Historical Markers
Lancaster County Historical Marker
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Lancaster County

Hershey/Gettysburg/Dutch Country Region


Marker Location:
Old Courthouse, N. Duke St., Lancaster

Dedication Date:
June 12, 1982

Behind the Marker

People from all over the world enjoy visiting Lancaster County. The short drive from Philadelphia and urban centers in the region lures visitors to come shop at outlet malls, and for fresh produce or handcrafts. Others come to enjoy the scenery and visit tourist sites in "Pennsylvania Dutch Country."

Lancaster County is the heart of the state's markerAmish population, the best-known of the hard-working "plain people" who have been farming the land since the mid-eighteenth century. Home to some of the richest and most productive non-irrigated farmland in the nation, Lancaster also has more farms than any other county in the Commonwealth and is the state's major producer of cattle, milk, eggs, poultry, horses, and tobacco.
Lancaster County Farmland
Lancaster County Farmland

When colonists from Europe first settled Pennsylvania, they brought with them their cattle, fowl, sheep, and other domesticated animals. At first farmers raised cattle primarily for their own and local use. In the late 1700s, farmers in the county pastured beef cattle for sale in the growing Philadelphia market. When railroads began to transport grass-fed cattle from western states in the 1850s, Lancaster county farmers bought the relatively inexpensive steers, fattened them up on locally grown corn, and then sold them for market in the city. By 1870, Lancaster County was the state's largest producer of beef cattle. In 2000, the county still boasted more than 3,000 cattle farms.

Farm families also kept motley herds of cows, unlike the black and white Holsteins we now associate with dairy cows. Farm women turned most of the milk they had into butter and cheese for home use and barter or sale. By the 1830s, butter was the main product of the commercial dairy industry developing in the counties surrounding Philadelphia - Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Lancaster - and it was not unusual for farm women to make a thousand pounds of butter in a season.
Chickens in cages
Chickens in cages
Dairying was still a seasonal business, taking place mostly in spring and summer when cows were "fresh." Pork production was often a sideline, since the buttermilk could be fed to hogs.

Local rail lines in the 1870s and 1880s created new markets for fluid milk, which could now be carried quickly to urban markets. Many people, however, associated milk with disease, so the industry grew slowly. Not until the twentieth century did tuberculosis eradication programs and nutritionists" promotions help dairying become the state's most important agricultural industry. Today, Lancaster County's 1,800 commercial dairies remain the largest number in the state.

The first chickens in Pennsylvania came with the Dutch and Swedes. In colonial times, every family had a small flock of "dung-hill fowl" that ran around the barn and garden. Independent and prolific, chickens were the ideal livestock, providing settlers with eggs and meat. Colonial women also kept geese for their valuable down, which they could sell or use to make warm comforters. Poultry and their products epitomized the early farm economy, in that they could be consumed by the family, sold, or traded. At first, the birds ranged freely, but soon they were housed in small shelters, usually located strategically near the house.

In the early twentieth century, industrial poultry farming came to Lancaster, with its large commercial hatcheries, improved egg production, and fowl bred for particular characteristics - Leghorns, for example, were raised for egg production and Plymouth Rocks for meat. By the 1920s, farmers were abandoning the free range method of keeping their flocks to raising them in pens with wire mesh floors raised off the ground, which significantly reduced losses from disease and parasites. Specialized hatcheries shipped day-old chicks all over the country using the rail network. During the Depression, more and more farm families turned to poultry as dairy prices dropped to rock bottom.

After World War II, poultry operations grew bigger and bigger as consumer demand rose, land prices went up, and agricultural labor grew scarcer. Producing chickens for meat also became an increasingly important part of the business. In Lancaster County especially, a new sight appeared on the rural landscape: long, windowless, one-story gable-roof buildings. The success of this "confinement method" led to the creation of "hen batteries," or battery houses - huge barns that housed thousands of chickens living in small wire cages with five to ten birds in each cage and cages stacked three or four high. American consumers delighted at the low meat prices and consistent quality at the same time that critics raised questions about the environmental and health impacts of large-scale confinement methods in which the "broilers" and "layers" were confined for life in "battery houses" where they could not flap, run, or scratch. In 2000, Lancaster County poultry farmers tended more than ten million laying hens and raised over forty-nine million broilers for market.
Black and white image of farmers and tobacco
Black and white image of farmers and tobacco

Tobacco, unlike cattle and chickens, is indigenous to the Americas. Native Americans introduced Europeans to tobacco - smoking was an integral part of Indian healing and religious ceremonies and later, after the arrival of the newcomers, conferences and treaty signings. In colonial times settlers occasionally grew a patch of tobacco for themselves or to sell or trade locally. Proprietor William Penn wanted his colony to be a major exporter of the crop and was frustrated that so few farmers took an interest in large-scale production of tobacco.

Commercial cultivation of tobacco in Pennsylvania took off after the American Civil War, primarily in Lancaster and York counties. Pennsylvania growers found their place in the market by growing tobacco well suited for cigar filler and binder. Indeed, the common nickname for a cigar - "stogie" - is derived from the Lancaster County town of Conestoga. In response to shrinking farm sizes, many Lancaster County farmers turned to tobacco, for no other crop generated so much income from so little space. In Lancaster County, it also fit neatly with the cattle economy, since manure feeds the nutrient demanding tobacco crop. It also provided work for large farm families. Pennsylvania tobacco rode the wave of cigar popularity into the twentieth century, but declined when the cigarette became fashionable. Although its output was decreasing, Lancaster County in 2002 still produced a total of 6.82 million pounds of tobacco, the most in the Commonwealth.

Still the most agriculturally productive county in the Commonwealth, Lancaster County is undergoing significant changes that endanger the county's agricultural heritage. As bulldozers bury rich farmland under mini-malls, outlet stores, and subdivisions, newcomers attracted by the county's rural character are transforming quiet country towns and villages it into the very places they sought to escape - traffic-congested suburbs.
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