The Year 1873

Certain years are pivotal in our country’s history, some in the story of our family. The year 1873 was one of them. Elias and Kari Borresen left Onalaska where they had lived since 1869, bought land from the West Wisconsin Railway company, and established their home in Fitch Coulee.

For the nation, the year became known for the financial “Panic of 1873” and the onset of the worst depression Wisconsin and our nation had experienced. The actual date for the panic was September 18, and we have to wonder what effect it had on the young Borresen family that had just purchased land in a new country.

The ways of state government and business were over-ripe for reform and it was slow in coming. Loose corporate laws became the basis for vast fortunes created in lumber. Monopolies were rampant and the railroad was the worst. Alexander Mitchell, president of the Milwaukee & St. Paul, for example, controlled almost all the grain elevators in Milwaukee and thereby all of Milwaukee’s wheat trade. But bribes by business and corruption in government led to little change.

In this situation, the Grange formed in 1871 among farmers. It helped them purchase machinery, for instance, directly from the manufacturer, but it had little influence on reform. Suddenly in 1873, it exploded from three dozen locals to more than 300. Here farmers gathered to express their grievances over issues like railway rates which were part of the monopolistic system. I did a search for “Grange” in the Eau Claire newspapers at that time and found many brief notices, often about distant events. But perhaps if I keep searching, I’ll find local references. I’m guessing the Grange was in the “farmer talk” around Pigeon Falls too, although I expect most Norwegian-speaking immigrants were too hand-to-mouth in eking out a living that they had little time for politics. 

Just three months before the panic, Edward G. Ryan addressed University of Wisconsin graduates warning them of a “new and dark power” of “vast corporate combinations of unequalled capital” posing the question which shall rule: “wealth or man,” “money or intellect.” One of the people who heard that address and experienced it as life-changing was Robert M. LaFollette who would one day become Wisconsin’s progressive reformer.

No matter how serious these economic threats, I am guessing most immigrants found themselves better off than they were in the old country. Is that what our ancestor Elias might have said? Surely he and Kari “put their nose to the grindstone,” they kept growing their family and, to top it off, they did not lose their land. Perhaps they would have agreed with the historian who wrote that even after the panic, optimism and faith in progress remained alive and well.

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