Rural Agricultural Landscapes – Part I

Rural Agricultural Landscapes and the Bridges Therein

Pennsylvania is a large and old state with a sizeable agricultural presence, and loads of older bridges that connect these farms to market. As PennDOT attempts to maintain its infrastructure, the need to address these rural bridges is clear, but as historic resources they can be important not only individually, but as contributing to a larger rural historic landscape.  This blog explores some of the issues related to considering rural historic landscapes (RHL) within the National Register, and how to parse out whether a rural bridge should be contributing or not contributing to that RHL, i.e., a large historic district.  As a historical note, this was and I believe still is a live issue between PennDOT and FHWA, and the SHPO, which started over a woodlot up in Centre County.  Although this discussion is focused on bridges and eastern rural historic landscapes, I think there may be some larger generalizations that can be drawn. Enjoy.

One of the partnerships that PennDOT, FHWA, and the SHPO entered was in the creation of a statewide rural agricultural context.  Pennsylvania was and is an agricultural state, with agriculture and its associated industries provide a $135.7 billion annual economic impact, representing close to 18% of Pennsylvania’s gross state product. This massive multi-year effort was led by Dr. Sally McMurry, a Penn State History Professor with special expertise in the history of agriculture.  She divided the Commonwealth into 16 distinct regions, each with its own agricultural signature.  Dr. McMurry and the SHPO then developed Registration Requirements for both farmsteads and (smaller) rural historic districts, which form the Multiple Property Documentation Form (MPDF).

http://www.phmc.state.pa.us/portal/communities/agriculture/index.html

This MPDF has been in operation since 2012 and as would be expected from a MPDF has provided a roadmap to assessing eligibility, especially in application to individual farmsteads. It gives some guidance on how rural historic districts could be considered under Criterion A. (McMurry 2012a, 2012b). The MPDF describes a historic agricultural district as “a group of farms, which share common architectural and agricultural landscape features; are linked together by historic transportation corridors… and together express characteristic features of local historical agricultural patterns.”  Registration Requirements statewide for Criterion A, Agriculture notes the following for individual properties:

…Criterion A significance should be assessed in relation to how a given property typifies a farming system, not in relation to whether a property is exceptional or unusual. A property should exemplify a farming system in all its aspects.  The totality of a property’s representation in the areas of production, labor patterns, land tenure, mechanization, and cultural traditions will determine its National Register eligibility. (McMurry 2012b Section F:1)

Characterizing a Landscape

Unfortunately, the MPDF is better developed for individual properties or what appears to be McMurry’s conception of an archetypical district, i.e. a group of farms clustered together.  When considering a rural historic landscape, however, a different set of rules may be needed.  The National Register defines a Landscape as:

a geographic area that historically has been used by people, or shaped or modified by human activity, occupancy, or intervention, and that possesses a significant concentration, linkage, or continuity of areas of land use, vegetation, buildings and structures, roads and waterways, and natural features. (p. 3)

Eleven characteristics have been developed for “reading” the Landscape and understanding the forces that shape it – four of the characteristics are processes; the remaining seven are physical components.   The processes link to the physical components to form a unified whole (p. 4). 

The process of evaluating Landscapes entails “three major activities: defining significance, assessing historic integrity, and selecting boundaries” (p. 12).  Furthermore, “significance, integrity, and boundaries depend upon the presence of tangible landscape features, and the evidence of the processes, cultural and natural, that have shaped the landscape” (p. 12).

Can we build on McMurry’s work to scale up what is defined as a rural historic district or further to a Landscape?  It is reasonable to use the same Criterion A significance statement as the Registration requirement.  [Obviously, there are 3 other main Criterion for significance than A, but this is our starting point.  Perhaps at a later date, we can review RHLs under the other three frames.]  The MPDF defines a farming system as the framework for understanding how agriculture in Pennsylvania evolved, each agricultural region containing a distinctive evolutionary trajectory for a farming system, with its own chronological development and distinguishing characteristics.  In the same way that individual farms or McMurry’s district could express the farming system in its region, a Landscape could also express the region’s evolutionary trajectory, or story.

Significance

The majority of rural historic landscapes that would be considered here are significant for agriculture, under Criterion A (See p. 21 for Areas of Significance for Rural Landscapes). Significance for a Landscape under Criterion A is understood within the historic context of the region’s farming system trajectory through its landscape characteristics.

Many rural properties contain landscape characteristics related to agricultural land uses and practices. Eligibility for significance in agriculture on a local level depends onseveral factors:

  • First, the characteristics must have served or resultedfrom an important event, activity, ortheme in agricultural development as recognized by the historic contextsfor the area. 
  • Second, the property must have had a direct involvementin the significant events or activities by contributing to the area’s economy,productivity, or identity as an agricultural community.  
  • Third, throughhistoric landscape characteristics, theproperty must cogently reflect the period of time in which the importantevents took place. (McMurry 2012b:13)

When working within the MPDF, importance often hinged on productivity measures, i.e., was the farm successful.  In the frame of a large rural historic landscape, is that even a useful measure?  And if not, what would be?  

The basis for significance for the farmstead is whether the production values were above average. This doesn’t really work in evaluating rural historic landscapes, but there may be a surrogate methodology that compares one valley against the next in terms of prosperity.  When looking at a landscape as a potential historic rural agricultural district, if we bring forward the notion of the district as as system, then we can open a door to surrogate measures of prosperity.  One is the richness of functions within the (agricultural) system.  Does it have a grange, a general store, a mill, a saddlery, churches, a hotel?  Is there a hierarchy of settlement within the district, i.e., does it have a village or town as well as crossroads communities?  We would expect that the more prosperous historic districts would have these features and that the less prosperous ones have a stripped down functional environment, maybe reduced to single farms and a mill.  It may be possible to set registration requirements for different landscapes within each of the agricultural regions and within each time period, to compare in a more effective and quantitative way one landscape to the next.

Integrity

McClelland, et al (n.d.) offers a reasonable and useful approach to assessing historic integrity (pp. 21-24).  For rural agricultural landscapes, qualities of location, setting, and design are less likely to be affected by modern development, although design could be significantly altered by modern agricultural practices.  Comparsions of modern and historic aerial photography can provide clues as to whether a landscape has undergone significant transformation.

Materials and association could also be vastly different from the period of significance especially if the farming systems have radically changed.  In fact, the trajectory of the history of farming in Pennsylvania is one of several major transformations statewide, from regionalism and the local mix of crops and husbandry, to a 20thcentury modernization and homogenization and pull toward external markets, to an ever increased specialization and concentration as farms become less self-reliant for animal feed, pasture, fertilizer, and family provisions.

And of course, development in the form of farms subdivided for housing, resource extraction (such as natural gas), public utilities, and other industrial development can also diminish historic integrity.  At the end, the landscape has the same challenge that smaller rural historic districts have. Can it retain the general character and feeling for its period of significance?

Next: Part II

Bibliography

McClelland, Linda Flint, J. Timothy Keller, Genevieve P. Keller, and Robert Z. Melnick

n.d.              Guidelines for Evaluating and Documenting Rural Historic Landscapes. National Register Bulletin 30. U.S. Department of the Interior.

McMurry, Sally

2012a          MPDF Introduction and Overview. Agricultural Resources of Pennsylvania, c.1700-1960.  Multiple Property Documentation Form, U.S. Department of the Interior.

2012b          Agricultural Resources of Pennsylvania, c.1700-1960. Multiple Property Documentation Form, U.S. Department of the Interior.

Sebastian, Lynne

2004            What is the Preservation Payoff? Remarks presented in a session entitled An Alternate View of the Section 106 Review Process, Appendix D, A Working Conference on Enhancing and Streamlining, Section 106 Compliance and Transportation Project Delivery, Santa Fe, NM February, 2004. SRI Foundation

U.S. Department of the Interior

1991a          How to Apply the National Register Criteria for Evaluation. National Register Bulletin 15. U.S. Department of the Interior.

1991b          How to Complete the National Register Registration Form. National Register Bulletin 16A. U.S. Department of the Interior.

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