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Published by EH.NET (January 2002)

Thomas S. Wermuth, Rip Van Winkle’s Neighbors: The Transformation of Rural

Society in the Hudson River Valley, 1720-1850. Albany, NY: State University

of New York Press, 2001. vii + 184 pp. $17.95 (paper), ISBN 0-7914-5084-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Donald Parkerson, Department of History, East Carolina

University.

Rip’s New World

When Rip Van Winkle stumbled out of the Catskill Mountains following an

afternoon of heavy drinking and an unexpected twenty-year nap, he discovered a

world that was very different from the one he had left behind. His little

village of Sleepy Hollow had been “a peaceful spot”(p. 1). But now things were

different, “the very character of the people seemed changed. There was a busy

bustling, disputatious tone about it, instead of the accustomed phlegm and

drowsy tranquility” (p. 1). While Thomas Wermuth notes that Rip’s vision of the

Hudson Valley in the eighteenth century was clearly a romanticized one, “he was

essentially correct” (p. 2) in his observations of profound change by the

beginning of the nineteenth century. It is this complex transformation that is

the centerpiece of Wermuth’s excellent new book.

Wermuth’s study is based on a variety of primary sources from the Hudson Valley

including town records, probated inventories, accounts and wills, assessment

rolls, more than a dozen account and day books, diaries, newspapers and

letters. His careful use of these and other documents as well as a variety of

secondary sources provides the reader with a rich and textured portrait of

social and economic change in this region during the early years of the market

revolution.

In Rip Van Winkle’s Neighbors Wermuth devotes three chapters to the

social, political and “rural economic culture” of the region prior to the

American Revolution, one chapter to the changes endured by Winkle’s neighbors

during the Revolution (“We Are Daily Alarmed and Our Streets Filled with Mobs”)

and three chapters to the impact of the market economy on the people of the

mid-Hudson Valley to 1850.

Wermuth places his research in historiographical perspective by reviewing the

debate concerning the onset of rural capitalism. While debunking the myth of

the “happy yeoman” who was self sufficient, independent and lived free of

government authority, he also argues that Rip’s neighbors were not full-blown

capitalists. He notes that previous studies of the “economic behavior of farm

households” have relied on farm daybook records that are more representative of

“busy, successful men” (p. 93). In order to develop a more accurate portrait of

“the multitude of smaller farmers,” Wermuth examines a number of shopkeepers’

accounts such as those of Abraham Hasbrouck of Kingston Landing, New York. He

sampled Hasbrouck’s books from 1799, 1820 and 1839 and then linked these

records to census and tax returns in order to understand the social background

of his farming customers.

Wermuth concludes that in 1799 only about 12 percent of these farming people

were “market producers” (p. 103). By 1820, however, the forces of the market

economy had begun to impact the valley. By then, the more successful,

large-scale producers had entered the marketplace as commercial farmers but

ordinary farmers typically had not increased their agricultural output. Rather

they entered the market obliquely through the production of non-agricultural

products such as barrel staves that they bartered for textiles, hardware and

cheap consumer goods.

By 1839 canals and roads in the region provided new market opportunities for

valley farmers but they also brought stiff competition for those markets from

the west and north. As a result, van Winkle’s neighbors altered their

production as they searched for a market niche. Some farmers shifted their

production from wheat to livestock because of the competition of cheaper wheat

from the Ohio Valley and Midwest. Others virtually abandoned the production of

wool in favor of dairy products as a result of the increasing dominance of

woolgrowers and textile manufacturers from New England.

Although their production changed significantly over the years, Wermuth notes

that these changes allowed valley farmers to maintain a degree of independence

from the wage labor and rural outwork that had become a way of life for many

New England farmers. By specializing in market products that they could produce

themselves, their farms remained the center of their economic activity and

mediated some of the harsher consequences of the market economy.

Wermuth’s study of Hudson River Valley farmers during these years reveals a

great deal about the complex process of change in rural America during the

market revolution of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By examining

a wide variety of sources including merchant account books, he is able to focus

our attention on the vast majority of rural producers during this period rather

than just the handful of great landholding commercial farmers. On the other

hand, Wermuth’s valley farmers clearly were different from others, even within

New York State. As such their experiences were in some ways unique, especially

their ability to maintain the integrity of farm production in the face of

powerful market forces. Nevertheless, Rip Van Winkle’s Neighbors is a

finely crafted and well researched analysis of an important rural community in

the process of dramatic economic change.

Donald Parkerson is author of The Agricultural Transition in New York

State, Iowa State University Press, 1995 and with Jo Ann Parkerson,

Transitions in American Education: A Social History of Teaching,

RoutledgeFalmer, 2001.