Virginia’s farming history dates back to the earliest foundations of our nation. After receiving a grant from King James I, the Virginia Company of London operated as a joint-stock company, selling shares in a venture to the New World at the cost of £12 10 shillings. The first colonists who arrived on the shores of Jamestown in 1607 were charged with turning a profit, thereby sharing the New World’s vast (albeit, rumoured) natural resources with their investors back home. While the first few years were spent mainly on survival, the colonists soon learned that Virginia’s greatest natural resource lay in her rich soil. Over time, agricultural pursuits gave way to large farms and plantations that produced tobacco, peanuts, vegetables and livestock.
Today, agriculture is still Virginia’s largest industry with more than 46,000 farms scattered throughout the state. Thanks to agricultural successes in Virginia, as well as dedicated preservation efforts at both government and grassroots levels, beautiful farmland can still be found in much of the Commonwealth. The following photos offer a look back at farmland from Virginia’s past, showing how some areas have stayed the same while others have changed through economic, social and political influences.
1. The “Old Christian House” at a farm in Buffalo Gap, 1872.
Buffalo Gap is a small community just north of Staunton in Augusta, named after the neighboring mountain pass running through Little North Mountain. This beautiful old photograph was found in the photo album of Jedediah Hotchkiss, which contained photographed scenes along railroad lines and rivers from Staunton to Huntington, West Virginia. The photo is enhanced by an original, handwritten caption.
6. The home built on a Radford farm by the Farm Security Administration for Floyd Fleming, a defense worker at the Radford Powder Plant, 1941.
Just before the onset of America’s involvement in World War II, and less than two years after the end of the Great Depression, Radford became the site of a factory that made gunpowder and associated defense materials. The factory offered thousands of jobs and attracted an onslaught of workers to the small southwest Virginia town. Due to housing shortages, the FSA (Farm Security Administration) built housing for workers and their families, often using local farmland. This rural home was built for a powder plant worker from North Carolina on farmland belonging to T.H. Walter.
7. Floyd Fleming looks out over the farm that houses him and his family just outside of Radford, 1941.
Fleming, who was originally from North Carolina, was one of the many workers who relocated to Virginia looking for work at the Radford Powder Plant. Like many of his colleagues, Fleming was able to move his family to live with him after the FSA provided housing on nearby farms and in housing projects.
2. A barn sits atop rocky farmland in western Virginia’s Alleghany County, 1939.
When Alleghany County was first established in 1822, it was primarily farmland. At the time, the main crop grown in the county was hemp, which was sent to Richmond for rope production. As both the price and demand for hemp lessened over the years, Alleghany County farmers changed their focus to grain, hay and livestock production.
3. Union General Godfrey Weitzel’s encampment at Chapin's Farm during the Battle of Chapin’s Farm near Richmond, September 1864.
The Battle of Chapin’s (or Chaffin’s) Farm and New Market Heights was a Civil War Battle fought on September 29 and 30, 1864. During the Union’s siege of Petersburg (which lasted from spring 1864 until spring 1865), Chapin’s Farm was an anchor for Confederate defenses protecting Richmond. Near the end of September 1864, Union troops attempted to break through these defenses by attacking Chapin’s Farm. In the end, the fighting resulted in a Union victory, but at great cost to both sides with casualties reaching nearly 5,000. As many as 30 Medals of Honor were awarded due to the intensity of the battle, including several to members of the United State Colored Troops (USCT) whose losses accounted for 43 percent of the Union’s total 3,300 deaths. The 6th U.S. Colored Infantry, alone, lost 87 percent of its men.
4. The farmhouse and land of Fannie Corbin in Corbin Hollow, Shenandoah National Park, 1935.
During the Great Depression, the government began efforts to create large recreational areas, resulting in many of our state and national parks. As part of the effort, thousands of families were relocated off of land that was not conducive to farming, despite the fact that many of these families had been there for generations. The Corbins of Corbin Hollow in Madison County had descended from 2 families that relocated to the hollow soon after the Revolutionary War. The land, however, was steep and rocky and after the nearby Skyland Resort was built in 1866, the families depended heavily on service jobs, begging and craft sales at the resort, as opposed to their former reliance on farming.
5. Freed African-American laborers stand outside an abandoned farmhouse at the future site of the Dutch Gap canal in November 1864.
Dutch Gap, located in Chesterfield County along the James River, served as a Union stronghold during the Civil War and the was the site of a canal that Union forces intended to use to cut off a portion of the river controlled by Confederate troops. Construction on the canal began in late 1864, using paid African-American laborers from the Freedman’s Colony of Roanoke Island in North Carolina. Construction was not completed until the end of the war, but the canal later became the region's main channel of the James River. It can only be assumed that this farm, like many in the south, was abandoned when Union troops moved in, or its tenants were forcibly removed so that the land could be used by the army.
8. A chicken farm owned and operated by a local woman in Haymarket, 1941.
The introduction of mechanical farming implements and prefabricated outbuildings, like these chicken houses, made farming much easier for many Virginians.
9. The owner and operator of a chicken farm in Haymarket, 1941.
This woman, the owner and operator of a local chicken farm, oversees the daily chores. With labor-reducing tools like tractors, water rings and prefabricated henhouses and coops, she is able to run her farm with much more efficiency than farmers in the past. She even uses an electric fence to keep predators away from her birds.
10. A farm in Marion shows the bounty of its harvest with neatly arranged corn shocks, 1940.
Marion is a town of around 6,000 people in Smyth County in southwest Virginia. Although the town itself is a bustling center of arts and culture, much of the surrounding area is still rural farmland. Today, a number of commercial and family farms provide fresh produce and livestock for farmer’s markets and local residents.
11. A Newport News shipyard worker feeds his animals on his rural farm, 1942.
As defense jobs became more readily available with America’s entrance into World War II, many rural farmers found themselves in cities working in factories and shipyards. But, many still tended to their farms as best they could, relying on produce and livestock for additional income and family sustenance.
12. A young boy feeds chickens on his family’s farm outside of Newport News, 1942.
When farmers found themselves working in the nearby cities to support American defense during World War II, oftentimes, the whole family would have to pitch in even more to keep the farm maintained.
13. A farm in Radford, 1941.
Today, like then, Radford is surrounded by beautiful, lush farmlands.
14. Flood waters cover a farm in the Shenandoah Valley after “The Great Spring Flood” of 1936.
After a brutal winter in 1935 -1936, March 1936 came in with milder temperatures. But in mid-March, a heavy storm dumped massive snowfall and rain on the eastern United States. The storm was blamed for up to 200 deaths, with damages in the millions of dollars. The James, Potomac, Rappahannock, Shenandoah and York River watersheds all flooded, causing untold damage throughout Central Virginia. The effect on farms throughout the Shenandoah Valley was devastating, with crops, farm buildings and homes suffering irreparable damage from the rising waters.
15. A farm labor camp built by the Farm Security Administration in Timberville, Rockingham County, 1942.
As part of the New Deal during the Great Depression, the FSA (Farm Security Administration) was formed in 1935 with the goal of “rural rehabilitation.” The group intended to combat the effects of rural poverty by resettling impoverished farmers on group farms. Likewise, farmers suffering from unproductive farmlands were able to sell their land to the government and move to group settings. This farm in Timberville is a prime example of these camp-style group farms.
16. A young family sits outside their makeshift home at the Timberville farm labor camp, 1942.
The FSA made significant attempts to assist sharecroppers, tenant farmers and impoverished landowning farmers, many of whom were unskilled outside of farm labor and had limited employment opportunities.
17. A farm in Fairfax County near Vienna, 1941.
Although this would be a nearly incomprehensible scene in Vienna today, in the 1940s, much of the land we now know as Northern Virginia suburbs, shops and businesses was once rural farmland.
18. A large, well-kept farm covered in snow in Warrenton, 1940
Warrenton is located in the northwestern part of the state in Fauquier County. The county has long been known for its beautiful farmlands and rolling hills. A number of well-known historic farms are located in the county, including Belle Grove, which was built in 1812 on 1,000 acres that had been given to John Edmonds in 1780. Today, descendants of Edmonds still live at the Belle Grove site.
Tell us what you think about these Virginia farms. We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!