Farms or Forests? The Cutover Debate
While promoters lured settlers to the cutover, a forestry movement had also been growing in the state following the national trend to protect the country's rapidly depleting forests. The State Horticultural Society had been promoting reforestation of Wisconsin's timberlands and conservation for some time, and in 1893 it helped found the Wisconsin Forestry Association. By 1897, the state legislature created a commission to draw up plans for conserving, protecting, and utilizing state forests. Among its findings, it reported that of the original seventeen million forested acres in Wisconsin, eight million were cutover lands and claimed that at least forty percent and probably more was unfit for farming. It speculated that about ten million acres was solely fit for trees, and that if the state ever expected to collect taxes on it, only timber products could supply the income to pay any rates. By 1903, Wisconsin created its first State Forestry Commission. While it marked the beginning of state efforts at conservation, it inadvertently became a declaration of war to those promoting agricultural settlement in northern Wisconsin. 
Conservationists even found a few supporters among the homesteading pioneers. Soren J. Uhrenholdt is a good example of an individual who believed good farming practices and conservation were not mutually exclusive. In 1883, he and his wife Christine emigrated from Denmark, initially settling on a farm in Waupaca County. In 1899, the family came to the Seeley area to carve out a permanent homestead. By the spring of 1900 they had settled on 120 acres of cutover lands just north of the village. What distinguished Uhrenholdt was his dedication to his native values of planning and using every acre for what is was best suited for. He worked closely with the University of Wisconsin Agriculture School, attending its farmer's courses, and prospered by growing seed potatoes that he sold throughout the country. In one year he grossed six thousand dollars. In lean years he was tempted to sell off some of his timberlands, but felt in his heart that forestlands could be valuable in their own right. He, therefore, began to practice sustained-yield forestry and even began to reforest some of his own land. This caught the attention of the Agriculture School as well as 4-H Clubs, schools, and many others who sought out his advice. His old farmstead is off Highway 63 near Pacwawong Lake. When he settled here on cutover land in1900, Mr. Uhrenholdt began to reforest his land. In 1916, the College honored him for his outstanding cooperation. The original homestead is now the Uhrenholdt Memorial Forest and is now owned by the state of Wisconsin. 
Conservationist's hopes for the cutover, however, were dashed in 1915 when the Wisconsin Supreme Court declared state land purchases to create forests was unconstitutional. Public opinion was with the court on this decision. Governor Emmanuel Phillip had voiced his objections to removing so much land from the tax rolls, preferring productive farms. He also felt reforestation was a federal responsibility. In addition, the nineteenth century romantic notion of the rugged individual bringing the wilderness into productive use was still too strong and prevalent for a state mandated plan to return the cutover to its original pristine condition to challenge.
This anti-conservationist view was also fortified by the Country Life Movement of the early twentieth century, which tried to encourage the reversal of migration from rural to urban areas that had accelerated during this period. By the 1890s, the Director of the Census declared that the American frontier was closed. While scattered public lands were still available, there was no longer a frontier line between "civilization" and "wilderness" to keep alive the independent, pioneering spirit of the yeoman farmer. America was also undergoing rapid urbanization. This trend was noted as early as the 1870s census when farmers were no longer the majority of the nation's gainfully employed. By 1910, less than one-third of the United States' population was farmers. The causes for this historic shift were due to mechanization and greater efficiency of agriculture, the transportation revolution, and the expansion of industry. However, a loosely organized movement sprang up among Progressive reformers in land grant colleges, state and federal departments of agriculture, and among urban, educated middle class Protestants, who were alarmed at the migration from rural farms to cities. They believed in the yeoman ideal as the moral and economic backbone of the country. Not fully realizing the causes behind this movement, these reformers tried to persuade farmers to stay on the land by helping them realize the virtues of rural life over the corrupting influences of city life. In this climate of public opinion, many intellectuals believed the Wisconsin cutover had to be "redeemed" by the yeoman farmer from logging depredations. Family farms and tight-knit rural communities could redeem the region. Agricultural promotion and settlement of the cutover accelerated, and land values rose. 
It was the yeoman farmer who epitomized the cutover settler. They were family farmers, many of recent immigrant stock, who came with the expectation that hard work, family cooperation, and assisting neighbors would bring them an independent, if not a prosperous, life in rural America. While some immigrants came directly from the old country, many had first found jobs in factories, mines, or railroad work. They were attracted to the cutover by the prospect of becoming an independent farmer and enjoying rural community life. Many settled in communities of "their own kind." Scandinavians and Germans continued to settle in the North Country, but were now joined by Poles, Finns, and Latvians, as well as "Americans" from other regions of the country. Fishing and hunting opportunities also attracted many farmers from southern Wisconsin. 
Historian Robert Gough has argued, "that farmers coming to the cutover at the beginning of the twentieth century inherited this legacy of an unregulated, ill-informed, short-sighted, and loosely managed system of land distribution."  When farms began to fail in the 1920s, farmers began to blame lumber companies for their financial woes for charging too much for their land and profiting unfairly. The facts, however, do not support the populist complaint. Companies did profit from the sale of cutover land, but no fortunes were made. 
Settlers to the cutover were lured to the region by confidence in the current scientific knowledge of the time and trust in the honesty of land dealers and future market opportunities. These pioneers, however, came with few resources, and since they did not enjoy the benefit of squatters' rights and homestead laws, they started off with more debt and smaller farms than farmers in the lower St. Croix Valley. Upper St. Croix Farmers in the cutover would have fewer cushions to ward off blows from the failure of their soil, the weather, or the market than their counterparts down river. But by 1920, many cutover farmers had made a good showing for themselves. The U.S. Census for that year showed that land values in the cutover had increased to forty-seven percent of Wisconsin's average and thirty-three percent of farm acreage here was improved. Burnett and Polk Counties counted impressive gains in land brought under cultivation and improvements made. 
Despite these gains, however, the cutover was a comparatively poor region in 1920. "A land of plenty?" wrote one Burnett County pioneer. "For starters there were forest fires, poverty, horse flies, diphtheria, pregnancy, open air toilets, and blood, sweat, and tears.'"  These smaller farms produced crops worth one-third less than the rest of the state. Part of the reason was due to the fact that many farms were still in the frontier stage of development. Some settlers were part-time farmers either by choice or economic necessity. These men worked periodically in the woods or in sawmills leaving little time for farm expansion. Some farmers were simply not interested in participating in a commercial agricultural market. They instead preferred the enjoyment of the natural environment and the outdoor life of hunting and fishing and farmed to support this lifestyle. Families were able to supplement their income from harvesting cranberries and blueberries. 
The farmers who did apply themselves to agriculture and participated in the commercial market, gradually turned toward dairying in part because of the climate, limitations on the soil, and because it required less capital outlays. Although it was more labor intensive, dairy products paid well. Bayfield County Finns and Danes led the development of cooperative creameries and cheese factories. Between 1910 and 1930, these sprang up throughout the cutover, and hay became the principal crop. 
Farmers had also been encouraged by the Board of Immigration to turn to dairying. In 1911, B.G. Packer, a lawyer and former secretary for the Farmers' Institutes, became the Board's secretary. Packer was responsible for changing the direction of the Board's purpose from simple recruitment of settlers to an advisor role to farmers. The Progressive Movement, which championed scientific solutions to social and economic problems, had a significant influence on the Immigration Board and the Agricultural School. Outside experts became increasingly interested in cutover farmers, who they patronizingly assumed needed their professional guidance to be successful farmers. "In doing so," Gough claims, "it laid the foundation for the public policies which would later discourage agricultural settlement in northern Wisconsin." 
Perceptions of cutover immigrants were also influenced by the "One-hundred Percent American" movement that sprang up from ethnic conflicts over the United States's siding with the Allied Powers rather than the Central Powers in World War I. The subsequent rise of the Red Scare led to a revival of the nativist movement in the 1920s. The Board of Immigration increasingly came to view some settlers as more desirable than others and some as more in need of assistance than others. African-Americans, who began their Great Migration to the North at the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, were positively discouraged from settling in the cutover. Polish-Americans also came to be viewed as less than desirable by the state experts. They were described as drinkers and brawlers, infested with lice, and "helpless" when it came to farming. Immigrant churches, especially Catholic ones, were thought to hinder Americanization.
The Ku Klux Klan even spread its tentacles into the North Country. In 1924, the town of Luck in Polk County became host to a Klan den. Some people initially thought it was a social organization, something the "dreary northern town" could use. They hoped the Klan might promote farm legislation or encourage its members to stop drinking or mistreating their wives. Its promotion of "American" standards and institutions, which meant Anglo-Protestant values, however, turned off many people in the area who were Catholic. Its white supremacy philosophy, hostility to bootlegging, and its fascist-like marches and salute also triggered public animosity. Hudson, River Falls, and Ellsworth became centers for anti-Klan resistance with support coming largely from the Catholic Knights of Columbus and bootleggers. The Klan's presence in the area was short-lived, but it managed to create "a great deal of trouble between what had been good friends, families and neighbors," reported an old-time resident. Many people of the next generation agreed that, "It is best forgotten." 
The eugenics movement of period also colored outsiders' perceptions of cutover residents. Eugenicists feared that isolated settlements of single ethnic groups would result in physically degenerate "hillbilly" people. These attitudes mingled with the growing perception that much of the land in the cutover was sub-marginal agricultural land. The Jeffersonian yeoman farmer ideal also took a beating in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Rural Americans began to be viewed as "backward, immoral, and increasingly dangerous." When an agricultural depression of the 1920s followed in the wake of the high-priced farm products of the World War I years, many farmers faced the prospect of failure. State and federal experts were ready to step in to prevent northern Wisconsin from turning into another Appalachia. 
In 1927, the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture began taking new inventories of county lands. Their conclusion for the state's northern counties was less sanguine than reports earlier in the century. Bayfield County went from having sixty to 70 percent of its lands deemed suitable for agriculture in 1916 to seventy-five percent assessed as submarginal for agriculture. Recommendations were made that at least twenty percent of the land be reforested. Reforestation advocates, thereby, gained support for their crusade. 
In the 1920s, Prohibition also gave the cutover an unsavory reputation. During Prohibition many areas around the country, of course, ignored or even flaunted the Nineteenth Amendment. Northern Wisconsin residents were generally "wet" on the issue. Economic hard times also encouraged the making of moonshine from potatoes. Some people in Luck in Polk County reputedly made this a "sideline." The cutover's remoteness and frontier-like environment along with its cross-roads position between the Twin Cities, Chicago, and Canada made it an ideal hideout for Chicago bootleggers. Al Capone allegedly spent $250,000 for a four-bedroom house equipped with machine-gun portals on Cranberry Lake in Sawyer County. In 1934, John Dillinger escaped to the cutover. His pursuit by the FBI and other law enforcement agents made national headlines, and helped create the image of northern Wisconsin as a lawless place.
The cutover's reputation was not helped either by stories published in Milwaukee newspapers that focused primarily on forest fires, hunting accidents, bear attacks, and any violent crime. The presence of unassimilated Native Americans along with the North Woods' reputation from the logging era as a haven for houses of prostitution also gave it an exotic and sinful place that needed reforming. However, the region unexpectedly got a reputation as an "upscale" vacation destination when Calvin Coolidge spent a ten-week summer vacation at Cedar Lake Lodge on the Brule River in Douglas County. Many elites became smittened by its "wilderness" ambience and thought it should become a resort location like New York's Adirondacks. 
For a variety of reasons then, settlers stopped coming to the cutover in the 1920s. The number of farms increased by less than three percent, and acreage only increased by a little more than four percent. When the Great Depression hit in the 1930s, farming in the cutover reached crisis proportions. While farm products declined throughout the state and even the nation, cutover farm products fetched a proportionally lower price for their goods. The sandy soil in the Pine Barrens produced grasses lacking in nutrition. Potato growing was also limited since the soil was too light and lacked the necessary plant foods. Dry summers turned into droughts for this sandy soiled region. Few farmers here practiced crop rotation or other means to improve pasturage. One observer described the cutover farms as, "Cropped fields. . .where a few cattle. . .find scanty grazing, are. . .These poorly fed and poorly cared for herds are the basis of a dairy industry. . .The industry is, however, small-scale in character, with poor barns and equipment and meager returns." Geographer Raymond E. Murphy admitted that the farms were too scattered for creamery trucks to collect milk profitably and farms were too far from the creameries to make a daily run. Farmers, however, began to find a summer market for their dairy products in the growing resort industry. To supplement their incomes many farmers turned to fur farming of beaver, silver fox, and chinchilla rabbits, as well as gray and white rabbits for meat. Many also turned to commercial cranberry growing in the marshy, acidic soil that ran through the Pine Barrens. Local Indians harvested wild rice by hand to supplement the tables of sportsmen. 
When the remaining land in the cutover went unclaimed, the old stumps and brush became an even worse fire hazard. Tens of thousands of acres burned in the 1930s convincing many experts in the state that farming had not "redeemed" the land in the cutover. To add insult to injury cutover residents were also more likely to need relief than their counterparts elsewhere in the state, and relief rates there matched other depressed regions of the country like Appalachia and the Dust Bowl area of the Great Plains. This put tremendous pressure on county agencies that required more in taxes but faced declining property values and a declining tax base. Since the 1920s tax delinquencies had become increasingly common in the cutover. This only increased during the Depression. Many farmers who could not pay their taxes simply gave up. "Almost as numerous as the occupied farms are the abandoned, tumbled-down farmhouses surrounded by fields going to waste," wrote Wisconsin geographer Raymond Murphy in 1931. "Sometimes only a few stones and a patch of quack grass remain to mark the site of a former home, and to give the impression of poor land and unsuccessful farming." The Pitted Sand Plain in northern Burnett, northwestern Washburn, and southeastern Douglas counties displayed characteristic features of farm abandonment. The first phase, Murphy noted, was that of "One little shack out in grassy barrens. . .occupied by an old man who formerly grew corn and a few other crops." Fire had destroyed much of the humus in the soil and many farmers neglected to build it back up. "After a year or two of use the corn field got away' and now is a bare expanse of ripple-marked sand." Near the shack a few vegetables are still grown, but they hardly repay the effort, and the old, paralytic settler barely manages to exist." In the second stage homes were abandoned, windows were broken, and cleared land was overgrown with quack grass. The third stage is marked by decayed, tumbled down homes, and the growth of scrub oak and jack pine. Murphy found few orchards in the Pine Barrens since frost often struck any time of the year. He was also critical of local farming practices. "Instead of the use of scientific farm practices to combat handicaps of soil and climate, the common practice seems to consist of meeting declining yields by cutting down acreage until returns are not enough to pay the taxes on the land, and the county must take possession." 
What was particularly depressing about the Pine Barrens and the cutover in the early 1930s was the lack of young people and children. "The region is characteristically one of people past middle age weatherworn old Scandinavians who came here with their wives and children many years ago," wrote a contemporary observer. "The children have grown up and gone. The Barrens does not hold its younger generation. No new settlers are moving in, and one gets the impression that when the present hardy survivors pass on there will be none to take their places." 
Despite these problems northern Wisconsin did not experience a net population loss in the 1930s. When the urban industrial economy collapsed, rumors circulated that subsistence farming was possible in the North Country. Many unemployed city workers joined the "back-to-the-land movement" that sprang up in the decade. Between 1935 and 1940 the population increased in the cutover as did the number of farms. Most of these new settlers, however, "were not serious farmers. They saw themselves as temporarily eking out a semi-subsistence existence, squatting on or renting cheap land, or perhaps living on part of a relative's farm." Gough claimed that these "farmers" had "a negative effect on agricultural development in the cutover." They did not clear new land or raise crops for market. "The properties they left behind when they moved on contributed to the image of the region as filled with abandoned farms." 
Despite these problems in the cut over, it was also the industrious yeoman farmer who managed to survive these economic hard times. By relying on family labor, the frugal household economy of the farm wife, off-farm work, and catering to the growing tourist industry, many farm families made it. Some even managed to redeem tax delinquent land before foreclosure. Gough found in his study that the majority of land that actually experienced foreclosure in 1930 belonged to individual speculators and land companies. 
However, New Deal agricultural programs were the last nails in the coffin for many family farmers in the cutover and across America. Large commercial farmers were more able to take advantage of these programs than subsistence and marginal farmers. The Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 aimed to raise farm prices through agreements to limit farm production. Farmers who had surplus acres and could still farm for the market as well as their families could participate in the program. The same held true for the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act of 1936. This act promoted conservation by encouraging farmers to remove land from cultivation. In sum, New Deal agricultural programs promoted the cash economy of commercial farming and undermined semi-subsistence farming. The Department of Agriculture also began to take the approach that lands that did not produce for the market were inefficient and unnecessary. These low-producing areas, it feared, would become another Appalachia if the surplus population not needed for commercial farming was not moved off the land. This view was reinforced by the migration of Kentuckians to northern Wisconsin. Through the 1930s Wisconsin underwent a series of relocation programs sponsored from federal, state, and county governments. This was a major reversal from the Jeffersonian ideal of the nineteenth century and the Country Life movement of the early part of the twentieth century. 
The Northern Wisconsin Settler Relocation Project, which began in 1934, specifically targeted the cutover. By 1940, when the Project ended $500,000 of federal funds had been used to purchase between four to five hundred farms in seven cutover counties. These included Sawyer and Bayfield Counties where the Namekagon River begins its meandering descent into the St. Croix River. W.A. Rowlands and Dean Christenson of the Wisconsin College of Agriculture requested the money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture then headed by Henry A. Wallace. L.G. Sorden, from the Agricultural Extension of the University of Wisconsin in Madison, headed the project. He was convinced this was the best course of action for both the farm families as well as for the future land use of the cutover. "All the settlers whose farms were purchased," he claimed, "were living on submarginal land, which was either too light and sandy, too stony and rough, or so isolated from markets that they were definitely uneconomic farm units." He felt the relocation was a great benefit since, "as many as 80% of the families whose farms were purchased received public aid." They clearly were not prospering in the cutover. "On the average, $2000 was paid per farm," Sorden reported. "These farms' ranged from a tar paper shack in the woods to a few quite well-developed farms." 
Of the families that relocated only 38 percent asked for new farms. They obtained financing from the Farm Security Administration. One-third decided to retire since they were too old to begin again elsewhere or take up a new line of work. The Wisconsin Rural Rehabilitation Corporation built "retirement homesteads" in northern Wisconsin for these people complete with modern conveniences, a large garden, and even a small barn for milk cows. The county maintained these homes for a nominal fee. Others chose new occupations ranging from woodworking, to general laborers, to resort work, to mercantile businesses. The title to the lands they vacated was transferred to federal, state, or county governments for forestry uses. 
Sorden defended the relocation project in 1979 citing the fact that nearly all the families who were approached to relocate chose to do so. "When the project was explained and when the families were given time to think it over and talk it over with other people in whom they had confidence," explained Sorden, "98% of these families were willing to sell and relocate." Counties also benefited because "this isolated settler relocation project immediately made possible a saving in school costs of more than $15,000 per annum by closing rural schools." Sorden noted. "In addition, several thousand dollars worth of school transportation cost was eliminated. Road costs were reduced by the elimination of maintenance and snow plowing. Relief costs were cut materially by placing many of these families in a position to make their own living." Sorden took great satisfaction in the role he played in this project, and was confident that these people were given renewed hope "by their removal from isolated areas to established communities where they and their families [had] a chance to start over again with a more secure financial and social future." 
Historian Robert Gough, however, has taken a rather different perspective on outside intervention into the cutover. While farming did survive in the cutover after 1940, these farms either were worked part-time as a hobby or became much larger operations. In the 1930s, farmers with good land were encouraged by state experts to expand their holdings and turn to dairying. Those who did not have the capital or were not interested in the labor-intensive work of dairying farmed in a different way than the yeoman family farmer of yore. They grazed horses for recreational riders. They grew Christmas trees, pumpkins, or ginseng, or became orchard farmers. Most depended upon income from off the farm, especially the "farm" wife. "The new economic plan for the cutover which deemphasized farming and stressed reforestation and tourism," Gough argues, "did not attract new residents to northern Wisconsin or enrich the ones who already lived there." In 1990, the Wisconsin counties with the lowest per capita income were all in the cutover. They included Burnett and Sawyer counties, as well as Forest, Iron, and Rusk. 
The reduction in farms and the changed nature of those that remained affected the social fabric of the cutover. "To those of us who helped clear a stump-farm from the cut-over, there is nostalgia for the events of those times," recalled one old-timer, "for the feeling of pride when another acre of clover was added, for the excitement of a burning pile of stumps, or for the alarm when a wild-fire swept across the nearest hill."  "No longer could the bonds of rural neighborhoods be fostered by school pageants and district business meetings in one-room schoolhouses," lamented Gough. "With school consolidation, the daily rhythm of life now centered more on urban places with schools. . .encouraging the expansion of urban and commercial attitudes into the countryside once dominated by the values of yeoman farming. . .For the people in the cutover committed to yeoman farming these were sad developments." 
Historians may be divided over the role played by the limitations of the cutover's environment in the region's failure to sustain family farms, but all agree that larger economic forces played an important role ending that dream. Settlers here began undercapitalized and with more debt that more "pure" homesteaders. They undertook the task of trying to transform the cutover into a farming community when new trends and economic realities were transforming America. Mechanized farming required fewer hands on the farm, but allowed for larger commercial farms. The agricultural slump of the 1920s and the Depression of the thirties made farming less viable for many family farms. The consequences were that by 1920 the majority of Americans lived in urban areas, and this trend would continue unabated for the rest of the century. 
In the 1920s and especially during the New Deal years of the 1930s conservation, the forestry movement, and the budding tourism industry had gained in strength and momentum. The yeoman farmer was no longer the icon of American society. Preserving the nation's forests and other natural resources and encouraging a variety of people to enjoy the outdoor life grew in importance. The Upper St. Croix and Namekagon Rivers were prime areas for recreational development and reforestation, both working in concert together. Although the Lower St. Croix was a more established and prosperous dairy land, it too faced the expanding needs for recreation as well as the spread of suburbia from the Twin Cities. As farming faded in the valley a new vision of how to order the landscape was gradually winning acceptance. The myth of the yeoman farmer would yield to the myth of the "North Woods."
Last Updated: 17-Oct-2002