National Geographic : 1941 Nov
Black Acres A Thrilling Sketch in the Vast Volume of Who's Who Among the Peoples That Make America BY DOROTHEA D. AND FRED EVERETT O NLY fifty miles from New York City a band of immigrants is pioneering America much as our forefathers did. Most of these immigrants are Polish. About 1880 a few recent arrivals from Poland were brought upstate from New York City to help on the farms around the towns of Florida and Pine Island. They had been stifled by the unfamiliar life of the big city. When first they saw the black acres of the Orange County mucklands stretching out be fore them like the beloved soil of their native Poland, they fell on their knees, crying for joy, and kissed the dirt. They have literally been on their knees ever since, raising onions and other crops. A Saga of Humble Folk and Good Earth It was our good fortune about four years ago to move to Florida, New York, and come to know the drama in the lives of these unusual people. Their story is a saga of dis mal swamps and lowly folk, of the sweat and toil of a courageous people fighting odds, of the growth and flowering of a new generation out of the black dirt. It is evolution both of humanity and of the soil, the transformation in little more than half a century of a miscellaneous body of foreigners into a group of loyal, self-reliant Americans. Until recently these people and their soil were little known, although Goshen, only five miles north, has been famous for years as the seat of the Hambletonian, classic of harness racing (page 638). Florida's first claim to fame was as the birthplace of William H. Seward, who became Governor of New York State, United States Senator, and Secretary of State in the Cabinet of Abraham Lincoln during the War between the States. Today the house of his birth is a barn, and the village is rapidly becoming more famous as the capital of the richest onion producing section in the State. Soon after our arrival we began to make excursions to watch the ever-changing land scape as the farmers tilled the soil, the crops grew, and the harvest came. The fresh-turned muck of early spring is a deep, moist black. It stretches for miles like a soft rug, divided into rectangular designs by the green-edged drainage ditches and dotted at regular inter vals with small, weather-beaten, unpainted sheds or small houses. As the weeks pass, the crops and weeds slowly change the rug to a beautiful dark green, which by harvest time fades to the dull yellow of dead onion tops. All the time the view is speckled with hundreds of industrious workers. The soil is as soft and springy as sponge rubber and will pulsate for many yards if one jumps on it. It is also soft to the touch, and the farmers on their knees seem to caress it as they pull up weeds and then smooth the dirt back into place with their hands. In these black acres skeletons of the Amer ican mastodon have recently been unearthed. The upright position of some of the skeletons shows that the area was once a huge swamp or lake, with islands of higher ground jutting up out of the water. As the years passed, decaying vegetation composed the muck, which pushed out the water and formed a rank, dis mal swamp overgrown with lush vegetation. Such were the black acres at the beginning of our country's history. Until the last half century these acres were known as the Drowned Lands, and were considered worth less except for a few spots cleared for vege table gardens.* Game and birds abounded, beaver and muskrat being so plentiful that their furs added greatly to the wealth of the early settlers. Little was known about the value of the black muck until a series of reclama tion projects had drained the Wallkill bed and cleared the swamps of water except during floods. One of these projects was financed by New York State. A large fund was appro priated to cut off one of the biggest loops in the river between New Hampton and Denton. A Drainage Project Caused Fighting William J. Clark, of Pellets Island, one of the oldest residents of the Wallkill Valley, re calls the bitter conflict over the cutoff. Resi dents who were benefited by the canal called themselves the Muskrats, and those who thought their lands harmed were the Beavers. The Beavers would build dams to force the * See Map Supplement "The Reaches of New York City," NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, April, 1939.