In this post, videos, an interactive map and many references supplement a short history of Jewish farming communities in Connecticut.
Beginning as early as 1891, Baron Hirsch supported the settlement of Jewish farmers in Connecticut. By 1928 there were over 5000 Jewish farm families in the state. The Baron Hirsch Fund and its subsidiary the Jewish Agricultural Society (JAS) sponsored these projects. The projects continued throughout the first half of the 20th Century. They not only helped the Russian Jews escaping pogroms in the first part of the century, but after WWII Holocaust survivors as well.
Most of the farms were located in two general areas in Eastern Connecticut, in Somers, Ellington, Rockville, and Vernon, northeast of Hartford. And southeast of Hartford in East Haddam, Colchester, Chesterfield (in the town of Montville), Lebanon and Norwich .
There were also communities in Newtown near Danbury and in Ellsworth Hills and Sharon, close to the border with New York State. And in Amenia, just over the NY border. In addition, there were other smaller communities in diverse areas of Connecticut.
Click on the pinpoints on this map for the name and a photo of many of these places.
BARON HIRSCH’S ASSISTANCE
The Baron Hirsch Fund and the JAS helped farmers obtain mortgages to purchase the land. Some of the farmers were graduates of the Fund’s Agricultural School in Woodbine, New Jersey. The JAS also offered extension services. Beginning in 1891 the Fund published The Jewish Farmer magazine, a how to do it resource. It was first only published in Yiddish but later it appeared in both Yiddish and English.
These efforts were part of the Fund’s almost nation-wide effort to “Americanize” Jewish immigrants by helping them leave the big cities for a cleaner and purer life on farms. They assisted close to 10,000 Jewish families across fifteen states.
As cited here, in the JAS’s 1921 Annual Report, they explained their mission. “Our nation’s greatest problem is the Americanization of the immigrant. If Americanization is not confined solely to the teaching of English, civics, and of the theories of government, but is conceived to be broad enough to embrace all activity tending to elevate the standards of living, then the work of our Society in all its manifold phases is Americanization of the highest type.”
Connecticut was the state welcoming the largest group of these immigrants. And the farming communities in Connecticut were the most successful. Immigrants could fairly easily travel the relatively short distance from the major point of entry to the U.S., New York City. Also, land in Connecticut was rocky and therefore cheap. Yankee farmers were glad to sell the rocky soil as they sought to move west to greener pastures.
The Jews realized the rocky land didn’t need to be tilled – it could support dairies and chicken farms. This was a truly brilliant path. Just previous to WWI scientists declared the previously unknown fact that the nutrients in diary products and eggs were especially beneficial to children, Sales took off. And the Jews also realized that their farms could be vacation sites for other immigrants fleeing the steaming streets of the cities. In additon to offering bucolic peace, they could offer kosher meals as well.
A CONTEMPORARY ACCOUNT
Jewish agricultural colonization in Connecticut dates from the settlement of three Jewish families, in 1891, at New London and Norwich, by the United Hebrew Charities of New York city, with money provided for the purpose by the Baron de Hirsch Fund. The families were sent to work in mills, but by strict economy they succeeded in a few years in saving enough money to enable the heads of the families, who had been dairy-farmers in Russia, to buy cheap farms near Norwich.
Not long after, in1892, one Ḥayyim Pankin, a Russian Jew, aided by the Baron de Hirsch Fund, bought a farm near Chesterfield. He soon succeeded in inducing 28 other Jewish families to settle near the same place. They all engaged mainly in dairy-farming, as the soil was not rich enough to make market-gardening profitable, although each farmer raised his own fodder and the potatoes and other vegetables required for his family.
The general method by which these farms were purchased was by the payment of one-third to one-half in cash, the balance remaining on mortgage at 5 or 6 per cent per annum. Later, the Baron de Hirsch Fund made loans on second mortgage to some of the farmers, to enable them to improve their holdings.
The population of Chesterfield has been unstable. Of the 28 families that settled in August, 1892, only 15 remained in the autumn of 1894; but 18 others had come in the meantime, so that in the latter year the total number of Jewish farmers was 33. In 1897, through the good offices of the trustees of the Baron de Hirsch Fund, a steam creamery was erected and a synagogue was built. In size the farms range from 32 to 132 acres, the average being about 60; the price paid, including buildings, averages $15 an acre. While some of the original settlers who were unsuccessful left the colony, newcomers took their places, so that the population has not decreased.
The general statistics of Jewish Agricultural Colonies in Connecticut may be summarized as follows: In April, 1891, 2,376 acres of farm land were owned by 19 Hebrew immigrant families (compare “American Jewish Year Book,” 1899-1900, pp. 281 and 283). These farms cost $20,800, of which sum $5,840 was paid in cash. The total Jewish farming population at that time was 143 persons. In January, 1892, the number of acres of woodland and pasture owned by Jewish farmers was 7,843, of which 1,420 acres were cleared. The purchase price of these lands was $89,600, of which $36,050 had been paid, the balance remaining on mortgage at 5 or 6 per cent. These farms were owned by 52 families, consisting of 491 persons. The farmers owned 229 head of cattle.
In December, 1899, there were 600 Jewish farmers in New England, mainly in Connecticut, with some scattered in Massachusetts. It was estimated that $1,100,000 had been invested by them in their holdings, $1,250,000 remaining on mortgage. The principal groups of settlements in Connecticut are at Chesterfield, Colchester, and Montville, with others near Norwich and New London. 1
EXHIBITS AND AUDIO-VISUALS:
“A Chance for Land and Fresh Air: Russian Jewish Immigrants in Ellsworth and Amenia, 1907-1940,” is an exhibit that closed in March, 2017 at the Sharon, CT Historical Society http://sharonhist.org/?event=chance-land-fresh-air-russian-jewish-immigrants-ellsworth-amenia-1907-1940.
“Harvesting Stones” is a 2016 film depicting the tale of the Connecticut immigrants, produced by Jerry Fischer, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut. http://www.jewishledger.com/2016/05/improbable-story-connecticuts-jewish-farming-families/
The film’s trailer can be seen through utube at
And a larger portion of the film can be seen at https://vimeo.com/26735313
In 2008 the PBS program History Detectives aired a segment on an old Jewish farm house in East Saddam, connecticut. It is in Episode 9 of Season 6. Read the transcript here.
Preservationist and architectural historian Mary Donohue, a particiapnt in the PBS episode, gave a 2015 lecture on the history of Connecticut Jewish farmers at Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek in Chester, Connecticut. The lecture was videoed in two parts. You can watch it by clicking on it beloe or on youtube.
For more information on Jewish Farmers in Connecticut see:
To find any of these books in a library go to worldcat.com, put in the title and if the result doesn’t show books in your area, put in your zip code or outside of the USA, your town and country.
Our Jewish Farmers and the Story of the Jewish Agricultural Society, 1943, by Gabriel Davidson, the General Manager of the Baron Hirsch Fund.
Back to the land, Jewish Farms and resorts in Connecticut, 1890-1945 by Janice Cunningham, published 1998. Out of Print but available in some public libraries in Connecticut and at the libraries listed at this link
The Connecticut Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR)’s Guide to the U.S. for the Jewish Immigrant, published 1912
A History of Jewish Connecticut by Betty Hoffman, published 2010.
The History of the Baron de Hirsch Fund, the americanization of the Jewish immigrant by Samuel Joseph, published 1978 available for sale at Amazon but costly and also available at the Library of Congress and many university libraries.
A Life of the Land: Connecticut’s Jewish Farmers by Mary Donohue and Briann Greenfield available for sale at Amazon but costly and also available at the Library of Congress and many university libraries.
Picturing Faith by Colleen McDanneli, featuring 1940 text and photos prepared by the U.S. Government as part of a Depression relief program that hired photographers and writers to document American communities.
Excerpts from the book Picturing Faith about the Colchester community
“Hebrew Tillers of the Soil,” a nice summary of the Connecticut Jewish Farmers’ history
“From the American Scene: Colchester’s Yankee Jews, a 1955 article from COMMENTARY magazine.
A 2016 conversation with Sam Gejdenson, a former United States Representative for Connecticut’s 2nd Congressional District and a son of Jewish farmers.
A lengthy and very informative article on the Rockville community by Mark Raider, Professor of Modern Jewish History at the University of Cincinnati
Lebanon, Connecticut, Historical and Architectural Resources Inventory 2013. Pages 22-26 is a discussion of the Jewish Farming Community in Lebanon.
Teaching Local Immigration History. An 8th grade lesson plan on Connecticut jewish Farmers
A nice summary of Baron Hirsch’s work with Jewish farmers can be found in this article in the reform Judaism magazine.
- Rosenthal, Max. Agricultural Colonies in the United States, Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/909-agricultural-colonies-in-the-united-states