What was farming like in Portsmouth before the Civil War?  Back in 1840 a Portsmouth farmer named Judge Joseph Childs responded to some questions about his farm.  This report was published in the New England Farmer and Horticultural Register, Vol. 19 for 1840.  This questionnaire gives us a unique glimpse into farm methods, crops planted and profitability of a small Portsmouth farm.  Charles Jackson (in his Report on the Geological and Agricultural Survey of the State of Rhode Island – 1840) also uses Childs’ report in making observations on the agriculture of Aquidneck Island.

Judge Child (Childs – I have seen it spelled both ways) must have been notable since Rev. Edward Peterson includes him in his 1853 History of Rhode Island (page 287).   Peterson thinks of him as a representative Portsmouth farmer.

“Farms generally are small, having been cut up and divided time to time. This, however is preferable, as a few acres, well cultivated, will yield far more than a larger quantity, partially cultivated….As illustration of this truth, it may be found in the proceeds of the model farm of the late Judge Child of Portsmouth, which contains about forty acres of land.  It was stated to the author, that he had realized $1000 per annum, independent of his living.”

Since Childs is listed as “Judge Childs” it is clear that he held public office and like most farmers in Portsmouth, he probably had other occupations beyond farming.

Possible location of Childs’ farm.

Jackson’s report tells us that “the farm of Judge Childs is situated in Portsmouth, on the eastern side of the island, near the sea shore.  Looking at an 1850’s map of the island there is land owned by John Childs in the Newtown area near Child’s Wharf that would probably fit that description.   Jackson visited the farm itself and collected soil samples. John Childs is listed as the executor of Joseph Child’s will, so he may have inherited the land or some of the land.

Childs reported that his farm was about 46 acres.  Twenty-one of the acres was plowed land, 6 acres were in pasture, over 16 acres were hay and two and a half acres were orchard.  Most of his land (over nine acres) was in growing Indian corn.  Four acres were devoted to potatoes, and another two and half to rye.  Child also grew peas, onions, turnips, wurzel (beetroot), apples, pumpkins, cabbages, and grapes.  Childs lists onions as his most profitable crop.  He sold them as far as New York.  Potatoes were the next most profitable.

He had livestock as well and produced 2000 lbs of beef, 2000 lbs of pork and 300 lbs of butter.  His stock included two horses, two oxen, 5 cows, 12 hogs and 40 chickens.

The judge was seventy-one years of age and he and his wife worked what they could on the farm.  The census lists four people on the land working agriculture.  He hired labor for about $500 a year.

Childs reported that he used 350 large ox-loads of manure per year.  That manure was made of fish, sand, sea weed, green weeds and remains from hog-pens and barn yard manure.  He experiments with composting with spent ashes and lime.

When asked “what agricultural experiments have you made?” Childs replied that “I change my seeds often, and practice a careful rotation of crops with every thing except onions.”

Rev. Edward Peterson’s history comments in his section on Childs that “Farming is a most honorable employment, and the most independent which can possibly be followed.”  Joseph Childs and his farming success are clearly examples of this “honorable” employment.