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Prepared for posting by Cathe Ziereis
Oconto County Times-Herald
March 15 , 2000
A History Of Logging In Oconto County

The Times Herald continuing their publication of excerpts from the book, "A History Of Logging In Oconto County"  from the McCauslin to Jab Switch. The author is Della Rucker. Photos and editing is by Diane Nichols, Oconto County Historical Association. The project coordination is by Bruce Mommaerts of the Oconto Co. Economic Development Corp.

For much of Oconto County, the decline of the lumber industry was to a great extent offset by the rise in farming. As lumber companies and other large landowners accumulated more and more cutover land, the, massive influx of immigrants arriving in Oconto County provided an ideal market for unloading these properties. In general, most of the immigrants who arrived in Oconto County came from areas of Europe with a strong farming tradition. Many came specifically to buy their own farms. The history of agriculture in the county, however, is made up two different stories: one of relative prosperity and stability, and the other of tough times.

In order to understand why farming became so important to Oconto County, and why so many struggled to establish farms on less than ideal lands, it is important to know a little about the circumstances that many early Oconto County farmers had left. The county's farming immigrants came from a wide variety of places, including the eastern United States, Great Britain, Scandinavia, and northwestern and northeastern Europe. Although political and social situations varied greatly among these regions, they did have one factor in common: farmland, in all of these places tended to be poor and over-worked through years of cultivation. Due to the population pressures in these older farming areas, farmland was also expensive to purchase, if it were available at all. As a result, small farm owners who wished to expand their incomes by growing more crops could find few ways of increasing their farms yields. In many places, farms also tended to get smaller with every passing generation, as some or all of the family's adult children received a portion of the family farm. It often took only a few decades before farms had become so small and over-worked that they could not support a family. In some of the European nations, feudal land traditions also made buying or owning land nearly impossible since much of the available farmland might be owned by local nobility, leaving farmers  with few options other than to make rental arrangements with the landed gentry. Farmers responded to such pressures in a variety of ways, but in many cases the situation forced residents to immigrate to the American frontier. Although many future Oconto County farmers, including those from the eastern U.S., moved simply because they thought they could do, better than they had in their home areas, some immigrants were forced to immigrate by serious crises back home. Immigrants, from Ireland and much of northern Europe, for example, were often spurred to make the dangerous and difficult journey because of famines caused by crop destruction, such as the well known Irish Potato Blight of 1848, which also affected most of the crop in Europe. Other immigrants, including those from many of the German states in the 1850s and from Finland and Poland around the turn of the century, emigrated in sudden waves because political restrictions that had prevented them from leaving desperate situations were suddenly relaxed. As a result of these factors, many of those who arrived in Oconto County had little money but an enormous amount of determination to create a secure life for themselves and their families in the New World.

The extreme southern portion of the county south of the Oconto River, already had numerous farms by the early 1870s. Many of these farm families in the eastern and central portion of the region had purchased their lands from the early lumber operators in Little Suamico and Pensaukee. Some had also purchased lands directly from the federal government. Since logging prior to the 1880s had focused on pines that were within hauling distance of a driving stream, much of the available land in this area was actually untouched by logging or had extensive stands of everything other than white pine. Additionally, most of the soils underlying this forest were heavy loams, excellent soil for growing a variety of crops. Similar conditions were later found as far north as the Suring and Lena areas, which became heavily settled following the arrival of railroad connections in the 1880S. As a result of these conditions; farming flourished in southern Oconto County. First generation farms strived for self-sufficiency, generally growing small amounts of  a variety of crops and raising a variety of animals, with most of the production being consumed by the farm family. This arrangement stemmed from several factors. First, most of the farmland purchased was still mostly wooded. In order to farm, this land had to be cleared of timber, a long and labor intensive process since most nineteenth-century farmers had no machinery for doing such work. Trees were felled by hand, but often enormous amounts of wood had to be burned because the farmers had no way to use or sell so much. The remaining stumps were often then left in the fields for years, with the farmers plowing around them, until they had rotted to such an extent that they could be pulled out with a horse or oxen-drawn winch. As a result, clearing forty acres of farmland could take decades. Second, many early farmers found themselves in such isolated locations that, even if they could raise crops for sale, it was extremely difficult to transport their goods to a place where they could be sold. Despite such problems, however, most early farmers did occasionally take some of their excess goods, such as eggs or produce, to the nearest settlement in order to sell or trade them for necessities, such as flour. As farmlands were gradually cleared and transportation systems improved, southern Oconto County farmers began to turn their attention to cash crops, which were raised in the largest quantities possible and sold for cash to local middlemen or to large food processing operations elsewhere. As in much of Wisconsin, wheat and other grains made up most farms' first cash crops. Wheat was in high demand during, the mid-to late 1800's with Wisconsin one of the nation's leading wheat producers for much of that time. Wheat required little equipment and once planted, needed little attention until harvest which allowed pioneer farmers to continue to spend most of their time on crops to be consumed by the family. The growth of wheat and other grains as cash crops led to the construction of grain warehouses and silos in many southern Wisconsin settlements prior to 1900. Whenever possible these structures were built next to the railroad tracks for easy shipment to the large grist mills and other grain purchasers in the South.

Grain production in Wisconsin as a whole declined markedly following the Civil War, as grain diseases and competition from western states drove farmers out of the grain business.     Southern Oconto County, however, appears to have been little affected by the grain diseases that stuck farms to the south.

Grain remained a major local cash crop until beyond the turn of the century. In the first two   decades of the twentieth century, however, many of the former wheat farms were converted to dairy operations, raising crops only to provide inexpensive feed for cows whose milk was sold to creameries and cheese factories.

Dairy farming required numerous specialized buildings, including large barns, silos, and milkhouses, as well as large investments in milking and milk, storing equipment, all of which made dairy farming an expensive business requiring a great deal of money or a large debt simply to get started. The incentive for making these sacrifices, however, stemmed from the expectation of larger profits, expectations fed in part by state agricultural experts who avidly promoted dairy farming across the state beginning in the 1890s. One of the innovations promoted was the silo, which first became available commercially in the 1900s making it possible to operate a dairy farm year-round. By the 1930s most of the southern portion of Oconto County, had converted almost completely to dairy farming. The new industry would continue to dominate southern Oconto County's economy and lifestyle for most of the twentieth century.

While southern Oconto County's farms prospered, potential farmers in the northern section of the county faced more difficult struggles. As in the southern region, lumber companies that had worked in northern Oconto County found a willing market for their cutover lands among those seeking to establish family farms. Since these areas were logged for pine later than in the south, and were often re-logged and clearcut, for hardwoods after the close of the pine era, much of northern Oconto County did not become available for sale until the 1890s, 1900's and 1910's. Because of the decline already evident in the lumber industry by this point, and because enormous amounts of land were being given up by the lumber firms at the same time, the state and local governments also began to promote northern Wisconsin as ideal territory for potential farmers. Much of this promotion was targeted at newly-arriving immigrants, many of whom were from Scandinavia and northeastern Europe. Many of these earned the money needed for the land and its. improvement by working in the lumber camps while wives and other female relatives struggled to provide for themselves and their families through the long winter. Since most of these farms were established latter than those in the south, many progressed directly from subsistence to dairy farming. Some individuals pursued cash crops as varied as ginseng, potatoes and orchard crops.

Like their counterparts to the south pioneer farmers in northern Oconto County faced severe difficulties in establishing their farms, including fields full of trees and stumps, impassable roads and limited markets for the small amounts of crops they could spare for sale or barter. Due to the later time period, however, these regions progressed more quickly through the frontier stage, as railroads were laid and roads were improved. Equipment and information about dairy farming, encouraged many to take the plunge into daring only a few years after a farm's establishment.

Northern Oconto County's farmers, however, faced at least two major roadblocks that had relatively little impact on farmers to the south. As many discovered too late, much of the soil in northern Oconto County was not well suited to farming. Although some sections had acceptable soil, much of the land in this region was too sandy or too acidic to support most crops. According to later state-sponsored studies, only about one fifth of the soil in northern Oconto County had the proper characteristics for good farming.

By the 1930s, most, of these farmers were finding that, regardless of how hard they worked, their farms were not yielding as much as anyone thought they should. The 1930's, of course, also, saw the onset of the Great Depression, an economic reversal that caused hardship across the United States. Although the Depression did impact the dairy farmers in the southern part of the county by lowering the prices they could get for their milk, few of these farmers were put out of business by the hard times. In northern Oconto County, however, the combination of poor farming conditions, poor market conditions, and heavy debt loads forced hundreds of families to lose the farms they had struggled so hard to create. By this point, however, new land uses and a new economy for the north woods were beginning to take shape.

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