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Cohen Family, Ellington Farmers for 99 Years

The Cohen family has been farming in Ellington for 99 years. I recently had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Sanford (Sandy) Cohen about the history of the Cohen family and farm. I was amazed at the details that Sandy could remember; names and dates came easily to him as he told his family’s story. The Cohen story only brushes the surface of the rich and intriguing history of Jewish farming in Ellington. I hope to go further into this history in subsequent posts; for now I hope you enjoy this story.

A Bit of Background

In the 1900s the Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society, an American Department of the Baron de Hirsch Fund, was incorporated. Baron de Hirsch, a German railroad tycoon, bequeathed 10 million dollars to be used for the resettlement of Eastern European Jews. At the time there was also a back-to-the-land movement, common among Eastern European Jewish immigrants. The JAIAS assisted Jewish settlers with not only loans, but also advice concerning the purchase of farms and farming technique, as many of the immigrants had no farming skills. The Connecticut River Valley was an ideal place for purchasing farms rich in soil. There were many Yankee farm owners ready to sell their farms as the younger generation had left their homesteads for factory jobs. The early 1900s found a vibrant and growing Jewish farming community in Ellington, Connecticut.

Shochet arrives in Ellington

With the growing Jewish community came the need for a Shochet, a person who has been specially trained to slaughter animals in accordance with Jewish law. Jacob Corr (Sandy’s great uncle) emigrated from an area in Russia now known as Minsk Gebernia in 1905 to serve this position. After he was established in Ellington, Jacob was able to bring his mother, father, (Rabbi Isreal Corr, Sandy’s great-grandfather) and siblings, including his sister Annie (Sandy’s grandmother) to America. Annie worked in the garment factories in New York City and visited her family in Ellington during the summer months when the factory was shut down.

Annie Cohen around 1940

Joseph Cohen Comes to America

Meanwhile, back in (present day) Moldova, Sandy’s grandfather Joseph Cohen worked as what we would now call a physician’s assistant. Joseph was educated in medicine and accounting. At that time in the area of Russia where Joseph lived, Jews were not allowed to become doctors, nor were they allowed to own land. Here is Sandy’s version of the story: “My Grandfather wrote a letter to the government in Moscow complaining of the deplorable conditions at the hospital where he worked. He apparently pushed the wrong buttons. He was called to the hospital administrator who, with letter in hand, asked him if he wrote the letter. Although my grandfather had beautiful and unique handwriting that could not be mistaken, he adamantly denied writing the letter. On his way out he was warned that the Agrana (the Czar’s secret police) would be coming for him. He decided to get out of Dodge!” Joseph Cohen immigrated to Norfolk Virginia around 1900 and got work through his uncle, Max Lavitt, who had come to America in 1882 by himself, at the age of 15. Max established himself as a wholesale grocer in Norfolk and would set up new Jewish immigrants with small grocery stores throughout the city. While living in Virginia, Joseph contracted malaria and was sent north to relatives in Ellington to convalesce. There he met his future wife Annie Corr. Joseph and Annie were married and Sandy laughed as he recalled this story: “My grandparents were married in Ellington in 1909 and were going back to Norfolk to live. On their way back they were to stop in New York City and pick up my Grandmother’s belongings that were at the boarding house where she lived while working in the garment factory. She failed to tell my grandfather that she had back payments due on room and board because of a factory strike. They had to hock her wedding ring in order to get her belongings back!”

Joseph Cohen Becomes a Farmer

After the birth of two sons, Saul in 1910 and Forrest in 1911, Joseph’s malaria symptoms returned and doctors advised Joseph to move north permanently. Together with three partners, Joseph bought a farm on Pinney Street in Ellington. While two of the partners and his wife and children remained in Virginia, Joseph and one partner spent a long cold winter in New England. Being unfamiliar with the climate, they failed to cut enough firewood and even resorted to burning furniture. Sandy’s wit came through in the telling of this part of the story: “My grandfather and partner are up north freezing and thinking that their two partners are doing just fine in Virginia. The two partners in Virginia are getting mad picturing my grandfather and the other partner sitting by a cozy crackling fire drinking tea and waiting for spring. Needless to say, the partnership didn’t last.” Joseph then bought a farm with his cousin, Joseph Miller, on Windsorville Road. The farm had two homes and he brought his wife and two sons to live in Ellington. His third son, David, was born in 1914. This second partnership lasted several years until he purchased the present Cohen farm in 1915 on Frog Hollow Road.

Present day house on the farm on Windersorville Rd. that Joe Miller lived in. Joseph Cohen lived in a smaller house next door which has been torn down.

The original farm on Frog Hollow Road was 50 acres with a home built in 1793. The deed not only describes the land but included two horses named Dick (yes two!), two cows, 1 heifer – 18 months old, 4 shoats, 15 fowl, all the harnesses, all the farming implements and small tools, 1 farm one-horse wagon, 1 concord buggy, 1- one-horse tobacco hack, 1 corn sheller, winnowing mill, 1 fodder cutter, all the tobacco lathe, all the tobacco poles and lumber in tobacco shed, one pile of new lumber situated on the north side of new shed, all the wood cut for use for fire with the exception of cut wood located on the north side of the hen house and east of the highway, all the hay, all the corn fodder, 25 bushel of corn on the ear to be measured in a bushel basket, all the tobacco stalks – reserving only to myself the household furniture and the fire wood as referred to and the remains of the corn. Joseph Cohen, like most farmers of that time, was a subsistence farmer who also grew potatoes and tobacco for cash crops. Most of the family’s needs were grown on the farm with the cash being used to purchase items such as sugar, coffee, tea, flour and spices.

Harvesting tobacco on the Cohen Farm 1941

Hired man John Pershimski pulling the rigging in 1941

Joseph continued this way of farming until 1947 when several things happened. The tobacco crop that year suffered horribly from a mold in the area, and in addition, his last work horse died. He sat down with his wife Annie who had raised 500 chickens for the past several years and discovered that Annie had brought in more money with her chickens than he did with horses and hired men. That was the end of row farming and the beginning of chicken farming for Joseph Cohen. He also was the Secretary- Treasurer of the Federal Land Bank of Springfield, Massachusetts, approving loans for farmers. Joseph would take the trolley from the bottom of Frog Hollow Road to Springfield when he was needed at the bank.

Joseph Cohen farmhouse built in 1793 as it stands today.

David Cohen Returns to the Farm

Joseph’s youngest son David graduated from high school at the age of 15 in 1929 and was accepted to Brown University. Unfortunately, the university would not allow David to attend until he was 18. In the midst of the Great Depression with his earnings sorely needed, David moved to Hartford to work and live with an Aunt and Uncle. He married Dorothy Block in 1940 and held various jobs throughout the years including working in the tobacco warehouse for J.R. Gans, sighting guns during WWII for Underwood Manufacturing and working for Capital Candy Company. Jonathan, their first son, was born in 1946. After losing his job at Hamilton Standard in Broad Brook as a propeller grinder due to the development of the jet, David decided to come back to the farm to help his father, whose health was failing. On February 9, 1949, the day his second son Sanford was born, David purchased his first batch of day old baby chicks. He and his wife Dorothy renovated an old school house on the property into their home. Their third son Harris was born in 1954. They grew the chicken farm and at one time had ten to eleven thousand chickens on the farm, about five to six thousand of those laying at a time. They sold the bulk of the eggs to the Progressive Egg Company and had several smaller buyers. Every year they culled about half the chickens and sold them for meat at the New York Live Poultry Auction. Because the Cohen chickens were bigger than the average laying hen at about 7.5 pounds, they made out well at the auction. Egg prices were good, and the farm thrived.

Original school house that Dave and Dorothy Cohen renovated into their home in the early 1950’s. Date of this photo unknown. Photo courtesy of The Ellington Historical Society.

The house as it stands today.

Sandy Learns to Drive

My favorite story when interviewing Sandy was his recollection of learning to drive. The three boys always had chores on the farm, mostly collecting and weighing eggs, but his father always encouraged him to work outside their own farm. His real love for farming was developed by helping his neighbors, the Epstien brothers, with the potato harvest starting at the age of 5 ½! During the harvest a tractor pushed the truck into which potatoes were loaded. Although the truck was not under power, it still had to be steered and they propped little Sandy up with a pile of bags. It was his job to steer the truck! Throughout his youth, Sandy worked on many farms doing field work, milking cows, and harvesting hay and corn silage.

Off to College

Although Sandy always wanted to be a farmer, his father insisted he go to college first. Sandy stated: “My Dad was fine with me being a farmer, but he didn’t want anyone to be able to call me a dumb farmer. Go to college first he said, and then become a farmer.” He graduated with honors from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point with a dual major in Ocean Transportation and Marine Engineering. He received his Third Mate’s License, Third Assistant’s License and a Naval Reserve Commission. David Cohen had stopped egg farming 3 years earlier, but the manure still remained. Sandy related with a chuckle that his first job after graduating college in 1972 was cleaning his father’s now vacant chicken coops of all the manure; just what he needed a college degree for! Sandy then began his 20- year-career working for Atlantic Richfield in Philadelphia on ships transporting crude oil and clean oil products. Throughout these twenty years he traveled to twenty countries and most of the time he would be at sea for six months and home in Ellington for six months. This schedule allowed him to keep his hand in farming, and he began renting the farm from his father in 1973. Sanford’s younger brother Harris was also interested in keeping up the Cohen farming tradition, and received a degree from UConn School of Agriculture and became the farm manager.

Trying to Build a Profitable Farm

Throughout the 1970s Harris would hire himself out to various farms and at the same time slowly grew the farm. During this time the farm cost more money than it took in and was funded by Sandy’s “sailing”. The Cohens grew hay and corn, raised beef cattle and had a small herd of 23 heifers. Sandy recounts how they had an incredibly difficult time selling these heifers. They did sell a pregnant cow named Gem, who had been bred to a prized bull, to the Charter farm. The Charter farm did not want to buy the calf so they gave the calf back to the Cohens. This calf named Goldie turned out to be a “super cow” with incredible milk production. The Bahler farm ended up buying Goldie and flushing her eggs to use in embryo transplants, a common method at the time for breeding cows. A large number of the Bahler’s Farm herd at that time were descendants of Goldie.

Equipment Headaches

Sandy recalls how the equipment he and Harris used during these years was “a bunch of old junk.” He said a typical day would end about 11:30 am when whatever equipment they were using would break down. They would then go in for lunch and spend the afternoon repairing for the next day. Little by little they were able to buy better equipment and when they did they would hire themselves out to other farms, earning money for even better equipment. They purchased a round hay baler and grew straw for the strawberry growers in the area, bought a combine and began selling rye. The Cohens tried a variety of vegetable crops but soon found it not to be profitable and switched to pumpkins. At first they tried pick your own but that didn’t work out either. In the 1980s they began selling pumpkins to Stu Leonard, a practice which continues today. They plant about 130 acres of pumpkins each year.

Nuclear Waste Dump Proposed in the Pumpkin Patch

During his teens, Sandy had been offered an opportunity to buy a one-third share of the neighboring Epstein farm, a farm which he loved and had worked on most of his life. Since getting a college degree was his first priority, Sandy declined the offer and the opportunity was lost. Both Epstein brothers were single, and upon their deaths bequeathed their farm to the State of Israel. In 1991 Sandy was negotiating the purchase of the Epstein farm with the executor of the estate, on instruction from the State of Israel, when Ellington was proposed as a potential site for a low-level nuclear waste dump. The area proposed included the Cohen farm and the neighboring Epstein farm. Because of this proposed dump, no bank would loan money for the purchase of any land in Ellington, and once again it seemed like an opportunity lost. Sandy decided to learn everything he could about the criteria for choosing a nuclear waste dump site and began by calling the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He was given the criteria that the land must meet in order to be approved and was told there were no exceptions and that all criteria must be met. Sandy knew that the Epstein Farm’s water table was too high to meet the criteria and realized that this land would never be approved for a nuclear waste dump. In Sandy’s words, he got a loan from “The Bank of Big Ma” and purchased the Epstein farm, which is an integral part of the Cohen farm today. Score one for the farmer!

Epstein brothers house at 59 Frog Hollow Rd. before renovations by Sandy’s brother Jonathan

59 Frog Hollow Rd. today.

Back to Tobacco

In 1992 with the help of mentors Stanley Waldron of South Windsor and Henry Maturo, Sr. of Somers, Sandy and Harris, like their grandfather before them, began growing broad leaf tobacco. Sandy states “those two men held our hands. We would never have succeeded without their guidance.” They now farm 96 acres of broad-leaf tobacco. Tobacco has been the one crop that has allowed the Cohens the cash flow to be able to purchase additional land. They purchased the Spielman farm on West Road in 1997. Every late summer you can watch the growth of chrysanthemum plugs on this part of the farm as they mature into robust, beautiful plants which they sell to the public.

Three of the nine tobacco sheds on the Cohen Farm.

Why Farming…and the Future

The Cohen brother’s perseverance and success in farming is remarkable. They currently farm over 600 acres with crops, including broad leaf tobacco, pumpkins, silage corn and grain corn. They won two first-places in the 2013 National Corn Growers’ Association’s (NCGA) Corn Yield Contest in Connecticut. I was interested to know what it is about farming that keeps the Cohens in this difficult and volatile line of work. Sandy stated: “I enjoy being outside, and there is such a variety in the work that needs to be done, I never get bored. If there is a job I don’t like, I know that it will finish shortly and I can move on to something else. In farming you never know what’s going to happen next; you have to be flexible.” Sandy and Harris Cohen have seven college, high school and middle school-aged children between them. Sandy seemed doubtful at this time about any of the children taking up farming, but you never know…. farming seems to be deeply imbedded in the Cohen blood.

Scenes from the Cohen Farm

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