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Planning Your Visit > Agriculture in Lebanon – Past and Present

ag history

From the time of the first settlements in the 1690s, Lebanon has been an agricultural community.  In the 18th century farmers primarily produced livestock. Cattle were driven to market in Boston or loaded on ships, principally in New London, for transport to other colonies or to the West Indies. Barreled meat, especially pork, and local butter and cheese surpluses were sold the same way. Farmers also earned extra money by harvesting the woods for lumber products and barrel staves. The growth of livestock raising meant that farmers had to keep large acreage for pasture. By 1797, 13,000 acres in Lebanon were listed as pasture land in the tax list. Beginning in the 1760s, the lack of available farmland led many families to move to northern New England and upper New York State.

Throughout the nineteenth century, farm families continued to move away from Lebanon. 
Farmed-out soil and limited economic opportunities encouraged young people to seek better livelihoods elsewhere.  The town’s population peaked in 1774 at 3,960 (a high not to be seen again until the 1970s when the town became a commuter community).  By 1920 the population had fallen to 1,343.

The Industrial Revolution had only a limited impact in Lebanon where the streams and brooks were too small for the large textile mills that were common elsewhere in eastern Connecticut. The Yantic River in the southern part of town did provide enough power for a small woolen mill and later for a Hayward Rubber Company plant and then two paper mills.  These mills attracted the first immigrant factory workers to Lebanon. By 1860, 200 Irish families lived in town and worked in the mills.

In the years between the Civil War and World War I, many more immigrants arrived in Lebanon.  Fleeing economic and religious hardships in Europe, families from Germany, Eastern Europe, and Russia arrived in cities like New York and gradually moved out to rural areas like Lebanon.  Many of these families bought farms from Yankee families.  In 1910 one in four Connecticut farms was owned by an immigrant.  In 1926, there were seventy-four Jewish family farms in Lebanon.

Lebanon’s farmers felt the impact of the Great Depression, as all Americans did.  However, Lebanon’s primary agricultural products – poultry and dairy – were always in demand and provided a steady, if not affluent, income.  Farm families earned extra money by renting out rooms during the summer, a practice that led to the establishment of rural resorts specializing in country recreation for city dwellers.

Local farmers, already struggling with the effects of the Great Depression, were further devastated by the impact of the Hurricane of 1938.  In Lebanon, 174 farm structures on forty-two farms were destroyed by the storm which also leveled the historic 131-year-old First Congregational Church. During World War II, at least 130 Lebanon men and women, many of them from farming families, served in the armed forces. After the War, Lebanon’s population began to increase as farmers, unable or unwilling to modernize operations, began to sell their land for housing lots. Lebanon’s affordable land and country living attracted a new class of residents, suburbanites. Despite this change, agriculture has continued to be Lebanon’s primary industry. The surviving family farms that produce dairy products and crops for livestock have been joined by agribusinesses which produce thousands of eggs daily and raise nursery stock for gardens around the country. A number of part-time farmers raising fruits, vegetables, and livestock are a vital component of the land-based agriculture that contributes to the open space character of the town. Even with the changes of modern living, farming still shapes the future for this rural community.