From colonial times to today, Dover and Kent County farmers have helped the area grow, change and prosper.
From its beginnings, Dover and its citizens have depended on the land and its harvests to feed their families, provide trade opportunities and contribute to the city’s growth.
Both the seals of the city of Dover and of Kent County contain references to the importance of farming, with three ears of maize pictured at the zenith of each.
The agricultural industry has been so vital to the state as a whole that since 1777 Delaware’s own coat of arms and its Great Seal have borne the images of a husbandman, or farmer, bearing a hoe, and, in particular, an ear of maize, taken from Kent County’s seal, that represents how much the state’s economy has been based on agriculture since the first settlers arrived in the 17th century.
When the first Dutch settlers arrived at what is now Delaware in 1631, they found native Indian tribes already harvesting beans, squash and corn. Because they could not otherwise obtain vital food supplies, the early Dutch, Swedish and English settlers all had to raise their own.
But it was not an easy existence. Although early settlers found Delaware’s rich soils perfect for planting, the seasons here were different than in Europe, which in the beginning led to crops being planted at the wrong times. This factor, combined with the fact that many of those colonists had no prior experience in farming meant early crops did not do well.
They eventually learned to cultivate maize, peas, wheat and barley and to raise pigs, goats and sheep. Cattle also became an important industry, providing both milk and meat.
By 1663, however, the Delaware colony had 110 farm plantations that tended more than 2,000 oxen and cows as well as thousands of smaller animals.
The beginning of English rule, when the Delaware colony came under control of William Penn in the late 1600s, brought a new influx of settlers. By 1704, Delawareans were producing a number of cash crops, including tobacco, that were shipped to Europe from ports in Philadelphia. But Delaware’s climate was not as favorable to tobacco farmers as that in the southern colonies, and its importance declined. By the time of the American Revolution, grain crops such as oats, rye, barley, wheat and corn were gaining significance. Much of this grain was processed upstate in mills powered by the waters of the Brandywine River.
As a necessity, most of these early farms existed solely as a means for a man to feed his family, but an improving economy and a more diverse workforce meant farms had to expand in order to feed a growing population. Many farmers in Kent County faced the problem of how to get their products to market while they still were fresh. Most farms had been established along county waterways, which were navigable for miles inland, and farmers used them to ship out their harvests. The city of Dover once had a dock on the St. Jones, near what is now Legislative Hall, where farm products were shipped north. The invention of the steamboat, which could take shipments from central parts of Kent County directly to Philadelphia via the Delaware Bay, was a boon to area farmers. The railroad that eventually went from Delmar to Wilmington also allowed farmers to ship their products quickly.
The peach industry, which had begun in the early 1830s, benefitted greatly from the railroad, which included Dover as a main stop. More than four million peach trees covered Delaware by the late 1800s, with the area around Magnolia being a well-known hub of the industry in Kent County. The peach became so important to the state’s economy that the peach blossom eventually was named the state’s official flower.
In Kent County, the fruit industry became dominant enough to spawn the first cannery in the state. Founded in 1855 in Dover, the Richardson and Robbins Company was famous for its canned vegetables and fruits as well as canned hams. Although the plant closed in 1976, the original building on Kings Highway is used today as headquarters for the state’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.
What is now Delaware State University was established in Dover under the 1890 Morrill Act as a land-grant college, a publicly-funded school where race was not a factor in admission, and which was dedicated to the study of the agricultural sciences. Today, DSU partners with the University of Delaware and the state’s agriculture department, focusing on agriculture and natural resources.
Although farming and agriculture once were the basis for much of Delaware and Kent County’s economy, that no longer is the case today. The expense of running a farm and the uncertainty of weather and economic conditions have led to many farmers to give up the practice even as improving farming techniques have allowed greater harvests from the same lands.
According to census figures, there were more than 3,000 farms in Kent County in 1925. By 2007, that figure had dropped to only 825. As a whole, farming is now the seventh-largest profession in the state.
But, as Dover puts on its colonial finery and celebrates its history, it also must pay homage to the area’s farms and farmers. Even though their numbers today are reduced and working farms no longer stretch from the Delaware Bay to the western horizon, the unceasing efforts of Kent County and Dover farmers have made an immeasurable contribution to the growth and prosperity of Delaware’s capital city.
Note: The Department of Agriculture provided a significant amount of information for this story.