Raising Tobacco

Here’s a subject that’s out of favor, but that won’t stop me. Did you know that Norwegians, especially Norwegian immigrant families, were vital to the success of tobacco as a Wisconsin crop? And did you know the Borresons were part of this picture? In a post about Emil, Dave mentioned that his grandfather had filled him in on tobacco harvesting, but I getting ahead of myself….

Before white farmers settled Wisconsin, the French explorer Allouez reported as early as 1670 that the Winnebago Indians (Ho Chunk) were growing tobacco. Beginning in 1840-1841, the Norwegian immigrants to the Koshkonong area (Dane County, Madison) became enthusiastic supporters of the crop, although they had not raised it back in Norway. One source listed names like Nelson, Swenson, Larson, Erickson, Lund, Weum and Jacobson as forever to be associated with this enterprise. Here was a chance to raise a crop and earn cash which immigrants were lacking. As I recall reading elsewhere, they also had the large disciplined families required to do the labor. In a previous post, I had mentioned that tobacco ranked ninth as a Wisconsin crop by 1929. Sometimes it’s been said that it was tobacco that paid for many of the dairy barns built in the first six decades of the 20th century. In 1938 there were 18,400 acres of tobacco in Wisconsin, 8300 of them in Dane County. Wisconsin’s crop was cigar tobacco and stemmings were used for chewing tobacco.

In those years tobacco was being raised in Trempealeau County too, and in Fitch Coulee. I’m guessing David’s tobacco conversation with Emil took place in the mid-forties, and equally interesting is a photo Dave sent me of the Borreson farm. Here it is:

Look carefully. What’s in the foreground of this picture? A crop of tobacco. I don’t have a date for the photo, but it’s from an album page, so it appears, with another photo with a 1935 date. So could it be that we know that Emil raised tobacco, at a minimum, the years 1935 through 1945? The tobacco shed with its typical hinged boards swung open awaits on the left side of the photo. In that shed the crop, started in a bed in springtime, would have been strung from laths when harvested.

Other interesting elements of this photo include the stacks of grain, probably oats, that will be awaiting threshing; I count up to nine of them! Seems like a good crop. And if you look closely at the right end of the tobacco shed, you’ll see an old car – is it as old as a Model T, I don’t know. Finally, the view seems to be of the west end of Emil’s dairy barn.

I’ll be curious to know if anyone remembers more about raising tobacco on this farm. I think several of Emil’s sons carried it over into their own farming: Ednar and Odell did, I think, and my father Garven too, for a few years in the early sixties. I seem to recall that an allotment was often difficult to get, even to raise even an acre or two of tobacco.

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8 Responses to Raising Tobacco

  1. Brian Borreson says:

    White building on the right side of the photo is the Fitch Coulee School House. As for tobacco , Greg and Brian (Dawn helped too) raised tabacco up until 1985 or 86. Labor intense.We called it our two holiday crop.Plant it Memorial Day , harvest it Labor Day. Thanks for all the info. Brian

    • Glenn Borreson says:

      Maybe we should call tobacco a three-holiday crop: (besides Memorial Day and Labor day) I remember helping Dad (a little bit) strip the leaves for bundling during our Christmas vacation from school. This was probably early sixties. Thanks for pointing out the school too.

  2. Conrad Okerwall says:

    I remember Sidney had a tobacco patch in the late 1930’s in about the same place as the one in the photo. My sister and I used to help hoe the weeds and pick off the tobacco worms.

  3. Lesley says:

    That is a wonderful picture of the old barn, it had such character! At least one of the wooden stave silos was moved to a farm north of Whitehall. Yes, tobacco was raised by Odell and family. Dick and I did raise tobacco in Chippewa Co. in the early 1980s.
    We had to have a recommendation by an experienced grower in order to get an allotment. It is a crop of all manual labor. Those tobacco worms were huge!!

  4. Glenn Borreson says:

    This is from Sid: “The model T on that picture was stored on the west side of the tobacco shed. Conrad as a young boy would sit in it and drive until the spit run. He didn’t have time to come to eat.”

  5. Anne Lokken says:

    Hi Glenn, we don’t know each other, but we certainly have many things in common. My dad was Sigurd Lokken of Pigeon Falls so I’m sure our families knew each other. I am responding to this blog post because on my mom’s side of the family (from Dane county) her grandparents, Nelson, had a tobacco farm near McFarland.

    I came across your blog by googling Biri, Norway!!

    It’s a small world and isn’t internet incredible!

  6. Glenn Borreson says:

    A small world is right! You’re the third person who’s found this blog by goggling Biri! I would never have guessed that. And I never would have guessed how popular my “tobacco” post would be with family. Thanks for making the connection. I wonder if you’re related to the Lokken family I knew from Blair (who are relatives on Grandmother Gina’s side).

  7. Anne Lokken says:

    My grandparents were Bendick and Clara Lokken. They lived in the little house by the road in front of the lower church. I hear it was recently torn down! Grandma Clara was a Thorson and I know there were lots of them in Pigeon. The Lokkens came from Biri and it was our 4 times great-grandfather who built the Biri church!

    “Around the rural area, many very competent and hard working carpenters and cabinetmakers were trained in these times. One of the most well known by name here at Biri was Amund Nilsen Gloppe. As can be shown by many of his works, he was on a par with the best of them. He was born in 1737 in Fåberg and was married in 1774 with Anne Henrichsdatter Bjugge, and lived after that at Gloppe, a tenant house of the Biri pastor’s farm.

    Amund Gloppe was the builder of the Biri church, which was consecrated in 1777, Segård church in Snertingdal in 1781, which was first consecrated in 1784, and the Brottum church in 1788. On the central support in the steeple of the Brottum church is written: “This steeple was raised the 20th of August, 1878 by Amund Nilsen Gloppe”. He can thus with full right bear the title of church builder.

    The Biri church is often admired by craftsmen for its fine harmonic style and the solid and craftsman like work. Tradition in Biri tells the following story about the raising of the steeple:

    “When the large central support of the steeple, with its iron spire with wind vane and ball, lay ready on the ground, there were many folk who went and saw it and wondered about how it would go to raise this over the church roof into place. The scaffolding up from the foot of the steeple was ready, and the block and tackle that would be used were in place, but many days passed without the raising of the steeple. For all that people questioned and gossiped about when the raising would happen, they grew no wiser. The builder was keeping the time to himself for good reason. He was afraid that, when there were many spectators down on the church grounds, that the carpenters could easily be made nervous during their dangerous work by calls from the ground. One wrong move, a single wrong grip on the tackle, could have the most dire consequences.

    ”So one midnight hour, the call went to the carpenters to meet, and each man went to his place. And over a few, quiet morning hours in the bright summer night, the steeple mast with its spire glided slowly in the air up to the place where it has been ever since, without any uninvited guests seeing or hearing how it had gone.”

    Translated by Roald Lokken

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