Coggeshall Farm Takes Visitors Back to Time When Living was Sustainable

Text and video by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

BRISTOL, R.I. — Farming in 1790 is a zero-trash dream. There’s no plastic, cardboard or toxic chemicals. Grit is swept into the fireplace. The few crumbs of food that aren't eaten are tossed out a window with the dishwater, where a wild turkey waits to peck at the morsels. Nearly everything is made and used on-site.

This practice of sustainable living is happening at Coggeshall Farm Museum on Colt Drive — a working tenant farm that adheres to the late 18th-century New England standard of living. Farmers, depicted as “living history interpreters,” practice organic agriculture and resiliency, with the tools, crops, livestock and even clothing from the Federalist Era.

Even on a wintry day, when the fields are idle, the 48-acre farm is vibrant. Lambs are born. Cows are fed. In the farmhouse, the hearth is roaring. Cast-iron pots hang over the flames: one for soup, one for hot water, another for candle making.

The soup is made with chicken, leeks, potatoes, carrots and dill — all ingredients from the farm. A Dutch oven is covered in embers to make bread. This spring, the farm will grow grain for the flour.

It’s farming without tractors, running water and refrigeration. Yet, there is a cheese press, a spinning wheel, a root cellar and hearth ovens.

“Small farms are diversified and extremely resilient,” Coggeshall's executive director, Cindy Elder, said.

Coggeshall Farm and farmhouse date back to the mid-to-late 1700s. It was preserved for public use in 1921 and established as a nonprofit in 1973. The farm and museum are open to the public throughout the year for tours, events and workshops.

Here’s a brief look at tenant farming in the Federalist Era:

Owning land
Wealthy local families leased the property to tenant farmers, who paid rent with their farm products. Excess food and goods were sold to save money, in hopes of eventually buying land of their own. Land ownership, for men at least, came with certain rights and privileges, such as voting.

Family values
Like any farm, labor was critical and big families were the best source of workers. Generations of a family often lived together and shared the work.

“Families tended to stick together, because you can’t run a farm with three or four people,” said Emily Liss, one of Coggeshall's full-time farmers. “Back then, kids were your money, kids were your labor force.”

Although work was assigned by gender, such as the women doing the cooking and laundry, running a farm typically relied on whomever was healthy and able.

“All is fair in love, war and farming,” said Liss, who has worked on organic farms in Massachusetts and New York. “The tougher things get, the more equal genders are.”

Resilient animals
Farm animals are versatile. Gulf Coast sheep are low-maintenance and ideal to withstand the elements, while providing wool, meat and field-mowing services. The American milking Devon cow, which was a fixture of East Coast farms at the time, were popular for their meat, milk and labor.

Many of these species are now endangered or threatened, including four varieties of chickens common during the era. Coggeshall Farm is part of a nationwide effort to preserve and propagate these breeds.

Era drawbacks
“Not everything from the past should be glorified, but we learned from their lessons,” Elder said.

The colonists drove out Native Americans, the original stewards of southern New England, upset the ecosystem and exploited natural resources.

Trees became scarce thanks to clear-cutting for farmland. So, firewood was one staple typically not from the farm. Most of the firewood and lumber for this area was collected from forested areas several miles away in Fall River, Mass.

Slavery was big business after the Revolutionary War, and Bristol was one of the main ports in trafficking human beings. Although slaves weren’t common to tenant farmers, the slave trade was fundamentally an accepted institution during the mid-to-late 1700s and treatment of black citizens was abhorrent.