Wheat once 'king' of regions crops

At the peak of the wheat growing era, scenes of wagons and teams similar to this were common. One report neted wagons were lined up for a mile at some rail stations. Prior to railroads, thousands of bushels of wheat were shipped by steamers from points along the Chippewa, St. Croix and Mississippi Rivers. At one Chippewa County farm, wheat was raised for more than 20 years as the only crop. Buffalo County was the leading wheat-producing county in the state for several years.

     Among agricultural crops, wheat was once king of this area. Buffalo and St. Croix were among leading wheat-producing counties in the state from 1870 through the turn of the century.
     Other area counties, ranking high included Trempealeau, Pierce, Pepin and Jackson. There were also pockets of high grain production in Chippewa, Dunn and Eau Claire Counties.
     Barron, Rusk, Taylor and Clark were never ranked among leading wheat producing counties. They were settled much later, however, well past the wheat era in the state and when farmers almost immediately went into dairying.

Wheat grown in Chippewa in 1849

     There were some farmers growing wheat in Buffalo, St. Croix, Pierce and Trempealeau counties in the early 1850s. However, Chippewa County had the first real wheat-growing area. In 1849 it produced the ninth-most wheat per capita of all counties in the fledgling state.
     Thomas Randall, in his history of the Chippewa Valley, noted that prior to 1847 no person had located in the valley with a few to farming. Each mill and families connected with it had a potato patch and garden, but the main business was lumbering, hunting or trading.
      In spring of 1847, a man named George Meyers from the "Father Land," in view of the great cost of boating up feed, flour and other farm produce, decided to start a farm about six miles northwest of Chippewa Falls. Assisting him were H. L. Allen and a Mr. Bass at the Falls.
     Meyers' chief crop was wheat. He soon sold the farm to William Henneman.

27 years of good wheat

     Henneman, it is reported, in 1874 said that although 27 consecutive crops have been taken from it, the farm still yields good crops, even where no manure has been applied.
     Others followed Meyers to raise wheat in the area now known as the Town of Eagle Point which was mostly prairie at the time.
     In 1861 Henneman raised 1,500 bushels of wheat from a 40-acre tract.
     Some of the first wheat growing started on Decorah's Prairie in Trempealeau County, but it was raised primarily by traders and Indians and was not shipped out in great quantities. Most of it was sold to the garrison at Fort Crawford, Prairie du Chien.

Grown along Beaver Creek

     Trempealeau area settlers were also among the first to raise wheat after they settled along Beaver Creek. However, several years before that, in the 1840s, James Reed started some farming at his landing on the Mississippi.
     The earliest wheat grown in Buffalo County started in the fall of 1851 when J. P. Stein broke some land and the next spring procured two bushels of wheat from Galena, Ill., sowed it and raised a crop of 74 bushels. It was threshed by a flail.
     Wheat raising, other than in these few instances, didn't develop until the late 1850s, and probably came because of the need for wheat by the growing population connected with the lumbering industry.
     The first farmer to settle in Eau Claire County was the Rev. Thomas Barland who in 1852 purchased 200 acres of farm land along what became the Sparta Road. Two years later he brought his family from Illinois. In 1855 there were only about 100 persons living in Eau Claire, most involved in lumbering.
     In 1857 Jackson County farmers produced only a few dozen bushels, but by 1861 nearly 50,000 bushels were sold.
     Randall reported that in 1857 only a few hundred bushels were shipped from Eau Claire. The shipment increased to 150,000 bushels in 1861 and by 1875 the total had passed 300,000 from the county alone.
     Wagon after wagon of grain was hauled to shipping points on the Chippewa River during these years.

Lined up for miles

     Rigs were lined more than a mile and a half during harvest season near Rumsey's Landing in Dunn County. For more than 20 years it served as the landing for steamboats carrying wheat to outside markets. Its importance ended with coming of railroads in 1871.
     For 20 years Rusk was a busy and successful center for wheat shipping. Records note it was common to see as many as 100 teams and farmers and buyers there at the same time. Chinch bugs infected crops and farmers quit raising wheat and went into dairying, something being encouraged by the state agriculturists.
     In St. Croix County, because of vast prairie lands northeast of Hudson, development into a key wheat-producing county, extending as far east as Baldwin where the "Great Woods" started and continued to the Red Cedar River.
     Some flour mills still stand today. Among the earlier mills were Green's Paradise Mills (1853) and Huntington Dam and Mills (1850) and Boardmen mills.

Harriman's Landing a key point

Rumsey's Landing, located in Dunn County east of the Red Cedar junction with the Chippewa River, is no longer in existence. It was a major stopping place for steamboats coming up the Chippewa River with supplies for early settlers and lumbering interests. For many years farmers from the Rusk area in Dunn County hauled wheat to the landing for shipment to market. After coming of the railway in the early 1870's, the importance of Rumsey's Landing decreased and it was abandoned.

     A key point on the St. Croix River was at Harriman's Landing north of Hudson. Sam Harriman of Somerset used bluffs on the St. Croix for a grain elevator from which he could gravity load barges on the river level 90 feet below.
     At river level he built docks and warehouse for handling surface freight. The landing is no longer there.
     In 1949, most of the state's wheat was produced in the east and south regions. Other significant amounts came from Chippewa Falls and Hudson. Some wheat was transported eastward, but much of it was used in the lead-mining region or shipped to military forts on the rivers, Indian reservations or sold to traders.
     Steamboats on the St. Croix and Chippewa to Rumsey's Landing and on to Eau Claire were the main methods of exporting wheat prior to 1870.
     Records show the steamboat "Chippewa Valley" carried 4,000 bushels of wheat from Huysson's warehouse in 1861. The same year the "Chippewa Falls" steamer left with 3,600 bushels.
     Wheat was one item Randall noted that the area could export. He wrote, "But with the exception of the single item of wheat, all other productions of farms, naturally seeking a market at this point, find a steady sale at the hands of lumbermen."
     Newspapers from the early 1860s report streets of Eau Claire constantly filled with teams and wagons of farmers taking their wheat to already over-filled warehouses.
     Wheat produced in this area was often shipped directly to larger cities and in some cases, abroad.

Prices varied

     Market prices varied. Some times it was only 50 cents a bushel and other times $2 a bushel.
     One report noted in the 1860s, a farmer near Chippewa Falls had been offered $1.25 a bushel, but held out for $1.50. He had to sell at 50 cents a bushel the following spring.
     Prices depended on demand. During the Civil War grin prices were high when production help was scarce because of the number of men leaving for the war.
     When many veterans returned to the farms, there was more wheat produced and prices again dropped because about the same time the great wheat areas were opening in the west.
     The state crop was good in 1877, and because the Crimean War between Turkey and Russia affected world markets, wheat from this area was sold on the foreign market.
     Weather was also a factor in prices paid for wheat. Several years of drought increased; a bumper crop dropped them.
     Despite varying prices for wheat, farmers growing it always felt there was no other commodity that had such a ready sale. It was as "good as money" and actually passed as money in many cases, according to an 1857 governor's message discussing state agriculture.
     A glance into files of newspapers of the period shows how wheat passes as a medium of exchange. Not only was it a cash crop that took little labor and capital, but it could be traded for almost any item the farmer needed.
     In some areas wheat stored in private warehouses and wheat "receipts" or "tickets" often passed as money.
     One problem was harvesting wheat in the early days. Not until the McCormick reaper came within financial reach of the farmer, did wheat production boom here.

Grain reapers appear on scene

     Improved Hussey and McCormick reapers were known in Wisconsin during the mid-1850s, but many farmers didn't use them because of the problem of getting around stumps and roots. Both had been used in the more-settled and developed southern part of the state.
     In an April 12, 1858, letter to the McCormick Company. L. T. Bump, a farmer in the Mondovi area of northern Buffalo County, wrote there was still only one mechanical reaper in that part of the county.
     Early in 1860s the McCormick Company delivered several hundred reapers to Wisconsin wheat farmers.
     In 1856-57, John Ness of Beaver Valley in Trempealeau County purchased a J. I. Case threshing machine for $725 and used it for "many, many miles around the area."
     Lumber mills had a significant rile in wheat production of this area. Because of the high cost of imparting food, many mill owners started their own farms and had the finances to start some of the early grist mills on the rivers.
     The firm of N. C. Chapman and J. G. Thorp in Eau Claire operated a flour and grist mill as early as 1860.
     In 1872 Eau Claire Lumber Co. constructed a seven story mill that handled as many as 400 barrels of flour a day. A fire destroyed the mill and elevator in 1877 and it was not rebuilt.
     The Shaw Company mill, which had a capacity of 400 bushels of flour a day, was built in 1873. From it the company shipped to Chicago and Eastern markets and even some to Liverpool and London, England. It handled 200 barrels of flour a day in the first part of the 1880s.

Several factors led to decline

     A number of factors led to demise of wheat growing in this area. One of them was arrival of the chinch bug which forced a number of farmers to go into other crops, mainly corn.
     The price of wheat declined with the coming of vast wheat farms in Kansas and some areas of Nebraska.
     And in some cases, the land just didn't take the vast demands of growing wheat. Farmers in the Augusta area started to grow wheat and had fine crops for several years in the 1860s and 1870s before the land failed to yield good crops. These farmers were among the earliest to explore dairying. Some wheat, however, was still grown in the area in the 1920's.
     It has been noted that at the time of the first settlers, wheat was the principle or staple crop grown. The soil being new contained elements necessary to produce large yields, but as the years went on continued cropping of wheat exhausted the greater part of minerals essential to growing grain.
     Around 1900 the market, disease such as grain rust, and ability of the land to produce, let to an end of the era when wheat was king for the area farmer.

- Arnie Hoffman

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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