Life in Pleasant Valley - During the Month of April 1890-1910
Plowing and planting oats were the primary farming activities in the month of April. Each year notice was made of this activity in the Hopewell Herald and in 1892 one writer glamorized this annual job saying, “Plowing has commenced in earnest. The industrious farmers may now be seen busily engaged on every hillside. Spring is a glorious season. How well do we remember how as a barefooted boy a few short years since, we followed in the freshly turned furrow (while the plow was held by some other fellow) and ketched the agile angle worm with which to lure the unsuspecting little fishes from their native element. Those were halcyon days.” The notices were usually a little more straightforward and less nostalgic, such as the report by Rachel Williamson in 1892 that, “Farmers are busy plowing and sowing, and some have already finished sowing.” In 1901 she noted that on a journey around the township she “saw a great many farmers sowing some by hand broadcast and others with machines of different kinds.” The weather was always a factor and could delay the plowing until towards the end of the month. Plowing for the corn crop could also begin in April in good years.
Weather was also a concern for the fruit trees that were a big part of farming in Pleasant Valley and Hopewell Township. In 1902 and 1903 there were late ice storms and extremely cold weather. This was beneficial in some ways and damaging in others. Ice storms in 1902 were said to have aided the peach crop by retarding the flow of sap and did not destroy the buds; although the storm did kill some trees. In 1903 there was a difference of opinion about the effects of cold weather on the fruit crop. Some farmers saw more of a problem in the spread of San Jose Scale than from the bad weather. In the middle of April in 1895 spring floods caused the water of Moore’s Creek to back up and overflow into the roads making travel impossible for a day or so. Rachel Williamson noted, “The river was never known to be so high but once before in the recollection of the oldest inhabitant.”
Just as Howell Farm receives baby chicks in April and raises Plymouth Rock hens to collects their eggs for farm cooking projects, in the 1890s people were interested in buying Plymouth Rock eggs. An advertisement in the Hopewell Herald for April 20, 1892 announced these eggs for sale at the rate of 13 eggs for $1.00, 30 eggs for $2.50, 50 eggs for $3.00, and 100 eggs for $5.00.
In April 1905 the farm of C.Ely Blackwell along the Delaware River had a fire in his wheat field. The fire was thought to have been started when an Italian workman from the nearby stone quarry dropped a match after lighting his pipe. What started as a small fire grew in intensity and “became quite alarming.” It took the community to get the fire out and save the Blackwell home with, “a good deal of faithful and hard fighting by about thirty people who turned out to aid in the conflagration.” The fire burned several acres and Mr. Blackwell suffered burns on his face and wrist. Young Willie Blackwell, who had attended the Pleasant Valley School and later became a prominent state politician, “was nearly overdone with the fighting of the fire.” To protect the Blackwell home, a neighbor “took his team out and ploughed around his building to stop the progress of the fire.”
In the 1890’s and early 20th century many of the farms in Pleasant Valley were operated by tenants and some of the larger farms had tenant houses for families renting a portion of their land. Each spring the Herald carried notices of which farmers were moving to new locations, often not far from where they had been. Some tenants were able eventually to purchase their own farm, sometimes where they had been tenants. But, the movement between farms was usually just about over by April, since that is when spring plowing and sowing would commence.
A typical comment from Rachel Williams was written in 1896 and she noted, “There has been several changes in this vicinity this spring. The old neighbors have moved out and the new moved in and settled down and all is quiet again along the Delaware.” Howell Farm was also the home of tenant families after 1902 when it was purchased by Titusville blacksmith A.B. Coleman. In its last years of ownership by the Miller family we even find Rachel and Amos Williamson living in the farmhouse while renting out their home on Pleasant Valley Road. They were on the farm to assist Benjamin Miller who was not capable of keeping the farm up after the deaths of his parents, Charles and Mary Miller in the late 1890s. Every year or two in the first decade of the 20th century a different family lived on the farm until it was purchased by the Leming family in 1913. The Leming family had been tenants since 1909. The Cromwell family who purchased what is now Howell Farm, after the Leming family, were also tenant farmers in Pleasant Valley for many years and lived at the Major Henry Phillips House on Pleasant Valley Road next to the old Pleasant Valley School. So, the tenant farming picture was complex; with some people moving frequently and others spending many years renting the same farm. However, when movement from one to another took place, it was timed so that the ground could be plowed in April.
Farming activities were not the only thing farmers and their families looked forward to in April. As Rachel Williamson pointed out in April 1895, “Gigging for suckers along [Moore’s] creek is in order at present.”
An annual community activity that began each April was the organization of the Union Sunday School that met at the Pleasant Valley Schoolhouse. While in the 1890s the Sunday school started meeting the first Sunday in May, in 1903 this changed to the first Sunday in April. The meeting time of 3:00pm remained the same. In 1904 it was noted that 60 people came out the first week and elected the superintendent, officers, and teachers. Rachel Williamson noted hopefully, “that is a good beginning. May numbers increase.” The Union Sunday School was truly a community activity. It was for all ages and was non-denominational; with Methodists and Presbyterians both being welcomed and the Sunday School affiliated with both churches in Titusville. It met through the spring, summer, and fall.
Arbor Day was usually celebrated in the Pleasant Valley School along with the other schools in Hopewell Township. However, while Arbor Day had originally been about trees and planting trees, at least one writer noted in April 1908 that, “now in many public schools quite as much attention is given to the study of the economic value of bird life. Originally the Governor was authorized to set apart a day in April, but under a joint resolution just approved he may choose one in May. Tree planting in this latitude, it is to be remembered, is best done in April or even earlier.” The writer was correct in noting that the emphasis was getting away from trees and into gardening, clean up, and improving school grounds; combined with nature education.
Trees were a topic of conversation in another way about 1907. A letter to the editor of the Hopewell Herald dated April 5, 1907 from a resident of the Glen Moore section of the township recommended the planting of trees on farms as a way of attracting city people to purchase farms and drive up the value of the farms. He closes his letter by saying, “A week or two, fall and spring, spent in setting out trees, as above, will pay a big interest on the outlay. I hope to see our farmers go at this, and am quite certain Hopewell valley land ere long will be highly prized and bought extensively by city people. Once get a few well-to-do city people out in this section and the farmer can sell at a good price and go and set down the remainder of his days.” This letter is interesting for two reasons. First, it is an indication of just how few trees were on the landscape in the period 1890-1910. Second, the author’s idea would seem to foreshadow the decline in farming and conversion of farmland to housing that has taken place since, so that today we worry about the disappearance of farmland and why we value places like Howell Farm so much.