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Northern Wisconsin: A Handbook for the Home Seeker

Cover of Northern Wisconsin, A Handbook for the Homeseeker
Cover of Northern Wisconsin, A Handbook for the Homeseeker

By the 1890s, it was becoming apparent that the once thought inexhaustible forests of the Northwoods, would in fact fall under the ax, and make their way to sawmills. What was left in place of the old growth forest was a stump, and branch strewn, fire prone landscape known as “the cutover”.

Logging companies and lumber barons had made their money, and began selling the cutover lands as fast as they could to avoid paying taxes on, to them, worthless property. Land speculation became the next big business, as owners of huge swathes of cutover attempted to liquidate holdings by enticing homesteaders to Northern Wisconsin.

Prominent thinkers of the age believed that cutover lands would become the next bread basket of America. Where pine forests once thrived, farms would be built. But first, a way had to be devised to get more people to take up homesteads in the Northern parts of the state. Enter the “Northern Wisconsin: A Handbook for the Home Seeker”.

In 1895, the Wisconsin Legislature established an Office of Immigration at Rhinelander. They also directed the University of Wisconsin College of Agriculture to develop a handbook that would provide people living in cities across the US, and Europe with the information and knowledge needed to start homesteads in Northern Wisconsin.

In the fall of 1895, a team from the University of Wisconsin school of agriculture, including Dean William A. Henry, Madison photographer Harvey J. Perkins, and others, traveled to every county north of a line drawn from Green Bay to Hudson. They compiled information and photographs from cutover lands, and already existing farms, in an attempt to showcase the potential of the area.

All this work was put into a 200 page booklet titled “Northern Wisconsin: A Handbook for the Home Seeker”.

The handbook begins: “The possibility that northern Wisconsin may some day become an agricultural region of excellence and prominence is little realized and less recognized anywhere, even by the people of our own state.”

It was full of charts, statistics, and information on climate, soil, and resources. It included more than 80 photos depicting model farms, crops and livestock of all varieties, and previously forested properties just waiting to be turned into farmland by those of sound enough body and mind. It painted a glorious picture for farming the cutover regions of the state.

In 1897, 50,000 of the handbooks, and 60,000 pamphlets made up of information and images from the book were printed in English, German, and Norwegian, and distributed throughout the United States, and Europe.

In the following years, thousands of Homeseekers flocked to Northern Wisconsin. Often times, the people arriving expected to find land ready to till, but instead found acres of giant stumps, which required back breaking work before any farming could be done.

Less hardy folks would’ve went back to where they came from, but the promise of their own land caused them to roll up their sleeves, grab a box of dynamite, and get to work. Some were lucky enough to purchase property with an abandoned lumber camp, using the buildings as cabins, and barns before proper homes could be built, planting crops between the stumps before they could be pulled.

Julius and Mary Lassig Family around 1905.
Historic Lassig Dairy Preservation Group
Julius and Mary Lassig Family around 1905.

20,000 farms were established across Northern Wisconsin in the years after the handbook was published. Some were successful, but many more failed. Homesteading and farming the Northwoods of Wisconsin was tough. Soils left by the last glaciers were rocky and sandy. What little nutrients they contained were quickly depleted in a few growing seasons, and the number of days without frost differed by region, making farming all the more challenging.

Many families eked out a living on their farmsteads for a generation, but has farms failed, tax delinquent properties were sold at auction on the steps of county courthouses. When no buyers were had, the land became the county’s, and Northwoods counties became the largest land holders in the region, setting the stage for the return of the forests.

Following generations found that the land was better suited for growing the pine trees that existed before they came, and farming the Northwoods began a steady decline after 1940. Oneida County as an example, had 250 registered dairy farms in 1950. Today, it has zero.

The optimism depicted in the handbook was due in part to a true belief that the Northern half of Wisconsin could follow in the footsteps of southern Wisconsin, and also in part to wishful thinking. With no truth in advertising laws yet, words and ideas could be easily bent, despite the reality of the conditions. The rosy picture of farming the cutover wasn’t as successful as it was portrayed, and it failed to evolve into productive long term farmlands.

If the Northern Wisconsin a Handbook for the Homeseeker didn’t produce the vision it desired, it did in fact bring thousands of immigrants across the nation, and world, to Northern Wisconsin, and even though many of their farms didn’t pan out, the communities they helped build have remained.

Some farming has continued in the Northwoods today. Potatoes and cranberries make up a large part of agriculture in the region, but a majority of cutover land that was once farmed, has been returned to trees, coming full circle with forest products making up the largest industry in the Northwoods today.

Sources: Northern Wisconsin: A Handbook for the Homeseeker, 1896, Library of Congress. History of Lincoln, Oneida and Vilas Counties, 1924

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Kerry Bloedorn joined WXPR in 2022 as the host of A Northwoods Moment in History. A local historian, Director of Pioneer Park Historical Complex for the City of Rhinelander and writer for The New North Magazine, he loves digging into the past and sharing his passion for history with the Northwoods community.
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