Back when Wisconsin became the 30th state in the Union, its northern regions were the impenetrable Big Woods. But once the horrible and bloody Civil War came to a close, scores of men who had been employed by the military were looking for something to do. Some went West to fight in ongoing skirmishes with Native Americans, while others headed North to become Pinery Boys and Lumberjacks.
Chicago had burnt to the ground, and timbers were needed to rebuild. Towns all over where expanding into cities, industry was booming, and the towering White Pines were believed to be there for the taking. The massive deforestation process left the land stark and barren, and it forever changed wildlife habitat and weather patterns for the region.
The timbering industry brought with it railroads, towns, mills, and saloons. But the trees would not last forever. Once an area was cleared, the camps moved on to new territory, leaving behind massive stumps in their wake. Timber Barons no longer wanted this land, and much of it was granted or sold to immigration agencies.
When volunteering one summer for the Sawyer County Historical Society, I learned how these agencies tried to sell the cutover land. Their target audience was farmers. In the days before Photo Shop, the immigration agencies doctored black-and-white photographs of wheelbarrows stacked with monstrous potatoes or hay wagon loaded with gargantuan cabbages. “Prime Farm Land,” they touted, “Seven Easy Steps for Pulling Out Stumps!”
But as new immigrant farmers soon discovered, there was nothing easy about pulling out those stumps. The old farm saying, “Sometimes it’s easier to plow around the stumps” exists for a reason. But most of those stumps came out—blasted by dynamite, dug with grubbing hoes, and ripped from the earth with teams of draft horses. We still have some of the old boxes that held the dynamite used by the Fullingtons to clear the farm’s fields.
As late autumn has stripped the trees and shrubs of their leaves, you can still see the old torn-out stumps along the edge of the fields. Most sprout healthy stands of silver birches. Others stretch with gnarled, gray ridges alongside piles of stone that were cleared to ease the burden of farm machinery in the sandy soil. These weathered remnants stand as sentinels to an era that once was but is long past.
Those first pioneering farmers came in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. E. P. Fullington, an elderly Civil War veteran originally from Vermont, came with his 20-year-old son Lloyd in 1906 to claim a piece of land along a tributary to Hay Creek. Together, they pulled stumps, built the barn and log cabin, and gradually added more acreage to the homestead. In 1968, when Lloyd sold the farm to my grandparents, he made them promise never to plant trees in those fields. The memory of the tremendous effort to clear the land so many years ago was still fresh and present in his heart.
Another wave of farmers came to the Northland during the Great Depression. One gentleman who has stopped at our Creamery told of how his grandparents had homesteaded the farm down the road a piece from us in the 1930’s. They had been living in Chicago but were concerned that the Depression would leave them starving, so they headed north in their half-broken-down Ford as far up as they dared and began clearing the land. At least, out in the countryside, they could do their best to grow their own food.
But the soils of the region were not the best suited for agriculture. Between the glaciers and the reckless deforestation process, the topsoil was thin and fragile. Rocks and sand did not hold moisture well, and traditional tillage practices were better suited to lands Downstate. Once the Great Depression had passed, many of the farm children moved into town and found new occupations.
Instead of encouraging farming, government agencies began to actively discourage it in favor of moving the region towards resorts and recreation projects. CCC camp workers replanted most of the forests, and as the old homesteads began to sell off, most were converted to pine plantations. There is a general saying for the area that each pine plantation is likely to have once been someone’s farm.
But difficult soils are not impossible, and some of the old cutover farms, like ours, are still here. Rigorous composting and low-tillage methods work best to regenerate soil, as do rotational grazing practices for livestock. Farming in the Northland might not have been extremely successful, but it is still an important part of the region’s heritage to preserve and celebrate. Unfortunately, Sawyer County projects a continued loss of land zoned for agriculture in the next 10 to 20 years. For those who care about fostering local farming, this expectation is a great tragedy.
Daily life and the region’s landscape looked very different during the height of cutover farms. Little 20, 40 or 80 acre homesteads lined the old rutted roadways. Most were of the self-sustaining sort—growing a little bit of everything to get by. They had a few pigs, some milk cows, a handful of chickens, and a back garden. Some folks grew potatoes as a cash crop, or onions, or cabbages. The sandy soil worked well for root crops, if you could keep the potato beetles at bay. Families traded goods and services, and in the early days some of the men worked in logging camps during the winter and farmed in the summer. Most folks walked or rode horses to wherever they needed to go. Town could be a pretty rough place, influenced by lumber barons and the railway lines.
It was a hardscrabble place, but generally folks helped each other through the hard times, with barn raisings and quilting bees. When the Fullington’s log cabin burnt down by accident, the community held a fundraising social to get the family back on their feet. It was in the midst of WWII and supplies were scarce, but they built a new frame home as best they could. All that had been saved from the fire were some important papers and Wilma’s sewing machine (minus one drawer, which fell out as she ran from the burning house). Even after tragedy, farm families picked up the pieces and kept going.
As our society continues to muddle through difficult economic times, it is heartening to share the stories and experiences of the original homesteaders of the region who faced so many difficulties for starting a new life on the cutover. Even when obstacles seem taxing, at least we don’t have to rise up each morning to pull more stumps! This week, take some time to learn the stories of cutover farms in your area, even if all that remains are the foundations of homes and barns, grown up in trees and briars. That homesteading spirit and value of community still survives amongst the brave few who continue to work the land with nurturing hands. See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. northstarhomestead.com