Cash Crops: Getting Cumberland Valley Grain to Market

Charles G. Stave Farm

Postcard of Charles G. Stave Farm, 1918.  Courtesy of the Cumberland County Historical Society, Carlisle, PA.

In addition to containing vast iron deposits, the Cumberland Valley is made up of superb limestone farmland. The nutrient-rich, well-drained soil, known as Hagerstown Silt Loam, is perfect for growing a variety of grains. The production of these staples began with Native Americans who planted beans, corn and squash for many years before the appearance of European immigrants. Arriving in the 1700s, new settlers from Scotland, Ireland, and Germany soon added wheat, apples, and potatoes to the varieties of crops grown in the area. By the 1860s, local markets were offering its customers grain in the forms of wheat, rye, corn, and oats.

Early grain yields were consumed regionally, transported to area markets by horse and wagon. However, as agriculture in the Cumberland Valley expanded, it became dependent on the ability to transport crops more quickly, conveniently, and inexpensively to larger markets. Consequently, the introduction of the railroad provided a vital lifeline, connecting farmers and merchants to markets along the East Coast. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were a golden age for farms and towns. Crop yields and profits skyrocketed and businesses developed around the train depots.

However, the further expansion of the railroads would eventually hurt grain farmers in South Central Pennsylvania by exposing them to devastating competition from agribusinesses in the Midwest. Ever-resilient, the independent Cumberland Valley farmers incorporated many different ideas and techniques to remain competitive and profitable.