Early Life in Cabarrus County: Grain Crops

9 Apr 2014

The grain cradle, used beginning about 1830, caught the grain cut by its blades, making it an improvement over the 
sickle and scythe, which left the grain lying on the ground. Courtesy of Learn NC, University of NC, Chapel Hill.

“Essay of Agriculture,” written by William Shakespeare Harris (1815-1875), describes many aspects of early life in Cabarrus County including farming and building techniques, clothing and lifestyle. Here we discuss the primary grain crops grown in Cabarrus County during Harris’ day.

The earliest grain raised, primarily to provide flour and meal for bread, was corn. The first settlers cleared small patches in which to raise just enough corn for the family’s needs. Farmers had little need for oats, since horses and cattle were left to graze among the wooded landscape for food. A farmer rarely fed his livestock, “though some overmuch careful farmer sometimes gave his horse a little corn when he worked or rode him hard.”

As they cleared the land, farmers began growing wheat and rye. These crops, while supplying the local settlers with additional foodstuffs, also provided surplus for trade in Norfolk, Virginia and Charleston, South Carolina. Most frequently, the rye was converted to whiskey, for ease in transport, and traded coffee, sugar, tea, salt, iron and woolen fabric.

Another grain crop grown as soon as new fields were cleared was barley, from which our Cabarrus forebears made malt beer and whiskey. Harris describes the process for brewing malt beer and its uses:

“[The barley seed was] dried in a malt house and then put through a process of fermentation from which a most nutritious, but not intoxicating beverage was made. This was the only exhilerating [sic] wine tolerated on wedding occasions, and other frolics of the young people. . . . There are a few places where the ruins of the old malt housed may yet be seen.”

Whisky distillation from rye and barley had more economic uses than social ones on early Cabarrus folks, Harris relates:

“To the uniform sobriety which pervaded this primitive community there were no exceptions other than on the Christmas holidays – and then – true to the customs of a Scotch Irish ancestry – there were some men of middle life who would drink enough to make them feel like Tam O’Shanter.”

In fact, the primary reason these two grains were converted to whiskey was for ease in transport and trade, “having no facility for market – their productions of grain were not portable in any other form.”

Thanks to William Shakespeare Harris’ “Essay on Agriculture,” researchers know which grain crops sustained early Cabarrus County settlers and how those crops were used, both at home and in trade. The entire essay is available in the Lore Room at the Concord library.

Courtesy of the Cabarrus County Public Library, “Conspectus” (Dec 1995)