Jeff Semler: We tend to romanticize the past

November 08, 2011|By JEFF SEMLER |
  • Jeff Semler
Jeff Semler

Many people love the fall with the crisp air and the beautiful color. They will go to historic sites and remember, or do they?

Regular readers know I have a passion for both agriculture and history and I like to share both with anyone who will listen. However, one of my pet peeves is how we all tend to romanticize things.

Society romanticizes agriculture as this bucolic lifestyle, sort of a cross between “Mayberry” and “Green Acres.”

I wish I had a nickel for every time a person moves to our county, purchases a bit of acreage and wants to grow something. First they find out it is hard work and then they find out the economics of the effort and how it might just be cheaper to buy the food.

To be fair, many don’t give up because they are doing it because of all the extras. There is nothing like the smell of freshly turned soil or the taste of that first vine- ripened tomato. It is also a great learning laboratory for both young and old alike.

Now onto history, my wife and I love to visit historic sites, whether it is Fort Frederick, Antietam National Battlefield or Colonial Williamsburg, Va. What I often catch myself doing is sanitizing history. This valley was a fertile valley 149 years ago and just one month past the Battle of Sharpsburg.

What most of us forget is when the troops left this area they left behind a terrible mess. The farm fields were laid waste and the citizens lost most if not all their stores for the upcoming winter. Remember, in 1862 you grew nearly all the food you ate and if you didn’t grow it you bartered for it with neighbors in very close proximity. You didn’t jump in your car and drive to Weis, Martin’s or Food Lion and pick up provisions grown in California, Costa Rica or Canada. Your exotic provisions of the day were salt and sugar.

Today we are aghast when we hear stories from the battlefield. We need to know war does not discriminate. Soldiers, whether blue or gray, did not ask where your allegiance was; they just took what they wanted, and if you weren’t home, so much the better.

The same was true 230 years ago for the citizens of Williamsburg. The British and the Continentals had been helping themselves for several months as their troops moved up and down the peninsula. But now Cornwallis had surrendered and at least their spirits were raised.

With the Continental and French troops taking up residence, the holiday season would be better for at least the gentry class, and since a rising tide lifts all boats, as they say, provisions were available to take the edge off of the winter for all. Again, not to romanticize, the average Virginian still lived in a small one room house with a dirt floor.

So as you enjoy the bounty and color of the valley’s fall, remember, we have always been a vibrant agriculture community but it has not always been easy.

• Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by email at

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