Statehood: Growing Pains
- Where to Go
- The Best of Milwaukee and Madison
- The Best Wisconsin Weekends
- A Perfect Week in Door County
- Wisconsin for Recreationists
- Rustic Road Tripping
- Made in Milwaukee
- Madison Weekend
- Sports: The Packers and Beyond
- Out on the Town in Milwaukee
- Say Cheese!
- Four Days in the Mad City
- A Wisconsin Family Road Trip
- Wisconsin’s Best Brews
Wisconsin’s entrance into the Union as the flag’s 30th star was a bit anticlimactic; there wasn’t even a skirmish with Canada over it. In fact, the populace voted on the issue of statehood in 1841, and every year for nearly the entire decade, but distinctly disinterested voters rejected the idea until 1848, when stratospheric levels of immigration impelled the legislature to more animated attempts, and the first measures passed.
Incessant immigration continued after statehood. Most newcomers arrived from New England or Europe—Ireland, England, Germany, and Scandinavia. The influx of Poles was still decades away. Milwaukee, a diminutive village of 1,500 at the time of territorial status, burgeoned into a rollicking town of 46,000 by the start of the Civil War, by which time the population of the state as a whole was up to 706,000 people.
During the period leading up to the Civil War, Wisconsin was dominated by political (and some social) wrangling over what, exactly, the state was to be. With the influence of Yankee immigrants and the Erie Canal access, much of Wisconsin’s cultural, political, and social makeup finally resembled New England. In fact, New York legislation was the model for many early Wisconsin laws. The first university was incorporated almost immediately after statehood, and school codes for primary and secondary education soon followed—a bit ahead of the Union as a whole.
Abolition was a hot issue in Wisconsin’s early years. It reached top-level status after the annexation of Texas and the Mexican-American War; as a result of this and many other contentious issues, Ripon, Wisconsin, became the founding spot of the Republican Party, which soon took hold of the legislature and held fast until the Civil War.
During the Civil War, despite being among the first states to near enlistment quotas, Wisconsin suffered some of the fiercest draft rioting in the nation. Many new immigrants had decamped from their European homelands for precisely the reasons for which the government was now pursuing them. Eventually, 96,000 Wisconsinites would serve.
Post-Civil War: Immigrants, Dairy, and Industry
After the Civil War and through the turn of the 20th century, Wisconsin began getting its economic bearings while politicians wrestled over issues as disparate as temperance, railroads, and immigrants’ rights. The latter hot potato galvanized enormous enclaves of German Americans into action; they mobilized against anti- immigration laws sweeping through the legislature. Despite the mandates (banning the German language in schools, for one), successive waves of immigrants poured into the state.
The first sawmills had gone up in Wisconsin at the turn of the 19th century. Yankee and British settlers put them up to use the timber they were felling in clearing farmland. One area of the Chippewa River possessed one-sixth of all the pine west of the Adirondacks—and Wisconsin pine was larger and harder than that in surrounding states. Easily floated down streams and rivers, pine became an enormous commodity on the expanding plains. In Wisconsin, even the roads were fashioned from pine and hardwood planks. By 1870, more than one billion board feet of lumber was being churned out through the state’s 1,000-plus mills each year, easily making Wisconsin the country’s largest timber producer (it was one-fourth of all state wages). In time, more than 20 billion board feet were taken from the shores of Green Bay alone; one year, 425 million board feet were shipped through Superior. Wisconsin wood was used in other parts of the expanding country to make homes, wagons, fences, barns, and plank roads. As a result, by the turn of the 20th century, more than 50 million acres of Wisconsin (and Minnesota) forest had been ravaged—most of it unrecoverable. By 1920, most of the state was a cutover wasteland.
Land eroded, tracts of forest disappeared and weren’t replaced, and riparian areas were destroyed to dam for “float flooding.” Worst, the average pine tree size was shrinking rapidly, and the lumber barons expressed little interest in preparing for the ultimate eradication of the forests. The small settlement of Peshtigo and more than 1,000 of its people perished in a furious conflagration made worse by logging cutover in 1871, and in the 1890s vast fires swept other central and northern counties.
Badgers began diversify. A handful of years after the Civil War, the state kicked its wheat habit (by 1860, Wisconsin was producing more wheat than any other state in the United States) and began looking for economic diversity. Wheat was sapping the soil fertility in southern Wisconsin, forcing many early settlers to pick up stakes once again and shift to the enormous golden tracts of the western plains states. Later, when railroads and their seemingly arbitrary pricing systems began affecting potential income from wheat, farmers in Wisconsin began seriously reviewing their options. Farmers diversified into corn, cranberries, sorghum, and hops, among others. Sheep and some hogs constituted the spectrum of livestock, but within two decades, the milk cow would surpass everything else on four hooves.
Myriad factors influenced the early trend toward dairy. Most of the European immigrant farmers, many of them dairy farmers in the old country, found the topography and climate in Wisconsin similar to those of their homelands. Transplanted Yankees had seen it before in New York and Vermont and knew a dairy revolution was coming. Led by foresighted dairying advocate William Hoard and his germinal journal, Hoard’s Dairyman, and by the new Wisconsin Dairymen’s Association, farmers began adding dairy cattle to their other crops and livestock until, by 1899, 90 percent of Wisconsin’s farmers were keeping cows predominantly.
Butter production initially led the new industry, since it was easier to keep than milk. But technology and industrialization, thanks in large part to the University of Wisconsin Scientific Agriculture Institute, propelled Wisconsin into milk, cheese, and other dairy-product prominence. The institute was responsible for extending the dairy season, introducing several highly productive new methods, and the groundbreaking 1890 Babcock butterfat test, a simple test of chemically separating and centrifuging milk samples to determine its quality, thereby ensuring farmers were paid based on the quality and not just the weight of the milk.
By 1880, despite less-fecund land and a shorter growing season than other agricultural states, Wisconsin ranked fourth in dairy production, thanks to university efficiency, progressive quality control, Herculean effort in the fields, and the later organization of powerful trade exchanges. The southern half of the state, with its minerals in the southwest and rich loamy soils in the southeast, attracted European agrarian and dairy farming immigrants and speculators. “America’s Dairyland” made it onto state license plates in the 1930s.
© Thomas Huhti from Moon Wisconsin, 5th Edition