Monday, December 20, 2010

Prosperous Bovina Farmers

Just over 100 years ago, the Catskill Mountain News of February 25, 1910 reported on a speech by Dr. Powell of Columbia County at a dinner in New York. The paper noted that Dr. Powell "has long been prominently connected with the agricultural interests of the State." Powell had been Director of the Farmer's Institute in the 1890s and served as Treasurer of the New York State Dairymen's Association. His speech included remarks about Bovina and his experience there in the early 1890s while conducting a farm census of the town.

"It has been said that you never know the best qualities of a man until you have put your feet under his table, and in making a dairy census of the town of Bovina several years ago, I met the farmers and their families in their homes and had the most favorable opportunity of becoming intimately acquainted with their character, and found in them most excellent qualities.... "

Dr. Powell recalled arriving at the farm of William Black, who also happened to be Bovina's town supervisor. William Thompson Black was born in Beetown, Grant County, Wisconsin in 1861 but grew up in Bovina. He took over the family farm on Coulter Brook Road on the early death of his father, making it one of the leading farms in Bovina. In 1885, Black married Bell J. Irvine, a daughter of Henry and Jeanette (Ainslie) Irvine, of Delhi.

Powell arrived at the Black's around 5 pm on a hot July day. He was invited to stay over and provide Mr. Black with a little instruction on how to use a new milk tester. After about an hour learning about the tester, Black realized that he still needed to milk his herd of 33 cows. Because his hired men were away for the day, he asked his wife Bell to help. Powell felt guilty sitting in the Black's sitting room while Mrs. Black, who he noted did not weigh more than 100 pounds, was milking over a dozen cows. Powell asked her if she was going to milk half of the cows. She replied, 'Oh, yes, I have done that before.' Powell responded 'If you will give me an apron I will help you." He was somewhat surprised when the offer was immediately accepted. He ended up milking a third of the herd - 11 cows.

Powell noted that "After milking was over cake and milk and fruit were served after which Mr. and Mrs. Black provided some good music for nearly an hour, and I shall never forget the excellent type of life which those young people represents in their home and the very delightful evening I spent with them."

The story went out that the man who was taking the census actually knew how to milk a cow, and that he had milked 11 at Supervisor Black's. It likely worked in his favor as he continued his census work.

Powell left Bovina at the end of the census with a very favorable impression of the town and its farmers. He stated in his final report on the census that "I believed that the town of Bovina was the richest town in the United States." He said that he had never seen "so large a number of high producing herds of cows" as he found in Bovina. He noted that Bovina farmers had introduced well bred Jersey bulls and had built up an exceedingly good class of diary cows. He also noted very nutritious pastures and a productive soil.

Powell speculated as to why "this one small isolated town differ[ed] from many sections of the State where the land was more level, more easily worked and with more convenient transportation facilities." He felt it was in the better system of farming. In much of the state, the fertility of the soil has been depleted, "while in Bovina it has been such as has conserved and improved the soil." He noted that the main produce of Bovina farms, namely butter, removed the smallest portion of the elements of soil fertility while the by products, such as skim milk and butter milk, were fed to chickens and pigs.

In a future blog entry, I'll report on the results of the Bovina Cow Census that Dr. Powell was speaking about.

Note: William Black became Delaware County Clerk and moved to Delhi in the late 19th or early 20th century. He also ran unsuccessfully for the State Senate in 1912. He and his wife both died in 1938 and are buried in Delhi.

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