It’s an uncomfortable truth that William Beekman – like most large farmers of his day – kept slaves here on our farm. Even in the North, slavery was the most common form of agricultural labor that fueled our region’s growth. It wasn’t until 1827 that slavery was officially abolished in New York State.
We never shy away from sharing Beekman 1802 Farm’s slavery history when we give tours of our historic property. In fact, we realize that these enslaved men and women had perhaps the largest role in building, maintaining and growing the house and land that we cherish so much today. Local lore has it that Beekman Mansion also eventually served as a stop on the Underground Railroad, thus bringing its slave history full circle.
In celebration of Black History month, we not only want to honor and celebrate the African Americans who built our farm, we also wanted to highlight some of the major (often overlooked) contributions African-Americans have made towards farming, horticulture, and food science. Their work was revolutionary and inspires us to think sustainably and press on – no matter the obstacles along the way.
Have you ever driven across the midwest and seen those hulking, two-story tall tractors pulling a giant rake-looking implement behind them? Those million-dollar pieces of technologically-advanced equipment can trace their roots directly back to Henry Blair. Born in 1807, Henry Blair was a farmer and the second African-American to be granted a patent. Despite being illiterate and formally uneducated, he developed and patented two major agricultural inventions. His corn planter had a compartment which held and dropped the seeds to the ground, and rakes which followed to cover them with soil. Blair’s horse-drawn cotton planter had two shovel-like attachments that divided the soil, and a cylinder shaped wheel that dropped the seeds into the newly turned soil. The principles behind his patents are still being used by the likes of John Deere & Kubota today.
George Washington Carver
What you learned in 6th grade was wrong! Contrary to popular belief, George Washington Carver did not invent peanut butter. He did, however promote more than 300 uses for peanuts in a research bulletin titled, “How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it for Human Consumption,” in 1916. The document includes interesting ways to use peanuts, products like shampoo, mayonnaise, and paints. (Hmmm…”Beekman 1802 Peanut & Goat Milk Shampoo?”)
A botanist, inventor, and educator at Tuskegee University, Carver was one of the first to recognize the problems of mono-cropping. He taught farmers to revitalize their southern soil that had been stripped by cotton, a nitrogen-depleting crop. He developed a crop rotation method that alternated the cotton with legumes like peanuts that correct nitrogen and other edible crops such as corn. His method not only increased the soil’s productive capacity, it also gave southern farmers a second crop to produce and sell besides cotton, thus diversifying the market.
Lloyd Augustus Hall
Every time you make a BLT, you have Lloyd Augustus Hall to thank. As a chemist, Hall made major contributions to food preservation science. In fact, prior to Hall’s inventions, the chemical preservation of foods could scarcely be called science. Most preservation was done in the home with common salts, and it was difficult to keep foods from spoiling without making them taste bitter. Hall discovered a way to use a combination of sodium chloride with tiny crystals of sodium nitrate and nitrite, which suppressed the nitrogen that spoiled the food. His patented method of curing meats is still used today.