Three stages of harvesting tobacco at the turn of the 20th century are shown: The cut tobacco lies in the foreground; the woman standing second from left skewers the stalks onto the laths; and the rest of the crowd loads the wagon. The picture is obviously posed, as harvesting tobacco is not something you do in your best bib and tucker. Used by permission of The New Milford Historical Society.
Family farms have dotted our northwest Connecticut townscape since the early 1700s. Before then, fertile land in New Milford was so plentiful that Native Americans cultivated it for thousands of years before the earliest Colonial settlers arrived. At the height of farming in the 19th century, the town had more than 150 farms.
After 1840, New Milford’s farmers turned to the newly completed Housatonic Railroad to ship milk, cream and butter to expanding urban markets. By 1870, Connecticut’s western counties, including Litchfield–where New Milford lies–produced more than two-thirds of the state’s dairy products.
Around 1850, sun-grown broadleaf tobacco, used for the outer wrapper leaves on cigars, became a seasonal crop. A successful new variety, Havana seed leaf, was introduced in the 1880s and turned New Milford into “Tobacco Town,” the epicenter of a regional industry.
By 1900, a dozen warehouses in and around New Milford employed 10 percent of the town’s workforce, shipping 1 million pounds a year of the highly desired local tobacco leaf–about 8 percent of Connecticut’s total–to New York, Philadelphia, Germany and Holland. A few cigar makers also set up shop in town.
The great American novelist Edna Ferber described the local landscape from this period in her 1931 novel American Beauty as “the rich green valleys of that spectacular part of Connecticut … brilliant emerald in the summer sunshine, the tobacco farms … a rich and heartening sight.”
New Milford’s tobacco industry peaked around World War I and virtually disappeared by the end of World War II, although many of the buildings associated with it survived and today support other uses. The number of dairy farms also declined steadily, and most were sold for residential and commercial development.
In the early 21st century, the locally grown food movement that swept the U.S. helped trigger a new determination on the part of New Milford’s residents–by now almost 30,000–to save the town’s surviving family farms. By 2006, the New Milford Farmland & Forest Preservation Committee had been established and charged with preserving working farms. With funding from the town and the Connecticut Department of Agriculture’s Preservation of Development Rights (PDR) Program, three family farms were saved and a fourth preserved by a private conservation buyer.
The 2,000-acre Nature Conservancy-Sunny Valley Preserve, based in New Milford, hosts five farms in town and in neighboring Bridgewater. The state’s largest land trust, Weantinoge Heritage Land Trust Inc., owns a 220-acre farm in New Milford that hosts an active mixed-livestock operation and offers environmental education programs.
The number of farming operations in New Milford is steadily climbing, and more than 65 varieties of produce, poultry and livestock, Christmas trees and CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) are available. Together with an almost year-round farmers market, these operations demonstrate a vibrant revitalization of farming that New Milford welcomes and supports. After all, it was our town that in 2008 passed a right-to-farming ordinance, the first in our county and the second in Connecticut.
A deluxe horse-drawn tobacco planting machine circa 1900. Used by permission of The New Milford Historical Society.
Picking up dried hay from a field, before the use of a baler, 1930s. Used by permission of The Nature Conservancy-Sunny Valley.
Guernsey cows, milking herd, 1930s. Used by permission of The Nature Conservancy-Sunny Valley.
Fort Hill Farm from the air, 1936. Used by permission of The Nature Conservancy-Sunny Valley.
Sunny Valley Farm, 1950s. The building in the foreground housed a milking herd, and attached to the right side of it was a bottling plant. Used by permission of The Nature Conservancy-Sunny Valley.
Milk delivery truck, mid-1950s. Used by permission of The Nature Conservancy-Sunny Valley.
Text researched and written by William Devlin, Board of Directors, The New Milford Trust for Historic Preservation
Photos 1, 2 and 5 (tobacco harvesting, ox teams, tobacco planting machine) from Howard Peck’s New Milford: Memories of a Connecticut Town, edited by James E. Dibble, published for The New Milford Historical Society by Phoenix Publishing, West Kennebunk, Maine, 1991. Used by permission of The New Milford Historical Society.