Photo: Clermont Farm ca. 1942 looking south from the hill next to East Main Street, Berryville. The farm was tenanted by Gilbert L. Royston and his family 1939-1948 (by contract with the owner McCormick family), a very knowledgeable farmer who also bred work horses. He was the last farmer at Clermont to operate on the 18th and 19th century model of "general mixed farming" with its highly diversified range of grains, animals, and fowls on every farm, which largely disappeared around 1950 (see below). The grain crops, including wheat, oats, barley and corn, were still shocked by hand as in this picture, and most farm work was powered by horses. In this picture the 1849 Corn Crib and 1917 2-story Barn (both burned in 2018) are on the far left, and in the center behind trees is the white 1916 house in which Gilbert and Margaret Royston and their five children lived. Credit: Gilbert and Margaret Royston Family (Don and Helen Royston)
AGRICULTURE AT CLERMONT
The Land and Climate Background, still a very present influence
While agriculture did not begin in the Valley until about 3,000 years ago (small garden plots in fire-cleared land for cultivation of native seed plants), farmers here today are still wrestling with geological conditions created hundreds of millions of years ago, starting with the birth of the Appalachians 440-80 million years ago. The collision of Africa about 300 million years ago with the North American continent, which completed the super continent of Pangaea and raised the Appalachians to Himalayan heights, had a massive impact on what would become the Shenandoah Valley in the "Ridge and Valley" physiographic province of the United States.
The earlier sedimentary rocks from what had been seafloor were thrust upward and many-times folded over, with the folds running N-S from the collision to the east. The N-S rock ribs in Clermont's fields today clearly represent those ancient upthrust and folding actions. Tundra conditions prevailed here during the last great glaciation (Pennsylvania and north), and its end about 11,000 years ago brought huge amounts of melt water which shaped today's rivers, streams and soil. With further warming pine and then oak forests emerged. The climate stabilized to modern conditions here about 1,000 BC. Erosion, which leveled the Himalayan-height Appalachians, continued its work shaping rock and soil, and was exacerbated by 200 years of intensive wheat farming. This stripped away as much as two to three feet of soil at Clermont and its neighbors, exposing and weathering further the rock we farm around.
The First People and their Successors
People had been in the Valley at least 16,000 years ago. This historical period involving the first peoples is huge compared with the subsequent occupation and domination by Europeans (barely 300 years in the Valley). The basic cultural periods into which archaeologists divide this include: Paleoindian (16,000-8,000 BC), Archaic (8,000-1,100 BC), and Woodland (1.100 BC-1,650 AD), each divided into its own Early, Middle, and Late phases. It is only in the Late Woodland period, about 1,000 years ago, that corn (maize) becomes a subsistence crop. Native Americans intervened in the ecosystem by systematically burning areas of the Valley for four reasons: agriculture, hunting and game production, range management, and travel. One of the first things early European settlers noticed about Native Americans was that they burned their wildlands, and in the Valley settlers noticed the results in open oak forests and large savannahs with tall native grasses. George Washington in his survey of Clermont in 1750 specifically noted that in the northwestern corner and the southeastern corner there were "rich barrens" (barren of trees), grasslands promoted by Indian burning. In the Woodland Period (1,100 BC- 1650 AD), the last prior to European contact, the use of settled villages increased (lived in until local resources were exhausted, followed by a move to a new site, as well as using short-term hunting, fishing, or trade sites), as did the growing of crops of maize, squash, and beans, through slash-and-burn agriculture.
The Europeans in turn, farmed based on their experience in the cultures (and economic class) from which they came, including in the earlier settlements in the east along the Atlantic coast.
They also responded to the local environmental conditions, labor available, and market demand. With the increasing world-wide demand for wheat from the middle of the 18th century (feeding large armies during continuing imperial wars in Europe from 1689-1815, and feeding the Caribbean which produced higher-price sugar from sugar cane rather than food and animals), the Shenandoah Valley became the American South’s most substantial producer. Clermont not only participated in that boom, but was itself a champion producer, using enslaved labor to accomplish it. Clermont was in the portion of Frederick County east of the Opequon Creek (as of 1836 the separate County of Clarke). In this area the original land grants had been large and many went to the holders of large plantations in Tidewater Virginia.
When those grantees and their descendants (largely English, Scots-Irish, and Irish) came to the Valley to take up their land grants, they brought their industrial-scale agricultural methods, based on permanent, hereditary enslaved family labor with them, in contrast with the German-descended immigrants coming to western Frederick County largely through Pennsylvania. In the case of Thomas Wadlington, second owner of Clermont in 1753, he had already come west to Fairfax County and moved from there, bringing his enslaved workers and their children with him. Despite the emphasis on the cash crop of wheat, Valley farmers and the owners of Clermont were not mono-culturists, but practitioners of what cultural geographers call “general mixed farming” on every farm, unlike the more specialized farming of today. In general they produced at least as much corn as they did wheat, along with other grains, and they raised a wide variety of stock and fowls.
All the owners of Clermont from 1750 until 1870 were farmer-operators, sometimes with a commercial sideline. John Vance, ownership date 1750-53 (possibly from 1742) was also a cooper (barrelmaker) in Winchester. Thomas Wadlington (owner 1753-1770, an entrepreneur from Fairfax), also ran a comprehensive general store and service business on the north end of Clermont at the Fairfax-Alexandria Road. Edward Snickers (owner 1770-1790) was a grain/flour hauler, mill owner, ferry-over-the-Shenandoah (Rt. 7) operator, land speculator, and money-lender. as well as farmer. William Snickers (Edward's son, managing Clermont from 1783, owner 1790-1819) bred and raced thoroughbreds in addition to general farming. Dawson McCormick (owner 1819-1834, and his wife Florinda Milton McCormick, owner 1834-36), farmed, as did all seven of his brothers (a judge and a doctor included).
Clermont Reaches Its Size and Production Apogee in the Age of Grain
Edward McCormick (son of Dawson), was orphaned in 1836 at 12, was sent to Princeton by his uncle/guardian Dr. Cyrus McCormick who farmed Cool Spring Plantation three miles from Clermont, took ownership at his majority (and graduation) in 1845 and died in 1870. The last owner-production farmer, he expanded Clermont's landholdings and slaveholdings, bringing Clermont to its size and production peak, only to have the banks foreclose on his widow, Ellen Jett McCormick (1870-1908) at his death for their pre-Civil War borrowing. Clermont's entries in the U.S. Census Agricultural Schedules of 1850 and 1860 tell the story of Edward and Ellen McCormick's success during what Prof. Kenneth Koons calls the "Age of Grain" (see paper under "Archives" on this website).
The entries in the Slave Schedule for Clermont in the 1860 U.S. Census tell how the McCormick's success was achieved: through the labor of 28 enslaved Africans, ten of whom were under the age of 12, living in three slave houses (of which one is still extant). With Edward McCormick's death, the scattering of his children to the military, the professions and business, and his widow's difficulty in managing under the new paid-labor situation, management by a tenant and his extended family farming on shares and using paid labor as needed, became the norm at Clermont. The tenant hired individual men, often black, to help with the farm labor as seasonally needed or for special projects. The pay for hired men consisted of room, board, and a little cash. The "room" was the reason that one slave quarter survived at Clermont: rooms were needed to help pay these individuals and just the one slave quarter had four rooms, enough to meet the need on a farm the size of Clermont given that the tenant family supplied the core work team and that technology slowly decreased labor requirements.
Farming nationally, in the Valley, and at Clermont continued to change.
When President Lincoln established the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1862, 90% of Americans were farmers. By 1940, only 30% of Americans were farmers. Average farm size was increasing, as were the capital costs of equipment and machinery, but farm income was only 67% of that of non-farm workers by 1948. Many who came back from WWII did not return to farm life, and with low wages, many others left for the city. Agricultural suppliers consolidated as did distributors and processors of agricultural commodities. All this, combined with government-sponsored agricultural research, created a market system incentivizing individual farmers to produce larger amounts of a single crop or two, or a single type of animal. In the Valley and at Clermont, the old, universal practice of "general mixed farming" characterized by its great diversity of enterprise, came to an end in the middle of the 20th century.
The last tenant farmer to live on and run the farm on shares at Clermont, Gilbert Royston, retired from farming in 1948. He was also the last to operate Clermont on the model of "general mixed farming." He owned all the animals and equipment, which he sold at auction. The animals, machinery, harness, etc. advertised in his auction poster were almost identical to the items listed on the auction poster after the death of Edward McCormick, owner of Clermont, in 1870. Today the number of American farms continues to drop, from 2.2 million in 2007 to 2 million in 2021. The percentage of U.S. employment directly on the farm is now down to only 1.3%, although the entire agriculture and food sector employs 10.5% of all U.S. workers. And, given that the average age of U.S. farmers is nearly 60, a new generation of farmers must be engaged, along with many new entrants to the agriculture and food industries, underlining the need to create more opportunities for students in school to participate in agriculture education programs and to come to farms and farm service businesses.
Elizabeth Williams' Gift and its Purposes
The middle of the 20th century made clear the great shift in US agricultural practice and production, and after 1950, Clermont’s land was often rented for a single crop, or a small cow-calf operation continued, but infrastructure (land, herds, buildings, fencing) deteriorated. However, Elizabeth William’s deeds of gift at her death in 2004, both of the farm itself to the Commonwealth of Virginia (Dept. of Historic Resources) and of her other assets to the Clermont Foundation, required the continuation of active production agriculture, in addition to a protective easement forbidding development unrelated to agriculture. This was primarily to maintain what was an historic, open, agricultural landscape, specifically as such. This was based on her knowledge that farms that are not farmed become forests or houses. But she was also determined to do what she could to boost a locally-declining agricultural sector and to promote education about agriculture both for children and adults. The Department of Historic Resources and the Clermont Foundation as manager of the 360-acre site looked for ways to make this requirement useful and sustainable in the 21st century. These included: improvements in the farming basics, the herds of Angus cattle and Katahdin (hair) sheep, along with the soils, forages, infrastructure and management practices. Management practices included such things as rotational grazing, riparian/conservation buffers along Dog Run which crosses the entire farm, wetlands protection, native tree planting in pastures (silvo-pasture), and removal of invasives/replacement with natives, and others,
New Educational Partnerships
The creation of new educational opportunities were at two levels. On the one hand, the Foundation works with the Clarke County Farm Bureau and Clarke County Public Schools to provide teachers and students with opportunities for practical experience to complement their classroom instruction. Partnerships with student organizations outside school, such as 4-H, are also important.
On the other hand, Clermont partners with the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service in providing a venue for field schools, classes, demonstrations, and support activities for local farmers (such as the pooling of the wool production of small sheep raisers for transport to large buyers). A partnership with the Beekeepers of the Northern Shenandoah has resulted in a large training beeyard at Clermont, with biweekly classes for novice beekeepers. This work with adults also includes the general public, with events about farming and conservation (native plant fairs, walking talks, etc.).Volunteer activities such as tree plantings, clean-ups, etc. bring other adults to the farm.
With a renewed commitment to active, best practice agriculture, and with an added educational mission, the Department of Historic Resources, Clermont's owner, and the Clermont Foundation (managed by local trustees) have worked together to make this historic farm one which:
A.) preserves an historic agricultural landscape in its original use and as a value in itself, as well as preserving the original agricultural frame for its historic buildings, (including the oldest house in Clarke County),
B.) demonstrates good practice in contemporary farming, and
C.) is useful for and a contributor to its local community, both economically, and now, through education to young people and adults, not only in agriculture, but also in history and historic preservation.