They gleam from atop tables, sideboards, and the shelves of a chock-full corner cupboard in Hank Brockman’s lovingly restored Greek revival farmhouse in Tennessee: inscribed silver pitchers, goblets, handled cups, and beakers known as “agricultural premiums.”1 Through most of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such pieces were awarded as prizes by regional American agricultural societies in categories such as “best brood mare and colt,” “best collection of Southern-made plows,” or “best bale of clover hay” in hopes of encouraging productivity and innovation in husbandry. Moved by his desire to preserve the agricultural heritage of the South, Brockman has assembled perhaps the finest collection of nineteenth-century agricultural premiums in the nation. Silver premiums frequently appear on the market and are included in many private and museum collections, where they usually serve to represent a specific silversmith’s craft or a bit of local history. But for Brockman, these objects have a deeper, almost spiritual value. They “record American achievement and are imbued with meaning,” he says as he holds a pitcher made by the Gorham Manufacturing Company for the Maine State Agricultural Society exhibition of 1856. Silver premiums, he says, are “mementos of a time past, when agriculture was the center of culture and commerce.”2
Brockman’s interest in agricultural premiums began with the purchase of a large three-handled trophy presented at the 1907 Tennessee State Fair (Fig. 3); while he focuses on coin silver agricultural premiums from Tennessee and Kentucky, his collection now includes nearly 150 examples from fairs in eighteen states, stretching from coast to coast and beyond. He collects only premiums that communicate the most information possible about America’s agrarian past. The best silver premiums, to Brockman’s mind, reveal not only when and where the award was given, but also who won it and why. The people behind the silver are as engaging to him as the objects. To prove this, Brockman points to a recently acquired beaker that relates to three prominent names of the American South. The beaker (Figs. 8, 8a) was presented at an 1835 agricultural fair held in Kentucky to one of Tennessee’s most accomplished agriculturalists, Mark R. Cockrill. He was born in 1788 in a Middle Tennessee log house built by his parents on land that today comprises much of downtown Nashville.3 In 1814 Cockrill sold 210 of the acres given to him by his father to raise the capital required to invest in a flock of merino sheep. Considered the finest wool producers in the world, merino sheep were a much-desired commodity worldwide, but trade in the animals was completely controlled by the Spanish crown throughout the eighteenth century. After Napoleon invaded Spain in 1808, a highly inflated and speculative international market for the sheep followed, and Mark Cockrill was determined to profit from this craze.4
By February 1815 Cockrill had acquired a flock of merino sheep—the first in Tennessee.5 He worked to improve and expand his flock over the following decades, in both Tennessee and on his plantations in Mississippi. Cockrill considered his stock the finest in America. The one man who could prove him wrong was Henry Clay, the United States senator who had a national reputation not only for statesmanship, but also as a breeder of the finest sheep.6 By 1833 Cockrill had purchased land near Lexington, Kentucky, yet had not entered his animals in any agricultural fairs and was unknown to Clay and his fellow sheepmen. That anonymity ended when Cockrill defeated Clay to win the prize for “best wooled sheep” at the Kentucky State Agricultural Society’s fair in 1835.7
The slightly tapered silver beaker awarded to Cockrill bears the mark of Asa Blanchard, one of Kentucky’s most renowned silversmiths.8 Probably made only three years before Blanchard’s death in 1838, the beaker is most significant for the curious placement of the inscription on its side and the boast “Clays Defeat” on the bottom. Both engravings can be read only when the cup is upside down. One imagines that Cockrill enjoyed sipping from the beaker—possibly a bourbon with his Kentucky neighbors— and triumphantly revealing his victory over Clay only after finishing his drink and dramatically turning the cup over. Kentucky’s wool judgers were certainly astute: sixteen years later Cock rill won the medal for the finest wool grown anywhere in the world at the London Crystal Palace Exposition of 1851.9 He died as one of Tennessee’s largest landowners in 1872.10
Brockman cautions that encountering such august personalities as those embodied in the Cockrill beaker is rare. Many premiums lack hallmarks, and most are engraved with the names of farmers and livestock breeders of little renown. Researching the everyday lives and accomplishments of such individuals is just as satisfying to Brockman. As an example, he points to a goblet awarded in 1854 by the Boone County Kentucky Agricultural Society to William Beath Searight, naming his bull “Benj D’Israeli” the best yearling and the best of any age on the fairgrounds. The goblet is marked by the prolific Cincinnati silversmiths Edward and David Kinsey and features elaborate repoussé C-scrolls and shells (Figs. 2, 5).
Searight was born in County Down, Ireland, in 1817 and immigrated with his wife Mary aboard the Enterprise by way of Liverpool to New York City, arriving on October 18, 1847.11 By 1850 the couple had established a successful farm in Boone County. In addition to their son and three daughters, the household included nine laborers, all of whom were also born in Ireland.12 The Searight family moved to Illinois by 1860 and then to Vincennes, Indiana, sometime before 1870.13 Searight became the mayor of Vincennes and died there in 1883.14
In addition to the Searight family, the goblet illuminates the mid-nineteenth-century world of the livestock breeders of horses, cattle, sheep, and pigs in Boone County. The North Kentucky Agricultural Fair, sponsored by the Boone County Agricultural Society, was held in the town of Florence, just south of Cincinnati, Ohio.15 It is not known if the 1854 fair was well attended, but the press advertising the following year’s fair indicated a huge turnout: the Louisville Daily Courier reported, “A large attendance is expected, and ample accommodations have been made to accommodate all who go.”16 As far away as Milwaukee, the Daily Free Democrat announced: “The North Kentucky Agricultural Fair will be held at Florence, Boone County, on the 3d 4th, 5th and 6th of next month.”17
Events such as the North Kentucky Agricultural Fair were commonplace by 1854. The first agricultural fair to promote practical improvements in farming and livestock was established in 1811 by Elkanah Watson (Fig. 10) in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.18 Unlike organizations founded in the eighteenth century by wealthy and learned English and American gentleman farmers, Watson’s Berkshire Agricultural Society comprised working farmers, and publicly encouraged agricultural innovation and animal stock improvement through annual fairs that awarded prizes.19 Rather than cash, Watson strove to establish the practice of giving out silver trophies. As he noted, “if the premiums are paid in cash, it soon disappears, and is forgotten; if in plate, they remain proud family mementoes.”20
Over the next ten years, agricultural societies and fairs incorporating Watson’s model, known as the Berkshire Plan, quickly sprang up in most of the New England and mid-Atlantic states.21 Many societies also began to award prizes for accomplishments in the domestic and mechanical arts.22 As early as 1813 the Berkshire Agricultural Society Fair included fifteen categories for women to display their household goods; seven “valuable premiums of silver plate were exclusively devoted to them.”23 By the 1820s, many fairs included exhibits of laborsaving mechanical equipment that was eagerly embraced by American farmers—although arable land was abundant in the United States, labor was still comparatively scarce and costly.24
The political and economic pitfalls inherent in the colonial model of relying on foreign markets for imported wares were primary concerns of the eighteenth-century agricultural societies established by American gentleman farmers.25 By the second quarter of the nineteenth century, events in Europe had created a thriving foreign market for American products. At the same time, the unique soils and climates of the newly settled lands of the Deep South, Midwest, and Far West required experimentation with crops, farming practices, and tools in order to best supply the demand. Agricultural and mechanical societies and fairs fostered and encouraged such innovations. By the 1850s, considered the golden age of the movement, there were nearly a thousand agricultural and mechanical societies producing annual fairs throughout America.
Silver premiums were promoted well in advance of fairs. Newspaper articles, broadsheets, and pamphlets listed both the categories for judging and the monetary value of the premiums, which was based on their size and weight. Beakers seem to have been the most common form of silver premium to judge by the number of surviving examples. The relative ease and speed in making a simple beaker—by rolling one piece of sheet silver, seaming it, and soldering a disc of silver to make the bottom—resulted in a cost-effective, popular form of premium that allowed large manufacturers in cities such as New York, Baltimore, or Cincinnati to quickly and inexpensively fulfill sizeable orders.
The Civil War curtailed the growth of such societies —especially in the South—and by the late nineteenth century, nearly all privately operated agricultural and mechanical societies had ceased to function. The encouragement of agricultural innovation in the late nineteenth century largely became a role for organizations such as the Grange, the Farmers’ Alliance, and (later) 4-H, as well as governmental agencies, many of which began to sponsor state and county fairs similar to those still operated today.26
The amount of silver produced for the agricultural and mechanical fairs is staggering. For example, in 1856 the Pennsylvania State Agricultural Society paid Conrad Bard & Son, silversmiths in Philadelphia, $986 ($26,804 in 2017 dollars) and merchant William Buehler $300 ($8,155) for premiums.27 Two years later, in 1858, the Connecticut State Agricultural Society paid out a total of $3,363 ($93,409) for premiums.28 And a year later the New York State Agricultural Society recorded an astounding expenditure of $6,115 ($169,848) for its 1859 fair held in Albany.29
A beaker marked by Cincinnati silversmith Nathan Lord Hazen (Fig. 9) exemplifies Brockman’s guiding principle of acquiring premiums that convey the most information about the history of agrarian America. Awarded at the Miami Valley Agricultural Society’s 1838 fair—held October 16 to 18 in Cincinnati—the beaker was a second-place premium given to Ezekiel B. Squires of Butler County, Ohio, for his eight-month old black boar named Democrat.30 The Miami Valley Agricultural Society was instrumental in introducing “improved” livestock from New England into southwestern Ohio. A broadside advertising the 1838 fair announced the sale of cattle “bred by the most distinguished breeders in New England” (Fig. 14).
A pair of banded beakers (Figs. 11, 12) awarded at an agricultural fair held on November 3, 1859, in Rodney, Mississippi, tells another story. The quality of the exhibits and prizes of Rodney’s fairs was described by a local resident: “No finer display of blooded stock was ever presented at any fair in this state, than that shown at the Rodney fairs. And no finer premiums were ever offered in this state; they being solid silver, cups, vases &c . . . . The visitors at these fairs were largely from New Orleans, Vicksburg, Natchez, Port Gibson and neighboring Louisiana Parishes.”31
Located on the Mississippi River about thirty miles northeast of Natchez, the city of Rodney was incorporated in 1828, and over the following forty years served as the region’s hub for business and farming enterprises, becoming one of the busiest river ports between New Orleans and St. Louis.32 By 1860 it boasted a large hotel with a ballroom, an opera house, two banks, at least thirty-five stores, and a population of four thousand.33 Rodney’s wealth is reflected in the fact that the beakers were made by the New Orleans firm of James Nevins Hyde and Charles Whiting Goodrich, one of the most prominent silver manufacturers on the lower Mississippi River.34 Very little of Rodney exists today. The Civil War and Reconstruction stripped its residents of their prosperity and an 1869 fire devastated the town. What community remained was dealt an even more dramatic blow in the 1870s when the Mississippi River changed its course, leaving Rodney without the steamboat traffic that was its lifeblood. Today the river flows about two miles from what was once a thriving port city.
Three of Brockman’s acquisitions reflect the westward settlement of the nation. The pitcher and handled cup in Figures 1 and 13, made in Providence by Gorham, were presented at the California State Agricultural Society’s 1863 fair in Sacramento. The two premiums also display the hallmark of Samuel Jelly, a Massachusetts-born silversmith working in Sacramento by 1853 (Fig. 13a).35 The transactions of the California State Agricultural Society for that year’s fair—amazing in their detailed accounting—reveal that Jelly (probably as the retailer) provided $1,137.50 ($21,063 in 2017 dollars) worth of silver wares for the 1863 event.36 In addition, E. L. Barber, an engraver from Connecticut who had moved to California in 1847, was paid $67.37 ($1,247) for inscribing the silver premiums at the 1863 fair.37 The pitcher was awarded to John Bernard Redmond, an Irish-born rancher, for his thoroughbred mare named Fairy Queen. Although Barber did not engrave the handled cup, the records of the society point to the likelihood that it, too, was awarded to Redmond, for his horse Knight St. Patrick, which won first premium for a “Thoroughbred Stallion” under one year old.38
Even Hawaii is represented in the Brockman collection. The Royal Hawaiian Agricultural Society was established in 1850, and four years later a small footed cup (Figs. 4, 15) was awarded to Robert Moffitt (or Moffatt), an Irish-born cattle and sheep rancher in the Kahuku area of the north side of Oahu, for the best imported cow at the fair.39 The cup, marked by Samuel Trevitt Crosby of Boston (Fig. 15a), features charming engravings of cows on the sides.
Representing fairs held from Maine to Oahu, Hank Brockman’s collection of silver premiums reflects the breadth and depth of the golden age of American agricultural societies. Though his initial intent was to celebrate the past of the South, what he has actually preserved is the agricultural heritage of an entire nation.
1 For more, see Sarah Campbell Drury, “Living with antiques: On southern turf,” The Magazine ANTIQUES, vol. 179, no. 1 (January/ February 2012), pp. 200–211. 2 Farm to Table: American Silver (Asheville Museum of Art, Asheville, NC, 2014), p. 5. 3 Katherine W. (Mrs. Albert III) Ewing, “The Story of Mark Robertson Cockrill: ‘Wool Champion of the World,” in Makers of Millions: Not for Themselves—Stories of Tennesseans, ed. Louis D. Wallace (Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Nashville, 1951), vol. 2, p. 5. 4 Ibid., pp 6–8. 5 Ibid., p. 9. 6 Ibid., pp. 23–24. 7 Nashville Tennessean, August 4, 1946, p. 76. 8 Catherine B. Hollan, Virginia Silversmiths, Jewelers, Clock- and Watchmakers, 1607–1860: Their Lives and Marks (Hollan Press, McLean, VA, 2010), pp. 70–76. 9 Ewing, “The Story of Mark Robertson Cockrill,” pp. 40–41 10 Ibid., pp. 60, 63. 11 “Ireland, Select Births and Baptisms, 1620–1911,” ancestry.com, accessed December 8, 2015; “New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1891,” familysearch.org, accessed December 8, 2015, citing National Archives and Records Administration, microfilm publication M237. 12 1850 United States Federal Census, District 2, Boone, Kentucky. 13 1860 United States Federal Census, Pike, Livingston, Illinois; 1870 United States Federal Census, Vincennes, Knox, Indiana. 14 George E. Green, History of Old Vincennes and Knox County, Indiana, vol. 1 (Clarke Publishing, Chicago, 1911), p. 496; Indiana Death Index, 1882–1920, Book H-26, p. 44, Knox County Health Office, Edwardsport, Indiana. 15 Elizabeth Goodridge Nestor, “Old County Fairs Held in Florence, Kentucky,” undated typescript, nkyviews.com, accessed December 10, 2015. 16 Louisville Daily Courier, September 21, 1855. 17 Milwaukee Daily Free Democrat, September 28, 1855. 18 Elkanah Watson, History of Agricultural Societies, on the Modern Berkshire System: From the year 1807, to the Establishment of the State Board of Agriculture in Albany January 10, 1820 (Albany, NY, 1820), pp. 119–124. 19 Wayne Caldwell Neely, The Agricultural Fair (Columbia University Press, New York, 1935), pp. 29, 62–64. 20 Quoted in Drake Hokanson and Carol Kratz, Purebred & Homegrown: America’s County Fairs (University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 2008), p. 36. 21 Neely, The Agricultural Fair, p. 70. 22 Ibid., p. 64. 23 Watson, History of Agricultural Societies, p. 127. 24 Neely, The Agricultural Fair, p. 75. 25 Ibid., pp. 54–55. 26 Ibid., pp. 101–103. 27 Fourth Annual Report of the Transactions of the Pennsylvania State Agricultural Society, for the Year 1856, vol. 4 (Harrisburg, 1857), p. 30. 28 Transactions of the Connecticut State Agricultural Society, for the Year 1858, with Report of the Annual Meeting for 1859 (Hartford, 1859), p. 25. 29 Transactions of the N.Y. State Agricultural Society, with an Abstract of the Proceedings of the County Agricultural Societies, vol. 19 (1859) (Albany, 1860), p. 37. 30 1850 United States Federal Census, Madison, Butler, Ohio. 31 John A. Limerick, “A History of Rodney MS and Oakland College,” 1901, Manuscript Collection, Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Jackson, transcribed by Annette Bowen, online at jeffersoncountyms.org, accessed December 11, 2015. 32 Rodney Center Historic District, National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form, focus.nps.gov, accessed December 11, 2015. 33 Marlo Carter Kirkpatrick, Mississippi Off the Beaten Path: A Guide to Unique Places (Globe Pequot, Guilford, CT, 2001), pp. 143–145. 34 Carey T. Mackie, H. Parrott Bacot, and Charles L. Mackie, “Hyde and Goodrich and its Successors: Nineteenth-Century New Orleans Silver Manufacturers,” The Magazine ANTIQUES, vol. 122, no. 2 (August 1982), pp. 298–303. 35 Sacramento City Directory for the Year A.D. 1860 (Sacramento, 1859), p. 60; Jelly’s entries in Online Encyclopedia of Silver Marks, Hallmarks & Makers’ Marks, www.925-1000.com, accessed December 11, 2015, and Rootsweb American Silversmiths Index, freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com, accessed December 11, 2015. 36 Transactions of the California State Agricultural Society during the Year 1863 (Sacramento, 1864), p. 37. 37 Ibid, p. 35; “Guide to the Lockwood Sanford Wood Engraving Proof Books,” New-York Historical Society, dlib.nyu.edu, accessed December 11, 2015. 38 Transactions of the California State Agricultural Society…1863, p. 119. 39 Transactions of the Royal Hawaiian Agricultural Society: At Its Fourth Annual Meeting, in June, 1854, vol. 2, no. 1 (Honolulu, 1854), p. 74; Robert P. Drolet, “Archaeological Inventory Survey of Area A1, Kahuku Training Area, O’ahu Island, Hawai’i,” May 2000, prepared for the US Army Corps of Engineers, Corps of Engineers District, Honolulu, www.scribd.com/doc/36141991/10-5-Arch-InventoryKTA-Ogden#scribd, accessed December 11, 2015.
GARY ALBERT is editorial director and adjunct curator of silver and metals at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.