Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Lippitt Farmstead in Winter - Zebediah

By: Marieanne Coursen, Agricultural Interpreter

Zebediah, or Zeb for short, is a major character in our depiction of a farm in the 19th century. He has been with us at The Farmers’ Museum for thirteen years and has become a favorite of staff and visitors alike. He and I share a birthdate, August 10th. He will be 17 years old this year and I will be – well never mind!

Winter on the farm is quiet and comfortable for Zeb. We occasionally hook him up to a sled and take him through his paces, but mostly he is on vacation. He has a spacious stall that he spends his nights in. We clean it every day and make a fresh bed of straw, put a new supply of hay in his manger, fresh water in a tub and a little bit of grain in his feed box.
During the day Zeb is outdoors. We make sure there is a hole in the ice so he can drink water from the pond.
He keeps track of goings-on and seems to find cross-country skiers gliding along the golf course especially interesting (or scary). He spends part of the day eating hay that we put out for him. Sometimes he is upside down:
Zeb always nickers when he hears us come into the barnyard in the morning. I like to think he enjoys our company along with our service. He gets occasional visits from other staff members this time of year, but I am sure he looks forward to the attention lavished on him every summer by our visitors.

Happy New Year from me and Zeb!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

When is a pie a scythe? Avoiding data charges in 1906

By: Erin Richardson, Curator

This year, The Farmers’ Museum, in partnership with the New York State Historical Association Research Library, will be launching a new collaborative collections database. Although still in a pilot phase, you can visit the database at  This project will allow researchers, enthusiasts, collectors and museum visitors to research objects in the Farmers’ Museum collection more thoroughly. Enough about the details of this project – more on that in a future post. What I really want to get to is a mysterious parts catalog I scanned as part of the project.

Background: Walter A Wood was a large scale manufacturer of Agricultural Equipment located in Hoosick Falls, NY – a small town between Albany and the Vermont border. Although his business began local, it was eventually an international operation. The NYSHA library has a large and comprehensive collection of catalogs, broadsides, parts lists and circulars for Wood’s company. The Farmers' Museum also has several pieces of Wood equipment in the collection.

In scanning one of the parts catalogs I discovered that each part had its own telegraph cipher. Perhaps I have been reading too many murder mystery novels, but my first thought about this cipher systems was related to German spies. I thought “Did the US government not want Germany to know where all of our grain was grown, so they directied these manufacturers to encode their ordering system?”

Here's a detail view:
(click to enlarge)
There are a number of problems with this conspiracy-theory, not the least of which are that the codes are printed in a readily available catalog and 1906 is too early to be worrying about German spies.

My next thought was “DATA PLAN”! This may seem like a non-sequitur.  However, if you have a cell phone, or have tried to upgrade your cell phone recently, you will notice that just about every phone is internet-ready and that you will have to pay for the cost of sending internet data over the cellular network to which you subscribe. It dawned on me that these telegraph cipher codes were a data cost-cutting measure for ordering your replacement parts via telegraph. Rather than sending this:

Scythe, complete, six feet

you could instruct your local telegrapher to send:


The cipher method reduces the cost of placing the order by 75%! 

Too bad pie is not included.

For a farmer who needed a replacement part during the middle of a harvest, ordering via telegraph could cut the delivery time down by days or weeks – and probably save a crop in the process.

Stay tuned for more on the Collections Access Initiative in future posts and some information about the Walter A Wood artifacts in the museum's collection.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Mangel Wurzels

By: Marieanne Coursen, Agricultural Interpreter
This time of year our farm animals rely on feeds we have stored away for them. Horses, cows and sheep do occasionally paw through the snow to eat the grass underneath, but mostly they look to us for their sustenance. This usually means dry hay and grain, but in addition, the nineteenth century farmer often fed pumpkins, cabbage and root crops to the animals.

My favorite root crop grown for livestock is the mangel wurzel.
Mangel wurzels are a type of beet with a red or yellow root the shape of a large, fat carrot that sticks halfway out of the ground. The leaves can be fed fresh to the animals through the summer as long as they are not entirely removed until just before the roots are harvested. The roots are supposed to be able to grow as large as 2 to 3 feet long and 4 to 8 inches in diameter! The ones I have grown have never been more than about eighteen inches long and maybe five inches in diameter.

They are harvested in the fall and stored in an environment where they won’t dry out or freeze, either underground (in a simple hole or a root cellar) or in a protected heap on top of the ground, called a clamp. My mother told me that on the farm where she grew up in Germany, a small farm building had a cellar under it where all the root crops were stored, and she would have to go down and bring up baskets full to feed to the animals. In England it seems to be more common to store them in heaps above the ground.

The general rule is to wait until after Christmas to feed mangel wurzels. Apparently a change occurs in storage that makes the root less likely to cause scours (diarrhea). The watery, juicy nature of the root makes it very appealing to cows, sheep and horses, especially after eating dry hay for so long. We have a nifty chopper to break up the root and make it easier to eat.
Chickens enjoy them also and I like to hang one in their house for them to peck at:
I have tried storing the mangel wurzels two different ways. Here at the museum we dug a hole in the ground one fall and lined it with straw. We threw our mangel wurzels in and covered them with straw and dirt and a wood cover. In January, I dug them out and found they had kept very well. They were not frozen or rotten so this method was successful as far as quality went, but I did find it extremely inconvenient to get them out. This year I decided to try the “clamp” method. I was not completely confident it would work since it is colder here than in England but then again with global warming maybe it would be OK. This time it was at my home farm. In September I made a pile of my mangel wurzels on top of a bed of straw:
I also added rutabagas and turnips, and I covered the pile with straw and dirt. After heavy rains and colder than normal temperatures this fall, I thought my crop was doomed. Well, I am happy to say that I opened the end of my pile after Christmas and found the roots in good condition. The pile seemed to have a frozen skin on it of snow, dirt and straw that was not difficult to break through. I was able to get to the roots easily and close the clamp back up by putting the frozen clumps back over the hole. It seems to work like the “Ag-Bags” that farmers store silage in.
So far I have only found a couple of turnips that rotted and they were at the bottom. I have not gotten to the mangel wurzels yet since they are at the back of the pile, but I am optimistic that they will be fine.

Root crops have never been as popular in America as in Europe for a livestock feed. Most of the information to be found about root crops like mangel wurzels comes from England where they are unable to grow corn well. Nevertheless, root crops do make my life as a small farmer more interesting and satisfying, and hopefully the animals in my care enjoy the added variety to their diet.
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