Southern Maryland farms mostly grew tobacco. Farmers started growing tobacco in the 1630s, and it remained a staple crop into the 1800s, and lingered as an important cash crop until the state began to pay farmers not to plant it in 2000. Tobacco cultivation has a drawn-out calendar of planting, transplanting, hoeing, grubbing, topping, cutting, curing, and stripping that required constant detail, intuition, and personal experience. Thus, tobacco took a lot of time and energy to grow, and farmers developed keen skills. Once they had invested time, money, and energy into growing tobacco, it was difficult to move away from it, even though the tobacco industry began declining in the 1700s.
Despite the decline in tobacco revenue, poor farmers couldn’t afford to give it up. They began experimenting with new building forms to improve the quality of their crop, decrease labor, and increase profits. Property plans from the nineteenth century show how much tobacco meant to small and large farmers alike: slave quarters, agricultural buildings, and tenant houses were scattered around the owner’s house. The tobacco barns were located in the middle of the patches of tobacco, which were strategically located to take advantage of passing winds.
Slaves were an integral part of farm life (see Table 1). Large farms provided slaves with jobs other than working in the fields. With the introduction of grains, new jobs, such as milling, were established. Some black women acted as cooks and laundresses. White women carefully avoided jobs associated with slave women. Thus, poor white women spun, wove, and sewed to earn money, but they did not hire themselves out as cooks or take in laundry. And despite these alternative occupations, more than three-fourths of slaves in Southern Maryland, on both small and large farms, worked in tobacco fields (see Table 2).
Unlike small farmers, large landowners adopted agricultural reforms to garner as much profit as possible. They gradually shifted from tobacco to cultivating grain, fruits and vegetables, and livestock including cattle and sheep. Agricultural reformers regularly promoted this diversification, as well as field rotation, soil fertilization, and novel inventions such as farm complexes with many buildings used for specific purposes rather than big barns used for multiple purposes.
Many of these reforms were initiated due to the consequences of war: the American Revolution and the War of 1812 heightened farmers’ debts as their crops went unsold and fields were destroyed, intensifying drought and soil exhaustion, as well as disrupting trade via British raids, invasions, and blockades.
John Stuart Skinner, famous for his midnight ride to Washington with news of the approaching British, was also a pioneer of agricultural reform. He invented the American agricultural press by establishing the agricultural journal The American Farmer. The journal had its roots in Maryland agriculture, but it quickly became a national periodical. Skinner became known as the champion of those who nobly toil at the plow, the loom, and the anvil. He once said that, “The attainment and dissemination of practical knowledge is the chief aim and end of an agricultural society.” He was fully devoted to improving Maryland’s economy after his military service in the War of 1812. The economy did not improve drastically, but with the efforts of Skinner and the determination of the farmers, the Southern Maryland economy stabilized enough to maintain a steady population.
|St. Mary’s County Population, 1790-1870|
|St. Mary’s County, 1790-1860|
Adams, Donald R. Jr. “Prices and Wages in Maryland, 1750-1850.” The Journal of Economic History. Vol. 46, No. 3, 625-645. (1986). http://www.jstor.org/stable/2121477.
Marks, Bayly E. “Skilled Blacks in Antebellum St. Mary’s County, Maryland.” The Journal of Southern History. Vol. 53, No. 4, 537-564. (1987). http://www.jstor.org/stable/2208774.
Ranzetta, Kirk E. “The Myth of Agricultural Complacency: Tobacco Barns of St. Mary’s County, Maryland, 1790-1890.” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture. Vol. 10, 81-96. (2005). http://www.jstor.org/stable/3514342.