Pioneer farmers from the East as early as the 1830s brought skill and interest in growing tobacco to Wisconsin. By 1850 tobacco was grown in Adams, Brown, Columbia, Marquette, Richland, Rock and Walworth counties. Richland County produced the most of any county for that year at 740 pounds. Wisconsin farmers by 1870 were producing 960,813 pounds of tobacco annually, most of which was sold locally to be used in cigar-making. Many Norwegian immigrants began growing tobacco, which was an extremely labor-intensive cash crop.

Two primary tobacco-growing areas emerged. One was in southern Wisconsin, including Dane, Columbia and Rock counties. The other was in the southwestern part of the state, including the counties of Crawford and Vernon. Wisconsin by 1910 devoted 40,458 acres to tobacco growing.

Tobacco grown in Wisconsin was used almost exclusively for making cigars. The hot and humid summers with its rich soil resulted in quality tobacco leaves that were air-dried in tobacco sheds. When dry they were wrapped into cigars. Edgerton in Rock County emerged as one of the most important cigar-wrapping centers in the country. Viroqua and Westby in Vernon County became major centers for growing tobacco. Tobacco-growing required rich soil – richer than that found in many parts of the state – and a tremendous amount of hand labor.

Sugar beets had been grown successfully in central Europe. In the spring of 1868 two German immigrants by the names of Otto and Monnesteel, who had experience growing sugar beets in their home country, rented land near Fond du Lac and planted beets. They constructed a “primitive though complete” sugar refinery in 1869 in Fond du Lac at a cost of $12,000. It was the first sugar-beet factory in Wisconsin and perhaps the first successful one in the United States. They manufactured 1,000 pounds of beet sugar per day. The Fond du Lac Journal reported the following:

“Last week we embraced the invitation of Messrs. Monnesteel, Otto & Company to view and examine their growing crop of sugar beets and the machinery being put up to manufacture sugar,” the Fond du Lac Journal reported. “They have a growing crop of 80 acres of beets some 2 miles east on Division Street, and they have appearance of a large yield, some being already 5 inches in diameter. From present appearance the yield, as estimated by Mr. Otto, will reach 10 tons to the acre.

“In the cultivation of this ground a large number of boys and girls were employed – some days as high as 100 – and paid liberal wages. Employment was thus afforded to persons, most of whom would have otherwise been idle. When the crop is ripe it will be gathered into piles and covered with earth until ready to use.

“The sugar mill is located on the corner of Brook and Cotton Streets … (To manufacture beet sugar) the beets are thrown into a revolving washer and thence are carried to other machines where they are ground into pulp, pressed, the juice and the pulp separated, evaporated and dried, coming out a perfect sugar of such grade as may be desired by the operator … The quantity of sugar per ton of beets is 160 pounds, which would give a product of 1,600 pounds to an acre … Operations in manufacturing will begin about the first of October when two sets of hands will be employed that the work may go on day and night until the crop is converted into sugar. In this work some 25 to 30 persons will find employment. The pulp or refuse is good for feeding cattle and will be sold for that purpose.”

From 1869 to 1920 nine beet-sugar factories began operations in Wisconsin, with factories at Chippewa Falls, Janesville, Madison and Green Bay. By 1935 there were only two processing plants that continued to operate, in Green Bay and Janesville.

Visit www.jerryapps.com for more information. Excerpted from “Wisconsin Agriculture: A History,” Wisconsin Historical Society Press. 

Jerry Apps, born and raised on a central-Wisconsin farm, is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of more than 40 books – most on rural history and country life. Visit www.jerryapps.com for more information.