“The burnt land:” To me, there’s a hint of the dark and sinister in these words; but all they really are is a description of land from which trees have been felled and removed, and the brush or debris burned. The piece of land thus cleared – the “burnt land” – was then farmed or used as a pasture.
Creating burnt land and using it to plant various crops or to pasture cattle was a common, long ago farming practice in this area. It’s unheard of today. However, as recently as two or three generations ago, if a farm lot was forested – on the heavily treed slopes of the North or South Mountain here in Kings County for example, out of necessity you had to create pieces of burnt land.
“Everybody had a piece of burnt land,” says John Griffith, Canaan, of farming in the early days. “After the trees were removed, the brush was spread out over the cut piece and burned.” Griffith says there was a particular way the brush was spread – “in humps with the brush ends pointing downwards.” The brush usually was burned in the fall. The following spring the piece of burnt land was put to use.
Griffith recalls that turnips, carrots and oats were often grown on the burnt land. Turnips grown on burnt land were especially relished, he says. “They got a premium (on the farm market) for burnt land turnips, mostly because they’d be worm free.”
I first heard of burnt land farming when I was talking with Griffith many years ago. I had never heard the term before, and it caught my imagination. Most of today’s younger generations probably never heard of burnt land farming either.
In his privately published book My White Rock, Bert Young describes in detail how a piece of burnt land was created when he was a boy. When trees were removed, he writes, the brush was burned where it lay and the stumps left to rot. The soil between the stumps was tilled and planted.
In her book on farm life in the early days on the Forest Hill Road (privately published and distributed to family members) the late Lexie Davidson also describes burnt land farming. She writes about her father removing trees from a lot and “afterward he would burn over the area …. When planting time came around (he would) plant cucumbers or squash around the stumps in the burntland. He had a special burntland harrow to use for this type of terrain.”
Griffith and Davidson note that for a few years at least, the soil in the burnt land was highly productive and produced prime vegetable crops, probably because the burning process fertilized and nourished the land.