Jewish Farmers in Connecticut
From colonial times, agriculture was one of Connecticut’s major industries. However, by the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, that was beginning to change. Newspaper clippings in a “Board of Agriculture Scrapbook” among the Records of the State Department of Agriculture in the State Archives reflect a trend for “yankee” farmers to put their farms up for sale due to lack of help and better paying jobs and a higher standard of living in the cities. The Connecticut State Board of Agriculture even published descriptive catalogs of farms for sale.
Coinciding with this change, a massive emigration of Europeans to America began during this time period. Although most settled in the cities, many new Americans from Italy, Poland, and other Eastern European countries took over the land farmed by generations of “yankee” farmers, leading some to be concerned about the “alien invasion of Connecticut farms.” By 1897, 1.5 million immigrants had entered the U.S. through Ellis Island alone.
Eastern European Jews also immigrated to the United States during this period. Many fled Russia because of the political situation and arrived in America as refugees with little or no money or property. Jewish relief societies were founded in the U.S. to help the immigrants. In 1891, a wealthy Jewish financier, Baron Maurice de Hirsch, set up the Baron de Hirsch Fund. One aspect of the fund was devoted to the establishment of Jewish agricultural communities in the U.S. Items from the State Library's collection, The Agricultural Activities of the Jews in America, and Who is the Jewish Farmer? - A Sociological Study, explore this topic.
Jewish agricultural communities soon took root in towns across Connecticut, in places such as Colchester, Norwich, East Haddam, and Newtown. In a 1928 article in the Hartford Courant, the Jewish Agricultural Society placed the number of Jewish farmers in Connecticut at 1,000 families or about 5,000 individuals.
Life was not easy on the farms. Most farms had no electricity or running water (other than hand pumps), and no telephones. Industrious farmers worked from sunup to sundown to take advantage of daylight, and all members of a family were often called upon to help with the work. In the book Connecticut Speaks for Itself - Firsthand Accounts of Life in the Nutmeg State from Colonial Times to the Present Day, Albert Roth recalled his childhood spent on a small farm at the turn of the twentieth century:
"The day began very early on our thirty-acre farm in rural Harwinton, Connecticut. Everyone in our family helped with feeding the animals and milking cows. After these chores were completed, we would all come in to eat the hearty breakfast which my mother had prepared. After breakfast, it was out to the fields to hoe corn and gather vegetables. Even the small children did their part by picking berries and gathering eggs. How I hated these chores!"
The images in the exhibit represent scenes from rural Connecticut towns during the late 1800s to mid 1900s and help us to understand what life would have been like for farmers in Connecticut during this time period. To find more information about Jewish farmers, consult the materials listed on the Resources page. Additional photographs of old houses are included in the WPA Architectural Survey.
Prepared by the History and Genealogy Unit, August 2008