Rural Life and Economy

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“We seek a Heimat that resembles the German Heimat. Would such a place be imaginable without the glorious adornment of the forest? Would our eyes – especially as southern Germans and Swiss – not constantly be missing something if, when directed toward the horizon, they were not met with a forest, in whose solemn calm they themselves could find peace?”

So wrote an immigrant from German-speaking Europe in northern Wisconsin in the 1880s.

While the primeval forest is an important theme in traditional German culture, early German settlers in rural Wisconsin were thinking more practically when they established farmsteads in wooded areas. Timber was vital for building dwellings and keeping their occupants warm during the long winters, and even though clearing the land for agriculture was an arduous task, sources of water were more abundant in woodlands than on the prairies. For Germans, a mixed landscape was the most prudent place to put down roots. Observers of this settlement pattern in early Wisconsin have drawn a stark contrast between German immigrants and Yankees, who were more inclined to establish farms on prairie lands.

Wisconsin Germans brought with them from Europe centuries of experience with operating small-scale diversified farms that included the practice of crop rotation, as well as the inclusion of women in work in the barns and fields. German farm families also adapted to their new environment by, for example, planting (and consuming) corn, something to which they had not been accustomed in Europe. In the decades leading up to the turn of the 20th century, they also followed their rural neighbors in Wisconsin by changing from the cultivation of wheat to dairy farming. Germans – and especially Swiss – had an important impact on Wisconsin’s cheese industry that endures to the present day.

Success in agriculture meant not only being able to feed one’s family, but also to earn a decent income from the sale of one’s products. Enterprising Wisconsin Germans established fair-markets in many communities, continuing the tradition of open-air Märkte in town squares across Europe. One such fair-market was Der Viehmarkt (cattle market) started in Watertown in 1859 by a Bohemian German immigrant and Forty-Eighter, Leopold J. Kadish (1821–1907). It originally took place one Tuesday a month. Today, over a century and a half later, the Watertown Farmer’s Market is still held for six months out of the year … every Tuesday.

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Additional Reading on “Rural Life and Economy”

Wisconsin German Land and Life., by Heike Bungert, Cora Lee Kluge, and Robert C. Ostergren (eds.). Max Kade Institute for German-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, 2006.