New York State has been part of the craft beer revolution, with many successful microbreweries now keeping the public happy. Home-brewing has also become a passionate hobby for many. Along with these developments is a return to hop farming, once prevalent in upstate New York.
In the latter half of the 19thcentury and into the 20th century, hop farming helped shaped the economy and social life of Sharon Springs and neighboring communities.
By the Middle Ages, hops were the most widely used flavoring and stabilizer for beer making in Europe, having replaced a wide variety of herbs and flowers. The hop plant (Humulus lupulus) was reportedly introduced to America in about 1630. In the 18th century, with the growing number of German settlers in upstate New York, beer making became common along with a need for more and more hops.
Farmers grew a variety of strains for their special attributes. By the mid-19th century, New York State had attained the national leadership in the production of hops, with Otsego, Schoharie, Montgomery, Oneida, Madison and Chenango Counties having the most productive hop farms – the so-called hop belt.
Many year-round residents of Sharon Springs grew hops along with their other crops. Successful businessmen including urban brewers, who frequented Sharon Springs for its spas, also invested in regional hop farming.
To create a new hopyard cuttings were planted in small hills along rows about six feet apart. By the second spring hop poles – typically 12 feet high and of cedar – were needed to support the rapidly growing vines or bines (the flexible twining stems). By midsummer, the hop yard resembled a small forest with tall plants. Clusters of green cones containing the female buds grew at the top of the plants. Toward the end of summer, the buds were harvested by cutting the bines, lowering the poles, and plucking the buds over large boxes.
Pickers, many of them migrant workers from Albany or New York City, sang songs during the arduous task, some of the songs having originated among the hop pickers of England. The boxes were then used to carry the buds to hop barns (also called hop houses and hop kilns) for drying over charcoal fires.
The price of hops, set in New York City, varied significantly, ranging from about 10 cents to a dollar a pound. Since the cost of raising a crop was about 8 to 12 cents per pound, the risk was great but so was the potential of a big payoff.
In 1889, The New York Sun reported a “mania” for hop farming. The railroad played an important part in the hop business. Some of the pickers were brought in by train; hop poles were shipped in; and some of the bales of dried buds were shipped out.
On Chestnut Street in Sharon Springs, opposite the D&H depot (see our earlier blog “All Aboard!”) – the Hop Exchange Hotel (later known as the Pratt) became a commercial and social center for the hop culture. Out-of-towners during harvest time included the well-to-do frequenting spas as well as the hard-partying pickers with their songs and dances.
Hop farming in upstate New York declined rapidly over the ensuing decades. Repeated growing in the same hopyards depleted the soil, contributing to the plant’s lowered resistance to disease and insects. In 1909, a blight – the downy mildew Sphaerotheca humuli, popularly known as blue mold – attacked the hop crops. In 1914, an attack of aphids further reduced hop yields.
Meanwhile, hop farms out west offered stiff competition; Oregon, California and Washington took the lead in hop sales. Prohibition, beginning in 1920, eliminated much of the need for hops. Dairy farming and farming corn, grain, and potatoes again took the lead. Hop farming virtually disappeared from Schoharie County and the other counties where it once thrived. But some enterprising farmers are at it again. Wish them luck while you enjoy locally brewed craft beers.
The History Boys are
Chris Campbell has made his permanent home in Cherry Valley, NY. The Campbell family dates back to 1739 in this town, situated about eight miles from Sharon Springs. Some family members were captured by Tories and Iroquois allies in the Cherry Valley Massacre of 1778 during the American Revolution and taken to Canada, released two years later in Albany as part of a prisoner exchange. Chris is a rare book and map collector and has had a lifelong interest in history, especially relating to upstate New York and colonial land patents. He was the founder and first chairman of the Cherry Valley Planning Board and has worked as a surveyor and realtor as well as a researcher for the Otsego County map department. His hobbies include Ham radio.
Carl Waldman, also living in Cherry Valley, is a former archivist for the New York State Historical Association in Cooperstown. He is he author of a number of reference books published by Facts On File, including Atlas of the North American Indian and Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes, both originally published in the 1980s and both in their third editions. He is the co-author of Encyclopedia of Exploration (2005) andEncyclopedia of European Peoples (2006). Carl has also done screenwriting about Native Americans, including an episode of Miami Vice entitled “Indian Wars” and the Legend of Two-Path, a drama about the Native American side of Raleigh’s Lost Colony, shown at Festival Park on Roanoke Island in North Carolina. His hobbies include music and he works with young people in the Performance and Production Workshops at the Cherry Valley Old School.