A century ago, agriculture was the primary employer in Harford County, but the loss of farmland — and the cannery operations supplied by family farms — to Aberdeen Proving Ground and later housing and commercial development means that sector is a fraction of its former self.
Attendees at the Historical Society of Harford County's monthly Brown Bag Lunch Series presentation Tuesday on Harford's farming, hunting and fishing legacy got to hear some voices from the past about the value of agriculture and learn how farming, grain milling and waterfowl hunting have shaped the local economy over the past few centuries.
The audience, gathered in the Historical Society headquarters in Bel Air, heard from Lara Murphy, executive director of the Steppingstone Farm Museum near Havre de Grace; Richard Albright, volunteer curator for Jerusalem Mill Village in Kingsville; and Kerri Kneisley, executive director of the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum.
Murphy talked about the history of Steppingstone, which was founded in 1975 and is tasked with interpreting rural life in Harford County between 1880 and 1920. The 23-acre site was once part of a tract of about 2,000 acres called Land of Promise dating to the late 1600s.
The tract shrunk over time and had a number of owners. J. Gilman D'Arcy Paul, who owned the farm from the late 1930s to the late 1950s and used the property as a retreat from life in Baltimore, donated 300 acres to the state — including the 23-acre Steppingstone site — which became Susquehanna State Park, Murphy said.
Museum founder J. Edmund Bull "created the museum as a steppingstone to the past so that the rural generation wouldn't become lost and that their skills and their way of life would be continued," Murphy said.
She said museum staff are conducting research to learn more about Harford County farming in the late 1800s and early 1900s, information they plan to incorporate into a walking tour that should debut in next spring.
Murphy shared the oral history of Catherine Perryman, who was a child when her family lost their farm to the development of Aberdeen Proving Ground, founded in 1917 during World War I.
Today, APG is Harford County's largest employer, with about 20,000 soldiers and civilian employees, and the Army's key testing site for vehicles, weapons, equipment and technology. The post occupies land that had primarily been used for agriculture and canneries along 144 miles of coastline in the Aberdeen and Edgewood areas.
Murphy said Perryman's family grew corn, peas and tomatoes, which they transported to local canneries. Young Catherine's primary job was to pull weeds when the corn was growing, Murphy said.
Catherine recalled local families had to leave their farms by Jan. 1, 1918 to make way for the new Army post, though.
"Beautiful rich farmland was acquired by the government for the proving ground," Murphy said, reading Catherine's oral history. "Hence, all the farmers were displaced in a short period of time with no idea where to go. People we had known always had scattered to the four winds, so to speak. It was a hard very cold winter in 1917, 1918."
Murphy said this movement was "the start of farms starting to disappear in Harford County."
Harford County still has a vibrant agricultural community, much of it in the northern part of the county, and the county and state have well-used farm preservation programs.
Some attendees Tuesday said sectors such as the dairy industry are struggling, though. Karen Vaughan, whose family owns Daily Crisis Farm in White Hall, recalled the recent foreclosure of an Amish dairy farm.
"Even they are having issues," she said of the Amish.
Reg Traband, an original member of the Harford County Farm Fair board when the fair was revitalized in 1988, said there were 595 farms in Harford County "shipping milk" when he came to work at the local agricultural extension office in 1960. He was a county farm agent for three decades.
"Today, there's maybe 20," he said of the dairy operations, just two south of Route 22.
"There used to be farms all along Route 40 and down through Joppa, but they're gone," Traband said.
Albright talked about Jerusalem Mill Village, which grew up around Lee's Merchant Mill, established on the banks of the Little Gunpowder Falls in 1772, according to the Jerusalem Mill website.
The Little Gunpowder Falls is part of the border between Harford and Baltimore counties.
"We are one of the oldest, most intact villages in the state of Maryland," Albright said.
He showed a Harford Cable Network video on Jerusalem Mill, where local farmers brought their grain to be milled into flour. The flour was placed in barrels, built on-site in a cooper's shop and transported to the port in Joppa, according to the program.
Albright said Jerusalem Mill, which is operated by volunteers, is open to the public. He encouraged people to visit, not only for the mill, but for community events such as Amateur Jousting Club of Maryland tournaments, Civil War re-enactments, vintage baseball games and a summer concert series.
Kneisley said the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum, founded in 1987, sits along the Susquehanna Flats at the confluence of the Chesapeake Bay and Susquehanna River.
The Flats, where waterfowl hunting still happens today, was an immensely popular site for hunting canvasback ducks.
"It was said in that in the late 1800s, early 1900s, that for miles and miles and miles it was just [covered] with ducks," Kneisley said.
She said hunters could harvest hundreds of ducks, using decoys to attract the bids, concealing themselves in the water in wooden "sink boxes," and then shooting them with massive shotguns called "punt guns."
The ducks would then be shipped to area markets, where canvasbacks were considered "one of the tastiest species of waterfowl," Kneisley said.
Hunting became much more regulated, with seasons and limits on the number of birds harvested, with the passage of federal laws in the 1930s.
Hunters still go out in the Susquehanna Flats waters today, though, with practices such as "body booting," Kneisley said.