By Kathy Warnes
One night in March 1886, Albert Cooper, a young farm hand from Lower Merion Township, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, went courting. As he walked home from his pretty maiden’s house, his thoughts remained back on the porch swing with her. On this evening carrying the scents of spring, amorous Albert Cooper didn’t think much about the history or geography of Lower Merion Township, especially after he saw the ghostly farmer plowing his field.
Lower Merion Township
Farm fields had not always been a part of Lower Merion Township. Before European immigrants settled there, dense forests that sheltered creatures including bears, cougars, wolves, otters, beavers, weasels, turkeys, woodland bison, and bald eagles covered the Township. When the Europeans arrived, they gradually cleared the forests for farm fields and settlements.
The northwestern corner of Lower Merion Township is tucked between Upper Merion and the River Schuykill to the north. Philadelphia borders it to the south, the Schuykill River from the east, and Delware County from the west. In 1886, the Township measured about six miles long and 4 ½ miles wide and it contained about 15,360 acres of land. The soil, a rich loam, helped farmers grow abundant crops of corn, wheat, beans, and other vegetables as well as potatoes, apples, and peaches.
According to township historian William Buck, so many Welsh immigrants from Merioneth, Wales, settled in this section of Montgomery County that it was called Merion Township and divided into Upper an Lower Merion. These pioneer families included names like Holland, Pennock, Robert, Woods, Humphreys, Ellis, and Jones. William Buck writes that William Penn granted land to the pioneer settlers and many of them belonged to the Society of Friends. Shortly after arriving in Lower Merion, they arranged to have meetings for public worship.
Valley Forge is located within Merion Township and during the Revolutionary War, George Washington and his Army’s stay at Valley Forge and the British occupation of Philadelphia from September 1777 to June 1778 made the Township an active place for both sides. The pioneers of Lower Merion suffered severely from British raids during the Revolutionary War, but only one person from Merion was accused of treason. Bryn Mawr, Welsh for “great hills,” is also found within Lower Merion Township, and in 1886 already featured “a modern female college..”
In 1880, Lower Merion had a population of 6,287 people.The population was about to increase by one farmer.
After An Evening of Courting, Albert Cooper Sees a Phantom Farmer
Hurrying home, Albert Cooper was not thinking about the history, geography, or population of Lower Merion Township, if he ever knew them in the first place. He sped along the woodland path, anxious to get home and dream about his lady love.
As he came to the end of the path that followed an old forest for miles and emerged from the trees, Albert Cooper heard someone say “Woah!” to a team of invisible horses. Quickly he stopped in mid stride, and looked around for several moments, trying to discover what farmer he knew was plowing his fields at night. His eyes strained to make out the shape of the night plowing farmer and his horses, but he couldn’t see anything. Albert sighed. His imagination had to be working overtime. After all, the woods were dark and he had been courting! He moved down the path once again, toward home and his soft pillow. He sighed. The pretty maiden had told him that she would use her pillow to dream about him.
“Woah!” Albert heard the same farmer commanding his horses; this time the creaking of their harnesses and their whinnies sounded directly in front of him. The first phase of the new moon occured on March 7, 1886, and Albert watched this new moon creep over the dark tree tops, bathing them in misty light. The shadow of the phantom farmer and his horses and plow blotted out most of the moonlight like an eclipse. Albert could see the farmer gripping the plow with two powerful hands guiding a pair of spirited horses that were hitched to it. The horses trotted quickly with their heads held high and their eyes flashing fire.
Albert stared and stared to make sure his imagination mixed with love sickness hadn’t gotten the best of him. He closed his eyes and opened them. The phantom farmer and his horses were still there. Albert shivered in time with the jangling of the harnesses. He had just started to run when suddenly the farmer and his horses and plow vanished. Shaking with terror, Albert raced to the safety of his home and bed. He didn’t even wonder if the phantom farmer would spend the night plowing.
The Phantom Farmer Had His Choice of Plows and Crops
The phantom farmer plowed his field at both a good and bad time for farmers, assuming that he hailed from the Nineteenth Century. New inventions helped farmers meet some of the farming challenges in the late 1800s. John Deere had invented a steel plow capable of slicing through tough sod in 1838 and James Oliver had improved it in 1868. Windmills especially adapted to the plains pumped water from deep wells to the surface and barbed wire allowed farmers to fence in land and livestock. Reapers made harvesting crops easier and threshers helped farmers separate grain or seed from straw. Farmers doubled their production of wheat from 1860 to 1890.
During the last years of the Nineteenth Century, the price of farm crops fell drastically, and farmers believed that low produce prices caused their economic problems. The United States Department of Agriculture reported that wheat prices fell from $1.06 a bushel to 63 cents a bushel, corn from 43 cents to 30 cents a bushel, and cotton from 15 cents a pound to six cents a pound between 1870 and 1897.
American technological advances in farming equipment and methods and increases in farm land and increases in yields per acre stimulated the overproduction that lowered farm prices. Newly created agricultural colleges also contributed to these improvements and their consequences. Could the phantom plowman be a symbol of farming past, present, and future? A prophet? A messenger from the past?
Albert Cooper, the Evening After the Courtship and the Ghost
The next morning Albert Cooper may have cast uneasy glances at the fields surrounding the farm where he worked. Had the phantom plowman followed him home with his horses and plow alongside him? As he went about his farm chores the next day, Albert Cooper probably wondered if he had dreamed the events of the night before and if he had really seen a phantom farmer plowing the field with two horses. After supper he decided to visit Silas Brown’s corner grocery and try out his story on his friends.
Albert told his story to the store loungers sitting around the pot bellied stove in Silas Brown’s corner store. The store loungers scoffed and told Albert to “reform” his story. When Albert insisted that he was telling the truth about the phantom farmer and his horses, a heated discussion flared up and several of the loungers accused Albert Cooper of “drawing the long bow,” which meant exaggerating or lying. Finally, the store loungers decided to visit the scene of the plowing to see if Albert Cooper had been telling the truth or a tall story.
Seven Men Sitting Shivering on a Wooden Rail Fence
Seven men and Albert Cooper sat on the wooden rail fence listening and watching for the phantom plowman. Albert heard them first, the same sounds from the night before. First the phantom farmer halted the horses, and then the creak of the harnesses and their whinnying. Albert and the seven store loungers were so frightened that they had to wrap their legs around the wooden fence rails to keep from falling off when they saw the phantom farmer. He didn’t wear any hat, so his long white hair streamed alongside his long white beard in the wind. The only visible part of the farmer’s face were his glistening eyes which were at least seven feet from the ground, making the ghostly farmer taller than the average human. A phosphorescent glow blurred the outlines of his body as he leaned forward on the plow and guided his steadily moving horses.
The store loungers and Albert thought the plow appeared to be as skeletal as the farmer, but soft, moist earth flew behind it like waves behind a Delaware River steamer. The phantom plowman drew closer and the horses with erect and tossing heads, seemed to breathe fire. The men heard their hoof beats as clearly as a dinner bell. At the corner of the field, the phantom plowman gave them the command to turn and they turned obediently and passed in front of the frightened fence sitters once again. All of the store hangers jumped off the fence and ran home to tell their story.
The Phantom Plowman Finishes Plowing the Field
The next morning, the seven fence sitters, Albert Cooper, and other curious folk went to the field to see if they could find any trace of the phantom plowman. As they reached the field, one of the men said, “I’ll be durned if the thing doesn’t plow sure enough.”
Everyone stared and gasped in astonishment. One half of the field had been plowed with furrows less broad as an ordinary plowman would create, but they were neater , deeper, and straighter than a mortal plowman could manage.
A few days later, the same group of onlookers went out to examine the field again. This time they discovered that the phantom farmer had completed his plowing. The field resembled a brown wavy lake flowing to the horizon. One of the men owned the field and he solemnly swore that he had not plowed an inch of ground in his field. The phantom farmer had plowed the entire field.
Multiple Albert Coopers and Silas Browns appear in the 1880 and 1890s census waiting for the dedicated historian and genealogist to find the ones that witnessed the phantom plowman. The phantom plowman and his horses and plow haunt that particular field in Lower Merion Township, waiting for the fancies of young people to turn to courting journeys and the March new moon to signal that it is time to start plowing again.
Buck, William J. Edited by Theodore W. Bean. History of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania.
Cocke, Stephanie Hetos. The Gilded Age Estates of Lower Merion Township, Pennsylvania: A History and Preservation Plan. 1987. University of Pennsylvania LibrariesEverts & Peck, Philadelphia, 1884. Part I, Lower Merion.
Hunsicker, Clifton S. Montgomery County, Pennsylvania A History. Lewis Historical Publishing Company, New York & Chicago, 1923.
Jones, Dick, ed. The First 300: the amazing and rich history of Lower Merion. Ardmore, PA: The Lower Merion Historical Society, 2000.
Brooklyn Eagle. A Phantom Plowman. Terrified Farmers Watched Him as He Turned up the Soil Perfectly. March 10, 1889. Page 10.
St. Louis Globe Democrat. The Phantom Plowman. March 10, 1889.