Life in Pleasant Valley - During the Month of July 1890-1901
Throughout the period 1890-1910 the first full month of summer in Pleasant Valley was a time of harvest, hard work, receiving visitors, and dealing with inconsistent weather. The main activity in July was harvesting hay, grain, potatoes, and fruit and these important farming jobs were very dependent on good weather. In 1892 the first two weeks in July brought excellent weather for harvesting grain and hay and the harvest was completed by about July 20, except for oats. However, a period of dry weather before the harvest resulted in a light hay crop and oats and corn were expected to be light also. In nearby Mount Rose, a team of itinerant thresher men with their steam engine began their work and reported the yield of grain was light, although the straw of the wheat, rye, and oats was heavy. In 1893, by July 6, Harry A. Phillips was noted as the first to finish his haying and Charles L. Hunt the first to begin his wheat harvest in Pleasant Valley. But again that year the weather had been hot and dry producing a light hay crop but somewhat better grain harvest.
In 1895 early July weather brought on a much better harvest. But, a note about farm prices commented, “We hope that the day will soon come when dollars will not be pinched so tightly as to cause the eagles on them to scream…” In 1897 the weather problem was two weeks of heavy rains that greatly damaged the grain crop. Spring weather had come late that year so the harvest had to be earlier than usual and most farmers could not get their grain in before the rains came. In 1899 haying and grain harvesting were about done by July 19 but the crops were again very light and unfortunately therefore, “not a very big job to gather.”
1900 saw another drought that ruined the expectations for a good harvest in July. In 1901, though, the opposite problem happened and the grain harvest was delayed until the second half of the month due to “a severe struggle with the rainy weather.” 1902 was another year with more than enough rain. Beginning in late June there was a lot of rain and the temperatures were cold for that time of year. The grain was ripening, but the rains delayed the harvest. The hay crop was expected to be even larger than predicted due to good dry weather in May and early June. The paper reported, “Timothy and other grasses have thickened up and grown wonderfully since the rains.” Getting it harvested in dry weather was the problem. That same July farmers were also warned in the paper that they were “required by law to cut Canada Thistles on their lands before they go to seed; they are finable for the neglect, and the complainant is entitled to a part of the fine.” 1904 again saw the grain harvest and haying delayed by rain but, potatoes were expected to be a record breaking crop. In 1907 the hay crop was heavier than had been expected and was gathered in early July.
Each July, Josephine Heath and her family from Lambertville came to Pleasant Valley for a week or so to gather fruit and visit her mother, Rachel Williamson. In 1893 Rachel noted in the local column she wrote for the Hopewell Herald that the Heaths spent “July 1st to the 10th on their annual fruit gathering expedition, but small fruits are not as plentiful this season as some years, owing to the dry weather.” Blackberries were also noted as being especially good in July. July was also the month when early varieties of peaches were ripening in the Valley. Some years there were fears that due to earlier bad weather the peach crop would not be good. In 1903 the paper noted that “notwithstanding the published statements that the frosts had ruined the peach crop, it may be said that present prospects indicate an average yield.” There was actually a benefit from frosts killing many buds because the fruit that did develop would be better than usual “because the trees will not suffer from overloading.”
Cherries were another fruit that was harvested in July in Pleasant Valley. In 1902 the harvest was smaller than usual, but this also had a benefit. The paper noted there were fewer accidents involving cherry trees “due, no doubt, to the scarcity of the fruit.” In 1904, though, the cherry crop was plentiful and the cherries delicious. Rachel Williamson noted on July 20 that the cherry harvest was over and John Parkhill had packed 53 crates of Early Richmond cherries from his orchard.
Another crop ripening in the summer that was important in the 1890s was tomatoes. In the 1890s Pleasant Valley farmers were able to sell tomatoes grown on their farms to the canning factory in Titusville. Each year between 1890 and 1903 the canning company would contract with area farmers for their crop. July was often noted as a time when the tomato plants were growing finely and the canning company was preparing for the approaching canning season. In July 1893 the company improved its facility by putting in a capping machine and a steam powered filling machine. Empty cans by the thousands were delivered to the canning factory by train each July.
In July 1892 the paper noted the problem of finding good labor willing to work for the relatively low wages farmers could offer due to the low prices they received for their crops. The comment was made, though, that when both farmer and laborer “learn that they are dependent upon each other there is seldom any trouble over the question of wages.” The issue of farm labor was not just low prices for produce but also the growing use of machinery that reduced the need for labor. A note from Skillman in 1893 stated that a local farmer was “busy hauling in the cash with his new binder.” The short statement also noted that this was reducing the need for labor and that many a farm laborer was reduced to sitting at home “with tears in his eyes as he thinks of the good old times when a fifty dollar bill used to grace his pocket at the close of the harvesting season.” Ten years later, in July 1903 Howard Van Artsdalen of Titusville was selling McCormick reaper-binders to area farmers that must have looked like the reaper binder used for Howell Farm’s wheat harvest each July.
Although the need for help was declining, hired help was still needed and finding good help could be a problem. In July 1902 Hopewell township farmers were warned that a seemingly “good thrifty farm hand”, well dressed, had been appearing at local farms seeking work. After making an agreement to work and having supper with the farmer and sleeping over on the farm, the “next morning, after breakfast, he states that he will go back to his last place for his things and that is the last seen of the fellow.”
The harvesting season in July was also a time for farming related accidents, as was noted with cherry picking above. In 1892, Stephen Cannon, an African American farmer in Pleasant Valley who may have been working on a neighbor’s farm, was badly bruised when he was thrown from a load of hay. In 1893, Gershom Stout, was thrown from the mower he was operating on the farm of Harry A. Phillips and was “quite badly brained and lamed.” On July 24, 1907 Rachel Williamson reported that Elisha Hunt sustained a badly sprained knee when kicked by one of his horses.
The animals that farmers depended on also had health and accident problems. In 1896 John Parkhill had to kill a colt that broke its leg and Harry A. Phillips lost a young cow that he simply found dead in the barn one Sunday morning in July. In 1907 a July thunderstorm lightening strike killed a cow owned by Hart Smith while it was standing under a tree in its pasture.
July was a bad month for the John Parkhill family several times in the period 1890-1910. Not only did he lose his colt in 1896 but in 1905, towards the end of July, John lost his 48 year old wife, Martha, to illness. Her funeral was held in the Parkhill home and the train brought friends from Trenton to Moore’s station where carriages met them and took them to the house. Just four years later, in July 1909, John Parkhill’s 21 year old son Samuel, died after a two-year bout with consumption and another funeral was held at the Parkhill home.
The month of July in 1901 was a difficult one for the Miller family who owned what is now Howell Living History Farm. Charles and Mary Miller had died in the late 1890s and their son Benjamin was now responsible for the farm. In the tough financial times of the 1890s his parents had had some problems with the farm mortgage. Now, to add to the problems Benjamin got into some legal problems involving forgeries and was sentenced to Mercer County Prison. In July 1901 he was put on probation as the judge felt “the forgeries were not of the worst kind” and, in addition, “Miller also appears to be weak-minded and is to be taken care of by a neighbor.” The judge warned him though that if he did not live up to the probation laws he would be sent to the State Prison. The neighbor who was to take care of Benjamin was none other than Pleasant Valley correspondent, Rachel Williamson, and her husband Amos. Rachel noted in her July 31, 1901 column in the Herald that, “Well, we find ourselves moved from our cozy home [on Pleasant Valley Road] where we have lived for 19 years last January, to Willow Grove farm, or what is better known as the Charlie Miller farm. We are here as care-takers of the house and buildings on said farm. We have the house cleaned and in order, and will be pleased to see our friends at any time, on short notice.”
While July could be a month of difficulties, as it was for the Millers in 1901 and the Parkhills in several years, it was generally a time of hard work combined with social activities taking advantage of the warm weather. Work on the farms was only one type of work done in July. Taking care of the dirt roads was an ongoing process and summer time was no exception. Pleasant Valley resident Andrew B. Hart was responsible for the roads in the Valley and on several occasions he worked on them in July. In 1897 Mr. Hart with the aid of some helpers put up guard rails along Pleasant Valley Road where it ran close beside Moore’s Creek. There were apparently several places that were quite dangerous before he did this work. In 1901 he did some painting of the bridges in Pleasant Valley and improved their appearance. This probably included the twelve year old iron bridge over Moore’s Creek on Hunter Road built in 1889.
In addition to being a time of work, July was also the time of an important annual celebration. July 4th was not mentioned very often in the papers and it seems that picnicking was the primary way to celebrate. For example, on July 4, 1907 a party of 21 people come down from Lambertville to Moore’s Station and held a picnic on the Phillips farm. Ice cream was a big part of this picnic and the group treated Rachel and Amos Williamson, now back in their Pleasant Valley Road home, with some ice cream, “very thankfully received as it was a warm day.” Church services in Titusville close to July 4th always had a patriotic flavor and presumably the service held at the Pleasant Valley Schoolhouse on the Sunday afternoon nearest July 4th also had a patriotic focus.
School was not held in July but the schoolhouse was still a focus of community activities. Throughout the 1890s and early 1900s church services were held there on Sunday afternoons at 4:00pm in July and the schoolhouse also served as the location for Sunday school. The church services were alternately led by the Presbyterian and Methodist preachers from Titusville, while occasionally a guest preacher from Lambertville or another area close by led the service. A Titusville minister could use his trips to the Valley to visit with sick parishioners, as in July 1895 when Rev. Milliken of the Titusville Presbyterian Church visited after his Sunday service with the Charles T. Hunt family on Valley Road. Due to their “afflictions”, Mrs. Hunt and John B. Hunt, had not been able to get out to church in many months. The Union Sunday School, combining the Presbyterian and Methodist congregations, began in the spring and continued through July and into the fall. In 1892 the annual Sunday school picnic was held in a woodlot on the farm of Gershom L. Ege, where those attending would be more comfortable than in an open field.
In spite of all the work required in July, it was a big month for entertaining visitors coming from outside of the Valley. Visits by Valley people to places outside the Valley were rare, though, due to the month being a major harvest time. Sometimes former residents of the Valley came back for extended visits. In 1892 one couple returned from South Dakota after an absence of ten years. The John Parkhill and Charles T. Hunt families routinely put up boarders from Philadelphia spending their summer vacations in the Valley. It was not uncommon for relatives and friends from Trenton to come out to the Valley for a couple of weeks in July. A more unusual July visit involved a Mrs. Dumont from Boston who vacationed at Harry A. Phillips’ farm one July in order to be near her husband who was the butcher at the nearby county farm. Rachel and Amos Williamson were visited often by their daughter, Josephine, and son-in-law from Lambertville or by one of their granddaughters. Pleasant Valley seems to have lived up to its name and was a good place to visit.
Combining the harvest with social events in late June and early July resulted in annual strawberry and ice cream festivals held at the Pleasant Valley Schoolhouse. In 1905 the event raised $59 for the Sunday school even though the festival had to be delayed a day due to storms. In 1907 the weather was cool, but there was still a nice turnout even though again the festival had to be delayed a day due to rain. In 1909, though, interest doesn’t seem to have been as strong and the event raised only $16.29.
This look back at the events in Pleasant Valley in the month of July during the years 1890-1910 reveals the uncertainty of life the people dealt with every day. The weather could make or break a successful year for a number of crops. Some families experienced tragedy while others carried on the normal routines of life and shared social experiences with visitors and with other members of the Valley community. The school house was often the focal point for these community activities even though the school was closed for the summer. Children old enough for school, though, may have wished for school to begin to relieve them of the hard work they most likely had to help with during the July harvests.