A Farming Community
A Farming Community—Guilford’s Agricultural Past and Present
The legacy of farming stretches back centuries in Guilford. As part of a seasonal round, Indigenous people in the region grew corn, beans, and squash near the shore in the summer months. The menhaden they used to fertilize their crops gave the Menunkatuck band their name in the 16th century.
The English colonists who arrived in 1639 came from Surrey and Kent. Unlike the merchants who settled nearby New Haven, the families who settled Menunkatuck (later known as Guilford) were mostly prosperous landowners and farmers. Land ownership in the colony brought privileges, and all who could became planters.
From its earliest days, the Guilford Green was the center of the town’s activity. Much of that activity revolved around “field husbandry,” as agriculture was called then. Sixteen acres were open to the community’s livestock, and cows, sheep, horses, pigs, and geese were common inhabitants of the Green.
Early residents chose to settle near the Green, but within a decade, the farming community was spreading. A bridge was built over the East River in 1649, and Nut Plain and nearby marshes were surveyed so that land could be settled by any who wanted it.
From these colonial origins to the late 19th century, our nation was an agrarian society. Even as industry swept through society in the 19th century, many areas remained staunchly agrarian, including Guilford. As industrial communities sought food elsewhere, Sachem’s Head Canning and Knowles-Lombard extended the Guilford’s economy with enterprises that canned local farmers’ tomatoes and pumpkins.
In the fall of 1858, four farmers discussed the success of a nearby fair and wondered if Guilford could host its own. An organizational meeting led to the formation of the Farmers and Mechanics Association, which was to become the Guilford Agricultural Society. The following year, the first fair held on the Guilford Green was a rousing success, and an institution was born. Cattle shows, exhibitions, music, and entertainment have reigned over the fair since that time.
In 1874, the Guilford Agricultural Society was incorporated to present the annual fair. With few exceptions through the years, the fair was held on the Green each autumn until 1969, when it finally outgrew its surroundings. The Society purchased the 30-acre Hunter Farm, where the fairgrounds are located today. The Guilford Fair is has been honored as a Library of Congress Local Legacy. The second oldest fair in Connecticut, it is held each September at the Guilford Fairgrounds.
Agriculture was a mainstay of Guilford’s economy through the middle of the 20th century. When Interstate 95 was built in 1958, more than 100 farms dotted the countryside. Large portions of this rural landscape escaped the industrial and suburban development that changed the character of much of the Northeast. The community valued its rural character, and as agriculture waned in the last 50 years, important tracts of land became public greenspace.
Thirty farms still occupy Guilford’s beautiful rural landscape, providing a wide variety of products and services to residents and visitors. From horses and sheep to turkeys, from nurseries and orchards to tree farms and forest products, from farmers markets to historic farm tours, agriculture is still an important part of life in Guilford today. The Guilford Agricultural Commission, a branch of municipal government, supports today’s farmers. In addition to publishing a map of local farms, the 5-member commission tracks land use patterns, assists local government in crafting laws and policies that support agriculture, and provides information for farmers. Despite the pressures of modern development, farming remains economically viable in Guilford, just as it has for four centuries.