Era of truck farms being re-created at Benson-Hammond House @

March 28, 1994|By Consella A. Lee | Consella A. Lee,Sun Staff Writer

A story about the Benson-Hammond House in yesterday's Anne Arundel edition of the Sun gave the wrong location for the historic site. The building is on Aviation Boulevard in Linthicum.

* The Sun regrets the error.

Shortly after World War II, truck farming, which had driven the economy of northern Anne Arundel County since the 1860s, faded away and became a lost culture.

Gone are the farmers' wagons, and later trucks, that hauled strawberries, cantaloupes and cucumbers up to markets in Baltimore.

The city provided a ready supply of immigrants, most of them Poles, to work the farms. In May, when strawberry season began, farmers recruited women and children, some as young as 4, from Southeast Baltimore. The fathers stayed behind, often working as stevedores on the city's docks.


"In 50 years, a way of life disappeared," said Esther Doyle Read, archaeologist with the Ann Arrundell County Historical Society.

"This was strawberry and cantaloupe land," said society

executive director Beth Nowell.

The society is trying to re-create the bygone era at the Benson-Hammond House on Aviation Boulevard in Dorsey. They want to get a barn, picker's shanty, equipment shed and an outhouse to replicate the look of a typical 19th-century north county truck farm.

All the buildings must be authentic because Benson-Hammond, a former truck farm, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and with the Maryland Historic Trust.

"We hope to be able to have all the buildings on the site within the next three years," said Ms. Nowell.

Last fall, the society completed exterior work on a corn crib, a tack house and a summer kitchen/wash house that had been donated. Plans are in the works to start renovating the interior of the buildings this summer, said Ms. Nowell. The outbuildings were moved from Cromwell Farms to Benson-Hammond House three years ago.

The state almost demolished the house, which was vacant from 1959 to 1978. But the society intervened.

"It's one of the last standing farmhouses from an era that was only 30 short years ago. The area was covered with farms. This building is all we have left of this lost cultural history," Ms. Read said, recalling the conversation with state officials.

The workers, called pickers, lived communally in two-story wooden shanties, usually 100 feet long and 30 feet wide. They slept on straw bedding, hung sheets and blankets from ropes or wires to create a semblance of privacy. Farmers provided outdoor stoves. Fathers often trekked from the city to make weekend visits to their families. When the eight-week season ended, the women and children returned to their husbands and fathers.

Row bosses, often Polish immigrant men who spoke some English, served as intermediaries between the farmer and the families.

Mornings began with the bosses blowing their whistles, summoning the families to the fields.

The pickers earned $300 a season, a lot of money in those days. "Picker checks," brass tokens embossed with the farmers' initials and a number indicating the number of quarts or bushels picked, were the main currency.

More than 300 Anne Arundel County farmer's initials have been identified on the several thousand picker checks that have been collected. The shape of the checks varied, depending on the product: round for peas; octagonal for beans; scalloped for strawberries.

Some of the checks are displayed at Benson-Hammond House. Aside from those bits of brass, few artifacts remain of this agricultural system.

Though truck farming and its related canning industry began to decline in the 1930s, the deathblow came with the end of World War II.

Servicemen returning from the battlefields wanted homes for their families. Developers bought up land where crops once grew. In 1947, Harundale became the county's first major planned subdivision.

About the same time, Baltimore officials, realizing the growing importance of air travel, started buying up farms to build what is now Baltimore-Washington International Airport. The advent of refrigerated freight cars made it feasible for farmers from other states to transport their goods to Baltimore. Child labor laws played a role too, said society officials.

In barely a generation's time, what was once a rural agrarian society became a bedroom community for Baltimore and Washington, and the truck farms were no more, said Ms. Read.

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