Stories of pioneer Wisconsin life show how women contributed to agriculture

Gloria Hafemeister
Women have always been the heart of the farm. Author and historian Jerry Apps recognized their contributions during the first “Heart of the Farm” conference last week. Most women milked one or two cows for the family’s milk, cheese and butter.

MADISON – “You don’t know where you are going if you don’t know where you have been,” says Jerry Apps, professor emeritus for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Speaking at the first of the winter series of coffee chats hosted by UW Division of Extension’s program Heart of the Farm – Women in Agriculture, Apps described the role of women in pioneer days in Wisconsin and talked about how women influenced Wisconsin’s switch from an emphasis on wheat growing to building the state’s dairy.

Apps shared personal stories of growing up on a farm near Wild Rose just after the Great Depression and described the tasks his mother took on during those years. He also shared his experiences of attending a one-room country school.

His presentation was made via Zoom due to concerns about COVID-19, and ninety people took advantage of the opportunity to participate.

Apps said women played a vital role in the success of the farm throughout history, but they had it especially difficult in pioneer days. In those years they served as midwife, dispensed medicines to the ill, cooked, baked, gardened, milked cows (one or two), made cheese and churned butter with the milk in their kitchen and made all the clothing for the family, including undergarments.

“Pioneer women were more tied to the farmstead than the men,” Apps says. “They were very isolated, often miles from the next farm.”

He talked about things people today take for granted like “keeping the home fires burning.”

That took a lot more in the pioneer days than it does today with the availability of matches and igniters. Back then, if a fire went out, there was often no way to rekindle it except for a family member to go to the closest farmstead to get a hot coal and bring back to get the fire going again. The fire was important for heating the home and for cooking and baking.

In those early pioneer days of 1840-1870, wheat was king, and the men were busy in the fields raising and harvesting the wheat while women did all the other jobs. Men got out to town to visit with others and often worked together in the fields, but women were alone in their jobs.

“Wisconsin was the number two wheat state then, and Illinois was number one,” Apps said. “Farmers had not yet developed the western states for raising crops.”

After thirty years of raising only wheat, the soil was becoming depleted from raising just one crop without the benefit of livestock manure for fertilizer. Farmers began to try other enterprises, like hops (Wisconsin was already becoming a brewing state), potatoes in the Central Sands area and tobacco.

Meanwhile, New York was leading the country in the dairy industry, but some New York farmers were heading west to new land. Among them was William Hoard, founder of Hoard’s Dairyman magazine. He began to urge Wisconsin farmers to consider moving beyond just one or two cows and get into the dairy business, but the men resisted.  

Apps says, “It was a gender issue. Men wondered why they should do women’s work milking cows. Slowly, though, Hoard’s message took hold. In the late 1800s we saw great barns being built for dairy and hay. Farmers started raising alfalfa and silos were introduced to the farming industry.”

Once the men got involved, they built cheese factories, located every few miles apart. They were not about to continue to make butter and cheese like their wives did in the kitchen.

Apps notes, “Cheese factories became a social place. Horse-drawn milk wagons were lined up waiting to unload their cans of milk and the farmers visited while they waited. Meanwhile, women were stuck at home doing the other chores.”

Farm women were also kept busy cooking and baking, a tricky task when using a wood stove.

He said, “They not only had to know the recipes, but they had to know something about the quality of the wood they were using and how hot it burned and how quickly it burned.”

Washing clothes was done with a washer and wringer. Clothes were then hung on the line outside, winter and summer.

Washing clothes was done with a washer and ringer. Clothes were hung on the line outside, winter and summer. Everything had to be ironed using a series of irons heated on the wood stove. Mending and darning socks was a regular task as well.

Apps also described how the rural families socialized. A popular activity for women was the quilting bee. Since the women did not have time to waste on non-productive activities, they sat around the quilting frame and visited while they stitched. He also recalls neighborhood musicians who provided dance music for house and barn parties in the neighborhood. And, of course, card playing was a popular social activity.

In the 1890s, the introduction of the telephone to some rural areas allowed women to communicate. Apps said because families had a party line, it was a good way for women to find out what was going on in their community. He said they not only answered their own ring, which in his family’s case was one long and three short rings, but they also listened in on other’s calls.

The telephone also served as a means of alerting neighbors for the need for help. He recalls a time when a wind storm threatened his family’s barn and the sound of the “ding-ding-ding” on the phone line summoned help from farmers all around.

In the 1920s, the radio came along, and that too helped women feel less isolated as they could hear the news of the day and entertaining programs.

Jerry Apps

Apps, who was born during the Depression, recalls shopping nights as a social events and Tuesday nights in Wild Rose served as free movie nights. His family and others gathered to watch a movie with the screen being the outside of a building in town.

Apps described what it was like to go to a one-room country school. Among his many publications is a book completely dedicated to these schools and other fixtures of rural life, "Country Ways and Country Days," published in 2005.

He recalls suffering from polio while in the eighth grade, rendering him unable to attend school. He was worried that without the benefit of classroom lessons he would not pass the test in eighth grade to be admitted to high school. His teacher came to their farm to help and both of his parents helped him with his lessons. He was able to successfully complete his education and move on to high school and eventually college.

Finally, he mentioned how carefully his family and others in the rural communities and farms monitored their finances. 

“My mother had an account book and kept track of every nickel she spent,” he recalls.  

He points out that farm families did not have a lot of money, but they did a lot of trading at local stores. He particularly remembers his mother taking eggs to the store to barter for other items in exchange.

Apps' presentation was the first of a series of “Coffee Chats.”  To learn more about upcoming chats, visit the Heart of the Farm website or call your local UW Extension office.