Dutch Barn Preservation Society

Dedicated to the Study and Preservation
of New World Dutch Barns

NEWSLETTER FALL 1992, Vol., 5, Issue 2

A PHOTO ESSAY

The Dutch barn pictured stood on Wurtemburg Road, near Rhinebeck, Dutchess County. When it was photographed eight years ago, a survivor of over two centuries of service, the carved date of 1759 was visible in the center of the first anchorbeam. The structure, a typical Dutch barn of three bays with a manger on the east side, later collapsed.

The ruin was among Dutchess County barn sites visited by the Dutch Barn Preservation Society trustees on a tour in May, 1992. The foundation of the ruined barn measured 43' (width at the gable end) by 42' deep; the anchorbeams were 11" by 8" supported by 10" by 8 3/4" columns. The threshing floor was 18' wide, flanked by 12' 6" aisles.

Named for an area in Germany, the Wurtemburg Road locale was settled by Germans rather than by the Dutch. However, the owner/builder of this particular barn is not known.


New World Dutch Farms: A Selection of Distinctive Objects

By Roderic H. Blackburn with contributions by Willis Barshied, Jaap Schipper and Anthony Sassi
Continued from the Spring, 1992, issue.

The Dutch Sith and Mathook

Among the hand tools that were distinctively Dutch were the sith and mathook. Kiliaen Van Rensselaer in 1632 wrote to Wouter van Twiller, his nephew and director of his colony of Rensselaerswijk that he was sending "12 grass scythes/19 sichten - [siths or Flemish scythes] for grain". A ca. 1634 inventory for goods sent to the same place listed "4 long grain scythes" and "4 sichten - for grain".(1)

The sith [also designated as sicht, zicht, sicht, sythe, Flemish scythe, Hainault scythe (a misnomer as in that province it was not used) and other variations] was the reaping tool of Dutch preference for centuries. Like the Dutch plow, it appears in 16th century illuminated Flemish manuscripts(2) and later paintings and engravings. From northern France to Northern Germany it had wide acceptance, reflecting its greater efficiency over both the small sickle and the large scythe. It allowed a man to stand nearly erect, the sith balanced comfortably in his right hand, and slash the grain more easily because the crooked shaped handle braced much of the effort against his wrist and lower arm. Without his having to stoop over, the reaping hook [mathook] in his left hand held the stalks together at an angle to more easily cut them, then deftly position them on the ground for subsequent binding into sheaves.

Typical of various references to the sith, Laurens van Alen, proprietor of a farm in present Columbia County, in 1672 sued a tenant farmer for "certain missing tools, including a Flemish scythe, an auger, a mattock, a flatiron, and a small fork." Yet, about one hundred years later, Richard Smith wrote that "... a Scythe with a Short crooked Handle and a Kind of Hook both used to cut down Grain for the Sickle is not much known in Albany County or in this Part of Duchess." (3)

A number of examples of the sith and mathook survive, most having been found in the Mohawk Valley where Dutch (and German, for both made and used identical objects there) farm practices persisted into the mid-19th century, longer than elsewhere. One sith is marked 1821, and other blades are stamped for S. and A. Waters, makers active from 1812 in Amsterdam, Montgomery County. Sith handles show considerable variation, not only between European and American versions, but within the existing American examples suggesting regional and likely individual variation. Carved usually from two pieces of wood, some are more finished than others, suggesting that at least some were farm-made rather than craftsman-made. The mathook was also carved to insure a comfortable grip and a similar bracing of the long handle against the arm for greater leverage.

Not illustrated here, but worth mentioning, is a Dutch anvil and hammer specifically made for sharpening the sith blade in the field. The anvil is in the shape of a big cold chisel or wedge about a foot long with a lower pointed end which is driven into the ground. The upper end widens to receive the blows on the sith blade edge using a special narrow-headed hammer.(4)

The sith and mathook were well suited to wheat (often called corn in early accounts, especially by English speakers) harvesting. They were also used for cutting peas, a crop which was often alternated with wheat. In the province of Zealand in the Netherlands that was their sole use.

Each shock of summer wheat contained twelve sheaves, each shock of winter wheat or rye contained eighteen sheaves. In order to dry the sheaves on all sides the shocks had to be turned.

In Uit Het Oude Friese Akkerbouwbedrij, Leeuwarden, 1981. Illustrated by drawings done by Ida Wiersma (1878-1965) ca. 1906-1932. "At the wheat harvest the wheat was cut with the sith. The cut stalks were shaped into a sheaf with the mathook and the right foot. Then the sheaves were bound by the binders and finally put in shocks to dry."

Curiously the English showed persistent reluctance to adopt the sith despite its efficiencies. Both in England, where it was advocated and demonstrated without effect, and in New York when great numbers of Yankees swept into New York after the Revolution, the Englanders stuck to their own sickle and long-handled grass scythe. Only in the nineteenth century when the demonstrably more efficient cradle scythe was introduced and adopted by all ethnic groups did the Dutch begin to give up the sith and mathook.

Other Dutch Objects

Of the hundreds of objects once part of Dutch farms only a fraction can be physically identified today. Most objects have been lost or destroY!2d and of those surviving most have lost their "Dutch" connection to a specific family or farm. We have to rely on those few still on family farms or in catalogued public and private collections as a guide to what was characteristic of early farms in New York and New Jersey. Most objects probably will prove to be so similar to New England or European examples - early engravings and paintings demonstrate how little many tools have changed - that their "Dutchness" will never be obvious. Where an object has retained in English usage its Dutch name (sith, mathook) or the word "Dutch" as an adjective (Dutch plow, Dutch wagon),we can be more certain that it was once viewed as distinctly Dutch in form or style. Such is the case with the grain measure used by the New World Dutch which retains its old name, schepel. Its capacity is certainly non English, as it holds the odd amount of .764 English bushels. In Dutch measure, three schepels equaled a zat, four zats a mudde, and 27 muddes a last (85.512 bushels).

A whiffletree-like object was once identified by Rufus Grider, a knowledgeable historian of Mohawk Valley life, as a "Dutch neck yoke". How it and others could be used as such is not clear from the several examples which have been found in the Mohawk Valley. What distinguishes them from the more conventional whiffletree, which connected a horse's two traces to the pulled object (plow, wagon etc.) is the greater number of attaching swivels, eight instead of two. One example survives with parts of the harness straps attached. Less puzzling is the decorative iron work, which is shaped in a heart design, a touching symbol of the farmer's true affections.

Sith and mathook found in Montgomery County, NY. Collection of Willis Barshied.

 

Schepel used by Johannes Ball, chairman of the Committee of Safety, Schoharie Frontier, during the Revolution. Height 10 inches, diameter 15 1/4 inches. Pine and wrought iron. Collection of the Schoharie County Historical Society, Schoharie, NY.

 

"Dutch neck yoke", a whiffletree-like object, the upper one with early harness straps. Collection of Willis Barshied, Palatine Bridge, NY.

Another Dutch object is a type of harness composed of a chest and shoulder strap, not the neck collar we associate with a working harness. Examples have been found in the Mohawk Valley which match illustrations of harnessed horses pulling wheel plows in the Netherlands.

Many "wagon seats" are circulating around the antiques trade and may have been the type used on Dutch wagons, but one description mentions wooden springs, not the well known chair posts. And what of the carts mentioned in Dutch farm inventories? Not one today is clearly identifiable as coming from a Dutch farm so we don't know if it was as distinctive in construction as the Dutch wagon.

One sleigh dating from the later part of the eighteenth century with a tradition of ownership by General Peter Gansevoort of Albany(5) may be Dutch in character.

Like so many of the objects listed in inventories, most will await the stimulated inquiry of the reader to uncover them from Dutch farms or from illustrations of Dutch objects in far flung publications and art works. Let us share discoveries in the Newsletter and Miscellany as they are found to build a useful archive of all the objects which the mother of objects, the Dutch barn, has preserved for us.

ENDNOTES

1. Van Laer, A. J. F., Van Rensselaer-Bowier Manuscripts. Albany: University of the State of New York, 1908. p. 204. Ibid, p. 264.

2. "The Month of August", from Hours of the Virgin and Kalendar for Strassburg Use. Illustrated in Peter H. Cousin's authoritative Hog Plow and Sith, Cultural Aspects of Early Agricultural Technology, Dearborn: Greenfield Village and Henry Ford Museum, 1973. p.23. The most complete source on the sith, on which much of this section is based, comes from this source.

3. Van Laer, A.J., Minutes of the Court of Albany, Rensselaerswyck and Schenectady. Albany: University of the State of New York, 1926, p.302. Smith, Richard, A Tour of Four Great Rivers/ the Hudson, Mohawk, Susquehanna and Delaware in 1769/ Being the journal of Richard Smith of Burlington, New Jersey, Edited by F. W. Halsey, Port Washington, New York: Ira J. Friedman, 1964. p.11.

4. For further information on the sith, mathook, and other Dutch farm tools see David Steven Cohen's "Dutch-American Farming: Crops, Livestock, and Equipment, 1623-1900" in New World Dutch Studies, Dutch Arts and Culture in Colonial America 1609-1776, Roderic H. Blackburn and Nancy A. Kelley (eds.). Albany Institute of History and Art, 1987, pp.194-198. For further information on the sith see: "A Symposium, Questions about Dutch agricultural tools in America." with contributions by Willis Barshied Jr. "In defense of the term 'sith' " (pp.65-66); Francis York "Peculations about the origin of the word mathook" (pp.66-67); Charles Reichman "Barton of Mayfield and the Dutch scythe" (p.67); and Richard Kappeler "A Dutch? scythe anvil" (p.68). This appeared in The Chronicle of the Early American Industries Association, March, 1975. In the December 1987 issue, Willis Barshied Jr. added an "Editorial addendum" on the subject, and Robert Fridlington wrote "Sith vs. scythe, another view"; followed by "The pith of the matter, a response from the editor". Peter Sinclair illustrated and discussed several Hudson Valley siths in "Five siths and a mathook from Ulster County, NY" in Field Notes of the Joy Farm Preservation Society, Autumn, 1991.

5. Collection of the Museums at Stony Brook, Stony Brook, Long Island, NY.


Society Activities

DBPS members listened intently on June 16, 1992 to Ellen van Olst, Director of the Stichting Historisch Boerderij-onderzoek, a barn preservation group headquartered at Arnhem, The Netherlands, as she showed slides illustrating regional differences in barns in the Netherlands. From left, Jack Sobon, who arranged the talk in connection with the Timber Framers Guild, R. Andrew Nash (rear), Michael Bathrick, Rivkah Feldman, and Harold Zoch. Photo by Clarke Blair.

Differences noted by Ms. van Olst between old barns in the Netherlands and Dutch barns near Albany included: multiple use there rather than single use; smaller scantlings (timbers) and imperfect timbers used in Netherlands barns; floors in Netherlands barns made of clay, not wood, with no flooring framework, and posts resting on stones; roofs in the Netherlands covered with thatch or pantiles; siding there may be wattle and-daub or brick infill between posts (studs); lower aisles (eaves) in the Netherlands; house (residence) may be attached at one end.

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