Thursday, August 20, 2009

Marshing Season

The early settlers of the Town of Hempstead were primarily farmers and tradesmen. Like the native American tribes who inhabited the land, the European settlers of Seventeenth Century Hempstead found the area well-suited to the cultivation of corn and beans. They added other grains and found they still had plenty of area to graze cattle and sheep on the open grasslands of the Hempstead Plain.
The vast marshlands of the South Shore were held as common land by the Hempstead townsmen. Natural sources of salt hay --dried wild marsh grasses like sedge and cordgrass -- the marshes required no cultivation and provided a rich winter fodder for the animals as well as mulch for crops. It was also used for mattress stuffing and in the making of paper. As early as 1667, the Hempstead townsmen protected this natural resource by regulating the cutting of the common marshes and imposing fines on anyone who began the harvest before the approved date, usually the second Tuesday in September -- the beginning of Marshing Season.

This process turned into an eagerly anticipated annual event, as the Town's male population -- and sometimes complete families -- headed south to camp out on the marshes for what amounted to a working holiday. Daniel Tredwell (1826-1921) remembers with humor and great detail the nine-day stay in the marshing camp "during which period we slept on the marsh, ate eel and clam chowder and smothered flounders, or fluke, with the mess."

His diary entries of September 1842 recall how the first to arrive would set up a rake, pitchfork, grindstone or other device to stake his claim to the area, which was honored by those who followed. No sedge could be cut on Monday, so the time was devoted to construction of shelters and preparation for the next day's work.

As the sun rose on Tuesday, another delay was caused by the native snail population. As the snails climbed the sedge stalks to collect a drop of fresh water, their hard shells and great numbers made it impossible to cut the grass without damaging the scythes. Two hours later, the snails had abandoned the tall grass and the harvest could progress unimpaired. Tredwell writes that by 9:30 a.m. their first freight had been loaded and was being transported to the landing.


In the early days, the hay was cut by hand, but horse teams were also employed, as in this illustration from Sand Dunes and Salt Marshes, by Charles W. Townsend (Estes, 1913).

The photograph on the right,  demonstrates how the hay was transported in scows which could carry ten ordinary boat loads. Towed or poled, they were used to ferry the hay to the mainland, where it was cured and stacked. Most of the hay was consumed by the local cattle, but for those who could transport it there, the Hay Market Exchange in Brooklyn was an additional source of revenue for the Long Island farmer.

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