We had some fun recently during a site visit to identify the presence of a historic agricultural district for a solar project…
*Cue Sir David Attenborough’s voice*
Here we are searching for the elusive historic agricultural district. Often impossible to find, we are hoping to get a glimpse of it today, as whispers of its appearance have been heard. What vast expanses of agricultural land use and lack of modern residential development, perhaps we will get a sighting after all. But what is this that appears on the horizon? Large modern grain bins indicative of monocropping, followed by farmsteads lacking historic barns? Ah well, it would appear the earlier rumors of a visit from that elusive beast, the historic agricultural district, have been unfounded. Perhaps when we return to the hunt tomorrow, we may catch a glimpse.
Historic Agricultural District
All joking aside, the historic agricultural district is a type of cultural resource that can be difficult to identify and document due to its size and complexity. Along with farms and farmsteads, the historic agricultural district was listed as a property type in the Agricultural Resources of Pennsylvania, 1700-1960 Multiple Property Documentation Form (MPDF), also known as the Agricultural Context. The context identifies and describes the different types of historic agricultural resources, systems, and regions found throughout the Commonwealth and discusses how they can be eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places (National Register).
A historic agricultural district includes contiguous farmsteads that share visual, landscape, and architectural characteristics that date to and are typical of the period of significance and were connected by historic transportation systems. There is generally an emphasis on the area being set apart from its surroundings as a distinctive entity with agricultural viewsheds uninterrupted by modern development.
Given their large geographic area and multiple properties involved, historic agricultural districts are treated differently from farms and farmsteads in National Register eligibility assessments. Not all farms need to be individually eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. Rather, the district’s eligibility derives from the collective character of the whole. The agricultural landscape should remain consistent with historic field patterns, tree lines, and connections between farmsteads, and sufficient built environment should remain to convey historic agricultural use.
Focus on Integrity
While the Agricultural Context recognized the historic agricultural district as a property type, it did not provide much guidance. As a result of a multi-year effort with PennDOT, the PA SHPO has released guidance on the identification, documentation, and evaluation of historic agricultural districts. Given the size of a historic agricultural district, from a practical standpoint it makes sense to examine integrity first to see if a landscape retains those physical features that can convey agricultural significance.
An examination of an area for historic agricultural district potential begins with a desktop review. Current aerial photographs and Google Streetview can be useful in determining if an area remains largely agricultural in nature, with farm complexes evenly distributed across an agricultural landscape. County land use and tax parcel mapping can also establish agricultural use. In cases where the majority of land is no longer used for agriculture, it will usually be obvious that a historic agricultural district is not present from a desktop review.
Compare Historic and Current Aerials
If a cursory review shows the potential for an agricultural landscape, a careful comparison of past and present-day aerials can show changes to or retention of landscape features including the pattern of fields, spacing of farm complexes, and circulation network.
If a comparison of historic and current aerials reveals landscape patterns remain, then additional research is necessary. An examination of the Agricultural Context will reveal agricultural trends and the associated built environment and landscape features for the relevant region that are necessary to convey significance. Nineteenth century and PennDOT Type 10 county mapping show historic locations of services that supported area farmers such as mills, stores, school, and churches, often in village centers. Area histories are also useful to understanding the evolution and development of the landscape.
A site visit is useful for confirming the integrity of the landscape and if it can convey agriculture trends over time. It allows for the determination of the function and age of buildings in the farm complexes and if buildings may have been abandoned, altered, or even replaced with new dwellings and barns. A site visit also establishes if historic supporting services remain. If a district is determined to exist, the site visit can be useful to delineating potential boundaries.
The final step in the process is documentation. The documentation should focus on visual illustrations and a discussion of how the area conveys those trends and patterns in agriculture identified in the Agricultural Context. A worksheet outlining the types of changes commonly made to historic agricultural landscapes accompanies the guidance and is useful in determining level of integrity through the presence or absence of landscape features. Examples of documentation for past historic agricultural districts have been provided in the newly released guidance.