by Joe Parzych
The experimental White Coal Farm was owned by the Turners Falls Company. This corporation was founded by Alvah Crocker, who also founded Turners Falls, a village in the town of Montague, MA. Crocker used the term “White Coal” in reference to cheap water power produced by the power canal by the Turners Falls Dam. It may also have referred to the pumping of irrigation water using the flow of water through a penstock to power a water ram.
Crocker saw opportunities at every turn. A shaker and a mover, he began working in a paper mill in Fitchburg as a young man, and soon bought the mill, eventually buying several others, as well. He became president of the Boston & Fitchburg Rail Road, was active in politics as both a representative and a senator at state and federal levels. He not only founded the Turners Falls Company in 1868, and the village of Turners Falls, but also two banks in Turners Falls that bore his name. He also dug the power canal through ledge, bridged the canal in four places, and sold factory sites and home building lots. He even saw potential in “waste land” on the plains, in the area where the Turners Falls Airport is now. He successful enriched the sandy soil, irrigated it, and successfully grew profitable crops.
In a Special Dispatch to the Globe, an unnamed writer says, “The Turners Falls Company…is trying a very interesting experiment in cultivating the soil on what has been considered barren plain land at Turners Falls on the Connecticut River where its principle power stations are located…The sandy land had been considered worthless, especially as farm land.” The visionary Crocker saw the land’s potential and bought it up.
The writer continues, “An experiment, using small amounts of water pumped from the Connecticut River to irrigate the worthless sandy soil proved to be successful, warranting a large scale planting of Havana tobacco said to be nearly equal to any grown in the fertile lands of the Connecticut Valley, several acres of onions, a large corn and miscellaneous crops of a varied nature consisting of many farming truck and fine flower garden including a row of sweet peas, several rods in length with thousands of blossoms. The corn is only irrigated in part. Another experiment is being tried; the cultivation of about five acres of sweet clover and this was not irrigated…The crop is doing well but not nearly as well as it would do if irrigated.”
Sweet clover is an invasive plant brought to the U.S. in the 1600s. It is a bush-like plant that grows almost anywhere as much as five feet tall. It invades and degrades native grasses by overtopping and shading native sun-loving plants, but it is still used as a forage crop and soil enhancer. Plowing under the crop as “green manure” gave the sandy soil of the Montague plains much needed organic material. The sand deposit on the plains came from the delta of Lake Hitchcock which covered the area and left the sand deposit when the natural dam broke.
Nothing in the report describes how the Turners Falls Company pumped water 175 feet to irrigate the fields. A water ram or a paddle wheel using the Archimedes screw method to pump water would probably have been the most likely mechanism. The farm used a “one lunger” gasoline power unit to drive a pump. However, the term “White Coal” indicates that water power was the major method of pumping water — a lot of water. The Globe article states that, “It is estimate of experts that in an average season about 27,500 gallons of water per acre are necessary each week in order to give the proper moisture.”
The dispatch goes on to say, “The land is so sandy that a foundation underneath has to be established before the best results can be secured. This foundation is secured by a variety of ways.” The report does not specify what those “ways” were. Since photographs show a lot of poultry and large farm animals on the farm, manure from these animals was undoubtedly part of the foundation. The report goes on to state that “Fertilizers were used but in no larger quantities than used on the rich river bottom land [Connecticut River Valley land.]” Apparently, they refer to commercial fertilizer as opposed to manure.
Using the Connecticut River water for irrigation may have also contributed fertilization since the river and its tributaries were commonly used as a repository of untreated sewage. River silt was undoubtedly taken up with irrigation water, also contributing to the building up of soil. A large pipe on the river bank acted as a penstock to carry river water from a considerable distance upstream. It is thought that the penstock powered a water ram to supply river water to the fields.
Rather than rotating crops, commonly recommended, the experimental farm found that growing onions and tobacco on the same land for several years in a row actually increased yield. The Globe article goes on, “In other words, it is necessary to cultivate both tobacco and onions, probably five years, on the same soil before the best results are secured.” Often the underground root structure of plants is equal to the plant’s foliage above ground, so that organic root residue accumulation after several years would account for increased yields.
In a report to investors, the men at the head of the Turners Falls Company reported that they were hardheaded businessmen who view the experimental farm as a success. “Tobacco, onions and potatoes can be raised on formerly worthless land, now worth from $250 –$500 and acre. In five years, with the use of water, so-called worthless land on the Montague Plains can be made to grow large crops at a cost that will bring a large return on money invested.”
Since the experiment demonstrated that the former “waste” land could produce profitable crops, it seems strange that the upwards of 2,000 acres of land successfully put under cultivation in 1927 did not continue, probably because of the Great Depression, which followed soon after the stock market crash of 1929.
The fairly small Koch farm that was the core of the larger experiment continued for a number of years as a smaller operation, successfully raising chickens, growing strawberries and other market produce. Much of the 2,000 acres eventually was developed as home sites. The Turners Falls Airport continually encroached on the Koch Farm until the Koch Farm land and buildings were taken by eminent domain. The Turners Falls Fire Department burned the house and barn for training purposes and to clear the way for airport expansion. Sadly, no crops of any kind grow on this reclaimed land today.
by Joe Parzych