Early Western Virginians farmed for themselves and for the market, producing a variety of field and garden crops as well as livestock. Nearly every farm had a few milk cows, a flock of hens and of sheep, a number of mules or horses (perhaps work oxen, as well), and a drove of free-ranging hogs. These were used for the family’s own subsistence and for the work of the farm. Livestock was also produced commercially from early times, bred as draft animals and for meat production. The selling of surplus livestock at local markets or to drovers allowed farmers to acquire goods that could not be grown or made on the farm.
Pre-industrial livestock production, particularly for the period from 1760 to 1830, was a major enterprise in what is today the Eastern Panhandle. The counties of Hampshire, Hardy, and (present day) Pendleton were well-known for raising and driving cattle in large numbers as early as the late 1750s. Historian Richard K. MacMaster suggests that cattle owners and herdsmen in the valley of the Potomac’s South Branch were essentially the landed aristocracy of Western Virginia, much like large plantation owners of the lowlands. Hardy County produced more cattle than any other Virginia county by 1786, and was one of the leading cattle producers in the country. It was common for Hardy County cattlemen to own more than 50 head of cattle, with many owning more than 100. By the 1820s, cattle drives of 5,000 head were not uncommon in the Potomac Valley.
Between 1865 and 1920, West Virginia’s agricultural economy underwent a profound transformation, caused in part by the related events of the coming of the railroads and the cutting of the forest. The railroads provided the means by which livestock could be transported to external markets, replacing the stock drives that had sent livestock to market in earlier times. Railroads also provided transportation for the logging industry, and by 1910 West Virginia’s seemingly endless supply of timber had been nearly exhausted. Newly cleared forests opened vast tracts of land for the production of livestock, further commercializing West Virginia agriculture.
Historian Ronald L. Lewis, in his book, Transforming the Appalachian Countryside, provides a detailed account of the impact that railroad development and deforestation had on livestock production. Between 1870 and 1920, for example, cattle production in heavily timbered Randolph County increased from 8,228 to 14,684, sheep production from 8,523 to 18,214, and the number of swine from 2,834 to 5,128. Such increases were a direct result of increased rangeland due to deforestation and the expansion of external markets due to rail transportation. As the 1900s progressed, however, commercial livestock production waned as people and agricultural production shifted westward. West Virginia found it difficult to compete with the Midwest where farming conditions are superior.
Statewide hog production dropped by 80 percent from 1964 to 1997, while the number of dairy cows plunged by an even greater percentage; the number of beef cattle increased slightly over this period. The overall downward trend has been most pronounced in the fertile valley bottoms of the Potomac and Shenandoah valleys in the Eastern Panhandle. Many farmers in these counties have virtually eliminated commercial livestock production and replaced it with poultry production. The growing of turkeys and chickens, especially broilers, has shown a dramatic increase in recent years and represents the continued transformation of West Virginia’s agriculture. Cattle remains most important among West Virginia livestock, both in dollar value and number of head, but at the beginning of the 21st century the value of the cattle herd has been far surpassed by the value of West Virginia’s burgeoning poultry flock.
This Article was written by J. Todd Nesbitt
Last Revised on October 07, 2010
Eller, Ronald D. Miners, Millhands, and Mountaineers. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1982.
Lewis, Ronald L. Transforming the Appalachian Countryside. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
Waller, Altina L. Feud: Hatfields, McCoys, and Social Change in Appalachia, 1860-1900. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.