Facts for Farmers by Laura Ploenzke

A book that may be more than 120 years overdue at Westlake Porter Public Library and that once belonged to the library’s founder recently arrived back at the library.

“Facts for Farmers”, a 1,034-page reference book edited by Solon Robinson and published in 1864, was donated to the Friends Book Nook in January by someone who had been cleaning out a relative’s attic and found the book, according to Peggy Gambrel, a volunteer at the Book Nook.

Unfortunately, “it was almost closing time, and we didn’t think to get [the donor’s] name,” Gambrel said, so the history of the book’s most recent owner may remain a mystery.

The identity of the book’s original owner seems certain, though. That individual was most likely Leonard G. Porter, whose signature appears in the book three times - on the flyleaf, on the blank page immediately following, and on one of the blank pages in the back of the book. Porter, a resident of Dover Township (as Westlake was known until 1940) from age 20 until his death at age 79 in 1884, was a civic-minded individual who held many leadership positions including one in the Dover Literary Society, a social and cultural organization established in the early 1880s. A staunch advocate of the idea of a community lending library, Porter willed $1,000 of his estate to be used to establish Dover’s first public library, which opened in 1886 and was known simply as Porter Library. He also willed his private book collection, from which “Facts for Farmers” undoubtedly came, to be incorporated into the library’s collection.

In addition to Porter's signature, the inside front cover of "Facts for Farmers" has an undated Porter Library bookplate containing five library rules for patrons. The second rule states, "A fine of ten cents per week, up to the value of the book, or set, will be imposed for retaining a book longer than two weeks." While the original price of the book is not known, and therefore prevents calculation of a theoretical maximum fine, the book is available for sale on several Web sites, including eBay.com. A first-edition leather-bound copy is listed at $74.99. Another site featuring old and rare books offers the book for $544.50.

Because “Facts for Farmers” had once belonged to the library and also thrice bore the library’s founding father’s signature, volunteers at the Friends Book Nook did not try to resell the book. Instead, they passed it on to the library’s local history specialist, Deborah Rossman, who said it was “such a thrill” to acquire the book.

“It is an exciting thing to add to the collection,” Rossman said. “The library has nothing else that Porter had signed.”

Remarkably, considering the book’s age and the fact that it had been stored in an attic for many years, the only visible wear to the book is some tearing and cracking along the spine. Several of the pages also contain brown spots, the result of years of storage in humid conditions.

Rossman says that, eventually, she may exhibit the book in a display case at the library for the public to view.

Had “Facts for Farmers” not contained Porter’s signatures and the Porter Library bookplate, the book itself would still be noteworthy. Bearing the complete title, "Facts for Farmers; also for The Family Circle. A Compost of Rich Materials for all Land-Owners, about Domestic Animals and Domestic Economy; Farm Buildings; Gardens, Orchards, and Vineyards; and all Farm Crops, Tools, Fences, Fertilization, Draining, and Irrigation.", the book comprehensively addresses the agricultural and domestic situations and concerns of its time. Undoubtedly, it must have been an indispensible resource for many American farmers, who made up a little less than 60 percent of the population in 1864 when the book was published.

Much of the advice in “Facts for Farmers” is straightforward - how to construct a stable; how to preserve food; how to plan, care for, and cultivate a productive orchard; how to make bread. Other advice and questions to contemplate, however, now seem archaic for most 21st-century individuals - how to detect the sex in domestic fowls’ eggs, whether or not to shoe hens, and the proper placement on the farm grounds of an outhouse, or “the temple of Cloacina”, as the author so eloquently describes it.

Along with the practical is also occasionally found the humorous, albeit most likely unintentional and perhaps solely from the perspective of contemporary readers. Under a heading titled “Snake Bites and Remedies” came this suggestion: “One remedy is to drink whisky, or any spirit, as soon as possible, sufficient to produce insensibility.”

Not all of the advice in “Facts for Farmers” is dispensed by the author. Robinson often attributes stories and helpful hints to readers, or “correspondents” as he refers to them, of farming magazines of the day, such as Gardener’s Monthly. One such correspondent is the focus of a story in a section offering advice about getting rid of rats. The author initially suggests tarring and feathering the rats, although he doesn’t explain how, and then writes: “One rather smart individual, not having tar, used spirits of turpentine. He was going to drive the rats out of his house cellar. He was entirely successful; for when he let the rat loose in his kitchen, with a “Shoo!” to it to go down the cellar stairs, it took the kitchen fire in its course, and then a pile of flax that lay in the cellar way. In two hours there was not a rat in the house, unless it might be a roasted one.”

In addition to providing an insight into the farming life of the mid-1800s, “Facts for Farmers” also offers a snapshot of social and cultural life nationwide at that time. In a chapter titled “Domestic Economy” in which all aspects of food are discussed, a subsection titled “Rations of Southern Slaves” states that plantation owners fed their slaves three pounds of food per day because “[that] is all that a laboring man requires.”

More than 20 steel engravings, each protected by a sheet of bound-in tissue paper and described by editor Solon Robinson, provide vivid illustrations within each chapter. The teeth of horses and cows at different ages, insects harmful to cotton and fruit, and various types of grasses are among the subjects rendered. Even a likeness of Robinson is included, but "placed here in opposition to the wishes of the author," as Robinson wrote to explain the presence of the illustration. Due to Robinson's nationwide notoriety in the agricultural world, the publisher thought readers would be interested in putting a face with a name. Robinson obviously allowed his likeness to be used, but " . . . the publisher has incurred the expense of its production."

Despite editor Solon Robinson's self-effacing claim in the book's preface to know "nothing" about farming, Robinson devoted most of his life to farming, practicing it as well as writing and lecturing about it. By the time "Facts for Farmers" was published, Robinson was 60 years old and had become nationally known as an advocate of agricultural reform and organization. In 1841, he founded the National Agricultural Society. Beginning in the early 1850s, he wrote an agricultural column for The New York Tribune. Although he spent most of his life in Indiana, he retired to Florida and died there in 1880 at age 77.

signature question

my copy has solon robinson's signature under his picture, is the printed or signed?

Another Great Bolg!

Hi Deb! I have enjoyed reading your blogs, but have never posted a comment. I just wanted to tell you to keep up the good work!


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