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Agricultural Context

Broadside advertising land for sale in Western New York, 1837

This 1837 broadside advertising land for sale in western New York State mentions the area's favorable climate and soil for farming (especially grain), the proximity to the Genesee Valley Canal and the Erie Canal, and the presence of existing settlements as inducements to potential buyers.

Picture postcard depicting a painting of Gilbert Mills, Avon, N.Y.

Primitive-style painting of Gilbert Mills in Avon, NY, as it might have appeared in the 19th century.

When Katharine Lee Bates extolled America’s amber waves of grain in her 1894 poem “Pike’s Peak” (later set to music as “America the Beautiful"), she had in mind the American Great Plains – our nation’s storied breadbasket.

But more than a century before those words were written, wheat was still creeping westward across New York state, seeking a more fertile soil than New England could offer.  The Genesee Valley provided ideal growing conditions for wheat and, combined with the relatively small investment and low overhead required for wheat farming, immigrants from New England and Europe arrived in numbers to clear, cultivate, and settle the land. And so, long before the Midwest's rise to amber-waved eminence, this region became known as "America's Granary."

As grain began to sprout in the Genesee Valley, so too did the mills. In those early water-powered days, Maude Motley wrote, “A natural site for a mill-dam often fixed the location for a whole settlement.” Rochester, the famed “Flour City,” is the region’s most visible proof of this, but all along the Genesee River, and especially along the Valley’s creeks, streams, and waterfalls, all sorts of mills were built to grind grain into flour, to saw logs into boards, to “card” wool for weaving … The writer James Lane Allen called the sound of the grist mill “the earliest mechanical music of the wilderness.”

So much wheat and other grain was grown in the Genesee Valley and western New York that, until the 1850s, most of the wheat received by the mills in Rochester came from there. The construction of the Genesee Valley Canal, completed from Rochester to Dansville in 1840, was an economic boon to region, connecting it not only to Rochester but to the Erie Canal and onward to New York City and other east coast markets and ports.

Indeed, wheat was the undisputed king of crops in the Genesee Valley from the late eighteenth- through the mid-nineteenth centuries, but eventually soil exhaustion (and farmers’ unenthusiastic efforts to remedy it), diseases, pests (that cursed midge!), and the spread of large-scale wheat-growing to the Midwest brought about an end to its reign.  Agriculture in the Genesee Valley continued to flourish, but farmers turned to growing other crops (including corn, oats, fruit, vegetables, and nursery plants), raising cattle, and dairy farming as more profitable ventures. 

The wheat that was still being grown in the Valley could largely be milled locally, so less and less was being sent to the great mills upriver.  Rochester continued to mill wheat and other grain coming from the Midwest, but toward the end of the nineteenth century the rise of Buffalo’s grain storage and milling capacity, coupled with the growth of more efficient milling and transportation centers in the ever-expanding west, helped hasten Rochester’s transformation from the "Flour City" to the “Flower City.”

Sources Consulted:

--Kuhlmann, Charles B. The Development of the Flour-Milling Industry in the United States, with special reference to the industry in Minneapolis. 1929. Clifton, N.J.: A.M. Kelly, 1973.

--McNall, Neil Adams. An Agricultural History of the Genesee Valley, 1790-1860. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1952.

--Motley, Maude. “The Romance of Milling: With Rochester in the Flour City.” Rochester Historical Society. Publication Fund Series. 10 (1931):

--Zimmermann, Andrea K. “Nineteenth Century Wheat Production in four New York State Regions: A Comparative Examination.” The Hudson Valley Regional Review, 5.2 (1988): 49-62.