Monday, February 21, 2011

Scattering Seeds

I visited my father a couple of weekends ago and walked over some of his property. Today, most of it is heavily wooded, but in the early days when my great grandfather and grandfather farmed for a living most of the land was covered in cultivated fields of some sort. My father left the land in the 50s to join the Army and later settled in Atlanta to raise my sister and me. He said he was done with farming, but……..

The land lured him back, and I’ve never known him to not have a tractor of some sort even when we lived in the suburbs. Eventually, he began to return to the farm on the weekends and helped his father with a huge garden. My father is a huge proponent of child labor, so my sister and I were schooled in the ways of plowing a field, scattering seeds, and my favorite farming activity…..picking up rocks. My grandmother and mother taught my sister and me the other side of farming – food preservation. You know…….canning and freezing.

During the work week Daddy would visit the local feed and seed place to gather up supplies for our weekend of farming. During those days since I pretty much took every step that Daddy took, I would go along. The feed and seed store was an interesting place…….hay was scattered about on the floor, there were interesting smells, at Easter there were always colored chicks and bunnies for sale, and there were always those racks of seed packets with the colorful pictures. While Daddy would conduct his business I would stand in front of the seed rack flipping through the packets looking at all of the colorful flowers and various vegetables that could be grown in our area. Occasionally, Daddy would allow me to purchase a packet or two of the precious seed……petunias or zinnias to plant in a bed along the side of our front porch.

So, I’ve been thinking which usually leads me to do a little investigating and I’ve come up with some interesting points that could infuse any course of study regarding the 1800s along the lines of agriculture, inventions, women’s rights and North-South relations during Civil War. The most important thing I discovered is it seems we have the Shakers to thank for those little seed packets.

Yes, that’s right. Those folks that followed the Shaker religion are more formally known as The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. They rejected sex and believed in social equality. In fact, instead of using the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 and the work of Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott as the starting point for women’s rights in the United States it would be more correct to examine Ann Lee who led the Shakers and came to the colonies as early as 1747. She is the prime reason the Shakers practiced equality.

Most people today equate the Shakers with their music and furniture. The furniture was plain and functional, and today it is highly sought by collectors. Their songs and dances were very important to Shaker worship services and are very unique. In fact, their frenzied movements during worship earned the sect the Shaker name.

The Shakers had an excellent work ethic and were fond of saying, “Do your work as though you had a thousand years to live and as if you were to die tomorrow.”

The Shakers invented many items, but are rarely given credit since they did not patent their inventions. The rotary harrow, circular saw, clothes pin, the wheel driven washing machine and flat broom can all be traced back to Shaker communities.

In 1802 Brother Jefferson White founded the seed business at the Enfield Shaker Community.

As early as 1816 they were the first ones to place seeds in packets. Before the seeds were placed in packets they sold them via wooden boxes which can still be found today in antique stores.

They were sold to stores and individual farmers via Shaker Seed Wagons. Most farmers wanted to purchase the seeds because the Shaker Seed Company had a great reputation for great business ethics and quality seeds and herbs. Plus….there was over 100 varieties.

The Hancock Shaker Community had at one time over 10 acres devoted to the cultivation of seeds and herbs. Eventually the business grew and the Shakers had to contract local farmers to grow seeds under the Shaker label.

Another curriculum area where the Shaker Seed Company can be discussed is the Civil War. The company was Northern business concern… that had a large customer base in the South. Once the Civil War began the seed business began to decline since most of the customers were in hostile territory and the product could no longer be delivered to customers. The seed company never could recover from significant southern debts. By the 1870s the Shaker Seed Company had been discontinued.

PBS has an excellent site for Ken Burn's Shaker series here.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Remembering Old Weather

I can remember how the painted wooden planks of our front porch felt on my bare feet during the hot and lazy days of July. I can remember the smell of the dirt in Pa Land’s garden after it had been churned up during a night of pelting rain. I can remember the delight of looking out my bedroom window and discovering a blanket of snow had fallen making even the ugliest parts of my yard beautiful. I can remember heading off to school on cool crisp mornings that gradually morphed into bitterly cold trips as October and November became December and January begging for coats, ear muffs and mittens. I can remember the beginning of Atlanta’s Great Ice Storm of 1973 – the clink, clink, clink of sleet as it began to coat every surface signaling we would be homebound for the next fifteen days or so.
Weather has an important role to play in our historical memory. It changes our picnic plans. Derails a lunch we might have planned with an old friend or hits us in the pocketbook. It does not matter if we are the farmer with a ruined crop or the grocery store customer having to pay a higher price for a scarce item.

Remember the Battle of the Bulge? What about the Challenger Explosion or the Dust Bowl? The outcomes of many important battles have been affected by weather as I recounted here. Hurricanes such as Katrina are remembered for their long-lasting effects on our lives. Television shows such as the Weather Channel’s When Weather Changed History and books like Laura Lee’s Blame It on the Rain (Harper, 2006) help us to see weather and history go hand in hand.

Yes, old weather data provides details to help us figure out why certain decisions were made, helps us to analyze various outcomes, and can help us make predictions regarding the future due to climate cycles.

The folks at are doing what they can to fill in the gaps regarding the Earth’s observational weather record primarily for the years around World War I. The majority of the work is being done strictly by volunteers who are working from their own homes to pour over the scanned log books of over 250 Royal Navy ships. Even YOU can be a volunteer at!

Each volunteer is assigned a ship and records the information from their home. They note the date, location or voyage, and the individual keeper’s weather records – wind direction and strength, cloud cover, and weather conditions. Barometric pressure is noted along with temperature observations, interesting events aboard ship and landmarks.

So why would this weather data be important?

This article from Science News states:

Some of the voyages are interesting to social sciences, too. The logbooks from the H.M.S. Beagle, which carried Charles Darwin around South America between 1831 and 1837, had careful weather observations…..and out of William [Edward] Parry’s three tries to reach the North Pole, he covered the most seas in 1819 – a surprisingly warm year in the Arctic…with very little floating ice.

The aim of the project is to predict how climate affects weather variability. But accumulating a massive bank of data won’t necessarily help weather stations make guesses about the weather more than 10 days in the future.

A person connected to the program is quoted saying, “It’s not possible to predict when it will start raining in Baltimore. But it is possible to predict how the chance of rain in Baltimore changes if there is a massive drought in California or a heat wave in New York City.”

Another long-term goal of the project is to mesh the data together in a user-friendly website where people could enter a date and location and find out what the weather was like for that day….

The blog for provides further implications regarding how the project can impact historical information:

….quite a few people are getting interested in the sickness records in the logs, and their relationship to the well-known ‘spanish flu’ outbreak in 1918. Many of the logs contain a record of the ‘Number on Sick List’; we didn’t ask for this number to be recorded, but some people have decided to record it anyway, and so far the database has accumulated values from almost 10,000 log pages from 126 different ships.

The article goes on to state:

On September 2, 1918 the Spanish flu caught up with HMS Africa, and the cases mounted fast – reaching a peak with 476 people ill on the 9th. The Africa was a big ship, a King Edward VII-class battleship, but even so 476 people is nearly 2/3 of the crew; and it must have been a major challenge to keep her operational.

This project really excites me as a historian, writer, and educator. What a wonderful tool for reference and further analysis, and what a wonderful project a class could undertake! Younger classes could follow the actions of a volunteer as log pages are examined and digitized and make judgements based on the data. Older classes under the direction of their teacher could possibly volunteer and do the work themselves.