Spencer-Peirce-Little-Farm Landscape History
The Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm landscape is primarily that of a 230-acre working farm, under continuous cultivation since 1635. The entrance to the farm is distinguished by a grand allee, originally of elm trees, now of maples. There are also a variety of small flower beds and decorative shrubs in the house yard.
Livestock and Crops
In 1635, when John Spencer received the grant of four hundred acres, the farm was prime grazing and hay-producing land. In addition to meadows producing rich grasses, the salt marsh provided mineral-rich, easily accessible hay. John Spencer built a barn and began raising sheep and cattle, as did his successor, Daniel Peirce.
By the end of the eighteenth century, Nathaniel Tracy owned the farm. The inventory of farm produce itemized at Tracy's death includes a fairly typical array of crops, salt, and English hay, barley, corn, cider, potatoes, as well as oxen, a few cows, horses, and swine. It was still the town's most valuable property.
In 1796, the farm was sold to Offin Boardman, who alternated his mercantile pursuits with days at work on the farm, repairing fences, spreading dung, grafting trees. Among other activities described, Offin did such mundane tasks as preparing fields for planting, hauling loads of wood, thatch, and hay, and barreling apples and potatoes, apparently for sale.
At his death, Boardman's Farm was surveyed to accurately map the dower rights of his widow, Sarah Tappan Boardman. This survey is the earliest historical document that illustrates the size, shape, and use of fields surrounding the house. It describes a flower garden just to the west of the mansion house, just off the wooden wing added by Boardman. In one of Boardman's yearly summaries of the farm, Boardman grew a variety of crops and kept cows, sheep, and geese.
The Little family (1851-1986) were enterprising and flexible farmers, businessmen, and entrepreneurs. This farm was a commercial and profit-making enterprise for them. It had been worked by tenant farmers before the Littles bought it, when it was owned by the Pettingell family. Under the arrangement before Edward Little, the tenants worked the land in exchange for splitting a portion of the yearly income with the owners. Edward Henry Little had a different sort of arrangement: he paid a flat rental fee, and any profits above that were his. Ed Henry operated and managed the farm himself with hired laborers, some of whom lived in the attached farmhouse with their families. He did not, however, have a tenant farmer working the land.
This farm was highly profitable and he engaged in a variety of enterprises. Ed Henry Little had the resources to move with market to maximize his profits. His dairying was highly profitable during the 1860s. He grew onions, knowing that Newbury was an important onion-producing region. He also grew market vegetables to feed the urban residents of Newburyport, a busy industrial and port city at that time. He also rented his oxen
to others for a variety of tasks, sold the manure his large herd of cows produced, boarded animals for others, and rented fields. He used Irish men as farm laborers, occasionally renting the tenant house to an Irish laborer and family. He was active in agricultural societies, and was trustee of Essex Co. Agriculture Society.
One business enterprise we have recently learned about provides a good example of his business skills. During the 1860s he rented small portions of his fields (1/4 to 1/2 acre) to these men to grow potatoes, charging $1.00 per row (four rows = 1/4 acre). He then charged them for manure to fertilize the rows, and, in some cases, to cultivate the crop. He then charged them to cart away their crop (most of these men did not own wagons). While some men paid cash for all this, some men ended up paying him in labor, so he was able to benefit from that as well. Little was able to improve his land at someone else's expense, and also "do good" by the community's standards, by providing employment.
The farming operation for the period when his sons ran the farm (1878-1912) consisted of dairying, growing grains and other field crops, haying English hay and salt marsh hay, importing draft horses from Iowa, and the other activities needed to support these enterprises. The farm contained up to thirty milk cows in the early twentieth century, making this one of the largest farms in this area. It is important to remember that these cows were milked by hand, which would take fifteen hours twice a day.
The Stekionis Family
During the twentieth century, the management of the farm was left to Jacob Stekionis, while portions of the farm were leased or sold to other farmers who worked the land. Jacob Stekionis worked for the Littles from 1913 until his death in 1984, for seventy-one years. In 1935 Jacob and Dorothy Stekionis purchased the livestock from the Littles and sold milk and market vegetables like squash and potatoes for their own profit. They also managed an apple orchard and harvested and sold salt marsh hay. They paid no rent to the Littles, nor did they receive any pay, but they did supply the Little family with milk, vegetables, meat, and apples. Other tenant farmers included, during World War II, the Suffolk Farms Packing Co. of Revere, which grew spinach for the war effort; and Dick Wash, a local Newbury farmer who eventually purchased some fields abutting the farm and grew flowers that were sold fresh and dried.
Today the farm yard is interpreted to the period 1890 to 1935. Much of the farm land is leased to local farmers.