the kerosene lantern was put in the closet for emergency use.
Many readers will remember the farms in the town of the 1930s and 1940s. A few cows a small flock of chickens, some pigs for home use, a team of horses and tractor or two. Most farms had a hand cranked cream separator, the cream was put in five gallon cans and picked up once a week and shipped to a plant for sour cream butter, the skim milk was fed to the pigs. After world war two, with refrigeration the milk was put in ten gallon cans, stored in a vat of cold water and shipped daily to the creamery. Later refrigerated tanks replaced the milk can.
By 1950 there were 1647 farms in Ontario County reporting cows with an average of ten cows per farm. By 1969 this had changed to 386 farms with 31 cows per farm. In 2002 this changed to 126 farms with 123 cows per farm. Now with improved technology and larger equipment the economies of size greatly impacted the family farm. Folks sold their farms to their neighbor and found work in the ever increasing industrial sector. With lower cost of production in the western states and farm production surpluses the less productive land was left to grow weeds and houses.
By 1990 much land lay fallow and the grand old Gambrel and Gable roof barns had leaky roofs and boards falling off, many to be torn down or victim to neglect and the north wind. Land rent was cheap and larger farms rented land to spread their cost over more acres.
In the late 1980s another change began. The first Mennonite family moved into the town. Soon followed by an ever increasing number until today we have about fifty families in the town. The horse and buggy and the children walking or riding their bikes to school was again a common sight on the town roads. The Mennonite community operate their own schools, of which there were three in the town, as well as one church. Their devotion to family, community and church is the strength that keeps them strong and vibrant. The remaining old barns were again fixed up and new barns began to spring up. Barn raising is almost a work of art with the Mennonites. Once the foundation is laid the community gathers and in a day a new barn is up, to house a herd of from fifty to sixty milking cows. Houses and farm steads were fixed up, gardens were planted. The town had a look of prosperity.
It is not just farming, the Mennonites also opened new retail shops, repair and construction business to add to the economics of the total community. They are indeed an industrious and hard working people.
Source reference Americas First Rushville- Robert Moody The Orchards of Rushville- Robert Moody Rochester the Flour City. USDA statistics dept. The Change Begins: Settling the Forest of Central NY --Alan Taylor
Author's note. It is the intent of this article to chronicle the changes in the Town. The Mennonite community is a part of that change. Anyone wishing to learn more about the Mennonite community and religion should refer to the many articles and books on this subject.