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Posted May 24, 2013 | comments Leave a comment

Patrick Farris: Wheat was important crop to early settlers

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Patrick Farris

By Patrick Farris

By the late 1730s, farms were developing throughout the Shenandoah Valley as settlers continued to flow in. Within the next 30 years, production of wheat greatly increased.

Feeding the troops who came through during the French and Indian War increased the production of wheat so significantly that by the 1760s valley settlers began to embrace wheat as their cash crop. The Shenandoah Valley's economy came to rest on the production of wheat, and the system of town and country became a necessity for the exporting of wheat.

Farmers produced the wheat while townspeople helped get it to the ports. The road system proved how important the production of wheat really was to the valley. Roads linked to mills and waterways for easy transport of the wheat/flour to ports such as Alexandria and Baltimore. The importance of mills can be seen through their receipts.

Wagons, which were highly sought after in Front Royal because of their impressive quality, were used to carry barrels of flour to the river, where the large gundalows floated the exports to the canals of Harpers Ferry or continued down the river to the major ports. Farmers, millers, wagon makers, keelboat operators, and many more were made important people in the everyday running of the early Shenandoah Valley. The area of Front Royal was like any other in the Shenandoah Valley, producing wheat as its economy's staple.

The county began to boom as a result in the early 1800s, with the wars in Europe only helping to create additional demand for flour exports, and as a result wheat flour ranked among the most important products of the Front Royal area, its streams dotted with numerous mills. The embargo of 1812, shutting out foreign wares, promoted domestic industry, initiative, and thrift. The immediate effect upon Front Royal was described as follows by a local historian of the period:

"Roads were opened through the mountain gaps to the market towns of Dumfries and Falmouth. The abundance of paper money gave an impulse to general improvement. Along Happy Creek were erected a woolen cloth factory, four flour mills, and a large distillery which gave employment to a number of people, and with the houses of the operatives formed a sort of suburb to Front Royal known as New Dublin. All the trades, including a comb factory, were represented, but that of most prominence and prosperity was the wagon manufacture which gained such reputation that for thirty years the four main wagon shops of Trout, Cline, Fant, and Petty found it difficult to meet the demand from the southern and western states. The prosperous condition received a check with the sudden decline of wheat in value, causing a crash among farmers, merchants, and manufacturers."

Interested in local history? Come visit the Warren Heritage Society in Front Royal. Refer to warrenheritagesociety.org for contact information, hours and location. Patrick Farris is executive director of the Warren Heritage Society.

The passage of the rapids and shallows constituted a problem to gundalow traffic, and MCoy's Falls - which impede the riverbed for several miles in Warren County - was one of the most famous of such places. Often a fleet of boats would take a day or so to navigate these falls, and the shouts and commands of the boatmen could be heard from the McCoy's Falls bend in the river.

Entrepreneurs in the 1820s improved the bed of the South Fork of the river for flat boats, making Front Royal an intermediate water stop between Port Republic and Harpers Ferry. To do this, they had to utilize black powder, blowing solid rock from the riverbed in order to create a navigable channel.

The Massanutten Mountain and the surrounding areas were wooded with yellow pine - straight and 70 or 80 feet tall with few branches. Gundalows could be sold for their lumber value at the end of their voyage, for the boatmen sold their cargo - boat and all - and returned by foot to the valley. After the coming of the Southern Railroad to Warren County, the gundalows no longer floated on down to Georgetown as in former days, but transferred their cargo to rail at Riverton. There Major James Richards of "Riverside" made a business of buying up the boats for speculation and resale as building material. This lumber, distinguishable by the mortised ends or square holes through which the boats were pinned together, can be found in many of the older buildings in Front Royal.


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