Friday, September 9, 2016

Annual Fair of the Berkshire Agricultural Society, October 3-5, 1855; Committee Report by Simon Brown

Image Credit: The Old Print Shop
The Middlesex digression in this 1855 report from Simon Brown of Concord is especially intriguing in view of the 1846 Middlesex source for the 1850 report on Berkshire farming that Herman Melville was long thought (by Melville scholars from Jay Leyda on) to have co-written or ghost-written for his cousin Robert Melvill.

Published over the signature of state delegate Simon Brown, this tour de force of descriptive writing appears in the 1856 volume of Annual Reports of the Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Agriculture. Simon Brown, editor of the New England Farmer, was then serving as Lt. Governor of Massachusetts. The same report was also published in the New England Farmer for November 1855 under the heading "BERKSHIRE COUNTY CATTLE SHOW." There Simon Brown and his public remarks after those of headliner Julius Rockwell are referenced as "a brief address, by the Editor of the New England Farmer" instead of "a brief address by your delegate." The 1855 address by Julius Rockwell on "The Farmer" appears in the same volume of Annual Reports of the Secretary of the Board of Agriculture, at pages 391-401. The featured speaker would later recommend Melville for a diplomatic office. On March 25, 1861 Julius Rockwell wrote Charles Sumner from Pittsfield on behalf of "my neighbor & friend Herman Melville, author of Omoo--Typee--and many, many, other things which are 'joys forever.'" (Northwestern-Newberry edition of Melville's Correspondence - 684).

Simon Brown's name also appears below the Committee Report for Hampshire. Brown's Hampshire report is capably written and "literary" as well, but it seems driven by a different, moralizing and reforming agenda. I wonder if Simon Brown collaborated with local ghostwriters.


The forty-fifth anniversary of the Berkshire Agricultural Society took place at Pittsfield, on the 3d, 4th and 5th days of October. All the exhibitions, and all the exercises of the whole three days, including the ball on the evening of the third day, were on the grounds of the society.
The show this year was the first under important changes, and new arrangements of the society. They had purchased and enclosed thirty acres of land, erected yards and stables, laid out and graded a fine trotting course, introduced water in abundance, and constructed a building in the form of a T, each part ninety feet in length, and about fifty feet wide. On the roof is a deck with balustrades, affording space for some ten or fifteen hundred persons, from which position the trotting, the equestrian performances by the ladies, the foot-races, the ploughing, drawing, and all other out-of-door exercises could be seen. So, from this spot, was one of the loveliest panoramas ever presented to the eye. Here the Pontoosuc comes ambling along through the narrow valleys, turning wheels and watering meadows as it flows, and giving examples of animated industry in its babbling course. There flows the Housatonic, enlarged and strengthened by the contributions of the Pontoosuc, and swelling out into the magnitude of a river, gladdening the manufacturer's as well as the farmer's hopes, and fertilizing the waiting intervals, green slopes and shady banks, as it winds along. Yonder are the hills on every side. On the north, old Greylock lifts its hoary head, still venerable and august, but young as when the oldest saw it first, dashing the battling elements from its sides, as the lion shakes the night drops from his impervious mane. There are the hills which circumscribe and mark out the amphitheatre of which these grounds are the centre—their sides covered with the deep forest, or dotted with rock maples, black birch, or groups of hemlock, perhaps the most beautiful evergreen of our climate, as well as among the most symmetrical and elegant of trees. Down the sides of these "crystal hills" pour limpid streams, where sheep and milch cows slake their thirst, and, checked in their course, with gathered strength they turn the wheels that grind the corn, or saw the logs that they have nourished many years. And, autumn frosts having touched with icy fingers the trembling leaves, they gleamed in colors of every hue, golden and scarlet, purple and orange, each vieing in brilliancy with the other, and forming a richness of shade and coloring never imitated by man, and probably unequalled in any other clime. Nearer, shot up the white spires of the village churches, while the rich tones of a bell, or the busy hum of industry, occasionally met the ear. Such is but a feeble portraiture of the spot selected by our Berkshire friends, upon which annually to gather, with their wives and children, and keep The Farmer's Festival. A better selection we have never seen, nor a wiser disposition of all the adjuncts which must surround it.

As will be seen above, this exhibition made the forty-fifth of this time-honored and flourishing society—a society which has been instrumental in continuing and greatly increasing the fertility of the lovely valleys and the noble hills which are so beautifully planted throughout the county. An intelligent and prosperous farmer remarked, that he had taken the first premiums in nearly every class of the exhibitions, and was happy to say, that he owed whatever of success and skill he had acquired to the encouragements and influences of this society. The condition of the farms, and the homes of the farmers, bear evidence of the truthfulness of the remark. But, in point of seniority, the "Old Berkshire" must yield the palm to Middlesex. The "Middlesex Society" was incorporated on the 28th of February, 1803, by the name of the "Western Society of Middlesex Husbandmen." It had existed as an unincorporated association, under the same name, from the year 1794. On the 24th of January, 1820, it was changed by an act of the legislature, to that of the "Society of Middlesex Husbandmen and Manufacturers," and subsequent to that time—as the manufacturers had little to do with it—to "The Middlesex Agricultural Society," which is its present title. It has now two lusty daughters, one on each side of her, which bid fair soon to come up to the full proportions of the mother, and perhaps, look a little more dressy and important than the good old dame herself. But one agricultural society now existing within the Commonwealth takes precedence of the Middlesex by virtue of seniority,—"The Massachusetts Society for Promoting Agriculture,"—which was incorporated in 1792, and whose members were made by the act incorporating the Western Society of Middlesex Husbandmen, honorary members of that corporation, and entitled to be present and vote at its meetings.

Wednesday, the first day of the show, was pleasant; the elements were propitious, the roads were good, and the temperature so genial as to invite even invalids abroad,—and the fair opened with the most flattering prospect. The object of this day was to show all kinds of animals, except horses, that were to be exhibited for premiums, and all manufactured articles, implements and machinery.
The number of neat cattle was not large, or in any way remarkable in appearance, and were all of the common breeds, or with only a slight admixture of foreign blood. Swine were also quite limited in number, and the show of poultry was not large. The horses tried the track, as also did ladies and gentlemen in easy carriages. The arrangement of fruits, vegetables, harnesses, counterpanes, quilts, embroidery, capes, collars and skirts, went on in the great hall; peddlers made good speeches, selling their whips and words at poverty prices, showmen banged the banjo and stirred up their poor animals with sharp sticks; while the restless cattle lowed for their stanchions and their evening feed at home! So the day waned away. The departing rays fell with their soft beams upon the varied foliage on the hills, lighting for a few lingering moments, nature's grand cathedral, the woods, into a gorgeousness of beauty, far more splendid than the genius of man has, or ever can devise. Light faded, men, women and children departed; the fandango ceased to move, gloom rested on the hills, few sounds were heard, but the measured tread of the tired policeman, as he went his weary rounds, and night was supreme over the late animated scene.

In the language of one of the "fast gentlemen with fast nags," Thursday, the second day, was a "stunner!" The wind, surcharged with a cold, sticky vapor, moved lazily along, clinging to man and beast, like the shirt of Nessus; but the pluck of Old Berkshire was up, and, rain or shine, they were determined to have a good time. So the horses were brought out, and encouraged into some pretty lively paces, while the spectators shivered and took the dismal droppings of about a thousand indigo-colored cotton umbrellas. The great halls were crowded with men, women and children, who examined and commented upon each article about six times over, and then counted the number of boards in the roof and braces in the frame-work of the building, and wondered if it never would be done raining. But before noon it became evident that rain and cold and mud would get the mastery, and drive them home. The horses dropped their ears and hung their heads in sleepy listlessness, and indicated the strongest disposition to "turn tail to the wind." Men's hats and coats looked seedy and old; the borrowed feathers in bonnets hung heavy and meagre, while skirts were wofully bedrabbled, and clung too close to ankles unused to touch the soil. It was a failure. The elements won the race and triumphed in it, leaving every nag behind, drenched, dismal, and discouraged. Then the hotels, bright parlors and inviting sitting-rooms, opened their doors and welcomed tired visitors to their warm and hospitable precincts, while fitful gusts strewed the ground with leaves or drove the rain against the glass. A darker night than the first brooded over the earth, and the hills and valleys were alike lost in the impenetrable gloom. So the second day closed upon the forty-fifth anniversary of the Old Berkshire society.

But Friday—who says that Friday is always an unlucky day?—Friday morning, bright and early, the sun came flashing over the eastern hills, and sent his warm and cheering beams into every nook of that rich and lovely valley. Up went the mists from the meadows and hill tops, and once more shone the gorgeous dyes on their sides; the cocks crowed and strutted in their harems, with unbounded gusto, and geese and ducks, and pigs and horses, and oxen and calves and sheep, each lent a note so as to render the harmony complete! Children clapped their little hands in delight in view of the ride, and ginger-bread and buns, and music and races that were before them, and so the mothers were happy and the fathers glad. The whole world of Berkshire turned out, the gates were thrown open, and the success of the forty-fifth fair became a "fixed fact."

The first exercise was that of ploughing. The bills stated that the teams would start at "nine o'clock, A. M.;" but it was nearly eleven before the chains were straightened. Thirteen teams ploughed, on a gravelly loam, and did the work moderately well. The ploughs used were all single, and one of them had a cast-iron beam. There was but one pair of oxen which exhibited any thing but the most common training, and they were also the finest in proportions, being attentive to the driver's language, strong and quick in their motions. A pair of black and a pair of gray horses were also well matched and well trained. The black pair we afterwards saw attached to a carriage, where they did themselves and driver as much credit as they did with the plough. Six inches in depth and twelve in width were required. The ground was unfavorable in two particulars—it was ridgy and full of pebbles, so that it would be difficult to make handsome work, even with skilful teams and men.

Then came the riding on horseback around the course, by ladies, and a very pleasant and attractive feature it was—and then the exercises in the great hall. These consisted of excellent music by the Longmeadow band, and an address by the Hon. Julius Rockwell, president of the society. It is a common law in the society, that the president shall continue to act as such two years, and on the retiring year shall deliver the address, and an excellent law it is. He took for his subject, the thoughts of the young farmer, and showed, first, that the lessons and habits of early life are never forgotten. Then he spoke of his initiatory steps into the art and mystery of farming, such as yoking and breaking the steers, and other incidents illustrative of the whole;—and of his choice of occupation a little later. He said a thorough training on the farm was capital to the young farmer, as education is capital to the doctor, lawyer or clergyman. He spoke of the professions, gave a budget of good reasons for not going West, painted the autumnal scenery of New England in glowing colors, spoke of the resources of the county, recited the bounties of the Commonwealth, then most felicitously married the young farmer to one of the handsome, healthy, well-educated, and intelligent daughters of the New England hills, and closed his address. A brief address by your delegate, and another by Dr. H. D. Childs, formerly Lieutenant-Governor of the Commonwealth, followed, and then the beautiful silver plate, amounting in value to hundreds of dollars, was distributed to the individuals to whom it had been awarded by the various committees. Afterwards there was trotting on the course, and the fair closed by a grand ball, in the evening, in the great hall on the society's grounds.

The exhibition of fruits and vegetables was meagre; that of butter and cheese was large, and of the finest quality; of domestic manufactures there was a considerable display of carpets, rugs, hosiery and embroidered work, such as collars, skirts, &c. A few loaves of bread only were seen, and that of quite an ordinary appearance.
The exhibition, on the whole, was one of great merit and interest, though, in some respects, deficient. There was an evident want of taste and arrangement in the articles shown in the hall, and of punctuality in the time of commencing the several exercises of the day; while the choice of location, the construction and arrangement of buildings, the mode of distributing premiums, and the excellent butter and cheese presented, are all worthy the highest commendation.
The moneys received for admission to the grounds were cheerfully paid, amounting to some thousands of dollars, and the farmers and others of the county were apparently gratified with the new arrangements of the society.

In conclusion, I beg to express my belief in the great utility of these associations,—in them as agencies to promote the pecuniary interests of the farmer, to advance him and his family in social position, to encourage scientific investigation, and make the agricultural population that intelligent, thrifty, permanent class upon which our free institutions must always look for strength and perpetuity.
--Third Annual Report of the Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Agriculture
Sarah Morewood's costume picnic at Melvill Lake took place in September 1855, a month before the 3-day Fair described above. Herman Melville is known to have attended the September "fancy dress" event in company with his wife Elizabeth, who went as "Cypherina Donothing." First installment of Benito Cereno was just out in the October 1855 issue of Putnam's Monthly Magazine. The book version of Israel Potter had been published in March.

On October 11, 1855 the Pittsfield Sun published a detailed report of the Annual Fair, headed "The Farmer's Holiday." The Sun acknowledged the rain, describing the weather over the first two days as "extremely unpleasant." The fortunate change on Friday is described in relatively plain terms:
"The splendid weather on the third day, and the enjoyment of the immense assemblage gathered at that time on the Exhibition Grounds, was some amend for the disappointment on Wednesday and Thursday."
 The Sun article of October 11th also gives names of all prize-winners.

Annual Reports of the Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Agriculture for much of the period that Herman Melville lived and farmed at Arrowhead in Pittsfield are accessible online in Google-digitized volumes from academic and other libraries. A good run of digitized volumes from 1854-1863 and after is available courtesy of the Hathi Trust Digital Library.

Links for further research:
Related posts:
  • Sketches of Middlesex Husbandry--Boston Courier printing of 1846 farm report


  1. They were a literate bunch, those old Yankees.

    1. And funny on the subjects of poultry, cattle and swine in many of those old committee reports.