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Hops Preliminaries

1875 map of Hardwick, Vermont, published by F.W. Beers & Co., showing the location of a "hop yard" on or near property owned by B.P. Colier, above Hardwick Center



Adam Krakowski has pointed out that Vermont was an important locale of hops farming during the 19th century, with production peaking around 1860, then entering decline through the rest of the century. Various factors contributed to this decline which, alongside the challenging nature of hops agriculture, included the gradual diffusion of hops farming to the Midwest and West in the latter part of the 19th century, and perhaps also the Temperance movement somewhat later on. But during the heyday of hops agriculture, Vermont produced more hops than any other state except New York.


Even so, as Krakowski notes, hops farming was a gamble in Vermont, especially if the season was too rainy. It seems that sugaring, the more traditional crops such as potatoes, oats, and wheat, and grass raised for hay to feed livestock, were more reliable mainstays for local farmers. Following its demise, hops farming would not be revived until a full century later, in the mid-1980s, amidst the surging craft beer movement.


Henry O. Woolley farmed about 136 acres in northern Vermont, near the town of Derby. According to his 1865, diary, Woolley followed an unsurprising pattern of agricultural activity. He or members of his household chopped and hauled wood in winter, sold corn, threshed oats and beans, and "broke" or opened the roads as Spring arrived. For example, as sugaring season approached, on 10 March 1865 Woolley "Went to mill/Broke road to Sugar house".  On Monday the 20th, Woolley purchased a sap pan from a neighbor who was perhaps a local merchant, and on Tuesday 21 March he began tapping maple trees. Woolley's entry for March 25th notes that he "Gathered sap and boiled all day", persisting in that activity nearly every day through about 10 April, after which he sowed oats and wheat, and planted potatoes.


An aside on sugaring: According to the Dictionary of American Regional English (available online by subscription at www.daredictionary.com), the term "sugar place", used to denote the site where tapping and boiling of sap take place, is virtually unique to Vermont; it has been recorded in parts of New Hampshire, but mainly in those places bordering Vermont.* The diaries I read at VHS, including Woolley's, use this term without exception. "Sugar place" appears in printed and archival sources from as early as 1825, through the 20th century; then as now, hops farmers may tap maple trees and boil sap in addition to growing hops. Needless to say, maple syrup is often added nowadays to craft beers, hard ciders, and some distilled spirits produced in Vermont.


Woolley records the first hops-related entry of that year on Saturday 25 May, when he notes that "Plowed hops/fore noon".  Over the course of the following week he "scattered Hop poles" and on the 16th and 17th he "set Hop poles" and "finished Hop holes".  By the 25th, Woolley had "Finished sticking Hop poles & worked in garden". These entries reflect the principal method of cultivating hops, which involves setting cedar poles in the ground and stringing wires to facilitate the climbing hop vines, which grow rapidly and aggressively. According to herbalists, the hops plant is dioecious, meaning that a given plant may contain either male or female flowers, but not both. The female hops plant, not the male plant, is used for brewing beer.


On the 19th and 20th of June he "howed [hoed] the Hop yard" and also hoed corn and potatoes, and around that time also sowed turnips. Woolley writes that he put ashes on the hop yard toward the end of June, and two months later, on 28 August he notes that he "Commenced picking hops", which activity continued for a few days, till September 1st. Woolley mentions hops only once more that year, when he notes on 17 November that he "plowed below the hop yard", a chore that was probably unrelated to hops cultivation on the Woolley farm.


It's unclear how much production Woolley derived from his hops acreage, or indeed, just how much acreage he devoted to cultivation of the hops plant. I was unable to review all the extant Woolley diaries at VHS, which cover the years 1865, 1870, 1871, 1873, 1876, 1877, and 1895, though I was able to go through the 1877 diary, which contains references to hops farming that are similar to those of the 1865 diary. Woolley records having "stuck hops" on Saturday 8 June of that year. Interestingly, he records having "Cultivated hop yard" on June 14th, and also that day, writes that "Mrs. Horton tied hops", suggesting that for the 1877 season, at least, he'd hired someone to help with gathering and processing of hops. Other entries provide a little more information about hired help, as for example on Saturday 1 September, when Woolley writes, 'rained/carried the hops Girls home".


It seems that Woolley may not have cultivated hops on consecutive years, or every year.  Skimming through the 1873 diary, for example, I saw no mention of hops in the entries for that year. By 1894, Woolley records what appears to be a valedictory entry, possibly indicating that he's no longer growing hops. On Wednesday 2 May he writes, "Planted a few potatoes by hop house"; there are no other references to hops for that year.


*Discussing maple sugaring terminology, Hans Kurath suggests as much in his classic A Word Geography of the Eastern United States, where he reviews the various maple sugaring terms that have been in use in the northeast: "New England itself has a variety of expressions. Maple grove is little used in areas where such groves are located, but it is common in southern New England from Boston to New Haven, especially in urban areas. Upland Maine and eastern New Hampshire have sap orchard, northeastern Vermont and the adjoining parts of New Hampshire have sugar place, the greater part of Western New England sugar orchard. Sugar orchard is used also on the lower Merrimack and, though less commonly, in other parts of Eastern New England. It is rather striking that none of the local New England expressions have survived west of the Hudson River." (p. 76)


A few words about oasts:


This word, "oast", designating a sort of kiln where hops are dried, was commonly used in England but appears to have been relatively uncommon in North American speech. Interestingly, "oast" does not appear at all in the online Dictionary of American Regional English. This is a telling absence. Instead, the word "kiln" may have been more widely used, though "oast" was probably known here, given that English publications on hops culture were imported and distributed in this country, according to Michael A. Tomlan in his book, Hop Culture in the United States. In fact, one of the diaries I read at the historical society in Barre makes at least one mention of a "hop house", which I assume to have been a structure, whether makeshift or purpose-built, where hops were processed and dried. The word "oast" doesn’t occur in these 19th century documents, though it must have been known in this country given the influence of the English manuals, whether or not it was used in everyday speech.


Still, the word is interesting, perhaps because of its seemingly exotic nature, though oast has a long history in English, going back to at least the 11th century. It appears in my Anglo-Saxon dictionary as āst, where it's defined as "kiln" though the entry also cites the word "oast" in quotation marks, indicating that āst eventually developed into the latter form. The etymologist Walter W. Skeat suggests that "oast" is a "purely English” word, and following certain developments in the written language, was probably originally written as dst, changing to "oast" later on -- much as dc became "oak", and dr became "oar".


Oast probably goes back even farther, however. According to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, the root form for "oast" is ai, whose original meaning is "to burn", but this source confirms that, in developing as an English word, ai later became āst, and eventually, oast. The word indeed appears to be narrowly distributed within the Germanic family of languages, mainly to Old English. It doesn't appear, for example, in any of the Scots dictionaries I've looked at.


Oast may have fallen out of use at some point, or perhaps was never part of everyday speech in this country. But for whatever reason the word isn't entirely obscure. On meeting recently with Kevin and Karen Broderick in East Hardwick to discuss their hop yard, Kevin later showed me around the property, pointing out his harvesting apparatus, his pelletizer, and his hops drying set-up. I don't think that Kevin volunteered the word, but when I asked "So this is your oast?", he without hesitation replied, "Yes". 



I'm appending a selection of entries from Henry O. Woolley's 1865 diary, which relate mainly to the cultivation of hops. According to Adam Krakowski, 1865 was likely the apogee of hops growing in Vermont. He suggests that production probably peaked around 1860, based on his review of 19th century US decennial census returns.



May 1

"Sowed Wheat on the old hop yard"


[Woolley records doing additional work on the wheat ground here and there on following days.]


June 21

Sowed turnips


[Early March — "broke" roads (plowed and opened roads)]


10 Fri March

"Went to mill

   Broke road to Sugar house"


20 Mon March

"Bought sap pan of [S Kisner?]"


21 Tues March 18

"Taped [tapped?] Sugar place"


25 March Saturday

"Gathered Sap and boiled all day"


[Woolley continues gathering and boiling sap through about 10 April, then sows wheat and oats, and also "borrows" potatoes and plants them.  Note: I read somewhere that it was common practice in some areas to plant potatoes on hop yards to improve hop yield, which were planted later in the year on the same ground.]


7 Saturday May

"Plowed hops

 fore noon"


[On following days Woolley works some with hops and oats, then on the 13th and 14th (Friday and Saturday) he notes that he "scattered Hop poles", and on Monday 16 May "set Hop poles" and on the 17th "finished hop holes" then visited this uncle.]


24 Tuesday May

"Finished sticking hop poles & worked in garden"


[Woolley hoed the hop yard on 19 June, and finished work in the hop yard on the 20th; then went visiting both days.  Around this time he's also hoeing corn and potatoes.]


Wednesday 28 June

"Sold hops for 12__[?]"


Friday 30 June

"put ashes on Hops and Corn"


Monday 28 August

"Commenced picking hops 

killed sheep";  [it appears that Woolley slaughtered sheep until 1 September]


Friday 17 November

"plowed below the hop yard"  [this is the last entry for hops in the 1865 diary]


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