While crouched over on a wooden, three-legged stool milking his cow, Rosie, Westbrook farmer John Hall tells the story of how his father met his mother. “My father heard there was a Devon bull up in Eagleville, Connecticut, and in those days, there were even fewer than there are now. So he drove up there and came back with a bull and a wife! I’m a product of the breed!” Devons were and continue to remain difficult to find. Although they were the first English breed brought to the United States back in 1623, by the 1970s, there were fewer than 200 left; of those, about 130 were on farms owned by the families of John’s mother and father in Connecticut. It is indeed difficult to find any aspect of Hall’s life that is not closely intertwined with the Milking Devon, a rare breed of heritage livestock classified as critically endangered by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. Hall is himself a sort of rare breed today. With his stocky build and straight talk, he is the modern incarnation of the civic-minded, independent, New England farmer of yesteryear who tenaciously maintains his hold on the small family farm. In Hall’s case, Maple Breeze Farm dates back about 10 generations in his family to the founding of Old Saybrook colony, once a separate colony from Connecticut.
“According to family tradition, we’ve been raising Milking Devons on this farm for nearly 300 years,” says Hall.
Like his forebears, Hall stubbornly and proudly maintains his land. At one point in the 1980s, Connecticut was losing over 7,000 acres of farmland a year to development, a prospect clearly disturbing to Hall. On a tour of his farm, he brought his rumbling truck to a slow halt and paused. “We have over 200 acres of land here in Westbrook, and this is my favorite spot. From this spot, as far you can see in every direction, we own all this property. How many people can say that?”
The vast, rolling expanse is seen less and less along the Connecticut shoreline these days and is getting increasingly difficult to hang on to. Hall inherited the farm from his father, John Hall, Jr. “He was a subsistence farmer really, eating everything he produced on the farm with little to spare. There were many years my dad struggled to pay his taxes on all the property,” Hall explains. Consequently, when Hall took over operation of the farm over 20 years ago, he was presented with a financial challenge—how to make the farm viable. He inherited buildings in need of renovation and 30 head of a critically endangered breed of cattle, the American Milking Devon. To supplement his income, Hall started an industrial and commercial water treatment company with a partner and built it into a successful business, using the income to chip away at the necessary renovations on the farm.
In the past five or six years, however, Hall began to notice a significant new market to which his breed is ideally suited, what Hall refers to as the “Know Your Food” movement. He began to notice unusual interest in his farm from members of his local community. They wanted to know what his farm produces and how he produces it. They appreciate the way he raises his cattle, with personal attention and care. His cattle are entirely grass fed on land that is never sprayed with chemicals for any reason. Sometimes that means less manicured rows of corn, annoying flies on their cows, or weeds in their hay. But their fields are fertile, their cows swat away the afternoons, and the Halls simply use the uneaten weeds as bedding in the barn. “It certainly isn’t the most efficient means of production, but we never had a chance in that market anyway. These are lasting and sustainable practices for our farm in the long run,” Hall explains.
In many ways, the fortunes of Hall’s Maple Breeze Farm has ebbed and flowed with that of the American Milking Devon, the breed of cattle Hall raises. If Hall’s family line can be traced to the origins of Connecticut, the breed lineage of the Devon is even older, dating back to the origins of the country itself. While it is believed that pigs, goats, and hens accompanied the Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower, it was not until 1623 that cattle reached the shores of North America from England when Edward Winslow brought over a bull and three heifer Devons.
Devons, already a breed with a 2,000-year history in England, were the perfect breed for life in the New World. In an unpredictable and many times harsh world, it was the stout Devon that colonial farmers could count on for the three M’s: muscle, meat, and milk. The versatility of the triple-purpose Milking Devon made it the ideal animal for the family farm, which was still commonplace enough to sustain Maple Breeze Farm financially in the years prior to World War II. However, in the post-war years, with the return of America’s soldiers and the intense escalation of suburbanization of the American population, the Devon’s versatility proved to be a detriment. Just as in the age of factories when the “jack-of-all-trades, master of none” found himself without a job, the versatile Milking Devon likewise did not serve any one purpose well enough to be profitable for the factory farm. By the 1970s, fewer than 200 Milking Devons existed, including those on Maple Breeze Farm.
With bulls averaging between 1,500 to 1,800 pounds, the Devon is certainly not the largest breed of cattle, but size is not the sole determinant of a good draft animal. The Devon possesses an endurance and speed unsurpassed by any other breed. In their book, Cattle: Breeds, Management, and Diseases, by W. Youatt and W. C. L. Martin, the writer noted in 1856 that, “During harvest time, and in catching weather, they are sometimes trotted along with the empty wagons, at the rate of six miles an hour, a degree of speed which no other ox but the Devon has been able to stand. They are beyond all comparison the best workers I have anywhere seen.” The Devon’s role as draft animal served as the backbone of New England life for decades. They were not only used to plow rocky New England fields for planting but also to clear forests for shipbuilding. Even as late as 1890, Devons made up about 30% of the draft animals in several New England states. Of course, tractors have since replaced the plow, removing one of the Devon’s most valued attributes. Even still, the Halls sell several oxen a year to recreational team drivers throughout the country.
Because New England’s soil and growing season never lent itself to the development of reliable cash crops like tobacco or even wheat, the meat from the Devon itself became a chief export for New Englanders to the southern colonies and in the triangular trade with the sugar plantations in the Caribbean. New Englanders were thrilled to learn in the 1640s that Caribbean settlers “had rather buy foode at very deare rates rather than pruduce it by labour, soe infinite is the proffitt sugar workes,” from a planter. Devons are noted for their high-quality marbleized steaks. “As beef makers alone, in the West, only the Shorthorn and Hereford are superior,” noted J. Russell Manning in The Stock Doctor (1880). A common adage spoken of the Devon is that they can fatten on a stone and you can’t kill ‘em with an ax, two important qualities for life on family farms along the frontier.
Today, the Halls rely on the high-quality meat provided by their Devons. Their herd is raised entirely on the grass of their farm, sometimes on rolling pastures and other times on unimproved land in the woods. Bonnie Hall, John’s wife, has been in charge of the sales and marketing of their products, and the Halls have been able to sell their products through about 25 Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares, three small farmers’ markets found in the immediate area, and privately through social media.
“Today there are a lot of people who want to know everything about how their food is produced. They have high standards of what the animals are fed and how they’re treated. We can provide that for them. Our customers regularly come to our farm and see it all for themselves,” Bonnie explains. Because of their stringent standards, the Halls do not bring their cattle to agricultural fairs. While the fairs provide an optimal outlet to showcase the merits of the Milking Devon, the time and vaccination requirements do not align with their approach to farming. Like their beef, Devon milk is of the highest quality but is not produced in the same quantity as the specialized dairy breeds like the Holsteins and Jerseys.
In her book, Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America, Virginia DeJohn Anderson describes the central role dairy played in the lives of Massachusetts residents in the mid-seventeenth century. In Essex County, at least one out of three households contained milk tubs, butter churns, and cheese presses, as well as the women or girls who knew how to use them. While pure milk would spoil in a matter of hours, cheese and butter could be stored in cellars throughout the winter. These products became an important commodity in the barter economy of Rhode Island and southeast Connecticut where farmers could pay off debts, and even their taxes, in dairy products. The composition of Devon milk is famous for its high cream content (4%), so much so that today, clotted cream has grown into a tourist attraction in Devonshire and Cornwall, England, the towns of origin for many of New England’s founders.
Each morning, in a scene that has occurred countless times throughout history, the Halls get up to milk about 15 cows by hand in their old barn. When they arrive, many of the cows are awaiting them as if to say, “You’re late!” John calls the others over, each by name, “Annie, Rosie, Emma! Let’s go!” As they make their way in (they each know their assigned spots) Rosie hesitates to enter, for she can smell my presence and wants an introduction before entering. John, Bonnie, and their daughter, Lindsey, reassure her, and she settles into her routine at her post in the barn for the morning milking. After milking the cows about halfway, Bonnie slides the gate open to let the calves in for their turn, and the barnyard erupts with the sound of the mothers’ bellowing for their calves. The calves likewise know where their mothers are in the barn and go right over.
After only 20 minutes, it is on to other chores. The Halls currently only use the milk to raise their calves and to feed the pigs on their farm, but sale for human consumption is a promising area for the future. In a nod to the important role the Devon has played in the state, the Vermont Great Seal (1779) features the red Devon cow. The Devon is famous as being one of the last triple-use breeds left, but any literature on the breed would be remiss in omitting an equally important fourth: “m,” for makeup.
“The intelligence, gentleness, and personality of these animals makes it all work,” explains Bonnie. “You can’t hand milk 15 cows in a small barn the way we do if you can’t trust them.” As Youatt and Martin put it, “They have a docility and goodness of temper, and stoutness and honesty of work, to which many horses cannot pretend.” The Halls are so trusting of their herd, they choose to leave the horns on their cows and bulls alike, something many other farmers either cannot or choose not to do.
One morning, John and Bonnie were driving out to a field to check on about 20 cows in a distant field, and when they turned the corner, they witnessed a mysterious scene—the cows were arranged in a large circle, each with their heads and horns facing outward. When they walked up to the herd, they quickly realized that the cows were surrounding a mother who had just calved laying in the middle of the circle. As they again returned to the truck, John spotted two coyotes on the edge of the field. The herd was protecting the marauding coyotes from preying on the calf. “They are amazing animals, a true joy,” reflects Hall.
Hall does not and cannot limit himself to the confines of his property, like the independent farmers of yore. When he is not serving as selectman of Westbrook, Connecticut, or as moderator of the local Congregational Church, he serves as president of the American Association of Milking Devons and on the boards of several regional agricultural organizations.
John and Bonnie Hall’s work and leadership have helped the population of Milking Devons increase fivefold to nearly one thousand head located throughout the country. With the surge of people interested in the local production of food, particularly in meat and dairy products, the most prosperous years for the Hall family farm and their Devon breed may be yet to come.