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Northern Wisconsin farm family shown with produce samples from the Menomonee River Boom Company garden near Marinette, 1895 (WHI Image ID 1979)
A northern Wisconsin farm family with copious produce, 1895 WHI 1979

'Northern Wisconsin: A Hand-Book for the Homeseeker'

At the end of the 19th century, the forests of northern Wisconsin were disappearing before the logger's ax. Experts believed that they would naturally be succeeded by prosperous farms, as had happened in Europe centuries earlier. So in 1895 the state Legislature ordered the University of Wisconsin's College of Agriculture to prepare a handbook to help new settlers establish homesteads on the cutover lands. University staff traveled all across the region that fall, taking photographs for the 200-page guide, "Northern Wisconsin: A Hand-Book for the Homeseeker." It contained 88 pages with crude half-tone photographs, many cropped or reduced to small sizes, printed on cheap paper. This gallery contains those photographs scanned from their original 6-by-8-inch glass-plate negatives, as well as some not used in the book (113 images in all).

A Brief History of the Hand-Book

Julius Koehler family in their garden (WHI 1791)
The Julius Koehler family in
their garden, 1895 (WHI 1791)
William Arnon (W.A.) Henry, Dean of the College of Agriculture at the University of Wisconsin from 1880-1907, produced the book. Henry intended it to promote a rich agricultural future for northern Wisconsin, which he loosely defined as the land north of a line from Hudson to Green Bay. Harvey J. (H.J.) Perkins, a local photographer in Madison, took the photographs.

In the summer and fall of 1895, Henry and his team of assistants (F.H. King, E.S. Goff, J.A. Craig, and F.W. Woll) traveled to every county in northern Wisconsin. They observed the abundant crops, forests, livestock, homes, farms and families of interest in northern Wisconsin. Their research, which included many pages of statistics, appeared alongside the photos taken by Perkins. Their text bordered at times on hyperbole as they sought to portray a coming Golden Age for agriculture in what had only recently been ancient forests.

A Variety of Agricultural Products

The majority of the images that Harvey Perkins took on the tour show crops, livestock, fields, clear-cut lands, forests, farmers and their families. Perkins' attention to detail captured the settlers and the fruits of their labor quite well. Many pictures feature men and women standing in their fields to model how well that year's harvest is growing. The images depict crops of every variety, including sorghum, oats, wheat, corn, potatoes, pumpkins, currants and fruit. Several of the photos displayed agricultural services, like creamery wagons transporting milk or charcoal kilns in full production. Some livestock photos, including Shropsville sheep, cattle and hogs were meant to assure prospective inhabitants that northern Wisconsin was a land of self-sustainability.

The Fate of Farming in Northern Wisconsin

History did not confirm the handbook's rosy vision from 1895. Starting in the 1920s, agriculture in northern Wisconsin counties began to falter. Soils that had supported trees quickly became depleted by farm crops. Short growing seasons, the agricultural depression of the 1920s, and the nationwide Great Depression in the 1930s combined to undermine the northern farming boom. As farms failed, county tax revenues, local government services and basic living standards all fell. Land lost its value, and starting in the 1930s farmland was sold off and trees were replanted. Today northern Wisconsin is better known for its abundant lakes, forests and outdoor recreational opportunities than for its agricultural production.

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