“The Land That We Love” An Agricultural Landscape of Shirley

“The Land That We Love”
An Agricultural Landscape of Shirley

This adaptation for the Shirley Historical Society website was prepared in April and May, 2003, by Bob Burkhardt from notes prepared by Peter Zopes for an Arnold Arboretum program entitled “Reading the New England Landscape” which took place in October, 2000. Thanks to Betsy Colburn Mirkovic for suggestions and additional material on connected homesteads and to Peter Zopes for writing this, letting us publish it and additional suggestions.

The title for this essay comes from a small, unpublished history of the farming activities of the Longley farm, written by Mrs. Louise Longley. I feel the title is appropriate to the topic of this essay in many ways. On one level it refers to the love of the land held by the family. At another level it refers to the love we all feel for the land, in particular farmland. Even non-farmers are drawn by a mysterious connection to this land. Images and memories of farmland and the produce from the land stir us, as do smells, touch, sound, taste, and sights that are unique to farmland, versus landscaped grounds or the woods. Farmland is responsible for civilization and the most important form of landscape to our development and survival. Our love for it then is manifest at many levels. To understand this connection we need to understand the farmers and how they work. We need to understand the natural composition of the land. We need to understand the history of the use of land and the people, animals and crops that were on the land. Finally, we need to understand the remains of this presence that we see today.

As with many New England towns, Shirley has families who were involved in the formation of the town and have helped to build and define the town and are still involved in the town today. The Longley family is one of the founding families of Shirley and is very involved in the story of Shirley agriculture. As we talk about the land they farmed today, the people are an inseparable part of the story of the land. In recent years new people have come to own and use the land and they are equally important to this story. Betsy and Lee Mirkovic own the house and barn on the old Longley Homestead and they wish to preserve the fields around them for active agriculture. The Longley Homestead fields abut Longley Acres on Whitney Road, now owned by the town. The two were farmed as a unit for many years. Arthur Banks owns the land south of the Mirkovics’. His land includes part of the old Longley Homestead. He is interested in preserving a historic cranberry bog and is working with The Trustees of Reservations to preserve the land. In recent years, a young farmer named Sean Whitney rented some of the land to grow corn and hay. He was trying to start a small dairy operation in this part of the country and was finding it difficult. He finally bought a farm in New York.


The native Americans in this areas were of the Nipmuc tribe. Our record of their activity as it relates specifically to Shirley is limited. There are few records of people finding projectile points in the town. Generally native people in this area hunted and fished, gathered their needs from the forest around them and grew corn, beans and squash. We know that native Americans managed the woods around them by seasonally burning off the underbrush of the forest, creating a better habitat to attract game species like deer. They might also have burned off woods to create fields for farming. From their activities and also natural cycles of fire, storm and disease areas of grasslands were created that may have attracted settlers.


Early settlers started coming into Shirley around the 1720s from the center of Groton Township. The settlers were searching for new places to settle as Groton’s agricultural land was taken up. Fathers generally helped sons by purchasing for them new lands further west, in Shirley. Settlers looked for good land for farming and areas along streams to power saw and gristmills. By the 1740s the growing population of Shirley began to petition the Massachusetts Assembly to separate from Groton, claiming the distance to travel for Sunday worship was proving to be a hardship. In 1753 the Assembly formally recognized Shirley as an independent town.


Joshua Longley purchased what was to become the Longley Homestead in the 1780s and built a house and detached barn there in 1786. Agricultural activities in the eighteenth century included raising grain, livestock, hay, garden crops and apple orchards. The reminders of the agricultural legacy in town include places, such as Horse Pond Road and the nineteenth century town pound still standing next to the Center Town Hall.

When we look at the land we need to keep in mind the history of farming in New England is one of both tradition and innovation. The climate of the region is wet and cool, favoring grasses, woods and trees. The soils tend to be rocky with occasional flat or rolling areas suitable for plowing. The force of glacial advance and retreat was the prime shaper of the landscape. Shirley has a real mix of rock outcrops, rolling hills for farming, sandy areas of little use for farmers as well as swamps and seasonally wet areas. The town has a number of good rivers for building mills and operating other industries.

Shirley farmers were confined and defined by the climate and geography, but as all good farmers, and being good Yankees, worked hard and had their fingers in many pots to make ends meet. Besides the general aspects of farming they were involved in logging and cutting wood for heat, cooking, fence and building material and for sale. Many also had other trades for further income.

Small dairy operations were an essential part of Shirley farmers since the mid-nineteenth century, after the railroad came through Shirley Village. Now they could send milk and butter products into Boston. An important aspect of this farming was the raising of hay and corn for livestock fodder. Corn kernels were taken to a local mill for grinding for feed and cooking. Cattle and horses were consistently the largest number of farm animal in Shirley. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century cattle, known as “neat” cattle (cattle in old English usage referred to property that moved on its own (feet) and “neat” referred to bovine in particular), were not specifically dairy or meat cattle. They were dual or even triple purpose animals, for milk and meat, and often the males were brought up as oxen. The 1852 Town Tax Valuation showed over 90 oxen in the town. By the 1880 Town Valuation there were only roughly 5 individual oxen in town, and over 200 horses, up from 131 in 1852. This followed a general trend in American agriculture, as the newer farm machinery was better suited to the speed of the horse. Sheep never seem to have been a big presence in town, the same with swine. These seem to have been for home consumption. Poultry farming, beyond backyard flocks, began in the 1920s was strong in the 1940s, and declined by the 1960s.

Other agricultural activities engaged in by Shirley farmers included raising hops in the early nineteenth century. Farmers raised vegetables and fruits. Orchards included apple and peach. In the 1920s some farmers experimented with raising fox for silver pelts. In the late quarter of the nineteenth century a cranberry bog was created (off Holden road) and operated it until roughly 1917.

The activities of the Longley family reflect this reliance on diversity to make a living. Joshua Longley, who built the house on Center Rd, south of the Shirley Historical Society, ran a taproom in part of the house. He owned two mills on the Nashua River, a gristmill and a sawmill. Other Longleys owned mills on the Catacunemaug. Over the years various descendents of the family served in every branch of local government and worked with a number of community, civic, and farming organizations. Their farming adapted to changes in the markets and times.

Melvin Whittemore Longley (1849-1910) farmed the land, but often with hired help. He was a teacher and a state legislator (1901). When he died his son Howard Melvin Longley (1892-1974) took over the farming to support his family. In the 1920s Howard developed a small dairy business, delivering milk to neighbors and selling it into Boston. Over the years his wife, Lucy Proctor Longley (1896-1990), made cottage cheese that he sold along his route. (Lucy, besides being a farmer’s wife, was the town librarian for several decades and an avid journal keeper.) Besides general farming activities, which included picking apples in season and his milk route, Howard and his son, Melvin Proctor Longley, Sr., painted local homes and did general home repair. He also built furniture.

Like all farmers, Howard Longley was often caught up in his time. With increased concerns over the purity of food the Commonwealth followed the national trend towards mandatory tuberculosis testing of dairy herds around 1917. In 1923 Howard’s herd was found infected and his herd was confiscated. The Commonwealth compensated him for his loss. At this time Howard developed a tubercular gland in his neck and was sent to Florida from 1925 to 1927 by his doctor to recover. It worked. Howard and Lucy and their family rented out the farm while they were away and returned to it after Howard’s recovery.

One of the major activities associated with the Longley farm, in this case the Longley farm on Whitney Rd, was an apple orchard to the east of the brick house. The apple varieties included Baldwin, Rhode Island Greening, Palmer Greening, Hubbartson and Red Delicious. Many of these varieties have disappeared from general consumption. Historically there were over 5000 applies varieties in America at the end of the nineteenth century. Many of them regional in distribution. Today most consumers can name less than a dozen apple varieties. Many of these apples were harvested and sold regionally. In some cases individuals and families would “rent” the produce from one or several trees because they liked the flavor of that variety or that tree. Years later the apple orchard was cut down and field used for growing pumpkins and now hay.

Melvin Proctor Longley, Sr., (1920-1997) started farming, as many, by working with the family. He learned from his father. He did study poultry at a short course at the Agricultural College in Amherst. In this business he sold hatching eggs, eating eggs, dressed chickens and vegetables locally from the back of his station wagon.

By 1940 he gave up poultry and went into dairy farming. In 1945 Melvin and his wife Louise purchased the Whitney Rd farm from his father. The post WWII area of farming was one of rapid change in animals, crops, and machinery. Melvin joined the Holstein – Friesian Association of America and worked in improve his herd. Later he began to use artificial insemination to breed his cattle. At most his dairy herd numbered 67. This number is small when compared with today’s large herds in the Midwest, which often number in the hundreds. The Longley farm was the combination of the two farms – one on Center Rd and the other on Whitney Rd. The cows moved back and forth between the two fields through a lane cut through the woods.

Big changes took place on the Whitney Road farm as a new addition was added to the barn around 1958. At this time a pond was dug on the farm to provide fire protection and water for the animals. As the herd size grew there was a need for more space to incorporate automatic milking machines and a bulk tank to hold the fluid milk, and to allow for the pick up of the milk by tanker truck. Other changes took place as the family adopted new machinery and methods for the dairy operation. This largely centered on the adoption of ensilage for feeding the cows. An older Longley barn along Center Rd had an interior square silo.

Making ensilage involved several steps. First was to cut the green corn stalks in the fields. At first the Longleys tried using a restored horse-drawn corn binder pulled by a tractor. This machine would cut the corn close to ground level, gather it into a bundle, tie the bundle with twine and kick the bundle off the side to be picked up and thrown on the wagon. The bundles would be taken to a mechanical chopper and then be blown into the silo, where it would be packed down and the chop would ferment. Very ingeniously their first silos were made of snow fence that they borrowed from the town. Each layer of snow fence was lined with a thick paper material. As each layer was filled a new layer of fence was added. As they used up the ensilage each layer of snow fence would be returned to the town. Later they put up an upright silo. Traditionally most ensilage is made from green corn; other crops grown by the Longleys included millet, alfalfa, and Canadian peas.

In 1939 the first tractor was purchased for the farm. This was a locally-built model. A local mechanic combined a Chevrolet car front end while the rear was from an old fire truck. In 1940 a Ford Ferguson tractor and plow was purchased. In 1942 the last workhorse left the farm. Over time other machines were tested and adopted. Various methods of harvesting corn and other plants for ensilage were tried. Finally a tractor-drawn harvester was adopted – this cut and shredded the corn and blew it right into a box truck. It still had to be blown in the silo, but the entire cutting was done in the field.

Another big change was in hay production. Initially hay was cut by hand, then horse-drawn mowers and finally tractor-drawn mowers. For the longest time the loose dry hay as loaded on the wagon by pitchfork. In the fifties the hay started to be loaded with a lay loader, which was attached to the rear of the wagon and would gather-up the hay and load it on the wagon as it kept moving.

Historically hay was put up in the barn by fork. In the late nineteenth century farmers adopted hay-forks or called horse-forks. These forks were powered by horses hitched to a rope. As the horse walked out or in the fork went up and down. The forks ran along the inside roofline of the barn. After the fork was lowered into the pile of hay on a wagon and secured to a load, the horse walked out and pulled the load up and into the barn. Inside, a person tripped the load and dropped it in the barn where needed. Then the load was spread out by fork and trodden down by walking on it. In the fifties and sixties balers and bale elevators were used to load the hay into the barn.

In 1969 Melvin gave up dairy farming due to health problems, but continued his involvement with the town through working with school children to instill in them a sense of their town’s history and the importance of farming to the town. He also restored the interior of the historic town meeting house and helped to establish the town historical society. In many ways his presence is still felt in town.


Some of the effects of farming on the landscape are very well known and romanticized. This includes the farmhouse, barns and other outbuildings. These are the focus points for looking at agricultural land. They draw us to the land and more importantly provide a sense of the people who were connected to this land. The connected farmstead – big house, little house (or ell), back house (or shed) and barns – became common in parts of New England in the latter half of the 1800s. At the Longley Homestead the connections were made to link up with an original barn parallel with the house and facing south, which was torn down in the 1960s. The Homestead represents the only remaining connected farmstead in the town.

The effects of agricultural activity remain on the land long after people have stopped farming. Stone walls are a very lasting presence on the land. New Englanders’ admiration of stone walls is well known. It is estimated that there are over 250,000 miles of stone walls in New England and New York. These walls will be present for a long time on the landscape. Other examples of fence types survive; wood and wire fences survive today and denote the boundary of fields. In some cases the height of stone fences were increased through adding wooden or wire fences into the top of a stone fence. The wonder of the sight of stone walls crisscrossing forests tell the story of how far into the surrounding environs farmers pushed to create a viable farm, one which would produce a respectable income. As the thin soils of New England ceased to hold up to the wear of continuous farming, these were the first fields abandoned and allowed to return to forest.

In farming, lanes and paths are needed to move animals and machines from barns to fields. Many lanes and cart paths are still visible in the woods and old fields in towns like Shirley. In combining the two Longley farms a means of moving the cows back and forth was needed. A farm lane was created through the woods, sometimes referred to as the cow lane. It was bounded on both sides by wire fence and wooden gates. In many cases old cart paths are just two old wheel ruts still present in a field or through some woods, with nothing to create a boundary around them.

Finally we need to look at the fields. How are they laid out and fenced in or not. Clearing fields of woods, historically, takes place of at a slow rate, up to 3 acres a year. Settlers initially looked for fields that were already cleared by previous activity. Once these were occupied, then the farmers pushed into the woods. The dynamic, however, involves the woods always pushing back. The soil, rock ledge, and wetness of areas also help to define fields.

The soil types under the fields are varied. There are rock outcrops, glacial till, sandy loam and even muck. Farmers however don’t lay out their fields based on soil classifications. Fields are laid out according to the area that can be worked by the techniques available to the farmer. Farmers will over time learn to place different crops on different fields due to field conditions. Moist meadows are good for hay and maybe pasture in dry times. Fields with rock outcrops are good only for pasture. Over time the crops farmers engage in will change, reflecting markets. Orchards may come and go. Hay and corn seem to be the only constants. New England fields are historically small, reflecting the older techniques involving oxen and hand power. The size of fields were also effected the amount of stone that had to be dug up and moved to the boundaries. Later these were used to create the stone wall we are so fond of today.

When looking at the land the roughness or smoothness indicates its former uses. Even if a field has returned to woods, if its floor is generally level it may be an indication of its use for plowing and cultivation. Further evidence may be the width of or height of stone walls, an extra protection to keep livestock out. Piles of stones on the border of fields are an indication of plowing activity; these piles being the place where farmers dumped the stones they picked up out of the fields after plowing.

The succession of forest and trees may also provide an idea of the history of the land. As land returns to woods any variety of trees may reclaim the pasture, generally based on number of seeds of which seed is most abundant in the earth. Generally, pines and cedar tend to reclaim old pastures. Pasture animals ignoring pines, cedar, or other thorny growth. As the farm fell into disuse, grazing would be the last activity carried out as it required the least amount of energy by the farmer, who began to ignore the condition of fields. If fields used for cultivated crops were abandoned without being used for pasture then they were generally reclaimed by hardwoods, which would over shadow pine and crowd it out.


Benton MacKaye (1879-1975) was not a Shirley native but spent his summers there. His father was involved in the theatre and had known Emerson and Thoreau. They moved around quite a bit. Shirley and the woods around the town provided MacKaye a sense of place and connection to a world. As a young man he explored the world of the woods and learned to swim in its streams. He went to Harvard and graduated from the forestry school. After school he joined the new Forest Service and worked around the country learning about forests and man’s effect on them. In 1920 he settled down in Shirley Center.

MacKaye became interested in regional planning issues. He proposed the Appalachian Trial and recreational camps located between urban and rural areas for people to refresh themselves in woods and fields he knew growing up in Shirley. These sites would be connected through a trail network. He co-founded the Wilderness Society and was very influential in the organization for decades.

MacKaye is also tied to the lands the Longleys farmed because as a young man he worked for Melvin W. Longley. Here he learned lessons of farming, nature and community. As he became older he was able to do more and more work on the farm. He worked with the horses during haying and took grain to a mill in Townsend to be ground for grain. He maintained correspondence with Lucy Longley, Melvin’s daughter-in-law, until his death.

This understanding of community and its importance, along side the importance of being connected to the land, is an essential lesson that the Longleys shared with MacKaye. Over time MacKaye became a transplanted New Englander. Some would refer to him as a summer person who never left. He adopted the role and outlook of a Yankee, and tried to hold on to the life he knew as a boy. ” I would not ‘go back’ to the old school of color and melody, I would ‘continue on’ with the eternal school thereof – after its preposterous interruption by the machine-made forces of jazz and imbecility.” He reportedly kept his house free of electricity, plumbing and central heat. Lewis Mumford noted “He figures for me as Thoreau’s latest continuator, a Yankee of Yankees, tart as a wild apple, sweet as a hickory nut.”

In Shirley Center, with its Common, Meetinghouse, Town Hall, school and store, then still an active place, with its imagery of pastoral romanticism, but separate from the nineteenth century reality of Shirley Village with its factories, train depot, and industrial houses, MacKaye found a sense of place. In his book Expedition Nine: A Return to a Region, about his exploration of the woods and streams around Shirley and the surrounding region, he notes that Shirley Center has what he called the “Five Senses”. These Five Senses “constitutes a rural community: home, government, religion, education, commerce, each represented by its appropriate structure”. This imagery was a part of his idealism and philosophy which was in important voice in the conservation and preservation movement in this nation for roughly half the century and even today.


The land the Longleys used to own is still fields and cropland because of conscientious efforts of those who own the land to preserve it. There is a love of the land for what it can provide spiritually to the soul versus what it can provide financially. Mrs. Louise Longley carried out a wish of her husband to preserve the land for active farming by working with the administrator of our town’s conservation commission and the Commonwealth to preserve it. Originally they explored putting it under an APR (Agricultural Preservation Restriction) which lowers the value of the land by removing development rights and therefore makes it more competitive for farmers. In the end, with the aid of a substantial grant from the Commonwealth, it was bought by the town for use as conservation land. Betsy and Lee Mirkovic keep their land under Chapter 61A, which reduces the tax burden of the land as they continue to farm it. The land currently produces hay for livestock.

Shirley has many former farms that add to the rural presence of the town. The development pressures are great in town. Nearby, former Fort Devens is being developed as a commerce center bringing thousands of jobs to the area. Cisco Systems is planning to build a large corporate complex in Boxboro, bringing an additional 5000 jobs to the area. Our population continues to grow further crowding out our limited forest and farm resources. With people who own farmland generating their income from off-farm jobs what connection remains to the land?

Yet there is a glimmer of hope. People in the town and state are working to preserve open space, in particular farmland. There are people who are looking to get into farming. Some trends might push more people into farming. One is a growing movement of younger people who would like to get into farming. These people may not come from a farm background, but are called to farming. Most farmers across the nation are over 50 and in their 60s, and often their children are not interested in farming. Younger people who want to get into farming are needed to fill the void and see farming as a viable economic activity again. A second trend is the beginning of a second fuel crisis. With fuel prices increasing, this will affect food prices. Western, Mid-western and foreign farmers, who heavily rely on fossil fuels for their production and shipping, may need to charge more for their produce. This may benefit regional farmers who do not have to transport produce over long distances.

Finally there is a growing interest in organic, or natural and locally grown foods by consumers. This offers wonderful opportunities for farmers to tap into new markets. There is also an interest in grass-fed natural meat by consumers and by producers who like the fact of reduced production cost. New England’s cooler and more humid climate and rocky soil favors grass production and pasturing. Recently, a new slaughter facility opened in northeastern Connecticut. This fills a need by regional livestock producers to tap into the two markets of New York and Boston. These are all good signs for the region’s farm community and hopefully the farmland in Shirley. Unfortunately we can not save every farm field in Shirley, which is a sad thought. But we can try, and for now appreciate what we have.


The openness of the lands in Shirley contributes to the rural presence in the town. A recent draft of the town master plan noted the importance of preserving the grasslands in town as important viewscape, but not for agricultural reasons. The loss of these open spaces, as opposed to forest, in my view, is a greater loss to our town and our society, but also to the ecological framework of our region. They attract different species of fauna and flora than the forest. Preserving farmland also preserves aspects of our past and potential for future connection to the land through the activity and produce of the land. They contribute to a sense of place and provide a sense of space. In the case of Shirley the farmland provides a sense of community through their ability to connect us to this town and land more than other landscapes. Their openness is that connection to the land that we love.

Information on Agricultural Production for the Center Road Homestead Farm from the Agricultural Census – Stephen M. Longley (1850 & 60) Mary F. Longley (1870 & 80)

Improved Land705060Tilled 12
Unimproved Land850Woodland 10Permanent Meadow, Pasture or Orchard 48
Woodland 10
Total Cash Value of Farm$1,200$6,000$5,000$4,500
Value of Farm Machinery and Implements$75$150$150$184
  Milk Cows7586
  Other Cows01215
  Calves dropped/soldNANANA4/7
(25 dz. eggs)
Value of Livestock$300$300$600$355
Value of Livestock, slaughtered or sold for slaughterNA$40$75NA
(1.5 acres)
(20 acres)
  Irish Potatoes/Bu40803040
(0.5 acres)
$ Orchard production$40$75$200NA
$ Market gardenNA$75NANA
Milk sold/gallonsNANA30003187
Butter made on farmNANANA0

Orchard Information (1880 Census only)

Apple5260140 Bu
Grapes0.5NA409 lbs.

The Census pages related to Shirley farmers for the years above (these are the only years that record agricultural production) were copied and are in the Shirley Historical Society. There is additional information from the Censuses regarding the farms that were not collected for this research.

General information on soil types –

On Longley Acres (off Whitney Road)
The following soils were documented for Mrs. Longley’s APR –
Freetown Muck, Ridgeway- fine sandy loam, Charlton – Hollis rock – 3-8% slope, Charlton – Hollis Rock 8-15%, Quorest Sandy Loam 3-8%, Quorest Sandy Load 8-15%, Bernardston fine sandy loam, Pittstown fine sandy loam.

Soils maps show land behind the Historical Society generally comprised of the Charlton-Hollis-Rock outcrop complex which consists of well drained Charlton soils and somewhat excessively drained Hollis soils and rock outcrops which occur in such intricate patterns on the landscape that it is not practical to separate them at the scale of mapping. Generally these soils consist of about 50 percent Charlton soils, 15 percent Hollis soils, 10 percent rock outcrops and 25 percent other soils. Major limitations are related to rockiness and slope, and depth to bedrock in the Hollis soils.

Charlton series consists of gently sloping to steep, deep (5+ ft.), well-drained soils on uplands where the relief is affected by the underlying bedrock. They formed in glacial tills ground moraine. Charlton soils are 60 inches or more of friable fine sandy loam surface soil, subsoil and substratum with moderate or moderately rapid permeability. Charlton soils have a very stony or extremely stony surface, except where stones have been removed, and have stones below the surface. Major limitations are related to slope and stoniness.

Source: Middlesex County Massachusetts Interim Soil Survey Report. U.S. Department of Agriculture Soil Conservation Service. Middlesex Conservation District. July, 1986.

Hollis series consists of shallow, somewhat excessively drained soils on rocky uplands. These soils formed in a thin mantle of glacial till overlying hard bedrock. Slopes range from 3 to 35 percent. Hollis soils are on ridges and rises near rock outcrops. They are less than 20 inches deep to bedrock.

Source: Soil Survey of Norfolk and Suffolk Counties Massachusetts. U.S. Department of Agriculture Soil Conservation Service. September, 1989.


I would like to thank Louise Longley for her help in getting the facts right and Meredith Marcinkewicz, curator of the Shirley Historical Society. Without their patience and shared love of history and Shirley this would not have been possible. Additional thanks to Betsy and Lee Mirkovic sharing their knowledge of their property’s past and thoughts for its future.

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