Farming and Industry | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Farming and Industry

How a Disaster Made Wisconsin the Dairy State

Farming and Industry | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeA photograph of men standing along the sides of a lead mine in Webb City, MO.

Lead and Zinc Mine

Webb City, Missouri was known as the world's largest and most productive lead and zinc mining field in the late 1800s and early 1900s and was part of the "Tri-State Mining District." An underground view is shown of the mine with a group of workers. View the original source document: WHI 72676

European settlers who arrived in Wisconsin in the 19th century were not interested in farming. The first several thousand settlers in the state emigrated to the lead region of southwest Wisconsin in the 1820s. Government surveyors began laying out townships throughout Wisconsin in the 1830s. Speculators soon began purchasing real estate from government land offices to sell to farmers and businessmen. 

The immigrants who arrived in the 1830s were anxious to find good farm sites. Most hoped to raise a crop before winter to feed their families and make money for supplies. Nearly 5,000 farms a year were founded in Wisconsin in the 1840s.


Wheat was the first, most important cash crop planted in Wisconsin. It did not require a large capital investment, and was easy to grow. From 1840 to 1880, Wisconsin provided one sixth of the wheat in the United States. Despite its early success, wheat became unpopular in the late 1850s. Wisconsin farmers struggled to compete with farmers in Minnesota and Iowa.

Since the 1850s, agricultural reformers had urged farmers to diversify their crops and restore depleted soil through crop rotation and fertilization. But wheat remained Wisconsin farmers' number one crop until the 1860s, when wheat rust disease and chinch bugs destroyed the crops. Farmers were forced to turn to new crops. Farmers in Waushara County pioneered the state's cranberry industry in the bogs north of Berlin, Wisconsin. Farmers in Rock, Jefferson and Dane counties successfully cultivated tobacco. Other farmers turned to corn, oats and hay to feed the thousands of cows that supported Wisconsin's growing dairy industry. By 1890, Wisconsin ranked first, second and third respectively in rye, barley and oat production in the country.


EnlargeBlack and white photo of cranberry harvesters using cranberry rakes make their way across a flooded cranberry bog.

Cranberry Harvest, 1934

Cranberry harvesters using cranberry rakes make their way across a flooded cranberry bog. In the background crates of harvested cranberries are stacked waiting for transport. View the original source document: WHI 86623

Farmers began focusing on commercial fruit and vegetable cultivation in the late 19th century. Nearly thirty percent of the state's potatoes came from Portage, Waushara and Waupaca counties in the early 20th century. Green peas, sweet corn, cucumbers, lima beans and beets all became important commercial crops in the 1880s. Wisconsin soon produced more vegetables for processing than any state in the nation. After many attempts, apples, cherries and strawberries became viable crops in a few areas of the state.

Cutover Lands

At the same time farmers prospered in southern Wisconsin, many recent immigrants searched for farmable plots in the north. Many staked claims in the "cutover" counties  wastelands created when loggers clear-cut forests. Despite promotional efforts and state aid to help settlers remove stumps, the area was never successfully farmed.

Although farming in the cutover region failed, agricultural production flourished throughout the rest of the state. To match the increasing scale and production levels of the state's agriculture, entrepreneurs soon established businesses to supply tools and equipment to farmers. 

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