A brief history of . . .Economics in Wisconsin


A drawing depicts a typical prairie farm home in 1850. From Schafer.






The invention of the reaper, used by the family above, decreased the labor-intensiveness of the short harvest period of wheat. From Nesbit.










Professor Babcock's milk tester measured the butterfat content of milk. His innovation was one of many that would arise out of the University's College of Agriculture. From Schafer.




















Teams of oxen or horses carried logs from lumber camps to river banks, where they were guided downstream to mills. Teams could haul five to 20 tons of logs in a single load. From Austin.


Within one person's lifetime, acres and acres of pine forests were laid low by logging. Wisconsin's timber industry filled a growing state and national need, but at an annual cut rate that ended the vast stands of forests. Both photos from Schafer.

Any account of economics in early Wisconsin begins with agriculture, and any account of agriculture in Wisconsin begins with wheat production. The crop became the state's early favorite for a number of reasons. The farmers who first settled Wisconsin from New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio were primarily wheat farmers by habit and tradition. Furthermore, the crop could be sowed and largely ignored until harvest time, leaving farmers more time to clear and break new land, and fence the land already settled. Wheat stored well and brought relatively good prices in the 1850s and early 1860s.

The settlement of the state and its preference toward wheat production coincided with innovations in harvesting machinery. Cyrus McCormick patented his reaper in 1834, and began manufacturing them in Chicago in 1846. The threshing machine of J.I. Case was implemented around the same time, and by 1850, both inventions had become widespread in Wisconsin, enabling greater and greater yields. The booming yields of the mid-1850s were complemented by newly completed rail lines of the Milwaukee and Mississippi Railroad, which made marketing the crop easier and more profitable. By 1860, wheat growing in Wisconsin had reached its apex; over 27 million bushels were produced in the state.

After the "golden year" of 1860, wheat growing steadily fell off. Farmers had often sowed wheat on the same soil year after year, depleting it of necessary nutrients. Plant diseases and pests further hindered wheat growers, and prices for the crop declined.

By the late 1870s, wheat farming had run its course in southern Wisconsin, and farming necessarily became diversified. The production of corn and oats as cash crops increased dramatically. Greater experience and innovation meant that corn, originally thought to require lands farther to the south of Wisconsin, could be grown and marketed successfully. The production of corn and oats rose from just over 5 million bushels in 1849 to over 67 million bushels in 1879. Hay also enjoyed a rise in production over the same period, from 275,000 tons in 1849 to 1,907,000 tons in 1879. Wheat production, meanwhile, declined by almost 4 million bushels from 1860 to 1879.

By the late 1860s, wheat production was in decline because of continued planting on the same land year after year, diseases and reduced prices. But the same climate and soil that had produced large wheat crops were ideal for forage crops, and the land that was unsuitable for cultivation was good for pasture for livestock. The populations moving into Wisconsin-New Englanders and New Yorkers from the East, immigrants from Northern European countries-had experience with dairying. These favorable conditions and personalities began the dairy surge.

Dairy production arose from the very beginnings of agriculture in Wisconsin, but the production of milk, butter and cheese for sale to a broad market was not at all common. The marketing of dairy was instead incidental to providing these items for the home. Until the early 1860s, the extent of the dairy "industry" was a typical farmer's exchange of butter and cheese with the local storekeeper for other groceries. Because of this decidedly limited market for dairy, farmers gave little attention to their herds (in terms of character, breeding, housing, winter feeding, pasturing), their methods of production or storage, or methods of selling.

The ascendancy of Wisconsin as "America's Dairyland" occurred as a result of many factors. Chief among them were the development of professional associations, the science and organization developing out of the College of Agriculture, and the character and cooperation of farmers in the practical execution of dairy plans and policies.

The effort quickly proved to be successful. In 1867, Wisconsin could boast 245,000 dairy cows, a number that would rise to 1,460,000 by 1912. In 1869, the state produced over 3 million pounds of cheese, and that number would more than quadruple within 10 years.

The danger was a glut in the Western market that forced down the prices of cheese and butter. In 1871, the price for cheese was down to 8 cents a pound, and butter prices were likewise depressed. Wisconsin's dairy producers needed to break into eastern and English markets with their products. To this end, producers banded together to form the Wisconsin Dairymen's Association in February of 1872. The organization proved beneficial for marketing purposes, and also provided a forum for dairy farmers to exchange successful ideas or new procedures.

Some of these new ideas and procedures were emerging from the College of Agriculture connected with the University of Wisconsin, and its associated winter Dairy School which opened in 1887 as the first in the nation. The dairy school trained butter and cheesemakers. The college enabled the farmers who attended, and produced innovations through its faculty and researchers. Professor Stephen Moulton Babcock's milk tester benefited dairy farmers and helped establish the school's (and the state's) reputation as a leader in the dairy industry.

Though logging was done by the earliest territorial settlers for purposes of building, the commercial dominance of the timber industry started in the late 1840s and multiplied through the end of the 1880s. That this timeframe overlapped with great changes in agriculture is no coincidence; the expansion of the lumber industry meant a constant demand for feed crops for the oxen and horses used, and diversified food crops and grains for the many sawmill workers and lumbermen. Logging also meant winter work for farmers, drew railroads into the state and opened new land for settlement.

Wisconsin's forests were part of a belt that extended from New England through the Great Lakes. The forests were especially thick in the Michigan peninsulas and the upper two-thirds of Wisconsin. Wisconsin's forests contained an estimated 130 billion board feet of high grade pine; the amount of lumber would be even more impressive if it were to include the acres of hemlock, spruce, cedar and hardwoods that were also felled.

Wisconsin's earliest sawmills were built in the first decades of the 19th century, and the 1840 census showed 124 sawmills in the territory. By 1865, that number had increased fivefold, and Wisconsin was producing lumber valued at over $4.3 million. After the Civil War, improvements in machinery and methods increased the value of lumber produced in the state to $15 million in 1870, $17 million in 1880 and over $60 million by 1890.

The work of lumbering was carried on in the late fall and winter. A timber cruiser would seek out tracts of land to be logged, and estimate the lumber that could be cut from the area. A logging crew arrived in the area to set up a camp. The camp's foreman supervised the construction of the site, ordered roads cleared for bringing in supplies and oversaw the logging operations. The camps brought together between 50-150 lumbermen.

Lumbermen were divided into groups with specific tasks. The sawyers or chippers were those who felled the trees. They would notch one side with an axe and then cut through from the other side to ensure the tree fell into an exact position. Swampers then lopped off the branches and the top of the trunk of the fallen tree. A scaler measured the log and decided where cuts should be made in order to produce the best lumber. Skidders used chains and teams to drag the logs to the logging road, where logging sleds hauled them to a river bank. Log drivers had the dangerous work of steering the thousands and thousands of logs downstream to a sawmill, hopping from floating log to floating log to loosen jams and guide the logs. Lumbermen were not paid handsomely-usually between $12 and $25 per month. Many times the lumbermen were farmers who used the income to supplement what they made during the growing season.

By the end of the nineteenth century, it became clear that Wisconsin's pine forests were rapidly depleting, and that no steps had been taken to replace the natural resource. Because of the common holding that the stands of trees were mainly an obstacle to settlement, there was no public support for limitations on the logging practices, and few laws were passed to protect forests until the timber boom had come and gone.

Austin, H. Russell. The Wisconsin Story: The Building of a Vanguard State. Milwaukee, Wis.: Journal Co., 1957.

Nesbit, Robert C. Wisconsin: A History. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1973.

Schafer, Joseph. A History of Agriculture in Wisconsin. Madison, Wis.: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1922.

Further resources

Created on: April 17, 2000