Changing Landscapes People and Places in the Mill Creek Valley Lower Merion c.1870-c.1920

Vaughan Property

Gabriel Vaughan: The Self-Sufficient Farmer


A Small Yet Prosperous Farm

From 1858 until his death in 1894 Gabriel Vaughan worked his twenty one acres of land as a farmer. His property was on Old Gulf Road and his land was split by a tributary to Mill Creek. Gabriel Vaughan owned one of the many farms in Lower Merion during the 19th century. He is unique in that he used the water from his creek to keep his soil well irrigated rather than to power a mill. He experienced a great deal of success as farmer. His property value improved from $5,000 to $10,000 between 1860 and 1870.[1] His personal property increased in value from $100 to $1,000 during the same decade. This tenfold increase, along with the finances in his will, shows how well he utilized his land and the wealth he accumulated over his lifetime. Gabriel’s success as a farmer likely continued during the 1870’s when the value of foodstuffs increased immensely. This was due to a five year period of disease in Europe that diminished food output.[2] As a wheat farmer he would have benefited from this along with many other American farmers. In the 1880’s small scale wheat farmers began to see to a decline. Industrialized production increased the amount of wheat harvested and led to a decrease in the price of the crop.[3] Gabriel was already financially secured at this point and likely continued to make a small profit while his farm subsisted him. The significance of this social movement is that it is likely the reason why his neither his son-in-law nor any of his grandsons took up the profession and continued to cultivate the property.

A Lower Merion Family

Gabriel married twice. He wed Hester and together they had a daughter named Agnes. Hester and Gabriel lived on a smaller property where Gabriel worked as a farmer. Hester died unexpectedly in 1856 leaving Gabriel in the care of seven year old Agnes and a sixteen year old Jacob Sharmer. Just two years later Gabriel had already remarried Elizabeth, an English woman, with whom he raised Agnes and maintained his farm. In 1858 Gabriel and Elizabeth purchased their twenty one acre property from Mrs. John Shaw on her death bed. Mr. John Shaw had already perished, but he had made his living as a farmer on the land.[4]

His parents were from Lower Merion, his daughter continued to live in the township with his grandchildren, and his brother Jacob was a Lower Merion resident along with Gabriel’s four nieces. He was tied to this community and wanted to donate a portion of his finances to a major local institution, the church. His brother Jacob and his sons worked as farmers in Lower Merion as well. His daughter married the son of Henry Keech, another prominent Mill Creek farmer. He was well prepared to die at the time of his death. His debts were paid and his estate was in good order and prepared to be distributed among his loved ones. His funeral arrangements were already paid for.[5] This demonstrates why Gabriel found success in farming. He was always planning for the future. Farming was in his family, and the only profession he knew.

In 1860, just two years after Gabriel had purchased his property, Gabriel had employed the 20 year old Jacob Sharmer. Sharmer was a local boy who had been living with the family since he was ten.[6] In 1870 Gabriel was using the labor of 13 year old Stewart McMoran, a native of Lower Merion.[7] During the 1880 census, the last available census before his death, he is listed as a farmer at the age of 61. He had enlisted the help of the Irishman Patrick Query at this time.[8] At 45 years of age Query was an anomaly in the usual youthful farm labor Gabriel had hired.    This shift in the age of his farm hand was likely due to the fact that Gabriel was physically slowing down and needed more experienced farm labor. He could not continue to house youthful farm laborer still learning the trade. It is worth noting McMoran and Sharmer were natives of Lower Merion, while Query was born in Ireland. This indicates that adult immigrant Irishmen were given work equal in stature to what adolescent native born boys were given. Gabriel likely worked his plot of 21 acres in the Mill Creek valley until his death, he had no more farm hands at this death yet he had crops planted.  His will and testament indicates he was still farming at the age of 77 as well. He wrote the will in 1893, a year before his death, identifying himself as “Gabriel Vaughan of the township of Lower Merion,…farmer, being of sound and disposing mind”.[9] Gabriel’s identity as a farmer was, to him, as significant as his place of residence.

The Logistics of an 19th Century Farm

Sources suggest Gabriel often grew wheat. At the time of his death there were 3 acres of wheat planted in the ground. He also possessed a grain fan, a hay cutter as well as scythe and plow. These tools show us how Gabriel went about cultivating and collecting his wheat. The grain fan would assist in the process of winnowing, an agricultural practice that separated the grain from the chaff.[10] This simple machine would help a farmer who was winnowing by hand. It was a cheap device which was being replaced by massive vehicles such as combines and steam tractors. Gabriel neither had the money nor the acreage for the new machines to be practical.

The 3 acres of wheat also hint to a form of crop rotation. He had more than 20 acres of land, yet was only using 3 of them. This is likely because he would rotate crops at different times of year to avoid exhausting the soil, a common practice. The stream that divides his property, as well as his modest finances, were likely why he used a scythe to harvest his crops. The new machinery would have been impractical for such a small farm, and the stream would have been problematic to cross in a mechanized farm vehicle. The time of year is an indicator as to why his land is only being partially used as well. The Vaughan estate was appraised on April 14th 1894. April is too early for crops to be sprouting with the exception of winter wheat. Gabriel would have planted the winter wheat in the fall, when he was still healthy and it seems to be the last harvest he plants. Wheat was indeed the lifeblood of his farm. He would sell much of the wheat for an income, but he likely kept a small amount for his own sustenance.  He even used a mixture of wheat and manure to create mulch he would use for fertilizer.[11] This mulch illustrates the self-sufficient nature of Gabriel and his farm, the crops his land produced and the manure his livestock created combined to maintain the land.

The appraisement included a number of items listed in his cellar. Many items, including his two horses were likely items found in his barn. The cellar of his home likely contained other items listed, such as his sack of potatoes, his wash tub, his meat barrel and work bench. As the list goes on into the horses, chickens, and hay, it becomes apparent the appraiser did not distinguish between the contents of the cellar in Gabriel’s home and the contents of his two barns

Gabriel did not use all twenty one acres of his land for farming. He had a drive way, a stone home, and two barns. On top of this he had the stream that divided his property into two halves. It flowed down the slope of Gabriel’s land before trickling into Mill Creek. He also possessed a mowing machine which indicates he maintained a lawn on part of his property. The other acres would be divided between crops. Gabriel may have cultivated corn as well. He possessed a corn shucker, and corn is traditionally a common crop in Pennsylvania’s climate.[12]

Gabriel’s crops were both supplemented and supported by the farm animals found on his estate. He had 3 chicken coops that held 25 chickens.[13] This small amount of chickens indicated Gabriel would not collect a significant enough amount of eggs to warrant a trip to the market. He likely kept some eggs for his own sustenance and then traded other eggs to nearby neighbors for certain items, such as the vinegar, potatoes or beans found in his cellar during the appraisement.[14] This shows both the self-sufficient nature of Gabriel’s farm but also of Mill Creek as a community. He also had a wooden barn and a stone one as well. They held one black horse and one bay horse, as well as a great deal of hay, a horse blanket, a plough, a sleigh, a carriage, and a market wagon. The blanket, four hay forks, horse shaver, and two sets of barns shows the care with which Gabriel treated his horses. He also had a buffalo robe, a massive cured buffalo hide with the fur intact, this would have used for his horses as he kept it in his barn.[15] Buffalo Robes were often worn by people, as well as horses. In the appraisement of Gabriel’s own bedroom, however, no fur coats were found. In this sense Gabriel was so intent on keeping his horses healthy he put their winter attire before his own. They were his livelihood. The engines that pushed his plough to till his fields, transported his goods on the market wagon, and took him about town to church and social visits in his carriage.

The plow and the horses would work together to till his land during the spring season as Gabriel prepared his fields for seeding. The market wagon would have been the largest form of transportation as he would need a great deal of space to transport the crops. He likely went to the Philadelphia market once or twice a year to sell his crops in mass quantity, to make his trip worthwhile. The sleigh would be utilized during the winter snows, where his carriage would be mired in snow the sleigh would glide without issue. The carriage would be the most pragmatic and commonly used means of transportation for Gabriel. During most of the year Gabriel’s horses would find themselves pulling the carriage. He would utilize his horses when he traveled intermediate and long distances, for short distances Gabriel likely walked around the community.

His horses were a crucial aspect of Gabriel’s self-sufficient farm. It is only sensible he dedicated a significant amount of money to keeping them well fed and comfortable. He kept nearly 40 dollars in hay and 8 dollars of straw.[16] The hay was horse feed, while the straw would keep them comfortable. The horse blanket would also be an effective means of keeping the animals warm during cold winter months, ensuring they did not consume excessive amounts of hay. This would save Gabriel on horse feed costs, and demonstrates his economic nature.

The horses would also provide the manure with which he mixed some of his wheat to mulch his fields. He had a shovel in stock that he would have used to collect the manure and spread it around the property. This homemade fertilizer would be supplemented by the phosphate Gabriel kept. The fertilizer Gabriel and other home owners used during this time remains a legacy of this agricultural community. Presently Mill Creek is the largest contributor of fertilizer pollutants into the Schuylkill. The nutrients in the fertilizers fuel unnatural algae growth which can consume the oxygen in the water, killing other aquatic life. Gabriel’s land would have presented challenges for him. Mill Creek is prone to flooding, an issue that can wash out topsoil and the fertilizers Gabriel used to enrich the soil. The agricultural pollution that exists today from fertilizers may have been even worse during Gabriel’s life time. The Joseph Price Diary focuses on weather a great deal, particularly its effect on crops. In 1818 he describes one account of rain, “a very fine rain all night tho not so hard as to wash much, all things Look Lively Vegatation.”[17] There is an emphasis on how hard the rain is, too light does not help the vegetation but too heavy can drown the crops and wash out the soil.

The Effect of the Topography

When visiting Mill Creek in the spring it is apparent of the effect the water has on the area. It is a lush landscape covered in different shades of green, accented with small ponds and creeks. There is no lack of water during this time of year. Unfortunately it is the spring time when Gabriel would apply his fertilizers and plow his soil. This would leave the soil particularly exposed to spring rains washing out his land. Gabriel has a broad axe that he would use to clear additional land. It is evident his property lacked many remaining trees as the modern properties now on his land do not have many trees older than 100 years. Without the roots of trees to hold in his soil Gabriel’s soil would be particularly vulnerable to erosion.  

Gabriel’s property sits at the top of a hill, sloped towards his creek in the center of his property as well as down towards Mill Creek itself. His soil could be easily washed off down the hill into Mill Creek, or would flow into his own creek and then downstream. The Mill Creek Valley was hit with several devastating floods that destroyed homes and Mills.[18] Gabriel’s property would have suffered more from the devastating soil erosion. The topography of the surrounding area meant that Gabriel’s stream would flood whenever Mill Creek did as well.

The End of an Era

He was considerably generous in his will and testament. He gave five hundred dollars to the Lutheran Church, three hundred dollars to the Methodist Church, and nearly four thousand dollars to friends and family.[19] This does not include the twenty one acres he gave to his only daughter Agnes and the separate six acre property he gave to his close friend Francis Nivens. Nivens and Agnes each received over forty two hundred dollars from the sale of Gabriel’s personal property as well. He was going to be buried in the Lutheran Church cemetery, yet he still donated to both churches. Gabriel was undoubtedly a religious man, but he was also tied to the community.

Gabriel’s death heralds the end of the farm on Old Gulf.  It is April and there is no mention of any crops planted in the ground, only the nearly matured wheat. This is because Gabriel had been growing weaker at the age of 77. After his death Gabriel’s grandson Harry Keech takes up residence on the property. He works as a day laborer and the Vaughan farm is no longer maintained. These last 3 acres of wheat may well be the last harvest grown on this plot of land. Gabriel’s death ushered in a new age for the Vaughan property.

[1]  United States Census Office, 1860 Census, Harold Charlton, 226.

United States Census Office, General Wayne Post Office, 1870 Census, Joseph S. Schlater, 104.

[2]  Eugene A. Havens, Studies in the Transformation of U.S. Agriculture (Boulder: Westview Press, 1986), 29.

[3]  Ibid., 30.

[4]  Montgomery County Records Office, Deed of Mrs. John Shaw, 1858.

[5]  Montgomery County Records Office, Last Will and Testament of Gabriel Vaughan, 18971.

[6]  United States Census Office, 1860 Census, Harold Charlton, 226.

United States Census Office, 1850 Census, George S. Hemmer, 168.

[7]  United States Census Office, General Wayne Post Office, 1870 Census, Joseph S. Schlater, 104.

[8]  United States Census Office, 1880 Census, Alex Gauchs, 7-296.

[9]  Montgomery County Records Office, Last Will and Testament of Gabriel Vaughan, 18971.

[10]  “Growing Grain: Harvesting, Threshing, Winnowing and Storing”,, Last Modified September 13th, 2011.

[11]  Montgomery County Records Office, Last Will and Testament of Gabriel Vaughan, 18971.

[12]  Montgomery County Records Office, Last Will and Testament of Gabriel Vaughan, 18971.

[13]  Ibid.

[14]  Ibid.

[15]  “Buffalos, Buckskin, Wolfs and Bears”,, Last Modified spring, 2014.

[16]  Montgomery County Records Office, Last Will and Testament of Gabriel Vaughan, 18971.

[17]  “Joseph Price Diary”, May the 3rd, 1818.

[18]  Conshohocken Recorder, Conshohocken, Pa.: Recorder Pub. Co., June 1 1894.

[19]  Montgomery County Records Office, Last Will and Testament of Gabriel Vaughan, 18971.



Gabriel Vaughan Property.JPG

Gabriel's 21 acre farm in 1877