During the past fifty years, reforestation of the Pratt Farm has brought with it a diversity of trees and the forests now beginning to occupy much of the farm tell an interesting tale of succession, how the land came to be reforested following the man-made disturbance of wholesale clearance for agriculture in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
During the nineteenth century, Middleborough, like much on New England, became increasingly reforested for a number of reasons. Some natural reforestation of lands previously used agriculturally occurred with the introduction of coal as a replacement for wood as a heating fuel and the rapid decline in sheep rearing, both of which had previously dictated widespread clearance. Additionally (and ironically), the use of treeless areas for pasturage also encouraged reforestation as cattle refused to eat the unpalatable white pine seedlings, allowing them to ultimately grow to maturity if farmers failed to mow grazing lands. Often hard-pressed for labor, Middleborough farmers could not always keep pastures mown, and white pine forests soon crowded out livestock.
Significantly, however, some of Middleborough’s pinelands were created deliberately on worn out or agriculturally useless lands whose soils were too poor for other crops, and incidences of local farmers setting out pines on such unproductive land in Middleborough are recorded throughout the period.
In April, 1850, Augustus Pratt of North Middleborough sowed seventeen acres with white pine seed. Forty years later, Pratt cut these same pines, and sold them for boxboards to the local mill at $6 a cord. Pratt estimated, at the time, that the land averaged “over forty cords of box board logs to the acre, besides a large quantity of wood.” In 1853, Richard Sampson of Purchade “set pines on land to poor to cultivate” which was valued at $150 an acre thirty-one years later, thanks to its prodigious growth of standing timber. Ten years after Sampson, Zebulon Pratt of Bridgewater in the spring of 1863, set out twenty-five acres of white pine at North Middleborough on worn out land, “having a desire … to improve the view, and to learn the result of the outlay.”
Clearly, the reforesting of Middleborough’s “waste lands” by local farmers, though uncoordinated, occasionally motivated by curiosity rather than profit (as in the case of Zebulon Pratt), and frequently stemming from a failure or inability to keep pastures mowed, was altering the physical landscape locally during these years, resulting in an increasingly forested community. One commentator, speaking in 1884, remarked that he had “ascertained by an examination that I made several years ago, that there were at that time about five thousand acres of woodland in the town of Middleborough more than there were fifty years previously.”
The reforestation of Middleborough, coupled with the establishment of Middleborough’s railroads during the late 1840s and 1850s laid the foundation for the community’s development as a lumbering center in the last half of the nineteenth century. By 1855, Middleborough was the largest lumber producer in Plymouth County.
The national post-war expansion demanded enormous quantities of lumber and white pine harvested locally became a valuable commodity much in demand. The ability of Middleborough farmers to substantially meet this demand bore formidable results.
By 1870, Middleborough’s largest farms like the Pratt Farm incorporated a high percentage of “unimproved” land (primarily forested land) and many were to derive the bulk of their income from this source rather than from traditional non-forest products such as hay, potatoes and dairy products. Fifteen years later, in 1885, Middleborough had achieved the top rank in the Commonwealth, producing more than twice as much lumber as its nearest competitor, a large proportion of which was harvested from Middleborough’s farms.
Helping sate the demand for timber by these hungry mills was the Pratt Farm which by 1870 was producing wood, possibly cordwood for heating.
Middleborough’s startling success as a lumbering town attracted the attention of those interested in agriculture, including the Massachusetts State Board of Agriculture whose annual meeting in 1884 revealed a considerable preoccupation with forestry and the specific example of Middleborough.
In December, 1884, Elbridge Cushman of Lakeville, soon to be President of the Plymouth County Agricultural Society and later agricultural correspondent for the Middleboro News, made his case for the white pine before the State Board of Agriculture, citing the specific example of Middleborough’s success:
It was the rapid increase in the town’s acreage of pine lands which most responsible for the community’s successful economic growth in this arena. This rapid reforestation “may account for all the prosperity they have been having the last few years in this revenue from box-board logs,” emphasized one commentator of the situation at Middleborough. F. H. Appleton restated the point, arguing that “the plantations of Middleborough and vicinity are proof of the profit that can come from planting trees judiciously upon the poorer quality of land. It was my pleasure to view those plantations of white pine which have succeeded so well, and they are in themselves sufficient evidence of success.”
While concerns about rapid depletion of forests elsewhere impacted the manner in which timber might be harvested, such concerns had little impact upon Middleborough where the number of trees harvested each year by farmers and timber owners fell far short of the numbers reaching maturity.
Despite the abundance of white pine lumber in the region, the key to its profitable exploitation remained the railroad which became an important carrier of freight for Middleborough’s farmers. The relationship of the railroad to Middleborough’s economic vitality was readily deductible and though not often vocalized, was clearly understood by commentators on the State Board of Agriculture.
Reforestation was also hastened at the end of this period through the abandonment of farms, a widespread phenomenon in the final decades of the nineteenth century. In 1885, it was stated that there were some 100 abandoned farms in Middleborough. While the figure five years later was much lower (only 18), it was more an indication that there were fewer farms left to abandon, rather than any slackening in the pace of abandonment. In fact, it was reported in 1891 that “Middleboro and Westport are retrograding as farming towns faster than any others in this section of the state.”
Clearly, in Middleborough at least, industrial development often supported and financially facilitated by local “boosters” attracted increasingly greater numbers of people to manufacturing jobs centered about Middleborough Center, a trend which brought with it a corresponding decline in the number of families earning a living from the land. As farms were abandoned, many were left to return to a “less civilized” form of nature, and the process would continue throughout the twentieth centuries as farms like the Pratt Farm were abandoned to farming purposes and allowed to be reclaimed by nature, with new "succession" species appearing.
Sugar Maple Leaf (Acer saccharum), Pratt Farm, Middleborough, MA, photograph by Mike Maddigan, Autumn, 2004.
Pratt Farm Tree Cover, 1831.
The map shows the area of the present-day Pratt Farm Conservation Area circled in red, as well as the limit of tree cover in 1831. Cleared for both agriculture and commercial forestry, the land has gradually reforested itself following the abandonment of farming in 1964.
White Pine, American Beech and Red Oak Forest, Pratt Farm, Middleborough, MA, photograph by Mike Maddigan, October 27, 2004.
Pines, beeches and oaks each drop rot-resistant leaf litter, inhibiting the growth of herbaceous plants beneath them, and resulting in a relatively open forest environment. Here, the pine-beech-oak forest is captured at Stony Brook.
Eastern white Pine (Pinus strobus) botanical plate, early 20th century.
The ubiquitous white pine may be found throughout the Pratt Farm. Leaf litter from the tree and neighboring oaks help inhibit the growth of other species, ensuring the predominance of the white pine forest.
Autumn Colors, Pratt Farm, Middleborough, MA, photograph by Mike Maddigan, Autumn, 2004.
The view depicts the area of the Farm Road as seen from Sachem Street. The diversity of deciduous trees including the dominant species oak, maple, and beech provide a rich array of autumn colors.
White Pine, American Beech and Oak Forest, Pratt Farm, Middleborough, MA, photograph by Mike Maddigan, October 27, 2004.
Such pine-beech-oak woods are the predominant forest type at the Pratt Farm.
Box Elder (Acer negundo), Pratt Farm, Middleborough, MA, photograph by Mike Maddigan, September 11, 2004.
Frequently confused with maples, box elders also disseminate their seeds in easily identified "keys". The keys remain a favorite of children who open them up to stick on their noses.
Aspens, Pratt Farm, Middleborough, MA, photograph by Mike Maddigan, October 27, 2004.
Numerous other species of trees are present at the Pratt Farm, and an afternoon accompanied with a camera and a good tree identification book is a worthwhile educational experience for children and adults, alike.