Editor’s Note: Due to space constraints in our printed issue, we cut the following material from our cover story, “Finding a Niche: Farming in the Prince William Community.” We thought our readers would enjoy a more detailed history, which includes more data as well.
Prince William County’s history is rooted in agriculture. And even before the county’s founding in 1731, the big cash crop was tobacco. In fact, the town of Dumfries began with tobacco storehouses established by Scottish merchants. In “Landmarks of Old Prince William,” Author Fairfax Harrison wrote that founders of the towns of Dumfries and Alexandria started them around the same time in 1749. However, for the first 30 years of their existence, Dumfries was the more important town and got most of the tobacco trade in northern Virginia. Tobacco, however, rapidly depleted the soil and over time became less viable as a crop. Before the Revolutionary War, many farmers in northern Virginia switched to growing grains like wheat because of the high demand for grain in England and dwindling profit for tobacco due to the duties imposed by England. Dumfries, unfortunately, never looked beyond the tobacco trade, wrote Harrison, and its prosperity was short-lived.
Dumfries may not have recognized the importance of flour, but other nearby towns did. Although an iron works was established on the Occoquan River as early as 1760, it was the flour mills there that led to the establishment of the town of Occoquan in 1804, according to the book, “Occoquan” by Earnie Porta. The founders of the town of Buckland built it on the site of a grist mill. Formed in 1798, Buckland became a vibrant mercantile center with the distillery, tannery, another mill and stores.
Unfortunately, this prosperity too was brief. Reliance on poor farming practices and overuse of the soil damaged the area. Then in the 1820s and 1830s, the county, like the rest of the country, faced a series of depressions and panics, according to the book, “Coming to Manassas.” Demand for grains declined and wheat prices dropped. Many farmers abandoned the area and moved West or further south. Those that remained diversified their crops, learned to improve the soil, and used the latest technologies to cultivate their fields. The earliest recorded agricultural census of Prince William County completed in 1850 shows 579 farms, according to the UVA Historical Census Browser http://mapserver.lib.virginia.edu/.
As the railroad came to Manassas in 1851, it later became a strategic point for both Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War. It brought devastation to a peaceful farming area in the aftermath of three battles between 1861 and 1863. It took the area decades to recover.
“All who come down represent Prince William County as a perfectly desolated waste, without food in it for man or beast, and the few houses that are left standing as without occupants,” wrote Fairfax County resident Anne Frobel in her diary in 1862 in the book “Coming to Manassas: Peace, War and the Making of a Virginia Community.” After Union troops burned Haymarket 1862, the Washington Daily National Intelligencer published an account of the scene and wrote, “…the whole country, for all purposes of affording sustenance to man or beast for the next ten years to come, is a desert as hopeless as Sahara.”
After the war, most county residents returned to farming but postponed large-scale crop production and relied on subsistence farming. Subsistence farming is self-sufficient farming where farmers grow only enough food to feed themselves and their families. In 1865, J.T. Trowbridge noted his book, “The South: A Tour of Its Battlefields and Ruined Cities, a Journey Through the Desolated States, and Talks with the People: Being a Description of the Present State of the Present State of the Country, Its Agriculture, Railroads, Business and Finances” that between Alexandria and Manassas, he saw “no signs of human industry, save here and there a sickly, half-cultivated cornfield, which looked as if it has been put in late, and left to pine in solitude.”
In 1883, 18 years after Trowbridge’s visit, a Washington Post reporter noted the beginnings of the area’s recovery. Of the Manassas battlefield, he said, “The trampled fields are now of course growing green, and the bullet pierced trees have covered their scars with the growth of age.”
In 1974, the number of total farms in the county dropped to 276—with 127 of those farms making less than $2,500 in receipts (around $12,706 in today’s money).
Figure 2. The Number of Farms in Prince William County from 1900 to 2012
Figure 3 The Number of Farm Acreage in Prince William County from 1900 to 2012
Sources: Data for 1900 and 1920 is from the University of Virginia Historical Census Browser. Data for 1930 through 2012 is from the USDA Census of Agriculture.
Figure 4 Farm Acreage Distribution in 1925
Figure 5 Farm Acreage Distribution in 1964
Figure 6 Farm Acreage Distribution in 2012
Note: Some commodity groups such as Christmas trees, hogs and pigs, and milk were not reported because of privacy concerns for the farmers.