How Many Milch Cows?

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here, once again deeply engrossed in genealogical research. Now that I have the time to explore more thoroughly, I’m discovering wonderful treasure troves of useless information. A big time-waster? Probably, but to my mind it’s much more fun than spending the same number of hours on Facebook or Twitter or TikTok or playing games online.

So what am I into now? Tax rolls. Notices of sheriff’s sales. And my current fascination, the non-population, aka agricultural census schedules. These were taken in 1860, 1870, and 1880 and recorded information on farms. Since most of my ancestors in the U.S. in those years were farmers, they kept popping up in searches until I finally took a look at one and got hooked.

Old Hickory Farm, Ferndale, New York

Like all old records, they aren’t always complete and some years seem to have been skipped for certain people (or perhaps their names were so illegible that they aren’t turning up in searches done with the correct spelling). In some cases, the first page of the schedule is there, but not the second. Even with those gaps, I discovered quite a bit about four of my great-great grandfathers, all of whom lived in Sullivan County, New York in the second half of the nineteenth century.

The 1860 non-population census included John G. Gorton of Ferndale, one of the great-great-grandfathers. In 1860 he owned 80 improved and 195 unimproved acres of land valued at $4,800. He also had two horses, four milch cows, two oxen, nine other cattle, and thirty sheep. His livestock was valued at $600 and his personal estate was valued at $1,500. Tunis Misner of Liberty, whose daughter would later marry John’s son, farmed 75 improved acres and 25 unimproved valued at $5,000. He had two horses, eight cows, two oxen, two other cattle, and eight sheep, valued at $650.

On the maternal side of my family, great-great-grandfather Isaac Applebee owned real estate in Parksville valued at $500 and had a personal estate of $250. The non-population schedule gives him 5 improved and 120 unimproved acres of land. The value of his farm implements and machinery was $15 and he had one cow, two working oxen, and one swine, valued at $125.

Hornbeck farm, Hurleyville, New York

Meanwhile, Lawrence Hornbeck of Hurleyville, whose son would later marry Isaac’s daughter, had real estate valued at $1000 and a household that included two servants. Lawrence farmed 38 improved acres and 45 unimproved. He had one horse, four cows, two oxen, three other cattle, six sheep, and one swine, valued at $200. In the previous year the farm had produced fifty bushels of rye and fifty bushels of oats.

The non-population schedules for 1870 also included Lawrence and Isaac. Lawrence listed 50 improved acres and 25 of woodland for a value of $1600 and owned farm implements and machinery worth $50. He owned two horses, six milch cows, two working oxen, eight other cattle, four sheep, and two swine. The value of all his livestock was $800. He produced 100 bushels of Indian corn and the same of oats and ninety bushels of buckwheat.

Isaac and Mary Applebee

Meanwhile Isaac Applebee had moved his family from Parksville to Hurleyville. In 1870 his farm contained 100 improved acres and 50 acres of woodland and was valued at $3,400. Farm implements and machinery were worth $100 and he paid $300 in wages during the year, including the value of board. He had two horses, fifteen cows, three other cattle, two sheep, and five swine. The value of all his livestock was $1,100. His land produced twenty bushels of rye, fifty of Indian corn, 250 of oats, and 150 of buckwheat.

Isaac and Lawrence are also in the non-population schedule for 1880. Isaac had 60 tilled acres, 80 acres in permanent meadow or pasture, and 30 in woodland. The value of land, buildings, and fences was $4,000. Farm implements and machinery were valued at $250 and livestock at $700. He paid $70 in wages. The value of production was $1,000. He planted 50 acres in hay and mowed 50 acres. He had two horses, two oxen, fifteen cows, and nine other cattle and sold fifteen still living. He sold 6,000 gallons of milk in 1879. On hand on June 1, 1880 were forty barnyard poultry and four other poultry. They produced 160 dozen eggs in 1879. Seven acres were planted in buckwheat (150 bushels), four in Indian corn (125 bu.), five acres in oats (120 bu.), two acres in rye (20 bu.), one acre in potatoes (100 bu.), and two acres in apples (100 trees; 100 bu.). The total value of orchard production was $15. He also cut twenty cords of wood in 1879, valued at $40.

Lawrence Hornbeck, who lived no more than a mile away, tilled 28 acres, left 27 untilled, and had 20 acres that were woodland. The value of the land, including buildings and fences, was $2000. The value of farm implements and machinery was $200 and the value of all livestock was $480. In 1879, he spent $20 on building and repairs and $20 in wages, including value of board. The estimated value of all farm produce sold, consumed, or on hand was $650. Twenty acres were mown and twenty acres were not mown. Twenty-two acres were planted in hay. He owned two horses, eight cows, three other cattle, two swine, and fifteen barnyard poultry. In 1879, the farm had produced 700 pounds of butter and sixty dozen eggs.

Nathaniel Gildersleeve Gorton in 1872

John Gorton’s son, Nathaniel Gildersleeve Gorton (my great-grandfather) also shows up in the 1880 non-population census, where he was listed as Gildersleeve Gorton, owner. This was the same farm that had once belonged to his father and now consisted of 113 improved acres and 40 unimproved. The value of farmland and buildings was listed as $5,000. His farm implements and machinery were valued at $200 and his livestock at $1,200. In 1879, he spent $50 on building and repairs. The estimated value of all farm productions, sold, consumed, or on hand was $150. Thirty-five acres of his land were mown for hay and on June 1, 1880 he owned one horse but no mules or asses.

Useless information? Maybe. But the details are evocative, and if someone happened to be writing about that period of history . . .

Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett has had sixty-four books traditionally published and has self published others, including several children’s books. She won the Agatha Award and was an Anthony and Macavity finalist for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015 in the best mystery short story category. She was the Malice Domestic Guest of Honor in 2014. Her most recent publications are The Valentine Veilleux Mysteries (a collection of three short stories and a novella, written as Kaitlyn) and I Kill People for a Living: A Collection of Essays by a Writer of Cozy Mysteries (written as Kathy). She maintains websites at and


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8 Responses to How Many Milch Cows?

  1. Anonymous says:

    Great research love this type of local history

  2. jselbo says:

    Wow. Deep dive and fascinating. Amazing – I imagine that $600+ worth of livestock and home and implements worth around $7000+ meant someone was doing just fine for themselves/family – love the pix in the snow the most – reminder it couldn’t have been just idyllic summer…

    • kaitlynkathy says:

      The Blizzard of ’88 hit this area hard and a fall on the ice while cleaning up afterward was probably responsible for Tunis Misner’s death later that year. Searching old records really has a lot in common with solving (and plotting) mysteries!

  3. Julianne Spreng says:

    What a treasure trove. I’ve always found trivia the most interesting information. A gilded rabbit hole for sure!

  4. kaitcarson says:

    Amazing! I had no idea this resource existed! I’m surprised at the high value of the real estate and my hands hurt for your ancestor who pulled 6k gallons of milk! No milking machines in those days 🙂

    • kaitlynkathy says:

      But they usually had large families! Lawrence was an exception with only two children, but that could be why he concentrated on producing eggs rather than milk! Just as an aside, that same farm was still selling eggs to summer visitors (and taking in summer boarders) into the 1950s when I was kid.

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