1880s Farming Changes

The Elias and Kari Borreson family arrived in Fitch Coulee in 1874 and Bertinus Estenson the year after. This was just in time for great farming changes occurring in Wisconsin. For several decades, wheat farming had been the rage, until depleted soils and cinch bugs did it in.

In 1869 the wheat yield in the state was 2,778 bushels per square mile; twenty years later it was down by almost 75 per cent to 764 bushels. Farmers were in the serious position of looking for alternative sources of income. At the same time, dairying was emerging as a serious option.

Wheat was still hanging on in Trempealeau County in the early years of our grandparents’ farming in Fitch Coulee. In 1880 the greatest concentration of wheat in the state was in the counties of St. Croix, Buffalo, Pierce, and Trempealeau – all western counties. The rest of the state was pretty well tapped out. If I recall correctly, wheat farming hung around for more time in Trempealeau County, and in 1917 the county was the state’s leader.

Dairying seemed to catch on quickly in Trempealeau County. The 1890s was referred to as “the creamery decade” because of the expansion of these operations. In fact, the counties of Vernon, La Crosse, Monroe, and Trempealeau (all western Wis.) each produced over a million pounds of creamery butter in 1895. Trempealeau led the pack with over two million pounds, competitive in price and quality with butter from the southeastern part of the state. As an aside, the cheesemaking that emerged in other parts of Wisconsin did not succeed in Trempealeau County. (I think there was an early brief attempt in Arcadia.)

At same time, the number of marketing cooperatives was growing dramatically, a movement that would have been familiar to many immigrants from developments in 19th century Norway. A creamery cooperative was formed in Pigeon Falls, but it was lost in a fire a short time later. Fortunately, the community had the trusted leader Peder Ekern who rebuilt the creamery as a private enterprise, a move acceptable to his fellow Norwegians.

It would have been interesting to know how the Borresons and Estensons adapted to these changes in farming. Did they grow wheat, and if so, for how long? When did they make the change to real dairy farming, rather than just a cow or two for family needs? What did they think about the local cooperatives?

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