Farming the Salt Marsh with Dikes

by Terry Hussey

"Little green prairies of the sea," is the way John Greenleaf Whittier described a salt marsh in his poem Snowbound. It's also the title of Kim Seybold's doctoral thesis on salt marshes, followed by the sub title, Economic Uses and Construction. She told members of guests of the Milbridge Historical Society at their January 1 meeting that she first grew interested in the salt marsh while working for the National Park Service in New Jersey one summer.

Since that time Seybold has studied the subject extensively. She has published a book From Marsh to Farm about marshes in New Jersey, and she has come to the University of Maine to study marshes from Cape Ann, Massachusetts to Machias. In so doing, she has pulled together information from old journals, from interviews, and from scholarly publications, all of which tell the interesting story of how the early settlers in this area farmed the marshes.

The topic is of special interest to Western Washington County residents, because so much diking took place in this area. Remnants of these dikes are still visible today, 150 years later. The dikes created extended areas of fertile farm land.

Seybold said that salt marshes are created when silt washes in over lowlands. The silt collects on the eel grass, and begins to form muddy islands. Other grasses take root on the muddy islands, and soon the marsh is a sea of grass. The grasses that grow here are unique and couldn't grow without the briny conditions of the salt marsh.

Seybold said, "Salt marshes have three distinct zones, with distinctive grasses in each." In the lowest land, the land is covered with salty water every day, at every high tide. Only thatch grasses grow there.

The next zone, continued Seybold, is flooded only at extremely high tides, once or twice a month. Here grows grasses needing less salt water.

The third zone is flooded only very occasionally, maybe only once or twice in ten years. "In this upland zone," said Seybold, "grow the grasses found to be most economically viable."

Seybold said that salt hay can be harvested anytime from July to September, but it is most usual to harvest in the first two weeks of August. Occasionally, in an unusually long season, a farmer could harvest two crops of salt hay. "The salt hay is always harvested after the upland or English hay is cut because of the greater value in both nutrition and economic value of the English hay," said Seybold.

Harvesting the hay: a race against tide and time

"The time for cutting the hay depends on the tides and the phases of the moon," she continued. Farmers would watch for an extremely low tide and for the moon to be in apogee. "Getting in the hay was a race against the tide and time," she said. "In the 1700's in this country, the hay was cut by hand with scythes. Seybold read accounts of cutting the hay that told of huge numbers of people working together to get the hay in on time. It was time for plenty of hard work, but also a time for socialization, as neighbors worked to help each other. "The marsh was dotted with men as far as we could see," reported one old timer, remembering what the harvest was like. "Some I knew, some I didn't."

In areas south of Portland, the hay was left to dry on the marsh before it was harvested. The farmers would let the marsh freeze, then take their horses out on the marsh to bring in the harvest. The problem was keeping the hay in place until harvest time.

Seybold said that their solution was to drive cedar poles into the ground in a circular pattern called a straddle. Then the hay was piled on top of the poles in huge stacks. The high tide could go in and out, but the hay would remain high and dry until time for harvest.

Seybold said that by the 19th century, methods began to change. "They began to use horses and mowing machines for harvest." The mowing machines often had runners instead of wheels, and the horses were equipped with special shoes that made it possible for them to walk on the soggy ground. She said that they sometimes used a "drag," which was something like a giant garden rake which the horses dragged across the field. "And they used a boat called a gundalow," she said. This was something like a barge that could dragged across the marsh. It was used to move the hay and also to move the horses on and off the field.

The hay could be carried by placing it between two long poles and "poling it." One account said that a medium size armful of hay was as heavy as a grown man." The writer said that they might sink into the swampy land until the soil was well above the knees. And all the time they worked, they were besieged by flies and mosquitoes.

"It was free for the taking."

"Why grow marsh hay if harvesting is such hard work?" asked Seybold. The answer is simple. "It was there for the taking and it was practically free. There was no preparation of the land and no tilling. The marsh soil was very fertile, and the hay was abundant. She said that a farmer could keep a cow going all winter on a diet of salt marsh hay, but it was much better if you could mix the marsh hay with upland hay which had greater nutritional value.

Seybold explained that later in the 19th century, marsh farmers began to dig ditches to drain off rainwater and ground water, and to create more of the upland marsh, with its better grasses. "They were making the land drier," she said. This was a radical change in the process. It meant better hay, more acreage, and better harvesting conditions.

Every colonial settlement depended upon a marsh.

Seybold noted the historic importance of salt marshes and salt marsh hay in all of New England, even in colonial times. She said that of the earliest settlements in this country, from Norwich, Connecticut to Portland, Maine, every one had a salt marsh. She said that new settlers in an area usually couldn't grow upland hay the first year. They needed time to clear the land before they could plant. In that critical first year, they would cut the salt marsh hay to get their animals through the winter. Each settler in a new area was given some acreage in the marsh, as well as his home lot. She said that colonial court records show a great deal of squabbling about salt marsh land ownership, and about family legacies that included the marsh land. It was important for each settle to have his piece of salt marsh.

According to Seybold, late in the 1800's, just using the natural marsh land was no longer enough. Farmers were no longer growing hay just for themselves, but now were competing on a commercial basis. They were competing with western lands which grew huge quantities of hay. Farmers realized their soil was becoming worked out. Each year it was less and less productive. They needed to find additional farm land; and by diking, they could find it on the marsh. "The fertile soil was at their fingertips," said Seybold. Farmers began to reclaim the land by building dikes to hold back the water and create more tillable acreage.

Building the dikes

According to Seybold, the dikes were made by throwing up huge earthen mounds, working at low tide. These were at least eight feet wide at the bottom and

sometimes as much as 30 feet across. They began at six feet high and sometimes went as high as 15 feet tall. Dirt from the marsh or sod from the upland area was used to cover the dikes to hold the dirt in place. As the sod began to grow, it would take root and keep the dike from being washed away. With ditches to drain off the ground water, it was possible to create acres and acres of new farmland. You can see these formations, even today, from Delaware to Nova Scotia. Mose especially, you can see them in downeast Maine.

The marshy soil would take 10 to 15 years to leech the salt from the soil. At the end of that time, farmers could grow inland crops on the dike and all the lands protected by it.

A sluice gate was used to control the tidal waters. The sluice gate was a huge wooden box with clapper valves. At low tide, the outgoing water would open the door and let the water out When the tide came it, the weight of the water would close the gate and prevent salt water from entering the field.

The system worked well, but the problem was that it wasn't a project a man could do on his own. It took constant care and maintenance and lots of money to keep the dikes in good working condition. It took a group of men working together to be able to afford a dike.

Groups of land owners formed legally binding corporations to share the cost and work of building and maintaining the dike. Seybold said that court records for the period show petitions to the legislature to create diking companies. These dike companies were often good investments, and shares were often held by those in other occupations.

Four dikes visible in Milbridge Today.

Between 1820 and 1900, there were 25 diking companies in Maine, three of which were in Milbridge. Seybold said that in Milbridge, there was the Back Bay Diking Company, located just west of Pinkham Island, the Grain Point Diking Company, which was also located on Back Bay, and the Pigeon Hill Marsh Corporation which constructed a dike on Bobby's creek.

There was also a big diking company on the Narraguagus River, visible just before the turn to the Kansas Road and continuing for several miles up the river. Seybold said she has found no record of a petition to the legislature for the Kansas Road dike company, but that that wasn't unusual. Sometimes companies were formed without the legislature, and sometimes if the dike had existed prior to the legislation, no petition was required. There were also a number of dikes in Harrington and Steuben.

The dikes in Machias were some of the biggest found anywhere downeast. The dike at Helen's Restaurant in Machias was built as a marsh dike. Rather than a corporation, the Machias dikes were owned by one individual, Joseph Fenno. He put untold money into the projects, but ended his has days as a pauper. Perhaps his problem was that there was too much money spent on the system for one man to assume the costs.

Seybold showed the 432 persons gathered at the Milbridge Historical Museum slides of dike--in current times and n the past. She also showed how salt marsh farming was depicted in art and in literature by writers such as Sarah Orne Jewett and John Greenleaf Whittier. Use of the marsh land was deeply embedded into the culture of our country.

As you travel along the back roads downeast, be on the lookout for odd land formations in the wetlands. If you see a serpentine hump of earth, all covered in grass, it's likely that you are looking the remains of a salt marsh dike that was built more than 100 years ago by hard working farmers in the late 1800's. Think about how many shovels full of dirt it would take to make a mound eight feet at the base and 15 feet high, that might go for several hundred yards, even a mile or so, across the marsh. Working with a natural resource based economy has never been easy.