Mary DonohueMary Donohue is the co-author of A Life of the Land: Connecticut's Jewish Farmers
Cabin Fever Series
Saturday, March 16, 2019 1:00pm Cabin Fever Series
The East Hampton Public Library – East Hampton, CT 06424
The Chatham Historical Society and East Hampton Library are co-sponsoring a talk by author Mary Donohue at the East Hampton Library Community Room at 105 Main St. in East Hampton. Donohue will present a Power Point presentation on her book, A Life of the Land: Connecticut’s Jewish Farmers. The talk is part of the “Cabin Fever Winter Talk History Program.” Donohue is the Asst. Publisher of Connecticut Explored Magazine and president of Grant House Heritage Services, a full-service historic preservation consulting firm.
A Life Of The Land
Connecticut’s Jewish farmers have been considered a novelty since they began to arrive from Eastern Europe in the 1890’s. After all, Jews typically had not been associated with farming – and certainly not with successful farming. But in this tiny New England state, Jews carved out lives are farmers, bringing to the experience innovations that would come to distinguish them as outstanding in the field.
Jewish Refugees Revived Connecticut Farms
By Mary Donohue
For years, people traveling through Connecticut have been surprised to find small Jewish synagogues in rural (or once-rural) farming towns. Therein lies one of the state’s more unusual immigration stories. In the 1880s, masses of Eastern European Jews began emigrating, fleeing long-standing persecution that had gotten worse after the assassination of the Russian Czar Alexander II in 1881. The Russian government condoned pogroms and organized raids on Jewish communities that included killings and destruction of property. Jews in Europe and the United States organized to help the refugees. Continued below..
The Hartford Daily Courant
On June 28, 1882, The Hartford Daily Courant printed a tiny ad entitled “The Russian Refugees” that read in part “The committee of the local Russian Aid society, engaged in the relief of the Russian Jew refugees in this city … ask assistance from the public … Hartford has received a large number … and others are arriving daily.”
Jews had lived in Hartford since the 18th century and had arrived from Germany in the mid-19th century in numbers large enough to form a congregation, Temple Beth Israel. Though divided by culture, language and class from the Orthodox Eastern European newcomers, members of Hartford’s German Jewish community nevertheless worked to assist their coreligionists.
Hartford was represented at a major meeting of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society of the United States in New York in 1882, where plans were put forward to settle as many Jews as possible on farms. Funds from a wealthy German Jew, Baron de Hirsch, who devoted his fortune to helping Russian Jews, created the Jewish Agricultural Society, which gave mortgages to Jews willing to settle on farms in the U.S. The organization initially pinpointed two areas in Connecticut in which to establish independent Jewish-owned-and-run farms, one encompassing the towns of Colchester, Lebanon and Montville, and the other in Vernon, Ellington and Somers.
In each of these areas, the society financed the construction of a synagogue, knowing that such a facility was essential to the creation of a Jewish community. By 1908, the agricultural society provided not only mortgages, but the assistance of a Yiddish-speaking farm agent, a Yiddish farm magazine and scholarships to agricultural colleges. In the early 1900s, more than 1,000 Jewish farm families settled in Connecticut. In 1916, 16 Connecticut communities had Jewish Farmers’ Associations.
Among the many stories, the Bercowetz family left Bellevue Street in Hartford in 1909 to buy an 80-acre farm in Bloomfield for $8,000. The farm provided dairy products and meat and became known for its cattle. Merkin Dairy in Simsbury bottled and delivered its own milk.
Jews are Taking to Agriculture
The Hartford Courant continued to notice the progress made by Jewish farmers. In 1909, in an article entitled “Jews are Taking to Agriculture,” the paper reported that Jewish farmers from Ellington had won a gold medal in the first-ever national agricultural fair for Jewish farmers, held in New York City. With the founding of agricultural society-sponsored credit unions in 1911 in Fairfield and Ellington, The Courant reported that “Jewish Farmers Eliminate Loan Shark.”
All farmers fought the weather, economic depression and the periodic collapse of farm prices, and many Jewish farmers did not make it. But, Jewish farmers had strong allies in the agricultural society, the University of Connecticut Agricultural College and the state Department of Agriculture. These essential organizations all supported farm families’ own ingenuity and business savvy in turning old Yankee farmsteads into flourishing dairy or poultry farms. In many cases, these hard-working and inventive individuals revived declining rural communities and in doing so, transformed the public’s stereotypical images of Jews. A 1928 Courant article was headlined “Jewish Farmers Prosper in Connecticut: Living Down Their Reputation as Mere Middlemen Who Do Not Labor, They Have Shown That They Can Till the Soil and Make it Pay.” In the article, reporter Isabel Foster credited Jewish farmers for creating something out of nothing.
Mary M. Donohue is the senior architectural historian of the Connecticut State Historic Preservation Office and co-author of “A Life of the Land: Connecticut’s Jewish Farmers” For more information visit: The Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford
East Hampton Public Library
The East Hampton Public Library Library is a department of East Hampton Town government. Thier mission is to promote equal access to information and ideas, love of reading, and a wide range of community-based educational and cultural programs.
Ellen Paul, Library Director
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The East Hampton Public Library is located at
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