There are times in life that are most important, periods that must be efficiently managed because your very own survival depends upon it. Such was the case with the settlers living here in Concord well over a century ago. The time that I reference is harvest time, a vital period requiring complete focus by every member of the household.
When British colonists first traveled up the Merrimack River from the Massachusetts Bay Colony with the intention of settling this area then known as Pennycook, they were subjects of the crown and controlled by British rule. They arrived and the process of settling began. The most important elements were needed immediately; shelter, food and warm clothing to sustain the early settlers here in Concord. As the initial crude shelters were constructed, they were surrounded by garrisons. Then, the people set out to establish their primary sources of food.
The Concord area was covered with old-growth forests, plenty of timber for building shelters, firewood for warmth and basic furniture. There was plenty of game to be hunted and a bountiful supply of salmon to be caught in the Merrimack River. With warm shelters, fish and some game the early English settlers in Concord quickly set about planting crops for a variety of vegetables and fruits that could be processed in many different forms.
Upon arriving in Concord, the first impression that greeted the settlers were the fields cleared by the Native Americans along the banks of the Merrimack River. The Penacook Native Americans were related to the Abenaki and were Algonquian-speaking. They lived here in our community for many generations prior to the arrival of the first English settlers. They were skilled at farming. The fields found ready for planting near the Merrimack River by colonists were Native American and used for many years prior.
The early English settlers started farming upon arrival, bringing seeds from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The colonial planting season commenced here in Concord as soon as the threat of frost was over. The crops planted nearby included corn, beans, squash, okra, peas, peppers, tomatoes, peanuts and pumpkins. As settlers continued to arrive some farmers started to add potatoes, wheat and barley.
The Merrimack River intervale was a premium location for the first settlers to grow food to sustain them the first few winters. As farms were further established the need to clear the forest, pull stumps with teams of oxen and remove boulders became the everyday effort of the common farmer in Concord. As the boulders and stones were removed from the fields, they were neatly stacked around the perimeter of the planting field on the property lines. Each year when the frozen fields thawed in spring additional stones would appear in time to be removed and added to the respective stone walls.
The spring planting season was a very busy time for our ancestor farmers, once the crops were securely planted and the heat of summer arrived the farmers maintained their crops in the hope of a bountiful harvest. They weeded, and hoped for rain, with plenty of sunshine. Some farmers attempted early fertilization techniques such as adding manure or remnants of the fish they caught in the Merrimack River. Other farmers evolved and attempted irrigation from the rivers, streams and brooks. As the crop’s flourished plans were made for the most important period of harvest.
Not all crops reach maturity at the same period of time, though there is a period of prime harvest where the colonial farmers were obliged to clear their fruits and vegetables before mother nature took them with a killing frost. Early fruits such as strawberries and blueberries were quickly harvested finding their way into pies and preservatives as jams and jellies. Corn visited in August and was processed efficiently in multiple ways, meals and flours as well as for livestock. Peppers and tomatoes were either consumed directly or preserved in multiple ways. Peanuts, pumpkins, squash, potatoes and okra most certainly found their way to the family root cellar for extended life and consumption as the freezing weather arrived in Concord. The fresh harvest also became part of the local bartering system, if you needed a provision or service that you could not produce yourself you would simply offer some of your crops as payment.
As the harvest continued the apples and peaches would ripen. Most colonial families in Concord had their very own fruit trees, especially apple trees. The apples were perfect for many uses; pies, preserves, cider or eaten off the tree. The processing of cider was a festive event in itself with each family creating a good supply to sustain them, the older cider fermented into hard cider and was very sought after by the farmers and community members. A gentleman called a cider topper traveled the streets of our little town sampling cider and rating the quality from farm to farm.
As the mornings grew cold and the heat of summer dissipated, the feel of harvest was approaching. The first sign being a low fog created by the cool damp evening air meeting the warm planting fields. The schools would close for a week as the students joined their families to begin the harvest. When the days of hard labor concluded the feeling of a bountiful harvest was shared locally. Fresh apple pies with plenty of cinnamon scented our town and the apple cider was flowing. Many of our ancestors retired for the evenings during fall harvest very contently after consuming their very own bounty, as well as a grog of hard cider or two.
With the arrival of winter, they settled in for the coming months of cold weather, content and very pleased with their most important harvest. The harvest celebrations became fond memories for the winter months as the people thought of the distant warm spring. Colonists had gathered their fruits and vegetables while gathering warm memories too. They anxiously waited for spring when they could once again plant their seeds, tend their crops and harvest their bounty and new fond memories.