This Saturday evening (Nov. 14) I am going to Black River Falls to present a program on tobacco raising to the local Sons of Norway lodge (at the Masonic Lodge building, 7 p.m.). Our Borreson family history led me to pursue this “politically incorrect” path, and I came to discover – and will make the point – that tobacco is “The Norwegian Crop.”
Two areas of the state were especially important for tobacco beginning in the (late) 1800s – Dane county and surrounding area, and Vernon County. But of course it went beyond these. Wherever there were Norwegians, it took root, or at least was tried. Some locales had better conditions to make it happen. Remembering that four generations of Borresons were tobacco growers, I did another search (in Winona, MN newspapers) for tobacco news in Trempealeau County over the years.
In 1920, for example, a cashier at People’s State Bank in Whitehall stated that a quarter of a million dollars of tobacco was handled locally (double that in the county). There were two resident buyers, E. A. Sorenson who had a large warehouse and R. H. Holton of the Holton Tobacco Co. In marketing season, the town would see buyers from another dozen companies.
By 1924, Trempealeau and Jackson Counties were District No. 3 of the Northern Wisconsin Co-operative Tobacco Pool, a successful effort by farmers to get some control over the marketing of their product. In April the office in Independence reported that 654 members grew 1,400 acres in 1923, yielding two million pounds. Business men in Independence backed the building of the district’s warehouse there, 45 x 100 feet in size, and local growers brought their crop in for storage. The news article reported that “on receiving days Independence resembles the old wheat days. Wagon lines over a block long form at the warehouse” (Winona Republican-Herald, April 4, 1924, p. 8).
By the early thirties, depression had taken hold and the federal government was making contracts with farmers for acreage reduction. The decade was a tough one. In fact, the same Winona paper reported that all of Trempealeau County had raised but 115 acres of tobacco in 1939 (they could have raised a maximum of 160 acres). Quite a contrast, it was noted, from the tobacco-laden caravans of horse-drawn rigs at Whitehall in years past.
Uncle Sid, of course, told us of raising tobacco in the forties, and here’s a nice photo of Bennie in his tobacco field around 1952. Other family members continued to raise the crop as well.I came across what cousin Dan mentioned about his FFA raising tobacco in 1965. In a Winona Daily News article May 27, 1965, where Dan’s mentioned as elected chapter secretary, we read, ” Juniors have decided to raise an acre of tobacco to finance [their] trip. Members are renting land at the Wilmer Johnson farm in Vosse Coulee.”
One last find. The Trempealeau County Health Care Center, where my brother Phil was superintendent, was raising 3 1/2 acres of tobacco in 1975. The farm owned by the health care center was unique in providing “therapy and work experience” for some of its patients by helping out on the farm, and tobacco surely required labor (as anyone knew who raised it).
But this is was about the end of tobacco raising, for good reason, of course. As a bit of irony, the beginning of the end came in Dane County when the country’s first anti-smoking regulations were passed (this in the same county where commercial tobacco raising has its start).
Well, that’s all, except to say, that on Saturday, I get to talk about the Norwegians who raised this “weed” at a time when it helped them, if not succeed, at least survive.