Bovina is a small New York town located in Delaware County in the Northern Catskills. The first European settlers came in the early 1790s and kept coming at a steady pace into the 19th century. By the time the Town of Bovina was created in 1820 from portions of the towns of Delhi, Middletown and Stamford, its population was over 1200 people. After peaking at 1400 in the 1840s, the town’s population steadily dropped. Today, the population is exactly half of what it was in 1820, though it is higher than its all time low in the 1960’s.
Though Bovina seemingly had been named in 1820 because of its dairying, the name may not have been referring to dairying but to a more generic term akin to ‘pastoral.’ General Erastus Root, who came up with the name, noted the area’s fitness for grazing as the reason his suggestion, with no specific reference to dairying. In fact, it is likely that Bovina’s pastures had many more sheep than cows in 1820. Regardless of Root’s intention, Bovina’s very name is related to its farming heritage.
In the 1790s, most of Bovina, as well as a good chunk of Delaware County, was owned by various members of the Livingston family. Farmers were attracted to Bovina in part by the ‘sales pitch’ made by the family’s land agents. Agents for Janet Livingston Montgomery, who owned the Montgomery tract of Great Lot 40 (which included essentially the ‘middle’ part of Bovina), included a number of facts in their pitch to entice settlers. There were nearby towns on the East and West branches of the Delaware River, grist mills were relatively close and there was a good wagon road to Kingston, from which it would be only 100 miles to New York City. They also sang the praises of the area itself. They noted that the “soil is of a redish colour good for grain and excellent for meadow, it exceeds every [other area] of the State for fine pasture.” There was a variety of timber available, including beech, maple, ash, elm, hemlock, wild cherry, birch, pine and walnut. Sources of water were abundant, with many fine streams, many of them good for mills. With streams and rivers, there were a variety of fish, particularly salmon, trout, and shad. And the agents noted that game was plentiful, especially deer, elk, raccoon and foxes.
Many of Bovina’s farmers were tenants, not owners. They held long-term leases from the Livingston’s or other landed gentry. The terms of these leases seem draconian in today’s light. Many of them had terms of ‘forever.’ Each year, the farmers would have to pay rent, usually in the form of produce of some sort. In 1832, Thomas Miller took a lease on 102 acres in lot 39 in Great Lot 40. His rent was twenty bushels of wheat, two fowls, and one days riding. Sometimes the rent was in cash. In Great Lot 41, the rent on Peter Osborne’s 152 ½ acre farm in lot 83 was 7 pounds, 12 shillings and 6 pence. Occupants also paid the property taxes on land that they technically did not own.
The Early Days
Farming in Bovina in the early 19th century was basically for subsistence purposes, though they likely were selling some products, including grain, wool and probably butter, something for which Bovina would later become famous. Reverend John Graham, when he first came to Bovina in 1831, noted that “wherever I went I saw evidences of thrift and hard labour, in their log-houses, in their cleared fields, and in their stone and log fences; and heard the bleating of sheep, the lowing of oxen, and the cackling of geese and chickens.” He noted that “the wheel and the reel, the loom, the churn, the cradle, and the axe, were all kept in constant motion; and with the wholesome and nourishing oatmeal porridge and milk, and oat-meal cakes fired on the hearth, together with well-baked rye-loaves, beef, mutton, beans and barley for the broth pot, along with lumps of yellow butter, and cheese of the best quality, they made out to live very comfortably and independently.”
Creating those cleared fields mentioned by Graham took time. When Bovina was founded in 1820, its improved acreage was about 4800 (out of a total acreage in the town of 27,000). Fifty years later, the number of improved acres had grown four times, nearing 20,000.
Farming was a challenge in Bovina’s early years. Janet Montgomery noted in 1820 that her tenants in Bovina and the surrounding area were not regularly paying their rents because of a plague of grasshoppers. “[Their] cattle died by hundreds and they were reduced to take the thatching from their barn to feed them, notwithstanding one of my tenants lost twenty-six head.” The terrain in Bovina and its infamous soil – ‘two rocks for dirt’ – was a challenge for early settlers trying to grow grain and other such crops.
Though known as a dairying community, Bovina’s first farmers also had to produce enough grain, such as wheat and rye, so they could pay their rents. It turned out that Bovina was not
well suited to grain, but farmers continued to grow it for some time. Over the years, as well as wheat and rye, Bovina farmers grew barley, oats, and buckwheat. The production of rye and wheat dropped considerably in the mid-19th century. Rye dropped from over 5000 bushes in 1845 to 355 in 1875. Wheat also dropped rapidly. Over 2000 bushels were grown in 1845, but ten years later, it had dropped to around 50 bushels.
One reason the amount of grain produced dropped is because of the Anti-Rent War of the 1840s, when farmers in a number of New York counties started to balk at paying rents on land they had cleared and farmed, sometimes for two or three generations. With the success of their efforts, farmers were given the opportunity to purchase their lands from the Livingstons. With the end of the leases came the end of rent payments in wheat and rye.
Nineteenth century Bovina farmers produced more than just grain and butter. In 1845, farmers produced 44,540 bushels of potatoes. By 1875, that was down to 15,282. Maple sugar production was at 23,301 pounds in 1840 and after a drop in the 1850s, was at 43,708 by 1875. In 1855, 4,500 pounds of beeswax and honey were produced. This was down to 1,315 by 1875. Bovina farms also produced some cider, with 25 gallons in 1855, 170 gallons in 1865 and 63 gallons in 1875.
Sheep and Wool
The Scottish heritage of many early Bovina settlers may have led to pastures in the town’s early days being populated with more sheep than cows – or people. In 1821, Bovina had 2,299 sheep. Bovina’s sheep population reached a peak of 6,700 in 1845 and then it steadily dropped so that by 1875, there was only a tenth of what there had been in 1845. The drop in the sheep population was due, in part, to a decline in the price of wool in the 1840s. Many farmers in New York switched to dairying until times could be better for sheep. In Bovina, that time never came. Bovina proved to be well suited for dairying.
But Bovina farmers still had sheep into the 1870s and were getting more wool per animal. In 1845, each Bovina sheep produced about two pounds of wool. By 1875, that amount had almost doubled. Johnson’s Woolen Mill, located near the Butt End in Bovina, was in operation into the late 19th century.
When Butter Was King
In 1845, the NY census reported about 2000 cows in Bovina (though Bovina had cows in its earliest days, as noted by Janet Montgomery’s comment about the plague of grasshoppers and the lack of grain for cattle, no numbers were recorded in the census until 1845). The number of cows stayed relatively steady, with about the same number reported in the 1870 census. That census year, herd sizes ranged from John Bramley’s 33 cows to four farmers who had just one cow each. The average size of a herd was 13 cows.
In the 1860s, Bovina dairy farming started to boom. The town became a model dairying community, cited in a number of references for the quality of its product. It was not liquid milk; in 1875, only 120 gallons of milk were sold. Before the days of refrigeration and easy access to the railroads, most of the milk had to be converted to butter or cheese in order to not lose the product of the dairies. Bovina favored the production of butter.
Butter production in general was very much women’s work. John Burroughs noted that “Every housewife [in Delaware County] is, or wants to be, a famous butter-maker.” The women skimmed the cream from the milk and churned it, working it into butter. They packed the butter into barrels or firkins.
Bovina butter became particularly noteworthy in the latter half of the 19th century, partly due to the introduction of the Jersey cow. John Hastings and Andrew Archibald introduced the first Jersey stock into Bovina in 1863. Other farmers were skeptical at first, but the Jersey proved to be superior for the production of butter. This is shown by the increase in butter production, from 223,000 pounds in 1845 to 380,000 pounds in 1875, though the number of cows actually stayed about the same. James Hastings not only was successful in butter product, but did well selling stock to farmers as far away as Iowa and Wisconsin. About 1870 William L. Rutherford, whose farm was up Crescent Valley where the Weber farm is located, purchased a herd of twenty head from a Connecticut stock dealer and had success similar to James Hastings.
The heyday of Bovina butter came in the 1890s. Though the amount was down substantially, to 66 thousand pounds in 1891, the quality was first rate. Bovina was selected for a special “cow census” in 1891 because of the “quantity and quality of its dairy products, and because its inhabitants are more uniformly engaged in butter making than any other town in the State.” At the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893, Bovina dairy farmers and Bovina butter in particular hit another milestone. At the New York pavilion at the fair, twenty four percent of all New York farmers exhibiting butter came from Bovina. The town had around 120 dairy farms at this point.
From Butter to Milk
Early in the twentieth century, Bovina farmers’ major cash product had gone from butter to liquid milk because there were more options for getting milk to the consumer. The production of Bovina dairies was considered substantial enough to try and bring in the railroad in 1898. A three mile spur off the main line that would have run from Andes to Delhi was planned for Bovina. Such a spur usually is considered to be too short, but the case was successfully made by the backers of the Delaware Railroad Company. When it was commented that Bovina’s population was smaller than it was in 1835, David Murray, representing the company, noted that while there was a smaller human population there were more cows and that the object of the railroad was “to let New York [City] get plenty of good pure milk.” Though construction did start in the fall of 1898, within a few weeks the work stopped when the workers were not paid and the money seemed to dry up. Construction never resumed, but by 1901, Bovina had a creamery for processing milk.
The Bovina Center Co-op Dairy became the prime conduit through which Bovina farmers got their milk and milk products processed and to market. The Co-op was created by a group of 48 farmers to make and market butter. Located in the Bovina Center hamlet, the plant produced only butter until 1906, when a milk sugar-making process was installed. Shortly after that, it became one of the earliest producers in the country of powdered milk. During World War II, the creamery made dried eggs to fulfill a government contract. The creamery operated by steam until 1924, when it was converted to electricity. Originally a wooden building, a new one of brick and concrete was built in 1942. The creamery at various times produced cheese, butter, powdered milk and dried eggs, as well as pasteurized milk.
Though Bovina was noted primarily as a dairy community in the first half of the 20th century, it also became know for another product – cauliflower. Bovina and several neighboring towns started growing cauliflower for market in the 1920s. The Bovina Cauliflower Growers Cooperative, Inc. was the first association of its type to be organized in Delaware County. Created in October 1926, its purpose was to make savings for their members in the marketing of their crop. It allowed them to pool their resources in shipping their product. The cooperative was not limited to just Bovina, but included farmers from neighboring farms, and there were other cooperatives formed in Delaware County.
Cauliflower continued to be a big crop from Bovina for some time. A 1949 newspaper report about an attack of pink eye in Bovina schools referred to the town as ‘cauliflower land.’ The July 29, 1954 Kingston Daily Freemen reported that “the cauliflower crop has begun moving down the trail from the big growing center up around Bovina, Delaware County.” Cauliflower farming in Delaware County faded out in the 60s and 70s. [For more information, read Diane Galusha’s book When Cauliflower was King, published by Purple Mountain Press.]
The Closing of the Bovina Creamery
By the 1960s, competition from larger dairy farms in the mid-west made dairying in Bovina more and more challenging. The number of dairy farms was slowly dropping. Local creameries started to close in the 60s and early 70s, sending farmers from outside of Bovina to its creamery to get their milk processed. In 1973, the 43 farmers still served by the creamery voted to close and dissolve the co-op. On March 31, 1973, the Bovina Center Co-op Dairy saw its last can of milk delivered. The only options left to Bovina farmers were to haul their milk to the Dellwood plant in Fraser, adapt to bulk operations, or close. The Walton Reporter noted that “All parties concerned are still wondering what can be done about saving the small farmer, who once was the backbone of the country, but is now being pushed out of existence by financial and other woes. It is another American tragedy.”
The closing of the creamery led to a rapid drop in the number of dairy farms in Bovina so that by the end of the twentieth century, there were only about half a dozen dairy farms in Bovina. The reduction of dairy farms in Bovina also changed the town’s landscape, as pastures and fields that had been cleared by early settlers reverted back to brush and eventually forest.
The Twenty-First Century
Bovina farmers today have diversified and are exploring new options. In this, they are doing what farmers in Bovina did in the past. Just as they went from sheep to cows in response to a decline in the wool market or switched from butter to milk as transport options expanded, today’s Bovina farmers are adapting to the new market place realities.
As Bovina enters the second decade of the 21st century, it has actually seen a slight uptick in the number of dairy farms. A number of farmers are producing beef, pork, chicken and eggs, as well as dairy products from goats. Some farmers are providing honey, maple syrup, Christmas trees, and organic vegetables, while others are looking at various aspects of agri-tourism, including horseback riding.
The creation of Farming Bovina in 2011 is another major milestone in the history of Bovina as it works to save Bovina’s over 200 year old agricultural heritage for future generations to enjoy.
Text by Town Historian Ray LaFever