Imagine yourself a soldier returning from the Civil War. Disoriented. Jobless.
Before that bloody War Between the States you had been a farmer. A New York City farmer at that!
But Manhattan had changed much in your absence. You simply couldn’t plant a potato patch wherever you pleased anymore.
Gone were the wide-open farms and boweries where sunburned field hands had raised livestock and sold or bartered homegrown vegetables as they had for generations. For centuries, the presence of farmers was of great benefit to the entire community; especially uptown where store-bought goods were hard to come by.
But change was inevitable…
Downtown, which had always been a gritty, crowded place, sprawled ever northward.
Farming now required a certain amount of ingenuity and the willingness to be constantly on the move. To be successful, an individual had to be one, if not two, steps ahead of development. Special deals had to be worked out with property owners whose land sat fallow, awaiting the next surge of building—Perhaps a bushel of peas for the lady of the house? Or the promise of keeping the lot clean and well maintained.
After the War, jobs were scarce, and a plucky few stuck with the only occupation they had ever known—agriculture.
This is the true story one such man. A former farmer and battle hardened veteran who, after returning from the Civil War, managed a patchwork quilt of tiny farms, moving from spot to spot, maintaining a rapidly fading way of life well into the early 1900’s.
His northern migration would end in Inwood, the last speck of rural Manhattan.
In 1865, that man, one Adolph Zerrenner, the color bearer for Union General Phil Sheridan, returned to New York to discover that he was unemployable.
Sheridan, his former commander, remains famous for the scorched earth tactics he employed in his relentless pursuit of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. In the Shenandoah Valley Sheridan’s total destruction of Southern infrastructure is still referred to as “The Burning.” Ultimately, Sheridan’s cavalry, and their unforgiving chase, were credited with forcing Lee’s surrender Appomattox.
And through it all, Adolph Zerrenner, once decorated for saving the Stars and Stripes at the battle of Five Forks, had been at his General’s side.
But, heroes and medals were a common sight in the year following the war, so Zerrenner picked up where he had left off before being rudely interrupted by the savagery of war—He melted his sword into a ploughshare and returned to tilling the land. The only job he had ever known.
Zerrenner himself was a well-liked and respected farmer, but his was truly a family operation.
His wife, according to the New York Tribune, was a Brooklyn girl who “became a typical farmer’s wife, and his thirteen youngsters learned all about potatoes and sweet corn and horses and cows. Always on the edge of advancing bricks they clung, renting little farms, working hard and selling their produce to city dwellers.”
Zerrenner had taken on his first farm on Nagle Avenue in the days of the Spanish American War. During those early years his plough constantly uncovered interesting artifacts: Flint and arrowheads from the days of Indian habitation—Cannonballs, bar-shot and rusty bayonets from the Revolutionary War and sometimes even stone hatchets and bones.
Curious archeologists often stopped by his farm to inspect his homegrown collection. More often than not the history sleuths would walk away with a basket of produce. A man had to be paid for his time after all.
In his book, Relics of the Revolution, published in 1916, historian Reginald Pelham Bolton wrote: “Just north of the intersection of Broadway and Nagel Avenue, occupying the space between the two, is a large patch of truck garden, long cultivated by that picturesque Civil War veteran Zerrenner, a one-time despatch rider of the New York Cavalry in the Civil War.
Zerrenner’s military knowledge led him to discern the nature of many of the odd objects which his deep tillage of the black soil brought to his hands, a knowledge fortunately communicated to his sons, who have farmed for many years similar ground on Laurel Hill, whence many of the relics of its forts and camps have been secured.
In digging at the north side of his little cottage on the line of 196th Street, Zerrenner disturbed human remains, which have some appearance of being those of military burial. Over the cultivated space, quite a number of military buttons have been found, including those of the 54th, 57th and of the 71st British regiments. It is interesting also to note that various stone artifacts disclose the occupancy of this area by the aborigines.”
During hard times, Zerrenner would sell a precious artifact or two to help his family get through the winter.
Not surprisingly, Zerrenner never surrendered to the encroaching city. The wily old farmer passed away in the spring of 1913 at the age of seventy-four.
For the next several years, his widow, and at least a handful of his many children, took up the family business. But, inevitably, the City won out.
The following article, written in March of 1914, picks up a year after Adolph Zerrenner’s death.
The Toledo News-Bee
March 19, 1914
NEW YORK WOMAN FARMS LAND ON BROADWAY WORTH $50,000 AN ACRE
“Broadway has a real farm. It is near enough to the center of the city to make the five-acre parcel worth, according to the appraiser’s assessment, $278,000, the most valuable piece of farmland in the world!
It is located on the ground where Washington’s army made its first stand against the British on Manhattan Island, at the junction of Broadway and Nagle Avenue. Broadway cars pass the door.
Mrs. Adolph Zerrenner, born in Brooklyn 69 years ago, mother of a family of 13 and widow of a Civil War veteran, runs this farm.
Two grown sons and one grandson, typical farmer boys, are on the job.
HAVE READY MARKET
There is no middleman in their business. They do not go to market. There is quite enough business for them in their immediate neighborhood. The neighboring grocers come to the farm every morning.
The owners do not keep any books and can only guess at the relative profits on their crops. These are cultivated to the limit.
The farmer’s wife is of a family of tillers of the soil who have operated right in the City of New York for nearly a century. Mrs. Zerrenner remembers when her father, Nicholas Von Glahn, had a farm, only 54 years ago, located in what is now the very heart of Manhattan.
If the annual rental was fixed to cover taxes it would be a fraction over $5,035 annually. And what farmer could afford such a rent bill?
DOESN’T OWN LAND
Mrs. Zerrenner is able to maintain a farm on these city lots because she only has to pay, in cash, something like $135 a year, which is distributed among some of the various plot owners; to others she gets her rent for keeping the sidewalks free from ice and snow in the winter, and clear of weeds and leaves in the summer.
She has no regular lease, but lives from month to month with the understanding that the property is subject to be taken away from her for building purposes at any time.
TRY IT AGAIN
“The boys and I will try it again this year, but who knows if that will be the last in this locality, and we have been so happy here these many years,” says Mrs. Zerrenner. “To think that this is the last of the many farms that were formerly located on Manhattan Island!””