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The Working Landscape

Argyle Hayfield – Deborah Austin

When traveling over the hills in the Cambridge Valley, Argyle, or Northumberland, one might mistake the landscape for that of Wales or Scotland. Early English, Scottish, Welsh and Dutch settlers remade this new land in the image of one that was more familiar; one that would be worked like the fields of England or northern Europe. Tidy stone walls define fields laid across rolling hills cleared of woods and trees. Old farmsteads are tucked into protected valleys, up along roads, and at the toes of hills, to preserve the fields and hillsides for pasture and crops.

The diversified grain, fiber and produce farms of the eighteenth century gave way to the sheep and apples and potatoes of the nineteenth century. The canal traversed this agricultural landscape, offering farmers an opportunity to market produce far from home. Boatloads of potatoes and apples were sent down river by canal boat, destined for the port at New York.

On his farm in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, canal advocate Elkanah Watson experimented with livestock breeding. Watson introduced new breeds of livestock to North America, including the Merino sheep, an important breed in Washington County’s woolen industries. Watson’s sheep and other introductions were unveiled in 1810 at a “cattle show.” Country agricultural fairs such as the Washington County Fair and the New York State Fair can trace their roots to this event. Watson was also instrumental in the founding and rise of agricultural societies as an American institution of the nineteenth century.

Productive dairies and feed crops now dominate the agricultural landscape. Apple orchards remain a significant part of local agricultural output, and other diversified farms are growing in number, repopulating the hillsides with sheep and goats. The working landscape forms a cultural link to the earliest Dutch and English settlement of the area.