Pierce County wheat 'best' in state

Large breaking plows were pulled by three to four yoke of oxen. Although generally related to the west, oxen were used on prairies in this area when the first farmers arrived and started to plant wheat. Records note the number of breaking oxen in Pierce County, for instance.

     "A heavy plow and strong team is required the first year. The kernel is dropped into the furrow, covered over and no other labor bestowed on it until it is fit to be gathered." This fantastic claim was published in 1851 in an immigrant's handbook in Wisconsin.
     And for many years in Pierce County, the statement did come true, especially with the wheat crop.
     The first mention of "farm" in Pierce County is by Philander Prescott who was holding a claim at the St. Croix and Mississippi Rover junction on Wisconsin's western border. But in his diary every product - but wheat - is mentioned.

Started in 1852

     It remained for the big influx of settlers beginning in 1852 at Prescott to raise wheat that in less than 10 years was judged the best in Wisconsin and won international awards.
     Until 1855 there was no shipment of any product out of Pierce County. Local production was consumed by the increasing number of settlers. But that year local farmers developed a surplus of wheat and hay. Shipment of this surplus began, being purchased mainly by lumbering camps along the St. Croix and the new settlement at St. Paul.
      Farmers' wagons rolled into the shipping point at Prescott from prairies to the east and north. Wagons heavy with wheat were lined up for blocks; it was an all-day affair to bring wheat to Prescott.

Levee warehouses full of grain

     Levee warehouses were filled with grain. Often three steamboats a day were loaded at Prescott.
     The first crops produced in Pierce County were of outstanding quality. The "History of Northern Wisconsin," published in 1881, relates that in 1855 flour from wheat raised in Pierce County took the prize at the World's Fair in Paris.
     But probably the most gratifying honor was winning, at the state fair three years in a row, first prize for wheat that had been grown in Pierce County, "establishing beyond all doubt that Pierce county is the best wheat-producing county in the state," according to a contemporary newspaper.
     Varieties of prize-winning wheat were Rio Grande, some lowland Scotch, red winter wheat, white winter wheat, blue joint and some California and Colorado wheat.

Elated over 1860 prize banner

     However, it was awarding to Pierce County that agricultural prize banner for the best exhibit at the Wisconsin state fair on Oct. 1, 1860 which elated county residents.
     "Some counties withdrew after seeing the display from Pierce," and "Banner won amid keenest rivalry with the old populous wealthy central and southern counties of the state," were two comments in the press.
     The blue silk banner, 5 1/2 by 7 feet, was a gorgeous affair. On one side was pictured the goddess Minerva, with appropriate symbols, and the other side had in golden capital letters, "Prize Banner Awarded by the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society to Pierce county for the Best Exhibit at the State Fair."

General jubilation followed

     The banner was brought to Prescott on the steamer Milwaukee. There was a stampede for the levee when the whistle sounded and "general jubilation", which included a procession from Dunbar's hall on the levee up the hiss to the county agricultural fair grounds on the edge of town.
     There were "speeches, music and firing of cannon" and in case anyone missed that afternoon celebration, a torchlight procession was held in the evening, complete with the Red Wing Brass Band. And for anyone who happened to miss the great day, a celebration was held again on Saturday. After that, the banner was displayed around the county.
     According to Saxton's "History of Pierce County", one of the exhibits which helping win the banner was a bushel of white winter wheat grown by Robert M. Sproul of Hartland Township. This wheat was afterward sent to the London Crystal Palace Exposition and won the world's highest award.
     Pierce County didn't rest on its laurels, and until the 1870s was an outstanding producer of wheat.

103 breaking teams at work

     In 1860, 103 breaking teams were "constantly at work" for an average of 40 days each, breaking 1 1/2 acres of ground a day, the plow turning a 30-inch furrow.
     "This ground is not being broken to lie idle and run to waste," says an account, "it will all be productive next year." The anticipated price was $1.50 per bushel and expected yield was 25 bushels per acre, a respectable yield even today.
     Harvest hands were in "great demand" for $1.50 per day. Wheat was shipped from the St. Croix and upper Mississippi to Milwaukee for nine cents a bushel, "cheap enough", says the report.
     "For a county which eight years ago was importing wheat, this showing is pretty fair when we remember there have been years of war with its attendant expense," was the comment in 1865 when worth of the wheat crop was estimated at $350,000.
     Five mills in the county manufactured flour for export

Large shipment casual note

     Beardsley & Lyford, a Prescott company, "shipped 24,000 bushels of wheat on Thursday" was a casual note in the week's Journal.
     "A farmer raised an even 25,000 bushels of wheat which he sold for $25,000, making the income from his wheat crop alone equal to that of the President of the U. S." is another item noted in the papers.
     Another busy farmer was Oliver Powell who "cut, threshed, carried to mill some wheat, had it floured and some of it baked for supper for the harvesters."
     Eastern markets were interested in this Midwestern wheat. Horace Greely in 1865 commented the "wheat shipments cannot all be threshed out this year and 10 million bushels are expected to pass La Crosse southward.

Other good years followed

     Of that total, about one bushel in 30 originated in Pierce County. By this time, Minneapolis was on its way to becoming a world grain shipping center, while Pierce County was still producing a tremendous crop.
     1866 was another good year for Pierce County wheat farmers. In January, J. R. Lyford had an announcement in the journal that he was receiving wheat for storage in his fire proof warehouse until May. In May, the firm bought 12,000 bushels of wheat, paying $1.20, the price later reached $1.50.
     Prescott, the funnel into which wheat came for shipment, was booming, The levee was "piled high with McCormick reapers, the horse killer."
     Mill hands at Dudley and Co., producing 80 barrels of flour daily, were being paid $2 per day.
     Six firms were shipping wheat and four shipped flour. George A. Dill, "the heaviest shipper of grain on the river, not including elevators," in 1967 shipped 174,000 bushels of wheat. The combined shipment from Prescott was 299,350 bushels.
     The boom continued in 1870. E. B. Armstrong hauled 106 bushels of wheat on one load with a span of horses from his place in Clifton to the Dill warehouse, a distance of five miles. The load weighted 6,360 pounds.

10,000 bushels in December

     Some of that wheat was probably included in the 588,786 bushels shipped from Prescott. The last shipment for the year was on Dec. 5 when 10,000 bushels were loaded on the steamer Addie Johnson before winter freeze-up.
     But the golden days for Pierce County wheat production were nearing an end. The chinch bug invaded the county. Other areas were producing wheat. Farmers began to diversify.
     After the decade of the 1870's, there was a decrease in wheat crop acreage. In 1885 the number of acres in wheat had dropped to 20,000, and by 1900 production of wheat in Pierce county had plummeted. By 1906, there where only 4,601 acres in the county producing 95,012 bushels of wheat.
     But for 20 glorious years, wheat held the farmers' interest in Pierce County.

- Mary Beeler

Extracted from the Eau Claire Leader Telegram
Special Publication, Our Story 'The Chippewa Valley and Beyond', published 1976
Used with permission.

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