Harris Documents Early Farm Life in Cabarrus County

19 Apr 2015

“American Farm Yard – Evening,” Currier and Ives, 1857. Library of Congress.

Previous blog articles have discussed William Shakespeare Harris’ twelve-page, hand written essay titled “Essay on Agriculture” (9 Apr 2014 and 30 May 2014). The essay details early life in Cabarrus County, including crops, farming and building techniques, clothing and lifestyle. Presumably, Harris learned much through his own experiences and those of elder Harris family members. Unfortunately, the date and circumstances of the essay are unknown. However, William Shakespeare Harris seems to have written the essay in response to a request from another party, most likely between 1850 and 1875 after Harris had farmed for a number of years.

After the passing of his first wife Elizabeth Torrence Powe in 1849, William Shakespeare Harris married Jane Witherspoon Ervin about 1851. They had at least four children, listed in the 1870 census as E. Ervin, age 13; Charles J., age 11; Brevard E., age 8; and Jane E., age 6. William Shakespeare Harris (1815-1875), Elizabeth Powe Harris (1824-1849) and Jane Ervin Harris (1825-1890) are buried at Poplar Tent Presbyterian Church Cemetery in Concord, where Harris served as Church Elder for 26 years.

“Favoni,” the home of Dr. Charles Harris, and later son William Shakespeare Harris, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. It was located near
Poplar Tent, in Concord, but burned in 1990. The two-story log section was built about 1791, with a two-story frame addition forming an “L” shaped dwelling, about 1840.

The Agricultural Census schedules of 1850-1870 show Harris’ successes in farming. In 1850, Harris liste 840 acres, with his farm valued at $8,000. He kept 8 horses, 12 milk cows, 14 other cattle, 25 sheep and 107 swine. His largest crop was Indian corn, but he also grew wheat and oats. In 1860, his holdings expanded to 915 acres, still valued at $8,000. he kept 7 horses, 9 mules, 12 milk cows, 18 other cattle, 20 sheep and 100 swine. Indian corn was still his largest crop; although he added some cotton and increased his wheat production. His oat harvest remained the same. Harris had 48 slaves.

By 1870, the Harris farm decreased in size, probably due to the post Civil War economic depression. Harris owned only 455 acres valued at $4,000, 1 horse, 3 milk cows, 7 other cattle, 10 sheep and 9 swine. He no longer produced oats, and his wheat, Indian corn and cotton productions all were down by half. Despite the decline, Harris still ranked as a fairly prosperous Cabarrus farmer and his essay is worthy of consideration for its details on agriculture and many other aspects of life in Cabarrus County.

In one passage, Harris describes the land as it appeared to the earliest settlers in the area: they found “a wilderness of cane, through which they cut their pathways with hatches brought with them from Pennsylvania…such was the exuberance of the virgin soil–that the pathways would fill up every spring–the tread of a sparse population and few domestic animals not being sufficient to keep them open…The timber…was principally large trees but was abundant enough for fuel and building.”

Early houses were built of “exceedingly ponderous” logs, “preserved through a century of time,” and “covered with boards secured against the wind and storm.” It was expensive and very difficult to get nails. In later years, some houses had thatched roofs: “When farmers began to raise rye, they adopted the quaint mode of covering their farm houses with rye straw. So thoroughly thatched and laid in parallel [sic], that such roofs have been known to last 70 years.

William Shakespeare Harris’ “Essay on Agriculture” reveals much more about everyday experiences and way of life of early Cabarrus county settlers. The entire essay is available in the Concord Library Lore Local History Room.

Courtesy of the Cabarrus County Public Library, Lore Local History Room.