Massachusetts Agricultural Experiment Station.

Bulletin - Massachusetts Agricultural Experiment Station (Volume no.379-398) online

. (page 4 of 77)
Online LibraryMassachusetts Agricultural Experiment StationBulletin - Massachusetts Agricultural Experiment Station (Volume no.379-398) → online text (page 4 of 77)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

variations are due primarily to the diversity of the parent soil material and to
differences in the extent to which the process of podzolization has taken place.

Brown Podzolic Soils

A majority of the soil types belong to a subgroup known as "brown podzolic
soils" or "brown forest soils." They have been characterized as imperfectly
developed podzols "having, in timbered areas, an organic mat on the surface and
a very thin gray leached [or bleached] horizon just below it — usually less than
an inch thick. The B-horizon is largely yellowish brown in color and has only
the beginnings of a dark-brown orterde just below the gray A-horizon. "* Some
of the agriculturally important soil series belonging to this group are the Glouces-
ter, Plymouth, Charlton, Paxton, Wethersfield, and Cheshire series.


In the eastern part of the State where the parent materials contain a high
proportion of quartz sand and where the vegetation was largely coniferous, and
also in the western highlands where the climate is cooler, groups of soils are found
which are more completely podzolized and are classified as true podzols. The
A-horizon is more intensely leached, the bleached layer thicker and more clearly
defined, and the pan formation or orterde more fully developed. The less agri-
culturally important soils of the Berkshire, Worthington, Becket, Hermon,
Hinckley, and Duke series are all included in this group.

■'Mother Earth, p. 66.

^Soils and Men, U. S. Dept. Agric. Yearbook (1938), p. 1029.


Ground-Water Podzols

In poorly drained areas where the water table is close to the surface, a modified
type of podzolization occurs. Fluctuations in the ground-water level produce
a zone where alternate conditions of oxidation and reduction occur. A characteris-
tic mottling and staining, resulting from the precipitation of iron oxides, is found
in this zone, and the permanently saturated zone below has a typical gray or
bluish-gray color. Soils of the Whitman, Peru, and Sudbury series are all ex-
amples of ground-water podzols.

Influence of Cultivation

Before the advent of any human civilization in this region, the natural forest
cover served to a considerable extent to counteract the serious effects of leaching.
This was particularly true for thei various plant food elements in the soil. Before
these could be washed out of the profile and lost in the drainage, they were re-
moved by plant roots and utilized for carrying on growth and other normal life
processes. After being taken up from the soil in this manner, these elements were
returned to the soil surface as dead plant remains, to add to and become a part of
that gradualh- increasing layer of organic matter or humus. Then, when en-
vironmental conditions were such as to accelerate the complete decomposition
of these plant remains or soil humus, simple plant food elements were again
released in the soil and were again taken up by living plants to produce new plant
growth. Thus a cycle was established eons ago. Changing little in nature, an
ever thicker layer of humus was built up which endured until the coming of

It is particularly important at this time to point out that, because of the
strongly leached character of the mineral fraction of the soil, the non-mineral
fraction or soil humus represented the only real reserve or accumulation of soil
fertility. As the surface layer of organic matter or "vegetable mould" increased
in thickness, just so much did the reserve supply of soil fertility increase. This
important relationship was recognized by Henry Colman, when in 1841 he wrote:

In a forest, the soil is not injured by the Growth of the wood but rather
is enriched . . . because the annual decaying matter from these trees,
these leaves, and rotten limbs is continually accumulating on the Ground,
passing into a state of decomposition and increasing the vegetable mould.*

Nature's scheme of fertility conservation proceeded, with constructive forces
slightly outweighing destructive forces, until the coming of human civilization,
at which time this natural balance was thrown in the other direction. It began
in a limited way with the Indians, who, according to an early writer, "at the
Spring and the fall of the leafe" were accustomed to "fire the country," burning
the underbrush and the younger trees, so that the woods were "thin of Timber
in many places, like our Parkes in England."'** In addition to restricting the
growth of shrubs and young trees, the firing of the woods also destroyed large
quantities of dry organic material, since, according to another writer in 1632,
"it consumes all the underwood and rubbish. ^ According to Dwight, "The
grounds, which were covered with Oak, Chestnut, etc. or with Pitch Pine, were
selected, for this purpose, because they alone were, in ordinary years, sufficiently

Destructive practices initiated by the Indians were not only continued but
greatly extended by the white settlers. They continued for a time the bad prac-

^Agriculture of Massachusetts, 4th Report (1841), p. 239.
'"New England Quarterly. IX, 220.

'HVilliam Wood, New England's Prospect [1634] (Prince Society ed., Boston, 1865), p. 17.
'^Timothy Dwight, Travels in New England and New York (New Haven. 1821 ed.), I, 103.


tice of annually burning over their woodlands, but the serious effects of this
operation were quickly evident. According to Judd, "a law of "Massachusetts
in 1743, made to restrain such fires, says the burning of the woods greatly im-
poverishes the soil, prevents the growth of the wood and destroys much fence. "^^
But in order to clear land for their tilled crops, the early colonists cut down and
frequently burned over large areas of the natural forest. Although the first
colonists apparently felt some restraint in the reckless destruction of their forests,
those that came after them did not. Jared Eliot, writing in 1747, related, "They
tho't themselves obliged to stubb all Staddle [grub out all small trees], and cut
down or lop all great Trees; in which they expended much Cost and Time, to
the prejudice of the Crop and impoverishing the Land."!* An anonymous writer
in 1775 wrote: "They not only cut down timber to raise their buildings and fences,
but in clearing the grounds for cultivation they destroy all that comes in their
way, as if they had nothing to do but to get rid of it at all events as fast as pos-

The most serious consequence of the removal of all tree growth was not so
much the loss of a considerable quantity of vegetative material itself as the
destruction of the principal source of supply for the surface-accumulating layer
of "vegetable mould" or organic matter, the only important reserve of soil fertility.
The shallow- rooted, short-lived, rapid-growing farm crops were a poor substitute
in this respect for the deep-rooted, long-lived, slow-growing forest trees.

For a time, newly cleared lands with their rich accumulation of humus were
very productive. Referring to the newer settlements, the author of American
Husbandry wrote in 1775: "Worse ploughing is nowhere to be seen, yet the
farmers get tolerable crops; this is owing, particularly in the new settlements,
to the looseness and fertility of old woodlands, which with very bad tillage, will
yield excellent crops."i6 A few years later, in 1800, Timothy Dwight observed,
"It is the universal tendency of the mould to produce great crops''^'^; and in
another instance, "This mould is the manure, and ultimately the soil, of grounds
long forested; and always yielding rich crops with very slovenly cultivation."!*
As long as the supply of soil organic matter lasted, good crops were grown, but
when the store was exhausted, yields fell off badly. The burning over of timber
lands, the continued removal of fertility through harvested crops, and the in-
jurious effects of tillage, including the acceleration of the rate of decomposition
of organic matter and greatly increased losses from leaching and surface erosion,
were all important factors contributing to a rapid depletion of the soil's native

As early as 1637 one writer, speaking of the light sandy soils first cultivated
in the vicinity of Cape Cod, wrote, "This soil is like your woodland in England,
best at first, yet afterward grows more barren. "^^ As indicated by Jared Eliot
in 1747, very little effort was made to return to the land even part of the fertility
which was removed or destroyed. "... the Land being new they depended
upon the natural Fertility of the Ground, which served their purpose very well,
and when they had worn out one piece they cleared another, without any con-
cern to amend their land, except a little helped by the Fold and Cart-dung. . . .
Our poor Land is so poor that it will not bear Turnips bigger than Buttons. "^o

l^History of Hadley [Mass.] (New ed., Springfield. Mass.. 1905). p. 98.

^''Essays on Field Husbandry in New England [Boston, 1760] (1934 ed.), p. 1.

^^American Husbandry, p. 61.

l^Ibid., p. 60.

"Travels. II, 343.

l^Ibid., I, 103.

l^New England Quarterly, IX, 219.

^Opield Husbandry, p. 29.


In 1853 C. L. Flint wrote that, "He [the early farmer] raised wheat until the
land became too poor, and then he raised corn, and when it would no longer
produce corn, he sowed barley or rye, and so on to beans."2i

The same general pattern of exploiting the native soil fertility was followed in
practically all areas of Massachusetts which were brought under cultivation,
although, of course, it was not followed in all areas at the same time. A con-
siderable period of time elapsed between the settling of Plymouth in 1620 and
the founding of some of the hill towns in western Massachusetts during the
latter part of the eighteenth century. The rapid destruction of humus did not
worry the "exploiting" pioneer because he had no intention of settling permanently
and cultivating the land. That the farmers who succeeded the pioneers were
more careful and diligent in their farming operations is shown in a statement made
by Timothy Dwight; "That which may be called the second set of planters may be
considered as regularly superior to the first and the third, when there is a third,
as regularly superior to the second. "22 Before better systems of farming were
instituted, however, early cultural practices had destroyed most of the original
store of soil humus and with it most of the soil's native productive capacity.

Besides severely impairing productive capacity, this destruction of humus
had a pronounced deleterious effect on the soil's physical condition. Instead of the
topsoil's being loose and friable and capable of growing good crops without much
tillage, as many references indicate, more thorough tillage practices soon became
necessary and grew increasingly difficult. The author of American Husbandry,
in commenting on the "excellent crops" from "very bad tillage" on newly cleared
land, says, "they are apt to suppose the same treatment will do on land long since
broken up which is far from being the case."23 The difficulties experienced in
plowing where the mould layer was absent (possibly because of being burned over
annually) were described bj' William Wood in 1634, when he wrote, "This ground
is in some places of a soft mould and easie to plow ... in other places so tough
and hard, that I have seene ten Oxen toyled, their Iron chaines broken, and their
Shares and Coulters much strained. "^^

(The effects of cultural practices and the importance of soil humus and their
relationships to the physical condition of Massachusetts soils are points which
will be further expanded in discussing the improvement of permanent and semi-
permanent pastures.)

By no means all of the land which was exhausted was kept under cultivation;
some was relegated to hay-land and pasture and much more was abandoned and
allowed to revert to timber. In 1800 Timothy Dwight observed that "several
specimens of an entire change in the forest vegetation are common in many,
perhaps in all, parts of New England where the land has been cultivated, and
again covered with wood."^^ This land abandonment probably began and
progressed most rapidly on areas where physical handicaps were greatest. The
presence of many rocks or conditions leading to poor drainage are physical handi-
caps which make cultivation a difficult, laborious procedure. When native fertility
was depleted and the use of fertility supplements became obligatory, farmers
naturally chose land which could be easily tilled. The introduction and increased
use of machinery has also been a factor in the abandonment of steep and rocky
land. The soils which are now being cultivated, therefore, are not necessarily
inherently more fertile than many which have been abandoned, but many of the
physical obstacles to cultivation are either absent or not objectionable. Some

2lMass. Sute Bd. Agric. 1st Annual Report (1853), Pt. I. p. 2.

22Travels. II. 469.

2*American Husbandry, pp. 59-60.

2*New England's Prospect, p. 14.

25Travels, II, 440.


exception may be made in thr cise of coarse sandy sails which have been abandoned
and which offer no particular tiifiiculties to cultivation, but even in this instance,
it would seem that the cropping of sand\ soils was given up principally because
of poor water-holding capacity, and this is largeh a physical relationship.


In concluding a discussion on the effects of cultivation on the character of
Massachusetts soils, it should be pointed out that its influence was not important
until the coming of the white settlers. Geology and climate, on the other hand,
had largely accomplished their ends in developing most of the important character-
istics of our soils long ages before any civilization was established. It should be
further emphasized that some of the effects of geology and climate on the soils
of Massachusetts, such as their sandy nature and their strongly leached profiles,
play a greater role in both past and present-day fertility relationships than do
early cultural practices. Even in the beginning, nature did not endow our soils
with a large fertility reserve, and even this reserve was in a form which could be
quickly and easily dissipated. We must not condemn the ways of our forefathers
too strongly because, even if they had been less ruthless in exploiting the fertility
of their land, the natural reserve would not have lasted indefinitely. Sections
of the country where soils have been endowed by nature with far greater reserves
of fertility than ours are now learning that these reserves are not inexhaustible,
even under what are now considered good soil management practices.

The Massachusetts soils which are now being used for crop production may
be characterized, before soil amendments are added, as being acid in reaction
and deficient in nitrogen, calcium, potassium, magnesium, and to a lesser degree
phosphorus. Soils of limestone origin or with a strong limestone influence may
be less acid in reaction and contain some available calcium and magnesium, but
they are deficient in other elements. All the cultivated soils are low in organic
matter. Agricultural soils in Massachusetts, in short, may be characterized as
productive but not fertile.


The first grazing areas in Massachusetts were the woods, which had previously
been the hunting grounds of the Indians, together with scattered natural open
meadow areas. Contrary to what might have been expected, the country was
not a continuous expanse of dense forest for, as a result of being burned over
annually by the Indians, extensive areas of open woods existed which provided
considerable grazing. William Wood wrote in 1634 that "in many places, divers
Acres being cleare, so that one may ride a hunting in most places of the land, if
he will venture himselfe for being lost: there is no underwood saving in swamps,
and low grounds that are wet . . . where the Trees grow thinne, there is good
fodder to be got among the Woods. "26 The natural occurrence of open meadow
areas is also indicated by the same writer, "There be likewise divers places neare
the Plantations great broad Meadowes, wherein grow neither shrub nor Tree,
lying low, in which places grows as much grass as may be throwne out with a
Sithe, thick and long, as high as a man's middle." Graves wrote from Salem in
1629 that the country was "very beautiful in open lands mixed with goodly
woods, and again open plains, in some places 500 acres, some more some less, not

2*New England's Prosp«ct, p. 17.


much troublesome to clear for the plough. . . . The grass and weeds grow up
to a man's face . . . "^^

Pasture Plants

Native Grasses

The native grasses included a few true grasses together with rushes, sedges,
and other genera. Carrier^^ states that wild rye (Elymus sp.) was the most
common of the native grasses, although Judd^s says that three species of Andro-
pogon, fur^atus, nutans, and scoparius, were native to the intervales of the
Connecticut Valley.

Some writers were quite enthusiastic about the merits of the native grass.
"The worst that can be sayd against the meddow-grounds," wrote Wood in
1634, "is because there is little edish or after-pasture which may proceede from
the late mowings . . . "3" Other contemporary writers, on the other hand,
were not nearly so enthusiastic. One of them wrote that the native grass is "so
devoid of nutritive vertue, that our beasts grow lousy with feeding upon it."^'
Later, in 1747, Jared Eliot observed that, "Where there is no English Grass, it is
difficult to make cattle truly fat."^^ Since none of the native species which were
first utilized for forage were ever domesticated, one can safely conclude that
they were not particularly valuable.

"English Grass"

At the time of the first settlements in Massachusetts, a number of good grasses
and legumes were being cultivated in England, but, since clean seeds of grasses
and clovers were not yet available, the stands were a mixture of many diflferent
species, including those of low as well as of high value. Sweepings of chaff from
haystacks and haymows were used for seed, and it was in this form that the
first "grass" seed was brought into Massachusetts. The expression "English
grass" was a collective term regularly used to distinguish the introduced species —
which usually included a mixture of blue grasses, rye grasses, bent grasses, fescues,
and white clover — from the native grasses.

One writer speaks "of stocking lands from the gleanings of the floors and
mangers of the barn 'where every plant, good and noxious, has left its seeds.' "^s
Judd reports that "the farmers of Rhode Island sowed hay-seed with chaff before
1647"^^ and also that William Pynchon of Springfield had "30 bushels of hay-
seed" brought up the river from Hartford in 1650. According to the same author,
"The General Court of Massachusetts by 1670 recognized three sorts of mowing,
viz., salt marsh, fresh meadow, and English grass."

White Clover

Some of the introduced species became quickly naturalized and spread over
wide areas. This was particularly true of white clover, which frequently appeared
after land had been cleared and plowed far distant from places where it had been
sown. According to Judd, white clover "was abundant in New Jersey in 1684,
in New York in 1738 . . . and was observed by farmers in the new towns of

27judd, Hadley, p. 96.

^^Lyman Carrier, Beginnings of Agriculture in America (New York, 1923), p. 27.

29Hadley. pp. 96-97.

^New England's Prospect, p. 13.

3lNew England Quarterly, IX, 219.

^^Field Husbandry, p. 17.

''Mark Doolittle, Address to the Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden County Agricultural Society

(Northampton, 1826), p. 12.
'^Hadley, p. 362.


Hampshire, and of other parts cf Massachusetts."^^ Governor Hutchinson
of the Province of Massachusetts observed in 1760, that white clover seed was
supposed to be in the earth in all parts of the country. Richard Parkinson in
1807 wrote that "The uncultivated land in North America also abounds with
White Clover. The earth indeed seems almost to have been impregnated with
its seed from the Creation as any kind of land when manured will produce it . . . "^^
In view of the recent popularity of imported "Wild" White Clover strains
from England, it is interesting to note that similar strains, probably the pro-
genitors of the present English strains, were introduced into Massachusetts from
England some three hundred years ago. Since our own "native" or "naturalized"
white clovers have originated from the same original stock seed as the present
English strains, many of the "native" strains should be quite similar in their
growth characteristics as well as their performance to the present English strains.

Other Naturalized Species

Other pasture species which became quickly naturalized included Kentucky
blue grass, Canada blue grass, the bent grasses, and to a certain extent some of
the fescues. These grasses were somewhat more dependent on artificial seeding
than white clover, but when once established they persisted almost indefinitely,
particularly if soil conditions and grazing management practices were favorable.
Belknap, in describing the clearing of new land in New Hampshire, states that
"When the seeding with grass is neglected the ground becomes mossy and hard
and must be ploughed before it will receive seed. . . . land which is intended
for mowing, and which takes the common grass well at first, is seldom or never
ploughed afterward. "^^

Ptisturing in Common

Throughout the first settlements in Massachusetts, an extensive system of
common pasturage was followed. Throughout the seventeenth century and
much of the eighteenth, cattle, horses, sheep, hogs, and goats ranged the woods
in every direction from the town proper, sometimes at large and sometimes in
the care of village herdsmen.^s These undivided pasture areas included the
partially cleared plains and uncleared hills and mountain sides, frequently ex-
tending as far as twenty miles from the settlement itself. Dry stock, young stock,
and hogs were pastured on the more remote areas, while working oxen, horses,
and milk cows were pastured on the more accessible lands close to the village.

This woods pasturage, which consisted primarily of native herbs, weeds, and
grasses, supplied most of the forage for all types of livestock with the exception
of some aftermath or rowen grazing on common meadowlands. Bidwell and
Falconer relate that "In the fall after harvest, on a day fixed by the town authori-
ties, the barriers were taken down and the village cattle were allowed to pasture
on the stubbie. This yearly 'opening of the meadows' was an event in the life
of the vinage."^^ They also report that such pasturage was regarded as especially
valuable in preparing animals for the long winter and that pasturing rights on
such areas were jealously guarded. Since many of the meadowlands were seeded
down to "English grass," this would indicate that the superior feeding value of
these introduced species was early recognized. Some of these meadowlands were

S^Hadley, p. 363.

36Richard Parkinson. The Experienced Farmer (London, 1807), p. 63.
3TThe History of New Hampshire (Boston. 1792), III. 100.
38judd. Hadley, p. 102.

39p. W. Bidwell and J. I. Falconer, History of Agriculture in the Northern United States 1620-1860
(Washington. 1925), p. 22.


undoubtedly later used as pastures, and as such became the first high-quality
pastures in Massachusetts.

Pasturing in common continued through the seventeenth century in the older
towns and for most of the eighteenth century in the newer towns. By the be-
ginning of the eighteenth century in the older towns, scattered lots of meadows
and pastures came under private ownership. The same procedure of common
pastures becoming private holdings was reenacted in the frontier towns as the
eighteenth century progressed. The last common pasture to be broken up was
on the Island of Nantucket in 1848. Up until this time, sheep had been given
free range, but certain of the inhabitants objected so strenuously that they in-
stituted legal proceedings, and according to one writer "then began the war
which drove the sheep from the island and their value into the pockets of the

Agricultural Expansion in Massachusetts
1700-1750; 1750-1790

Notwithstanding the fact that grass-fed cattle were driven to Boston from

Online LibraryMassachusetts Agricultural Experiment StationBulletin - Massachusetts Agricultural Experiment Station (Volume no.379-398) → online text (page 4 of 77)