Friday, January 6, 2012

Pennsylvania’s Agricultural Heritage

Image depicts  Native American use of a rockshelter from the gallery of The State Museum

For the past month we have been writing about the development of Native American Foodways in Pennsylvania over the past 16,000 years. From our earliest hunters and gatherers to the development of cultivating crops, Native peoples played an integral role in the development of many of the foods we enjoy today. Early settlers benefited from the cultivating of corn, beans and squash by Native Americans who shared both the crops and their methods of farming.

Sunflowers were cultivated by Native Americans, and later introduced in Europe.

Archaeologists have examined faunal remains recovered from wells and privies of the earliest settlers and analyzed this dietary waste to interpret what colonists were eating. Shellfish, oysters, mussels, clams were an important part of their diet as well as wild and domesticated animals. Settlers hunted many of the same mammals that Native peoples did and analyses of these remains have yielded evidence of turkey and goose, deer, bear and fox. Maple sugar, sweet potatoes, walnuts and berries were woven into their diet and supplemented the other food sources. The introduction of potatoes, corn, sunflowers and squash from North America to Europe was an important contribution to their available food sources. In exchange, European settlers introduced new crops to the colonies including wheat, oats and rye grasses. European grasses grew well in the soils of Pennsylvania and contributed to the designation as “breadbasket of America” in the 1800’s. These grasses were also fed to domesticated animals brought to North America by the colonists. Sheep were an early import from Europe and the wool produced from them was an important commodity for colonists. The introduction of better domesticated cattle from Europe to North America was also a significant event in the development of foodways for the colonists of Pennsylvania.

Historical archaeologists have examined farmsteads of the 18th and 19th century researching patterns in structure design and layout. They have looked at the goods consumed on family farms, which of these were locally made and which were imported as indicators of social standing and wealth. Excavations of barn and house foundations have produced personal affects and yielded information regarding structure size and placement. By examining these early farmsteads we are able to paint a picture of some of Pennsylvania’s early heritage and the influences that culture had on agriculture. The hardy settlers of this state, the Germans, Scotch-Irish, English, Dutch and Swedes all contributed to the development of Pennsylvania as a leader in food production.

The 18th and 19th century mark a period of transition from viewing food procurement as necessary for sustainability to one of agriculture and farming as a marketable commodity capable of providing food for multiple families. As populations in colonial America grew, the demand for foods increased and Pennsylvania led the colonies in food production. The industrial revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries transformed farming from small family farms into a highly specialized and mechanized industry. Popular journals and newspapers provided information on new equipment and improved methods of farm management. Food production continued to grow and as roads and canals developed the ability to transport goods to larger markets aided in the growth of farming. Agriculture changed from small plots to sustain a village or band of Native peoples to larger tracts of land capable of sustaining large settlements, sometimes many miles from the farm.

Gas powered tractors and equipment further increased farm production.

Today there are 2,300 food-processing companies in Pennsylvania which is the leading producer in the United States of mushrooms. Food products include canned fruit, vegetables, chocolate, potato chips, and pretzels. Heinz ketchup, Mrs. T’s Pierogies, Hershey’s Chocolate, Troyer Farms Chips, Utz Pretzels and the list goes on have all contributed to the designation as “Snack Food Capital of the World.” The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture states that these industries generate more than $5.1 billion in sales annually! Don’t forget dairy production in Pennsylvania- ice cream, butter and cheese are also fast growing sectors of agriculture. Many of these foods are distinctly Pennsylvanian and reflect the cultural heritage of our state; shoo-fly-pie, pierogies, Lebanon bologna, and soft pretzels are regional favorites which many from south Central PA can proudly identify.

2007 Butter Sculpture at the Pennsylvania Farm Show

There is no better place to experience all that Pennsylvania agriculture has to offer than the Pennsylvania Farm Show. Tomorrow the 96th Pennsylvania Farm Show opens and we will be there. Our exhibit is installed and is sure to interest all of the visitors interested in archaeology and the development of Native Foodways. Artifacts from the Paleoindian period through the Woodland period are on display. Our newest brochure on Foodways is available and of course- the dugout canoe is waiting for a stream of steady visitors. Come on out, enjoy a milk shake, baked potato, fried mushrooms, maple sugar candy or any of the other delicious foods prepared from foods raised on Pennsylvania farms and celebrate the heritage of farming in our state.

Two visitors at the Farm Show try out our dugout canoe.
We are located in the Family Living Section not far from the carousel and the butter sculpture- Hope to see you there!
                          January 7th - 14th Pennsylvania Farm Show, 9-9 Saturday to Friday. 
                                                                 9-6 on Saturday 1/14th

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

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